Many students stress over the same question: "How many colleges should I apply to?" How many is too many? How few is too few? There is so much disagreement on this topic, even among experts, that many students are left confused and unsure.
In this article, I’ll clear up this confusion. I’ll give you an idea of how many schools you should apply to and explain the factors to consider when deciding how many colleges to apply to. After reading this guide, you'll feel confident about crafting your own college list and how long it will be.
There's No Magic Number
The number of colleges you should apply to depends on your specific situation. I believe you should apply to anywhere from one to 15 colleges. The standard thinking from counselors has been that the average college-bound student should apply to about 6-8 colleges: 2-3 reach colleges, 2-3 target colleges, and 2 safety schools. Reach schools are colleges that are unlikely to offer you admission (less than a 30% chance), target schools are colleges that you have a decent chance of gaining admission to (a 30%-80% chance), and safety schools are colleges to which you’re almost guaranteed of admission based on your qualifications (greater than a 80% chance).
You can roughly determine your odds of admission for each college by using the prepscholar admissions calculator. Just google the name of the school and “prepscholar admissions requirements.”
The number of colleges you should apply to is dependent on your personal situation and your priorities when selecting a college. For example, if you have a dream school that offers early decision or early action, then you may only have to apply to one college. If you apply early decision, you’ll typically be submitting your application in November and should receive an admissions decision by December, before the application deadlines for most colleges. If you’re accepted to a school that you apply to early decision, you have to attend.
You should still have a list of colleges to apply to in case you aren’t accepted or if you’re applying to any colleges, like University of California schools, that have an application deadline before December. If you’re admitted early decision, you have to withdraw your applications to any other colleges.
How many schools should be on your list?
Why You May Want To Apply to More Schools
If you’re determined to go to a very selective college, then you may want to apply to more colleges than the average person. If you apply to 10 colleges to which you have a 25% chance of gaining admission, then you’re likely to gain admission to at least one of them. In fact, if you apply to 16 colleges with an average chance of admission of 25%, then you have a 99% chance of gaining admission to at least one of them, statistically. Check out this article for a better understanding of the math behind this calculation.
If you take this approach, though, you should prepare yourself emotionally to be rejected from most of the schools you apply to.
If, on the other hand, you’re not as concerned with selectivity and are extremely confident that you’ll be admitted to at least a couple of the colleges you apply to, you may only need to apply to two to four colleges.
Why You May Want To Apply to Fewer Schools
Here are a few factors that may limit the number of colleges you should apply to.
Applications Cost Money and Time
Unless you qualify for fee waivers, which are based on financial need, applying to college can be costly. The application fee for each college you apply to can be up to $75. Additionally, there can be costs associated with sending standardized test scores and AP scores to colleges.
The SAT and ACT allow you to send four free score reports to colleges. Each additional score report currently costs $11.25 per report for the SAT and $12 per report for the ACT. Also, you’re allowed to send one free AP score report, which contains all of your AP scores, to one college each year you take AP exams. Each additional score report costs $15.
Therefore, if you apply to 20 colleges, you may have to pay over $2,000. Consider your budget (or ask your parents how much they’re willing to pay) when deciding how many schools to apply to. However, you should also view the costs of applying as an investment. If you get into a great college that fits your needs, then you’ll have an invaluable college experience that will enable you to have future professional success, and the money you spend on applying may end up being insignificant compared to the return on your investment. Furthermore, keep in mind that the cost of applying will probably be much, much less than the cost of attending college.
Additionally, the application process takes time. Even though more and more colleges are using The Common Application, which allows you to apply to many schools with one application, many colleges still have their own applications or require supplemental essays. Each college application that requires additional essays will probably take you at least a few additional hours to complete.
Make sure you have enough time to complete all the applications successfully without sacrificing the quality of your schoolwork or neglecting any other priorities you have outside of school.
Filling out applications and writing good college essays take time.
You Have Specific Needs That Only a Few Colleges Meet
If only a few colleges fit your specific needs, then you don’t have to apply to a ton of colleges. For example, when I was applying to college, I knew I wanted to compete for an NCAA Division I gymnastics team. At the time, there were about 15 NCAA Division I men’s gymnastics programs. Even before I started doing college research or waited to see which schools recruited me, my options were very limited. I believe I ended up applying to 4 colleges, and admittedly, I only applied to one of those because I wanted to go on another recruiting trip.
If you want to be in a very specific location or pursue a major that only a few schools have, then you may only need to apply to 3-5 colleges.
You Don’t Have Much Time After You Receive Your Acceptances To Make Your College Decision
Most colleges send their acceptance notices in the beginning of April, and typically, you only have until May 1 to select which college you’re going to attend. If you’re deciding between multiple colleges at this point, you’ll only have a few weeks to potentially take campus visits, compare the financial aid packages you’re offered, and do any necessary research to pick a college.
The more colleges that accept you, the more stressful and difficult these few weeks may be for you, if you’re still unsure about which college is best for you.
My Rules Regardless of the Number of Colleges You Apply To
Follow these guidelines, regardless of the exact number of schools you end up applying to.
Rule 1: Have at Least 2 Safety Schools
While I believe in maintaining optimism, it’s wise to prepare for a worst-case scenario. If you only get into your safety schools, you still want at least a couple of options to consider.
Stay safe with safety schools.
Rule 2: Don’t Apply to Any Colleges You Wouldn’t Want to Attend
Considering the time and cost associated with applying to college, it’s pretty pointless to apply to a college that you have no desire to attend. Even if your safety schools aren’t your top choices, they should be colleges that you’d be willing to attend.
Rule 3: Do the Majority of Your College Research Before You Apply
Before applying to college, you should have a good idea of what you’re looking for in a school. There are about 2,500 4-year colleges. Use college finders, college search websites, guidebooks, ranking lists, and campus visits to help decide which colleges you should apply to. Also, you can talk to your teachers, counselors, parents, current students, and alumni to help you narrow down your list of schools.
Rule 4: Try to Rank the Schools You Apply to Before You Receive Acceptances
After you apply, continue to do your research and try to rank the schools assuming you were offered admission to all of them. This will make the selection process easier. Once you receive your acceptances and review your financial aid packages (if you apply for need-based aid), you can factor in the cost of attendance for each school into your decision.
Rule 5: Be Realistic About Your Chances of Admission
Even though it’s perfectly fine to apply to reach colleges, at a certain point, a college may be too much of a reach, and you’d be better served to focus on schools that are more likely to admit you. Usually, if your GPA and standardized test scores are well below those of the average student at a very selective college (less than a 25% acceptance rate), your odds of gaining admission will be extremely low, and in some cases, virtually nil.
For example, in 2014, at Princeton University, only 2% of admitted students had a GPA below a 3.5. At Yale, out of high schools that provided class rank, 97% of admitted students graduated in the top 10% of their class.
You may still have a realistic chance if there’s something exceptional in your application. If you’re a world-class athlete, the child of a major donor, or you’ve overcome incredibly unique obstacles, you may still have a legitimate shot at admission with subpar grades and test scores.
Also, if your grades are on par but you have below average test scores for a selective college, you may still have a shot of getting in, especially if you’re from a disadvantaged or underrepresented background.
College List Examples
Here are a couple of hypothetical examples to illustrate some of the concepts that I explained above.
Josie wants to go to a very selective college in the South. She has a 3.9 weighted GPA and received a 2250 on the SAT. She doesn't want to be too far from her home in Atlanta, but she is willing to consider schools that are a little further away, but still in the South, if they're a really good fit. She qualifies for application fee waivers, but she has limited time to complete applications due to her job, school, and extracurricular activities. She doesn't know exactly what she wants to major in, but she's interested in science. How many schools should Josie apply to?
Well, Josie's options are immediately limited because she wants to go to a very selective college in the South that's strong in the sciences. Also, she would prefer to be close to Atlanta. Because she's focused on selectivity, she may want to consider applying to more schools, but her time is limited.
I would recommend that Josie apply to about 8 schools. Here would be a sample list of schools to apply to for Josie:
Reach Schools: Duke University and Vanderbilt University
Target Schools: Georgia Tech, Emory University, University of Virginia, College of William and Mary
Safety Schools: University of Georgia and Mercer University
George is from a small town in California. He knows he wants to major in agronomy or crop science. He is willing to go away for school, but he only wants to be on the West Coast or East Coast. He prefers a selective college, but that's not his biggest priority. George has a 3.6 weighted GPA and received a 28 on his ACT. He is not overly concerned with the cost or time needed to apply, but he does need financial aid and is worried about the cost of school. How many schools should George apply to?
George's major of interest and desire to be on one of the coasts severely limit his choices. In order to give him options and a chance to attend a selective school, I would recommend that George apply to about 7 schools. That would give him a better chance of getting into a selective school, and he can compare the financial aid packages he receives or opt to go to an in-state public school if he doesn't receive the aid he's hoping for. Here would be a sample list for George:
Reach Schools: UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Target Schools: University of Connecticut, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State
Safety Schools: CSU Fresno, University of Vermont
UC Davis arboretum (ludios/Flickr)
While there's no cap on the number of schools you can apply to, some students, especially those from affluent backgrounds who want to go to a selective college, can go overboard, applying to more than 20 or 30 colleges.
Personally, I would strongly discourage any student from applying to more than 15 colleges. If you apply to more than that, you’re probably going to make the application process too stressful and time-consuming. Also, most students who apply to more than 15 colleges are applying to at least a few schools that they wouldn’t want to attend.
If you do the necessary research before you apply, you should be able to limit your list of schools to 15 or fewer. Honestly, anything more than 10 feels excessive to me, but I understand that some students are capable of applying to more and want to give themselves more options.
On the other hand, some students, especially those who are low-income or the first in their families to go to college, often apply to too few colleges. If you don’t have very specific needs that are limiting your college options, and if selectivity is a factor in your college decision, I recommend applying to at least 6 schools.
Explore your options. Some students only apply to their local state school because that’s what’s expected of them. Many are completely unaware of all of the college options that are available to them. Consider state institutions, private colleges, and out-of-state schools.
Don’t forget to apply to safety schools. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but if you’re applying to 4-year colleges, you want to make sure that you have options.
Once you start your applications, review how to write a great college essay.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.