How many colleges to apply to?

The number of schools to apply to will depend on a variety of factors. You’ll often hear that 8 is a good number to shoot for. 

A general rule of thumb is somewhere between 6 and 10:

At least

  • 2 safeties
  • 2 matches
  • 2 reaches
  • 1 rolling admission, if wanting a quick answer

There are several pieces to this puzzle--fit, affordability, and acceptance. You and your student need to choose how they fit together.

It’s important to cast the net wide enough to ensure snagging at least one school that meets all 3 criteria, while not overwhelming the student with essays and applications.

1. What’s your budget?

The cost of applying is not insubstantial. Almost every school has an application fee, generally from $50 to $100. However, note that your student is eligible for four college application fee waivers if she took the SAT or an SAT subject test with a fee waiver. All Common Application schools accept fee waivers, but other colleges may not. Check a particular school's policy here.

Don’t forget to also factor in cost of tests, test prep, and campus visits.

While this is a small amount relative to the tens of thousands that you might spend on tuition, it does add up quickly.

See Financial aid.

2. What’s your student’s major?

If the intended major is biology, there are hundreds of schools to choose from. If it’s exobiology, there are only a handful.

If the prospective major is highly competitive, your student might consider applying to a greater number of schools. This can help you ensure that she’s admitted to at least one college in her program of choice.

Your student can also speak with admissions officers to gain a sense of how competitive she will be for entry to a particular college or major. If her application isn’t ideal given the competitiveness of the major, she may want to apply to a larger number of schools. If she is competitive, she may choose to reduce the number she applies to.

See What's a "safety," "match," and "reach"?

3. How much time does your student have to spend on the applications?

College apps almost always require essays. Some require as many as 5 separate essays! Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of overlap in essay prompts between schools. In other words, a student can’t simply reuse the essay he wrote for Spiffy School’s application on Ultimate University’s app. My son applied to 9 schools—1 of which required no essays—and he ended up writing 24 distinct essays.

It’s better to spend enough time to make a quality application to a few schools than to send in hastily written applications to a bunch of schools. It’s quality and research that counts, not quantity.

4. Reevaluate as you go.

As your student begins applying, keep a check on the quality of the applications. At some point, a student may run out of steam. From the final list of schools, start with the schools with the earliest deadlines. Next, go in order of desire. If your student is *done* by the sixth application, be sure that the seventh or eighth school on the list is one that she’ll be comfortable dropping.

Remember that there is a cost in time, money and stress when sending out applications. The key to success lies in striking a balance between the factors discussed above.