Choosing the Right Number of College Applications to Submit  

Being an upperclassman in high school can be an exciting and stressful time. Between your GPA, ACT & SAT tests, prom, and graduation plans, it can seem overwhelming at times.  But figuring out how many colleges to apply to shouldn’t add stress to your life. We’ve identified some things to consider as you make your final decision about the next phase of your life.

Okay, okay – we just said figuring out how many colleges to apply to shouldn’t add stress. While this is still true, figuring out how to choose a college is not always an easy process. It’s important to consider all possible outcomes. What if you don’t get accepted to the first college you apply to? This is probably an unlikely scenario, depending on your college choices, but it is definitely worthwhile to consider.

Because of this, it may be wise to apply to more than one school as you work on your college search. But how many applications do you really need to submit? College applications cost money and take a significant amount of time, so you want to make sure you aren't being wasteful by applying to too many.

On the other hand, apply to too few and you may not get accepted. So, how can you decide? Here are four things to factor in when you find yourself asking, “How many colleges should I apply to?”

1. Understand the Different Categories of Schools

Before you start applying to colleges, you should understand the different types that are available to you. Guidance counselors will often recommend that students apply to three different categories of schools. These are:

Reach schools

These schools have a large amount of competition. You might only be minimally qualified for it, but it’s your dream school.

Probable schools

These schools appear to be a good fit for you. Your test scores and GPA are within the admissions guidelines, and the competition is not too high and they have the degree you are looking for.

Safety schools

These are the schools you’re almost guaranteed to be accepted into and may include schools that accept most applicants. They also include schools that are financially safe, meaning schools where you could afford tuition or get substantial student aid.

As you are applying, you need to make sure that you apply to at least one school in each of these categories. Only applying to reach schools could leave you without an acceptance letter and a plan in the fall, but only applying to safety schools could cause you to miss out on excellent opportunities.

2. Outline Your Goals

A better question than “How many colleges should I apply to?” is “What colleges should I apply to?” As you are considering your college applications, you should to outline your goals for your college experience. Consider factors like:

  • The importance of a particular academic track
  • How affordable the school is
  • How close to home you wish to be
  • What opportunities you will experience for networking and job search
  • The overall campus vibe and social opportunities

By determining what your goals are, you will be better able to focus your college search as you choose the colleges you will apply to.

3. Make a List

Before you start applying to schools, make a list of the ones that seem interesting to you. Then, research them more in-depth. Do they have the academic major you want? Do they fit within your budget? Do they have admissions requirements that fit your skills? Are they located within a reasonable distance of home, or are you willing to relocate? Use questions like these to narrow down your list. Then, consider making a few in-person visits to see the schools for yourself.

4. There’s No Magic Number

Unfortunately, there is no magic number of the perfect number of schools to apply to. As you go through the process of outlining your goals, making your lists and determining which category the schools fall into, you will eventually come to a short list of schools that make sense for your needs.

In general, the more competitive the schools you plan to apply to are, the more you will need to apply to in order to get acceptance. If you are planning to apply only to colleges you are confident you can be accepted into, then you can apply to just a couple and be safe. In the end, your goals, the amount of time you have and the type of school you are considering will be the deciding factors in determining how many schools to apply to.

Finding the right school for the next chapter of your life is a big step. Research what the school can offer you as well as what you can offer the school. The right college experience will make your investment worthwhile and set the stage for a successful future.