How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

We’re frequently asked by both parents and students, How many colleges should I apply to?  Over the last ten years, there’s been a trend towards students applying to a larger list of colleges.  While our clients apply to an average of 12-15 colleges, the “right” number is pretty subjective, and the truth is, the growing trend toward list expansion is entirely unnecessary.

Here’s the thing:  you only get to attend one college.  After all is said and done, you can sift through two college acceptances (not ideal) or 15 (also not ideal), but you only get to choose one.

One of our clients applied to 23 colleges a few years ago (over our repeated gentle objection).  It takes a great deal of time, and it’s expensive, to apply to this many schools.  When the decisions came, he ended up with 15 acceptance letters.  While a few were “safer” schools we strongly encouraged, there were a number of schools on his list that he didn’t even consider visiting after he was admitted.  You shouldn’t really bother applying if there’s no way you would consider visiting, let alone attending!

And do the math – he received 8 rejection letters – each one a blow to the 18-year old ego.  Some on the same day.  It would have been better if he had applied to a better-researched, smaller list.

On the other hand, we had another student who applied to an interesting mix of schools he’d researched intensively, and after he was admitted to 11 of the 13 on his list, he and his dad jumped on a plane and visited – and really connected with – some Midwest schools that most Southern California students don’t generally consider.

You should strive to create “balanced” college lists.  That means a well-researched list of colleges at which you know you’ll fit in (that means they have your major, and a few clubs you’d consider joining), with a few “reach,” a few “target” and a few where you are sure you’ll be admitted – and where you’d be happy to attend!  Students who throw together a list at the last minute based on where everyone else is applying, where mom and dad went, and the names they know, usually end up disappointed and not feeling satisfied with their results.  Balance does not mean crossing your fingers and applying to a bunch of super-selective colleges because you’ve worked really hard and you “deserve” to go to one of them!!  Those schools reject far more applicants than they admit, and the students they reject are super-qualified just like you.  (In fact, here’s our post about Why You Shouldn’t Apply To All 8 Ivy League Schools.)

This part is for 10th and 11th graders who are planning ahead:  when we say “it’s all about fit,” we really mean it!  How can you tell if you fit at a college?  You have to do a little research to figure this out!  You should check out their website (here’s our video on how to research a college online!), talk to current or recently graduated students, possibly visit and/or sit in on a class.  You should think about what it would look like and feel like for you to spend four years there, to major in the subject you’re most interested in, to call that campus “home.”  It takes more than a drive-by, or even a one-hour tour to really see if a college is a good fit for you.  Here are some questions to help you get started thinking about fit, and here’s our Campus Visit Guide, as you plan your college visits.  If you’re visiting virtually, we have a different checklist for that, too!

Magellan College Counseling Campus Visit Packet

So when you find yourself asking, How many colleges should I apply to?  You should really think about it this way:  it’s not a competition to see how many acceptances you can collect, it’s about finding the best match for you.  A nice balanced list with three reach, three target and a few safe schools – making sure you’d be happy at ANY of them – is really all you need.

Do you need help with your college list?  Check out this post about Building Your College List, or contact us for a free phone consultation.

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