How many schools should I apply to?

College Admissions

Our counselors answered:

How many schools should I apply to?

Nina Berler
Founder unCommon Apps

How Many Schools?

Many parents ask me how many schools their students should apply to. Of course, there's no one answer to that question. The number of schools a student applies to is a function of his or her interests, strength of candidacy, financial situation and geographic area. I live in the Northeast, no doubt the toughest area for college admissions. Why? We have so many wonderful students from education-minded families and wonderful secondary schools. The competition for admission to top-tier schools is fierce, particularly for those schools in our own region as well as others such as Stanford. In many cases, students compete with their friends and peers. For a good student in this area, I often like to see the student apply to between eight and 10 colleges. Again, that's not a hard and fast rule, but rather a function of many variables. For students outside the Northeast, except perhaps California, there is no going number such as 12 colleges. Rather, the important thing for any student, counselor or parent is to understand the student's goals and strengths and put together a list with a variety of colleges having various levels of difficulty both in terms of academics and admissions.

Alexandra Young
Guidance Counselor Brookline High School

Is There a Magic Number When Applying to Colleges?

When this question comes up, first, I tell students to have a balanced list. That's more important than the number of schools they should apply to. However, when talking about numbers, eight schools is usually a good number to work with. When applying to eight schools, the college list should have two reach schools, four possible schools, and two likely schools. The terms "reach, possible, and likely" pertain to the chances of admission. For those students that want more options, I wouldn't apply to more than twelve schools.

Carita Del Valle
Founder Academic Decisions

A balanced list should be around around 10 schools.

Most clients I work with have narrowed their final applications down to approximately 10 of well-balanced choices. Mind you, this is not the size of the list that we started with, but the final choices the student and their families have decided upon.

Wendy Andreen, PhD
College & Career Planning

The Perfect Number

Many years ago at a college planning meeting, a statement was made to an audience of students (and parents), "If you are applying to all of the Ivy League schools, you haven't done your homework." The comment was expanded to explain that these colleges are very different and there's no way a student could be happy on all of the campuses. I never forgot those words of wisdom and share them with all groups. Students who use the 'scattershot' approach to college applications are applying out of fear of not getting into any college. They apply to large numbers of schools without truly knowing if they will like the college well enough to call it home for four years! There are over 3,000 excellent colleges and universities in the U.S. There is a great fit for you! Don't get sucked into the philosophy that there are only about 25 colleges worthy to attend. I don't believe there is one magic number of applications. For some students 3 colleges are plenty because they have done their 'due diligence' and know that any one of the three will be a great fit. Others operate on the 2-3-2 formula: 2 reach, 3 target, 2 safety. Again, will you be happy at all 7 of the colleges? The students who flood the college admissions offices with applications - even when they know they really don't want to attend all of the colleges on the list - just clog the system, make more work for their counselors & teachers, make it more difficult for the students who truly want to attend the colleges, and overload the admissions officers with too many files. I also tell students that I never want them to look back with regret at not applying to their dream college, even if it is a stretch. Do your homework - research & visit colleges - and you will find your personal perfect number.

Helen H. Choi
Owner Admissions Mavens

No Magic Number

There's no formula for determining how many college to which you should apply. Some student apply to as few as 3-4 - while others go a bit overboard and apply to 12-14. Rather than focusing on how many schools should be on your list, try to compile your list by including three TYPES of schools: safety schools (schools to which you are pretty sure will accept you); realistic schools (schools to which you have a realistic chance of getting in); and reach schools (schools where your chances of acceptance are very slim). In order to determine which schools are your safety schools, realistic schools and reach schools, look at the median GPAs and test scores of the admitted freshmen for those schools during the previous school year. That information can be readily accessed through individual school's websites and through guidebooks such as The Fiske Guide of Colleges. While compiling the list -- be thoughtful and flexible! It's okay if your list changes from time to time. The important thing is to focus on selecting schools that you'd be happy to attend if accepted -- no matter if they are your safety, realistic choice or reach school.

Katie Jane
Founder Pangaea Life

Number of schools on your college list

I always recommend applying to 5-10 schools. Usually, my target is 7. I hear a lot of students applying to 13+ colleges which is great if you have the time but more often than not, you don't. I stand by the rule: QUALITY vs. quantity. It is always better to have 7 strong well-thought out college applications than 13 rushed ones. If the common application is available for all your schools, then you can apply to those 13 colleges (taking into consideration any supplemental information requested by a college) you were thinking but keep in mind the fees- college applications, test scores, dual enrollment transcripts, postage, and sometimes high school transcripts.

Hamilton Gregg
Educational Consultant Private Practice

Fewer than 10

There is no way to throw tons of darts at a dart board. Focus your attention to 10 or less. Write great essays. Students who apply to more than 10 are spreading themselves to thin and cannot focus appropriately on the qualities each school is looking for in their applicants. I have yet heard of student, who having applied to more than 10, thought it was a good idea afterward. You can only attend one school. Target your list to 3 Reaches (appropriate reaches), 3 Core Schools and 3 Foundation schools. By the way, the average number over the years is around 6-7.

Suzan Reznick
Independent Educational Consultant The College Connection

There is no "right" or magic number

Most students apply to between 8 and 12 schools on average. I have seen students apply to as many as 20! Considering that you can only attend one school and having over a dozen offers can be anxiety producing in and of itself- there is no reason to go overboard. The majority of your time and effort should be focused on getting the best grades possible, not writing 20 essays! What is key is "spreading the risky" by applying to a range of selectivity in your schools. Having the attitude that - if I apply to every Ivy, one will accept me- may leave you without any options for college. Have at least two schools that would be considered a "safety" school and the majority in the "target" range should offer you many great options.

Rebecca Grappo
Founder and president RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC

10 Most Important Things To Look For In The Campus Visit

For families that live abroad, it is very difficult to visit all of the boarding schools or colleges/ universities that a student might be interested in unless they have a magic carpet, or unlimited time and funds.

However, I would argue that a campus visit might be even more important for the international student and the Third Culture Kid (TCK) who is returning to their passport country for future study, or going to a new country, especially if the student has never lived (or lived for very long) in the country of that school/college.

I should know, having visited over 100 campuses (mostly in the United States) this last year alone! Campus visits are the number one way that I learn what a school or college is really like. Though much information is available online, it is not the same as being there in person. However, that said, there is also much to be gained by doing a virtual visit. So, whether virtually or in person, here are my suggestions for the ten most important things to look for in the campus visit:

1. Setting. Where is the school in relationship to the world? This is especially important for students coming from abroad (namely international students, or TCKs returning to their passport country). Such things as access to a major airport, rural or urban settings, and surrounding neighborhoods tend to be significant factors in how well the student will adjust. Campus safety is also extremely important, so I encourage you to learn what kind of neighborhood it is in and what the student will pass through to get to and from campus. One excellent website devoted to American college/university campus safety is

2. Campus Atmosphere. What does the campus "feel" like when you walk around? The best campus visits are made when students are present. What image do they project? Do they look happy and relaxed? Are they friendly? Stressed? Try using such websites as College Prowler or Unigo to find out more about what students have to say. Sometimes there is even a live camera on campus with Internet streaming.

3. What Students Have To Say. Try to talk to current students – either through chance encounters, a student panel, or the student tour guide. Through your conversations, you can usually get a lot of information about the student body and their values, activities, campus life and campus culture. Ask about how the students feel about their instructors, professors, projects, availability of classes, class size, advising, where to go for help, college or career guidance, study abroad programs, internships, other students, presence of other TCKs and international students on campus, the food, activities, weekends, what kind of student would be happiest there, who would not be happy there, what the "party scene" is like, what they like best, what they would change, and so on.

4. What Instructors/Professors And General Staff Have To Say. How do the staff talk about their work? Their students? Why do they love (or do not love) teaching/working there? How many adjunct/part-time faculty do they have? What is the teacher/professor turnover rate? What special programs do they offer? What are the strongest departments and why? What new initiatives are being undertaken on campus? What are the admissions team looking for in new student applications? How selective are they? What is their retention/graduation rate? Have they experienced any pain due to budget cuts? What is their waiting list like, if any?

5. How Residential Is The Campus? If it is a boarding school, ask how many students live on campus as boarders compared to the number of day students. If there are boarders, are they five-day boarders who go home on weekends, or full-term boarders who only go home for term breaks? If it is college, is it mostly residential or commuter students? Is it a "suitcase college" (where students go home on weekends)? If students live on campus, are they guaranteed housing for their full course duration? If not, what is the local housing market for students like? These questions are a huge factor in building campus culture and an idea about campus accessibility.

6. Scholarships And Financial Aid. This is very important for most of my client families, so if it is important to you too, be sure you understand what options the school has to make itself affordable. Check out the individual school/college websites to find more information on this.

7. Physical Plant And Facilities. I call this my "mulch test". Are the grounds well-kept? Is enough maintenance being done? How does the campus look and feel? What are the buildings like? Dormitories? Food services? Recreational facilities? Athletic facilities? Studios for the arts? Library? Where do students do most of their studying? Campus Tours is an ever-growing site with virtual tours. You can also search the name of the university on YouTube for more online videos. These sites help, but again, it is not the same as assessing the situation in person.

8. Resources For Student Support. What kind of support is available for students with tutoring, writing and math centers, and more formalized support for kids with learning differences? Again, in the absence of a personal visit, explore the relevant college websites and learn as much as you can.

9. Understanding Of TCK And International Student Issues. Would your student coming from abroad, with a wealth of different experiences to share, feel welcome and valued on this campus? How strong is the institution's commitment to helping international students adjust? What countries are the international students coming from? How are they recruited? This may be perhaps the hardest quality to quantify. Try searching the international student pages. Search the terms "Third Culture Kid" or "Global Nomad" by using the search box on the school's website. Ask for statistics from the school/college, and if you visit, take note of what level of diversity (or lack thereof) you see on the actual campus itself.

10. What Is Important To The Student? The answer to this depends on the student, but each student has his/her own agenda, too.


There are many, many school, college and university options out there. In selecting a school/college, the campus visit can be an extremely important part of the decision-making process. By the end of the campus visit, you should have a good sense of the kind of student who would do well at that particular school/college/university.

Knowledge gained from the campus visit, combined with an understanding of the student's learning style, academic and career interests, should all be factors in the final decision. After all, the biggest payoff will occur when the student finds the "right fit" and match where he/she will grow and thrive.

Then you will know that you all have made the right educational choice!

Steve Peifer
Director of College Guidance Rift Valley Academy


Ideally, you want to apply to a fairly easy school to get into, a moderate school, and a reach school. You want to make sure you are balanced; applying to 8 reach schools is a recipe for disappoinment and needless rejection. Whether your ideal amount is 3 or 6 or 9, just make sure you have balance in your approach.