How Many College Applications Are Too Many?

Uncertainty surrounding college admissions causes many applicants to apply more schools than are necessary. Seeking safety in numbers, they play the college admissions version of the lottery, hoping that the more applications they put into the universe, the more likely they are to get accepted. But in reality, applying to too many colleges can dilute the quality of students’ applications.

Here are some strategies that will help you find the right number of college applications to give yourself the best advantage.

A better strategy: build a balanced college list.

A balanced college list is one where you are genuinely interested in all of the schools on your list, and the majority of those schools are likely to accept you. While there’s no magic number of colleges to which you should apply, our students at Collegewise generally apply to an average of 8-10 schools: 1-3 of those colleges will be “reach schools” where their chances of admission aren’t as strong, and 1-2 will be “safeties” where we’re sure they’ll be admitted. The rest will fall somewhere in the middle — we call those schools “targets.”

Test the balance of your list is to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you like every school on your list? I mean really like them, enough that you’d seriously consider attending any one of them? (It’s not a perfect list if you’d rather go to juvenile hall than go to your safety school).
  2. Do you have a thoughtful answer to the question, “Why are you applying to this school?”
  3. Do you have at least one safety school?
  4. Do you have at least one financial safety school, where you’re sure to be admitted and which your family can afford even if you don’t get the financial aid you’re hoping for?
  5. Has your high school counselor seen and approved of your list? Don’t make the excuse that your counselor doesn’t know you. She’s not applying to college — you are. Visit her, help her get to know you, and invite her feedback on your list.

If you can say yes to each of those questions, you’re on your way to a balanced list: one that will leave you with more offers of admission, more financial aid, and more opportunities to actually enjoy the process. With over 2,000 colleges to choose from, almost everyone can find schools to keep their list in balance. And those are better odds than you’ll get playing any lottery.

Author: Kevin McMullin. Kevin McMullin is the founder and president of Collegewise. He is also the author of “It the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted.” He speaks at high schools and conferences about saner, smarter college planning. 

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