What’s the “right” number of colleges to apply to?
Decades ago, college applicants mostly applied to somewhere between one and three institutions. That wasn’t wrong, or bad, or weird – it made sense for the time! But those decades had some “interesting” traditions that have aged badly (see: Jell-O salad), and college application strategy is one of them. So, the question of how many and what sorts of colleges to apply to is something you’ll have to carefully consider within the context of your own story and today’s admission realities. Today, we’ll try to help frame the question for you.
First, some baseline advice: the typical Collegewise student completes between six and twelve college applications, and that’s probably the right range for most people. I tell my students that gauging your fit at each college should always be your first step. Once you’ve done that, your particular number should depend on two things: the selectivity of the colleges on your list, and how much effort you will be able to put into your applications while still achieving academic excellence in your senior year.
Now, let’s get specific.
A smart college list accomplishes many goals while still being well-balanced. Our mantra at Collegewise is that a list should be made up of colleges that a) our students will love; b) that they can afford; and c) that they might be admitted to. If the colleges on your list accomplish all those goals, you’re probably on the right track.
The next step is to make sure your list is balanced — or, in admissions-speak, that you have at least a couple of colleges that you will almost certainly be admitted to. The general strategy here is to divide your list between these likely colleges that should form the foundation of your list; a few target colleges where your academic record matches the typical admitted student; and only a small number of reach colleges that are very selective or where your academic record is somewhat (but not strikingly) lower than the typical admitted student. (Helpful hint: every Ivy League college is a reach for every student I’ve ever worked with.)
Students, as you research your colleges, don't give a school "extra points" because you've heard of it or because of its reputation. Instead, do a deep dive. Learn, specifically, what programs you'd take advantage of; which research you'd engage with; which professor you'd learn from. I’ll wager you find some gems among the less-famous colleges you research.
And keep in mind that many of the reasons highly selective (or "highly rejective", as admission professional Akil Bello might say) colleges are popular are pure myths. Study after study has shown that for most students, attending a selective college gives no measurable benefit to career outcomes. It does not result in increased happiness or feelings of worth. And if it's not a fit for your specific priorities, it may not be a good choice for you. So, make sure those “reach” colleges don’t take over your list.
College applications are a lot of work — there’s a reason nearly 25,000 students have worked with Collegewise to guide them through their admission journey. So, as you’re building your own list, keep in mind the commitment — in time, cost, and mental space — you’re making by applying to these institutions. Here’s what to consider:
- Essays. A good essay takes time. Let’s imagine you’re applying to fifteen colleges that each have three essays. Assuming 300 words apiece (a common length), you’re writing forty-five essays and likely around 13,000 words. That’s…a lot.
- Testing. Do these colleges require you to take admission tests like the ACT or SAT? Those tests-required institutions are still a minority, but you should pay close attention to the requirements at each of the campuses you’re applying to (our friends at Fairtest have compiled a good list here). If they require a test score or if your score might be helpful in your application (talk to your school counselor if you need some advice), you’ll need to devote time and money to preparing for and taking the exam.
- Demonstrated interest. If you’re struggling to find the time to ask questions of admission counselors, show up to college fairs, or visit the colleges on your list (either virtually or in person), that’s a good sign you’re applying to too many colleges. And that’s not just a bad sign for you – it’s bad for your applications, too. Many colleges track applicants’ demonstrated interest, or the amount of engagement they’ve had with the college during the application process. Students who have done the research and connected with the colleges they’re applying to often have an advantage over those who apply sight-unseen.
Considering the workload associated with each application makes “the shotgun approach” less compelling as a strategy, which — trust me on this — is a good thing. Often, students (or their parents) engage in some basic math that goes something like this: “Ten highly selective institutions — the Ivy League colleges plus Stanford and Duke — had an average admit rate of about 8%. That means if I apply to all ten, I have an 80% shot at admission to one of them.”
Friends, I know you know better than that. Don’t make me call your math teacher. And don’t fill up your list with applications to the most selective colleges in the world.
The Final Word
There is no “right” number of applications. So you’ll need to consider carefully the selectivity of the colleges you’re applying to and the amount of work you have to put into each. But more importantly, make sure you’re applying to colleges that will give you the support you need to accomplish your educational goals. Pay less attention to the name on the diploma and more attention to the mentorship, research, or service opportunities that will impact what you actually do at college. If you engage thoughtfully with your college research and choose the schools whose mission matches yours, you’ll find that the question of how many and what sorts of colleges to apply to will often answer itself.
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.