“How many colleges should I apply to?” College-bound high school students and young adults must weigh this question as they work their way through the application process. Applying to attend too many could be a waste of time and money. Submit too few college applications, however, and you might wind up without any backup options.
Ultimately, “There is no ‘right’ answer here,” says Scott Jaschik, editor of college news site Inside Higher Ed. “That number varies based on students' interests, finances, and much more.”
There is no hard and fast number of prospective colleges every student should shortlist, but most college admissions experts recommend applying to at least five and up to nine colleges.
College applications are typically broken down into three categories: safety, target, and reach schools. Applying to a college in each category ensures that a student can find the right balance between schools that are sure bets and those that are a bit of a stretch.
Here’s a breakdown of how many applications you should submit, according to the college admissions experts we spoke to:
- 2-3 “safety” schools: A safety school is a college to which you’re applying because you’re confident you meet the requirements to be admitted.
- 2-3 “target” schools: A target school is a college that you have about a 50-50 chance of getting into because your grades and standardized test scores are in line with the college’s averages for admission.
- 2-3 dream or “reach” schools: Include colleges you’d love to attend but that have admission standards or costs that seem like a stretch for you. It’s still possible that you could be admitted or offered enough student aid to make attending your dream college a reality—and that’s a chance worth taking.
Following these guidelines can help you balance the demands of the application process with your educational goals.
With the average application fee at $43, according to U.S. News, the cost of applying to colleges can add up. On top of that, applications require extensive effort and time to complete and submit. There’s no sense in wasting time and money applying to colleges that simply aren’t a good fit, to begin with.
Many colleges will waive application fees for students with financial need. Check with the college’s admissions office to see if they have a process for approving fee waivers, or submit this application fee waiver form from the National Association of College Admission Counseling with your application.
A big part of deciding how many colleges you should apply to is figuring out which colleges you should apply to. That starts with researching and vetting schools to find those that match your needs and goals.
“It’s good to be able to do that pre-screening as you go into the fall of your senior year” or begin the application process, according to Gregg Cohen, president of Campus Bound, a Massachusetts-based college counseling company. That way, “you’re confident you have some good choices ahead of you,” he says.
These are some key questions to weigh as you research schools and narrow your list of prospective colleges:
1. Can You See Yourself at This College?
First off, don’t waste money or time applying to colleges you’re not actually interested in. “The most important thing, no matter if the school is a reach or safe school—you want to be able to see yourself there,” Cohen says.
As you research schools, consider what kind of college experience you’re looking for, and your educational and career goals.
Weigh whether you’d want to attend a large campus with tens of thousands of students, or a smaller school with more personal instruction. Determine the college’s educational philosophy and on-campus culture to get a feel for whether you’d fit in. Look for colleges that offer the major you’re interested in and have strong programs for that area of study.
Finally, take a look at any statistics the college reports on outcomes for students of that school, such as graduation rates, employment rates, and starting salaries. The U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard is also a smart tool for researching colleges and their students’ outcomes.
2. What Is Your Chance of Admission?
Your academic performance and test scores top the list of factors colleges consider when evaluating your application. Schools are most interested in your grades, curriculum rigor, and scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT.
Understanding what your prospective colleges are looking for from applicants can help you identify which you could choose as safety, target, and reach schools. Your guidance or college counselor can also help you gauge which schools are a good match for your academic history and performance.
Cohen advises checking with your high school to see if it collects data about how graduates with different grades and standardized test scores have done in terms of getting into different colleges If it does collect this information, you can see how you compare to those students who got in.
3. How Much Will This College Cost?
Lastly, you’ll want to look ahead past admission to attendance—specifically, the cost of attending college.
“You want to give yourself financial safe schools, as well,” Cohen advises. “That would be a school that has a lower price tag, to begin with, or that is more likely to give you financial aid or scholarships.”
Figuring out what college will cost isn’t as simple as looking at the reported price tag. Out-of-pocket costs can vary widely, thanks to differences in the aid and assistance each student is offered to help pay for school.
Cohen suggests looking at your and your family’s financial situation to assess how much you can afford to pay for college. Learning about student aid can help you estimate how much financial aid you can count on, from grants and scholarships to student loans.
“Even if you project your costs, sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised or you might be disappointed,” Cohen says. “Ultimately you won’t know for sure until you’ve been accepted, so it’s good to still have choices so that you know that one falls within your budget.”