How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - March 19th, 2013

First of all, there’s no one answer to that question. All students wanting to go to college apply to at least one college, since after all if you don’t apply you won’t get in. When you prepared your college list and starting researching colleges, one thing noted for each college was your chances of being accepted. You listed the colleges on your list according to whether you considered them safety, target or reach colleges. Your grades, test scores and class rank were higher than your safety college’s usual students. For the target colleges, your academic numbers matched just right and you’d fit in with the overall student body with no problem. With the reach schools, your grades and scores were lower than the college’s normal student, but not too much lower. Still, you figured you’d take a chance and see if they’d admit you.

The advice most given for this question is to apply to six to eight colleges. Apply to one or two safety schools, where you have an excellent chance of being accepted, two to three target schools and one or two reach schools. You’ve covered the range of schools and would be more or less happy to go to any of them. Surely you’d be accepted by one or more of them, right? Not necessarily. While the procedure colleges use to make admission decisions are similar, each considers the various components of the application slightly differently. They also take into consideration the composition of the freshman class as a whole. While your chances are good to getting in at least one college, it’s never a sure thing, not even at the safety schools.

While you may want to apply to the Ivy League colleges, consider their low acceptance rates. Harvard accepted only 5.9 percent of the students who applied in 2012, or 2,032 of the over 34,000 students who applied. If you are an excellent student in every single way chances are excellent that Harvard would have rejected you anyway. Cornell University accepted 16.2 percent of its applicants, the largest percentage for Ivy League schools. Go ahead and apply to the Ivies if that is your dream and give it your best shot, but don’t be too devastated if you don’t get accepted. You’d be in excellent company.

Because of the record numbers of students applying to college, colleges have become stricter in their admission decisions. After all, they can only take in so many students for each class. This is true across the board, from the extremely selective Ivy League colleges to large public universities to the little liberal arts college two miles away from your home. The only colleges not getting at least somewhat more selective are the community colleges and online schools. Your best bet is to apply to a range of schools.

Most students apply to up to 10 colleges, a few shoot for 15 to 20. Some excellent reasons for applying to a variety of colleges include:

  • Some colleges are highly selective, and you want to apply to more schools in case you don’t get into the one or two you really want.
  • You need the financial aid, whether merit or needs based. You might need the full tuition covered, so you’re waiting to see which colleges both accept you and give you the best financial aid package.
  • You’ve narrowed your list considerably, but still haven’t settled on a particular favorite.

Of course, there are students who apply to only one college, most of them going the Early Decision route, which increases their chances of getting accepted. These students have figured out exactly what they want and they feel confident putting all their eggs in one basket. Early Decision, however, mainly works for those students with excellent grades and test scores who took college preparatory classes in high school. If this doesn’t describe you, then you might not want to risk going all out for one school.

Remember that applying costs money, from approximately $35 to $50 for each school, with some even more, $75 to $90. To apply to 20 colleges at $50 a pop is $1,000, something that may not be feasible for cash-strapped families these days. You want to apply to a good range of colleges, but try not to go overboard. Good reasons for not applying to over 10 colleges include:

  • Even with the common application, each school has supplemental essays and questions that pertain to that college in particular. When you apply to a lot of colleges, you may not do your best on each one, simply because there are so many.
  • Keeping track of each college’s deadlines and requirements can get dicey. You might mix them up.
  • Cost becomes prohibitive.

Stick to two to four colleges in each of your categories, safety, target and reach. You’ll have covered the range of schools and done your absolute best on each application. You proofread the application before sending it in and you’ve had your English teacher, parents and friends read your essay. At this point, take a deep breath and relax. The decision, for now, is out of your hands. What if you don’t get accepted by any of your chosen colleges? Consider how to improve your game and apply next year. They’ll still be there, and you’ll be that much better at the entire application process.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.