How many colleges should you apply to?

While seniors technically have a few more days before they have to make their final decisions, it’s ok to let them go and start focusing on current juniors and sophomores who are still planning for their admissions season, not ending it. One of the most basic, and common, questions about the whole experience is how many colleges to plan on applying to. Most years there’s a news story about someone who is accepted to all eight of the Ivy League schools—this year it’s someone near me in the Houston area—and there’s also usually a story about someone accepted to a large number of universities: Antoinette Love was accepted to 115 this spring. Are these role models for you to follow? How many colleges should you apply to?

The answer, of course, is…it depends. I wouldn’t advise anyone to apply to 115, and I don’t even think there are many good reasons to apply to all the Ivies. The right number for you depends on several things. It depends on the type of university program you’re looking for, it depends on your comfort for risk, it depends on how stressful a 12th grade you’re able to tolerate, and it depends on how strong a candidate you are. Instead of a single magic number, let’s look at several ranges of numbers and consider the reasons and drawbacks for applying within those ranges.

One. Really, this is the ideal. In a perfect world with a perfectly efficient process, every student would apply to one college, and all colleges would have a 100% acceptance rate. Nobody would bother applying to schools they’re not going to attend, and no school would bother denying anyone who is a good fit. We’re obviously not living in that perfectly efficient world, but many students apply to a single college. (This story is a few years old, but it indicates that a majority of students may only apply to one college.) Most students who apply to one college have a simple reason: they know where they want to go, and they’re confident they’ll be accepted. This group includes students who know for sure they’ll get in, because they’re applying to schools with a simple GPA + test score matrix that’s published on the school’s website. (Remember, while private universities with ridiculously low acceptance rates get all the headlines, most of the nation’s one to two million high school graduates each year go to a public college or community college near home.) The group also includes students who apply Early Decision to a school and are accepted. It also includes recruited athletes.

The drawbacks to applying to only one college are obvious: you better be right. To apply to a single school and for some reason not get accepted can be a major setback, if not downright disastrous. There are some things to do to make sure that disaster doesn’t happen. First, only be confident you’ll get accepted to a school if you’re truly guaranteed. If it’s a school with a simple formula, double-check that formula and make sure you really meet all the requirements. If you’re applying ED, make sure you have a back-up plan in case it doesn’t go the way you plan. You should not, no matter how good your grades or test scores are, look at a school’s overall acceptance rate and just assume you’ll be fine. If it’s between 80% and 99%, you’re probably right—but have a back-up plan. If the overall acceptance rate is under 50%, then there’s no guarantee and you should be applying to more than one school. If the acceptance rate is under 20%, then absolutely no one should assume there’s any chance of getting in.

Another drawback to applying to a single school is that you may be selling yourself short. if you’ve got a place where you’ll be happy and are sure you have a seat, that’s great. But you may want to spend some time exploring some other possibilities that are a little farther outside your comfort zone but may be life changing. It won’t take too much effort to apply to a few more and see what happens.

Two to five. This range used to be the norm, and it probably still ought to be the norm. One of the schools on the list needs to be a place you’re extremely confident you’ll get a spot—usually referred to as a safety school—and then you can apply to several others that may be more appealing to you but also riskier, either because you may not get accepted, you may not be able to afford it, or both. People who apply to two to five colleges have a clear sense of what they want, and there may not be a whole lot of places to get it. If you’re looking for a highly specialized major, want to stay in a particular city or region, or can only afford to go to college with a full scholarship, then two to five may be the perfect number.

The advantages of the two-five range is that you can push yourself into more of a “stretch” situation—which, again, can be life-changing in the best ways—than playing it safe with a single application. It’s a completely manageable number, even if they all have separate applications and aren’t on the Common Application. If you get accepted to more than one, then you get to compare competing offers, including financial aid offers. Even if you get accepted to five, that’s not too overwhelming a decision process in the spring when you’re comparing offers.

The drawback to applying to two to five colleges is that you may feel you wasted time, effort, and money if you only get accepted to one. That may sting, but it won’t last long.

Five to 12. This range has become the norm, and that makes sense. If you’re applying to schools with acceptance rates under 50%, then you understand that you can’t count on getting in to all of them, or even most of them. If you’re applying to this many, you still have to make sure that at least one of them is a school you’re very confident you’ll be accepted to. If you’re not sure you’ll get into a college with a 40% acceptance rate, then applying to ten schools with a 40% acceptance rate doesn’t change that. Everyone needs a safety, and a safety you’ll do well at.

This range is also normal for people who don’t have super-specific goals or desires. If you’re looking for a small- to medium-sized liberal arts college in or near a city, you’ve got plenty to choose from. If you want to go to a large university with a sense of school spirit and can major in accounting or biology, you’ve got plenty to choose from. So it makes sense to apply to ten of them and compare financial aid offers to get the best deal.

The problem with this approach, though, is that you might have the bad luck of too much success. If you apply to 12 and get accepted to four, you’ve got time to make a good decision. If you apply to 12 and get accepted to 12, then your spring semester gets really stressful. You’ll have too much information, too many offers that aren’t easily compared, too many choices to make among schools that all look a lot alike. It’s a good problem to have, I get that. But I’ve seen more high school seniors in tears from the stress of figuring things in the spring from too many options than from the stress of applications in the fall.

12-20. You’re probably overdoing it. There’s something going on that makes it difficult to narrow down your choices. Maybe you’re behind schedule and haven’t done enough research to know what you want, so you apply to too many schools that are all quite different. This happens all the time, but please understand that it’s one of the most time-consuming, stress-inducing, and expensive forms of procrastination out there. Or perhaps you just really don’t want to apply to a safety school. Your self-esteem can’t handle going to a school that hasn’t got a “good” reputation, so you apply to a whole lot of selective schools hoping that at least some will say yes. Maybe you’ve got a fear of missing out, and you’re not yet able to choose between small school or large school, Mid-west or East Coast, majoring in Applied Mathematics or Sociology. Maybe you don’t actually know what’s affordable, so you try to hit up as many places as you can for financial aid. You can cover all the bases with five to 12 applications and save yourself a lot of time and energy. Once you’re applying to this many schools, you’re either setting yourself up for a crazy-intense spring from too many acceptances or a major hit to your self-esteem from too many denials.

More than 20. Once you’re applying to this many schools—and I really hope you don’t—then there’s probably something emotional behind your numerous applications. Overcompensating for only applying to very selective schools, FOMO, lack of confidence, lack of direction, lack of guidance. There’s something going on beyond your applications, and it’s ok to admit that and get help. Some, not many but some, students just think it’s fun or impressive to get a lot of acceptances. Maybe you’ll be the one in the news next year! That’s fine, I guess, but I seriously doubt it’s worth the extra effort. If you have a lot of clothes, you can wear different things every day. If you have a lot of cars, you can drive a different one each day. If you have a lot of friends, you can hang out with different people every day. But if you have a lot of college acceptances? You still have to pick one and discard the rest. Just like your classmate who only applied to one college.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the monthly newsletter. 

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Zoe Herring.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.