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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Michelle Green
Admissions Consultant My College Admissions Coach

The typical student applies to between 6 - 10 colleges.

The number of colleges that a student should apply to is based on many factors - selectivity, student competitiveness and financial/safety reasons, being just a few of them. Conventional wisdom says that you should apply to 2-3 reaches, several matches and at least 1-2 safety schools. If applying to more selective schools that have a 20% or less chance of admission, you may need to apply to 10-12 colleges. If applying to less competitive schools with a higher admission rate, than you may be able to apply to less. Most families will need some sort of financial aid to help pay for their child's education. It's worth looking at schools that are FAFSA-only, in addition to CSS PROFILE + FAFSA schools, and apply to both kinds. Your student financial aid package may be very different depending on the type of methodology the school uses to calculate student need. The EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) is only an approximation of what families will be expected to pay and is a starting point in the financial aid process.

Arianne Rivard
Further Studies Advisor NIEC (China)

Cautious Moderation

You don't need to apply to fifty schools. Narrow the schools you are interested in into three categories: reach, good fit, and safety school. Apply to one (or two) reach schools, two or three good-fit, and two safety schools. Make sure that your safety schools are actually safety schools - and that you actually like the schools and beleive you would receive a good education there. Contact the regional admission officers of any schools you are interested in. They can answer specific questions about the schools and help you decide which schools will be a really good fit, and if you have a realistic chance of admission.