How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

September 24, 2021

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In 2019-20, U.S. colleges processed over 11 million applications from prospective students. Around 1.6 million students then enrolled in college, indicating that each student submitted applications to around seven schools.

Every year, college hopefuls wonder, "How many colleges should I apply to?" As a general rule of thumb, some admissions experts recommend submitting applications to 4-12 schools. In reality, though, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Applicants must weigh their preferences, admission odds, and resources to determine how many college applications to submit.

Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Colleges

How many colleges can you apply to? There's no limit on the number of applications you can submit. In 2018, North Carolina high school senior Jasmine Harrison submitted applications to 115 colleges — and received admission offers to 113 of them.

But there's a reason most students don't submit 100 applications. They simply can't complete that many applications or afford the application fees. Additionally, it would be difficult to research so many schools.

Still, you also should avoid applying to too few colleges. In general, it's a good idea to apply to a minimum of five schools. Submitting more applications increases the likelihood of an acceptance and the odds of receiving financial aid offers.

Before putting colleges on your list, consider key factors like your budget, financial aid opportunities, and personal preferences. Every school on your list should be a place you could actually see yourself attending.

How to Narrow Down Your List of Colleges

College applicants have roughly 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions to choose from in the U.S. alone. So what's the best way to narrow down your list of prospective schools?

Many applicants start by putting together a list of their top picks and looking for gaps. If your list only contains Ivy League schools, for example, you should add other colleges that offer a higher chance of acceptance. On the other hand, if your list only contains schools that almost certainly will admit you, it's a good idea to add some reach schools.

Think about your strategy as if you were Goldilocks. You want a handful of target schools that offer a "just right" fit for your grades, your SAT/ACT scores, and other admissions materials, but you also want to add safety and reach schools to your list.

What Is a Reach School?

A reach school is any college where an applicant has a lower chance of getting in. The schools that count as a reach depend on the applicant's record.

How can you identify reach schools? Check the college's statistics on admitted students. Most schools post the median, 25th percentile, and 75th percentile GPAs and test scores for their first-year classes on their websites. If you fall below the median, that school would qualify as a reach school for you.

Reach schools often include highly selective colleges that admit a small number of applicants. Schools that report acceptance rates of 10% or less — such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Duke — are reach schools for nearly all applicants. Even students with high grades and test scores may be turned down by their reach schools.

Applicants may increase their chances of acceptance at a reach school by writing a strong essay, showcasing unique extracurriculars or skills, and submitting solid letters of recommendation.

What Is a Target School?

As with reach schools, applicants can identify target schools by researching the admitted students from the past admissions cycle. If your GPA and test scores fall between the 50th and 75th percentiles for admitted students, you can consider that institution a target school. If you apply to a school in this category, you should have a solid chance of receiving an acceptance letter.

Nevertheless, applicants should not apply to target schools simply because they have a higher chance of getting in. Your target schools should also match your budget, academic goals, and overall college plans.

For example, if you want to attend a large, urban university, avoid applying to a small, rural college simply because you match the admission statistics. Similarly, if you're set on majoring in astrobiology, schools without that major should be crossed off your list.

What Is a Safety School?

A safety school offers applicants a strong chance of getting accepted; however, the definition of a safety school varies depending on the applicant. If your GPA and test scores exceed the 75th percentile GPA and standardized test scores of admitted students, you may consider that institution a safety school.

One common myth claims that safety schools are academically or socially inferior. The truth is that the majority of colleges admit most applicants, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report. And regionally accredited schools with less selective admission requirements still award high-quality degrees.

Many students add at least one in-state public university to their list. These schools can offer significant tuition discounts to — and often prefer — in-state applicants.

6 Strategies for Streamlining the College Application Process

Applying to a dozen or more colleges takes time and money. Generally, applicants pay around $40 on application fees per school, but some schools charge more than $100 to apply. Fortunately, there are strategies applicants can use to help streamline the college application process, save money, and potentially add schools to their list.

1. Use the Common App

Over 900 colleges accept the Common Application. With a single application, students can apply to multiple schools without having to fill out a dozen or more individual applications or complete specialized essays. The Common App helps students save time on their applications.

2. Apply for Application Fee Waivers

Many colleges waive the application fee for qualifying students. For example, students who received an SAT fee waiver can receive college application fee waivers at participating colleges. The same applies to students who qualify for Pell Grants.

3. Reuse or Recycle Your College Essays

Applying to 10 schools might mean writing 10 college application essays. Because many schools use similar prompts, students can often reuse or recycle their essays.

That said, proceed with caution. You want to customize each essay so that it fully answers the prompt. If it's obvious to admissions advisors that you're recycling an old essay, it could hurt your application.

4. Apply Early Decision or Early Action

Many schools accept early applications. These have earlier application deadlines than regular decision but provide you with a decision sooner, usually by December. Applying early decision or early action can increase your chances of admission. Additionally, if you're accepted, you might only have to complete a single college application.

5. Talk With Your Guidance Counselor

Your high school guidance counselor can offer advice on which colleges might be a target school or a reach school for you. Counselors also have great tips for completing applications more efficiently.

6. Keep Track of Your Applications

Completing college applications can be time-consuming and stressful. Creating a calendar to track deadlines and manage steps like requesting recommendation letters makes it easier to stay on top of applications.


Feature Image: Dejan Marjanovic / E+ / Getty Images

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