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How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

Picture of Anita Gajula
By Anita Gajula on February, 7 2022 | 8 minute read

I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary, Try Harder. It’s a great conversation starter for issues regarding mental health, the college admissions process, and race. After I watched it, I kept thinking about the number of schools these students applied to and why there was no discussion about college research or the usual lingo like safety, reach, and fit.

Obviously, as a college counselor, I am constantly using these terms, and I incorrectly assumed that families come across these phrases when they start the process. I do know that when a family starts working with me, we often start with the question of “how many schools should my student apply to?” and then get into all these other ideas.

First, let’s define some of the language:

Likely (used to be called safety) – Since there are no guarantees in the college admissions process and because we want you to like any school you attend, we no longer use the word “safety.” The more common term “likely” usually means acceptance rates are high (probably 65 percent plus) and a student’s overall GPA and test score are higher than the average when compared to other students at that college. More than a mere majority of US colleges fit into this category. According to IPEDS, the average US college admits over sixty percent of applications to their school.

Target – This usually means the admission’s decision could go either way and is probably favorable for the student. We use this term when the student’s profile matches that of the average student at that school and the acceptance rates are in the 30-70 percentages. 

Reach – Most college counselors say a college is a “reach” when the acceptance rates are under 25 percent and/or the student’s profile is less than the average. Others use the terms “highly selective” or “highly rejective” (hat’s off to Akil Bello for that last phrase). Less than 300 schools in the US fall into this category but unfortunately those schools also get the most publicity.

Far Reach – This phrase is reserved for the colleges out there that admit less than 10 percent of students who apply, which is basically all the Ivy league schools and a few other name brand schools with huge endowments and even bigger reputations. Some people think of these chances as a “lottery” which is not accurate. One of my favorite quotes from Casey Near is that “admissions is unpredictable, but not random.” Many of the highly selective schools have what we call “institutional priorities,” which are their own needs for the students they want. They have their pick because they have SO many qualified applicants and can say they need more trumpet players or less pre-meds, so they choose students based on criteria that we can’t possibly know.


Related: How To Finalize a College List (And When)


Okay, so let’s go back to the question of “how many colleges should you apply to?” I know you will roll your eyes at me but it depends on who you are and what you are looking for in this process. Here are a few questions you can think about: 


What’s your criteria?

If you know you want to attend a school with engineering in the Midwest so you can be close to your family, then so be it. You might only find a handful of schools. Think about just a few things that are super important to you in a college and as you research schools, see if they match your wants and needs. Then put them on the list if they do! Your criteria should be broad enough that you have enough schools to look at but also prioritized so your list is not overwhelming to research.


Do you need financial aid to attend?

If so, I strongly suggest applying to more likely schools because those are the schools that will give you the most money. You are above the average there, and you will be highly desired so those schools will likely throw some merit money your way in the hopes of swaying you to attend. It’s always best to figure out your families Estimated Financial Contribution and use online Net Price Calculators for better estimates.


Related: 6 Tips For Picking A College


Do you want to attend a “big name” school?

If you desire a highly ranked school, meaning the name brand, prestigious, highly rejective/selective, then apply to at least two likely schools. Don’t apply to all the Ivies because you assume that applying to more colleges will mean your odds are better. This is not an exercise in gambling.


How much money do you have to give towards this process?

Some schools have hefty application fees (Stanford is at the highest with $90) which can add up fast. The average fee seems to be around $40-50. Also, some schools want official score reports from ACT or College Board and those fees will add up at $16-20 per score report per school. Finally, you might want to visit before or after your acceptance so think about those costs.(Note some students may qualify for fee waivers and they should talk to their school counselor for eligibility details.)


How much time do you have for this process?

Schools have many short and long essay prompts to answer. The quality of these essays is extremely important, so don’t start writing unless you know you can research the school and write the answers well. If you have the resources and motivation to apply, you can apply to more. Don’t forget that you also have a full set of classes during senior year, and those fall grades are particularly important to colleges. Don’t let your grades slip because you are spending too much time on application essays.

If you don’t have the time or financial resources, then choose wisely. You can find out some of this info on the Common Application grid or any college admissions website.


Related: How To Email A College Admissions Officer


A few pieces of advice:

  1. The average student has been applying to 6 schools on the Common Application over the last few years. That’s just an average, and please apply to a number that is comfortable for you.
  2. Once you apply to more than 10 schools, the process gets unwieldy fast. Trust me on this one. You need to keep track of all the essays, the college portals once you apply, and the emails (SO many emails!) You may also be paying a high amount of fees. The Common App actually puts a limit of 20 schools, and that is all done for a reason.
  3. Always apply to at least two likely schools. Again, nothing is guaranteed, and I want you to have options to consider.
  4. If you fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, it will only let you put 10 schools on the list at first. If you are applying to more than 10, then submit the form electronically with the first 10 schools and wait at least 3-7 days for those schools to upload that data. Then go back to the form, delete those first 10 schools, and refill it with the additional schools. You will need to submit it again, so the additional schools get your data.
  5. NEVER put a school on your application list if you are NOT going to attend. I don’t care if your parents want you to attend, or if you just want to see if you can get in. If you have no positive feelings towards the school, leave it off! This of course means you must research each school you are considering so you can find those reasons to apply and attend.

At the end of the process, you will know this process is all about you and your family’s needs. It’s not about what others are doing or about any kind of trophy hunting. Be open minded about the possibilities and think about what’s most important to you. That will always guide you to finding the best college for you.


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