When it comes to the college application process, it can seem like more — more extracurriculars, more teacher recommendations, more AP® and honors classes — is better.

Whether or not that’s actually true, it’s an argument that would also insist that the more colleges you apply to, the more success you’ll have at getting accepted, right? Not exactly.

While it’s smart to have a range of schools across categories like reach, target and safety on your application list, there’s a point at which adding to your list becomes unnecessarily expensive, time-consuming, stressful and a possible hindrance to your chances of admission. Unfortunately, there is no “just right” number of colleges to apply to, but these guidelines can help inform your process.

The Numbers

While it may seem like everyone in your senior class has accumulated a stack of apps 20 deep, double digits are not the norm. In fact, according to a National Association for College Admission Counseling study, only about one-third of students apply to seven or more schools. That said, if you have your sights set on competitive schools, adding a few more to the mix is advisable.

“I advocate coming up with a quality list of about 6 to 12 schools, because schools want to see that you’ve actually done your research and know about the institution,” says Danny Ruderman, a college admissions counselor and the author of Top 100 Answers to Your College Admissions Questions. “Even if the school accepts the common application, many have supplemental application materials that include short answers about why you want to go to that particular school. If you have too many on your list, your answer will likely sound vague, and it won’t give the college incentive to accept you. I’d rather you truly be excited about everywhere you are applying.”

Maia Goita, 19, a student at Baruch College, agrees. “I applied to six schools and I think it was the right call for me,” she says. “I didn’t want to apply to more with all the required additional essays, and I didn’t want to spread myself too thin and produce writing that was anything less than my best.”

“There’s a misconception that applying to reach schools is like entering a lottery, and applying to eight increases your chances of getting into one.”

– Bari Meltzer Norman

The Right Mix

“While I never give a specific number, I’m all about making sure students have a healthy mix of schools on their list,” says Greg Kaplan, a college admissions strategist and the author of Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting Into a Highly Selective College. “That includes two or three safety schools, which I help students choose by looking at data. For example, if a school accepts 40% of applicants, and a student’s GPA and test scores would likely put them in the top 25% of potential applicants to that school, that would be considered a safety.” Meanwhile, a target school would be one where your student profile — including GPA and test scores — fits well within the median range or 50th percentile of students accepted the year prior. And a reach is a school where your scores may fall more than a hair below those of the average accepted student last year.

Often, students end up with lists that are too top-heavy, says Bari Meltzer Norman, owner of Expert Admissions, a college admissions counseling service based in New York City. “There’s a misconception that applying to reach schools is like entering a lottery, and applying to eight increases your chances of getting into one,” she explains. “It doesn’t work that way. Each is its own contest, and it’s better to focus more heavily on target schools you have a better likelihood of getting into.” These schools are ones that admit students with GPAs, test scores and interests in line with yours and where you can genuinely see yourself.

The Edit

“I did a lot of research in my sophomore and junior years and knew I wanted to go to a private college on the West Coast, preferably a Christian one,” says Delaney Clark, a student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. “I applied to ten schools, all in Washington and California, and got into nine. But, looking back, I almost feel like it was too many. I was grateful I had choices, but I also felt overwhelmed.”

In general, it’s a good idea to winnow down your list by the summer after your junior year, at which point you’ll hopefully have had a chance to visit schools (or at least spend a few hours on their websites). You should be able to confidently subdivide your list into:

  • 1–2 reach schools
  • 3–5 target schools
  • 2–3 safety schools

And even if you’re pretty confident about which school you want to go to — perhaps you plan to attend a state school that automatically accepts in-state residents with a certain GPA or test scores — it may still be worth your time to consider adding a few other appealing options, just in case you change your mind.

“I had always thought I wanted to pursue cosmetology, and it wasn’t until late in my senior year of high school that I realized I even wanted to go to a four-year college,” says Madeleine Page, a Texas State University student. “At that point, because I was so late in the game, I only applied to one school, but looking back, I wish I had chosen at least three.”

Remember: You Have to Choose One

Whether you ultimately submit 3 or 13 applications, experts agree that what matters most is that you feel fired up about each of the schools on your list. “I’ve seen students who just want to get as many acceptances as possible,” says Rhea Watson, a coach for My Scholarship Solutions, a scholarship counseling firm in Las Vegas. “That’s fine, but remember, you can only choose one college, and too many acceptances can make the final decision more complicated than it has to be.” So relax (as much as possible) and rest assured that if you have a strong list that aligns with your interests and a strong application, quality is far more important than quantity.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017.

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