How many schools should I apply to?

College Admissions

Our counselors answered:

How many schools should I apply to?

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.

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!

Sue Moore

Two to six applications

I usually recommend students apply to no more than 6 schools. If you have more than six schools on your list, you need to do your research to narrow your selection field before you start sending out applications. Your list of schools should include a range - from ones for which acceptance will be a stretch to those at which you feel you have a good chance of acceptance. I also suggest a minimum of two schools - although if students are applying to two in-state schools I like to challenge them to find an out-of-state school that looks like it will be a good fit. Above all, take time to do your research about the schools that seem interesting. Use the internet resources available, and visit them in person.

Shannon Salmon

You Should Apply to 8 to 12 Schools

Apply to at least 3 reach schools and at least 3 safety schools.

Francine Schwartz
Founder/ President Pathfinder Counseling LLC

How many schools should I apply to?

What I strive to encourage students to do is have a balanced list. The list should consist of Foundation Schools, schools where the student above the middle 50% of accepted applicants in terms of their transcript and test scores. Next there should be Expected Schools, schools where the student falls in the middle of the pack of accepted applicants from last years class. Finally the list should include Dream Schools, schools where the student falls in the lower range of the middle 50% of accepted applicants. While there is no hard and fast rule on numbers of schools I would suggest at least two or three schools in each category. Too many schools and the student will be left having to choose all over again should they get into say 20 schools. Finally today I believe that all students need to have a financial safety school - usually a state school. Francine Schwartz Pathfinder Counseling LLC

Heather Case

A Perfect 10

I recommend that you apply to ten schools that are well-matched to your specific needs. If you apply to many more you risk looking indecisive, but if you apply to significantly fewer, you risk limiting your choices. Ideally your list should resemble a pyramid with one or two “reach” schools at the top, two to four “stretch” schools and in the middle and four to five well-matched schools at the base.

Cheri Barad
Education Consultant Barad Education Consulting

It is your choice!

Depending on your list and how comfortable you feel with your ‘safety’ schools (institutions you are certain you would be accepted to and would be happy at if it were your only/last choice), many students are applying to between 8 – 12 schools. This range gives a student 4 reach, 4 – 6 mid range schools and 2 – 4 safety schools. It is advisable, even if you are applying Early Decision, to have your ‘backup’ applications ready to submit on the per chance you are deferred or your application is not accepted by your ED school.

Lorraine Serra

It Depends...

So many of the questions related to college planning and applications have this same answer. Why? Because every student's "profile" is unique: your high school stats, your requirements for location, environment (physical and academic), overall cost and areas of interest all help determine the number of colleges to which you'll apply. The trend over the last few years is to apply to approximately 8-10 colleges, although as a college counselor I'd prefer to see you focus on a smaller, carefully targeted group. I've seen students apply to one school and to 19 schools, both extremes, and both slightly dangerous. If you start early (my mantra), you'll allow yourself the opportunity to deeply research many colleges, visit several, and have a good range of possible, target and reach schools on your final list. Knowing a great deal about a college's offerings and communicating this to the admissions committee (also known as demonstrating interest), will help your application stand out in the crowd of many, and give you an edge. You'll also have an easier time deciding come May 1. Do your homework!

Amy Foley

The Goldilocks Rule

Not too many and not too few. Not too many that you're emptying your piggy bank for application fees. Not too few that you have too few choices this spring. There is only one exception to the rule: If you are 100% sure that you will attend your absolutely favorite, #1, dream-of-a-lifetime institution, apply to one... and only one. If admitted, you're done! If, however, you are denied or waitlisted, submit applications for others. Talk about choices with your family. Visit schools that interest you most, and cross some off the list. Then, apply to between 3-10 (or so), including your flagship state, at least one where you rest squarely in the school's profile, and others that resonate with you. Then, enjoy your winter break. Springtime, with its offers of admission and choices to make, will be here soon enough.

Brian D. Crisp
Founder and President Crisp Consulting + Coaching; Burton College Tours

Quality of Quantity

Last week in the offices of Crisp Consulting+ Coaching, we discussed the State of College Admission report from National Association for College Admission Counseling. For the 2010-2011 admission season, over 70% of colleges and universities reported a rise in the number of applicants. Also reported, many students are applying to more than seven schools with many applicants submitting more than ten applications. These numbers continue to shock us all and counselors and consultants can infer students are applying to college without examining critical aspects of college fit. When applying to schools, carefully consider academic, social and financial fit to determine the schools of the best fit. This examination will provide a list of schools that will offer a thorough education while supporting personal growth.