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Your Balanced College List: How Many Colleges You Should Apply To?

High school student is unsure how to build her college list

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Increasingly, more students are applying to a higher number of colleges — sometimes at alarming rates. According to Higher Ed Dive, the Common App reported an increase in the number of students applying to more than 10 colleges, from 8% during the 2014-15 admissions cycle to 17% in 2021-22, with a growing number submitting as many as 20. That said, most students submit anywhere between one and five applications. College application numbers all over the map, so where’s the best place to be? Is there a right number of colleges to apply to?

Creating a Manageable and Balanced College List

Before determining how many colleges to apply to, students should first determine what colleges fit their academic, social, and financial needs, as well as their likelihood of gaining admission to those good-fit colleges.

These colleges are typically categorized as “likely,” where the student’s academic profile is significantly stronger than the middle 50% of admitted students at that institution, “target,” where their academic profiles is similar to the middle 50%, and “reach,” schools where their academic profile is not as strong as the middle 50%.

The idea is to have a range of colleges to choose from, with some that might be slightly easier to get into, some which are harder to get into, and some that are right on target. This allows students to reach for those “dream” colleges while still setting realistic expectations about where they may or may not be admitted, and making sure that by the end of the process they have a number of acceptances from good-fit schools to choose from.

The key here is ensuring that this list is balanced. A list with only Ivy League reaches and just one or two target and likely colleges can set a student up for disappointment and leave them with few, if any, options come time to choose a college to attend.

So, a smart strategy would be to apply to as many colleges as possible, in order to increase chances of gaining multiple acceptances, as long as there’s a “balance” among the target, reach, and likely classifications, right? Not quite.

Why You Shouldn’t Apply to Dozens of Schools

Theoretically, your entire high school experience should lead up to a rigorous senior year and an application season that you’re ready to face head-on. However, everyone is different, and many students are playing catch up by the time they get to 12th grade. This, on top of applying to college, can create a lot of stress — not to mention a lot of work.

Applying to 20 colleges may not seem like that many — after all, you only have to fill out the Common Application once and you can use the same main essay for each school. What many students forget to consider, however, is that many colleges have supplements, often with additional essays that ask very specific questions about the school itself and why you want to attend. So if you’re applying to 20 schools, and each has a supplement with 2-3 essay prompts, you can, conservatively, end up writing close to 60 essays, on top of the standard Common Application essay. That’s a lot of writing to get done by January 1.

This is why applying to dozens of colleges is dangerous. Not only is it extremely time consuming just to write all those essays, but students also don’t have enough time to properly research the school to determine if it’s a great fit, visit the campus, or put together a compelling application. Every college, from Harvard to less-selective schools, is concerned about yield — the percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling. Colleges want a high yield, so they want to admit students who they believe will actually attend.

If you’re madly applying to dozens of colleges and don’t really know that much about them, you’re less likely to really convey why you want to go there and what you can contribute to the campus — factors in what’s known as demonstrated interest. Failure to demonstrate interest could lead to an unpleasantly surprising rejection from a school that may have seemed well within the student’s reach.

Even if you do get into all these colleges, will you really know the differences between them? Chances are when a student is juggling dozens of acceptances, they’re really not that informed on why they wanted to go there in the first place. Casting too wide of a net can lead to too many options with little insight into many of them; however, you don’t want to have too narrow of a list, either.

Why You Shouldn’t Apply to Too Few Colleges

While applying to too many colleges can leave students confused and overwhelmed with applications, applying to too few colleges can leave students without many options at all — especially if their list is heavy on reach schools. Many students go into the college admissions process with one or two schools they’re completely committed to, and only apply to those without really considering whether or not they really have a shot at getting in. This is one of the best ways to end up empty handed once admissions decisions are released.

This is why it’s important to think outside of the box, talk with your counselor, and do a lot of research on schools that aren’t your absolute top two or three choices. It’s easy to be blinded by the ambition to only focus on that “dream” college, but in the end you can come up short if you don’t consider some other schools that are just as great for you.

So What’s The Right Number of Colleges to Apply To?

In short — there’s no magic number. It all depends on the student and their needs. At IvyWise, we advise that students apply to about 10-15 best-fit colleges, with as close to an even distribution of target, reach, and likely colleges as possible. For some students, one is all they needed to apply to because they were accepted Early Decision. For others, all 15 are necessary in order to have a wide selection of colleges to choose from. For many students, 10 is a manageable number, as they can easily spread out their application timeline without feeling overwhelmed or bogged down with multiple essays. Contact us today for help with building your college list and all other aspects of the college admissions process.

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