How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?
Six... or so. That's the short answer. Depending on your circumstances, you may want to adjust this number up or down, but not too far down! Once you break down your list of schools, six won't seem like a lot.
A great number of students only apply to one or two schools, diminishing their chances of being accepted somewhere that is a good fit for them. Many students apply to far too many-twelve or more. This will probably spread your resources thin and reduce the quality of your applications.
The most important thing is that you do your research and use that information to narrow down your list. If you've done this with each school, you'll begin to get an idea of what your top choices are and how many you really see yourself attending.
Starting Your List
Even if you know you want to be a Golden Gopher and attend the University of Minnesota, even if your parents and their parents went there, you should still build a list of prospective schools and vet them. You may surprise yourself and discover that you actually want to attend a small liberal arts college like Bard or Lewis & Clark.
Begin your list with 15 to 20 schools and start looking into those. You should start to learn things about certain schools that you don't like. Your list will begin to get smaller and you'll increasingly have a better idea of what you're looking for in higher education.
As you learn more about what's out there, you can break your list into three basic categories: reach, match and safety. Start by looking up the school's profile. This will either be published on it's website or through a third party. Using the profile, you can see average grades and test scores of the students that school admits. Compare these with your own and you will know if this school is a little out of your league (reach), right up your alley (match), or a piece of cake, nothing to worry about (safety).
Be ambitious! Apply for a few schools that you think are a bit of a reach. Even if you're grades and/or test scores are a little low for them, something in your essays or letter of recommendation might resonate with admissions counselors in that particular school.
Remember, selective schools are selective for a reason. Make sure the ones you're targeting are a good fit for you. This will also mean that you're a good fit for them. If you're applying to an elite school, including the Ivy League, keep in mind that those schools are reaches for almost everyone.
Chances are, one of the match schools you apply to is likely to be where you wind up, so make sure you pick these schools carefully. Your #1 choice should probably be among this group. These are schools where your grades and test scores line up, more or less, with the average students they admit.
But don't just pick a school because it is a match. You want to dig deeper and find out why this match school is the place you want to spend the next four (or five) years. This is where other factors come into play, including location, specific departments, campus life, tuition and financial aid.
None of your safety schools will be your first choice, but you still want to make sure it's a place you really want to be. Your grades and test scores are above the school's average and you stand a good chance of being accepted, but does this school offer programs that interest you. Make sure your safety schools are still places where you will feel challenged and can grow.
If your high school grades are not stellar, perhaps some of your safety schools are community colleges or other two-year schools. More and more students are completing their general course requirements at community college and transferring credits to a four-year institution. After two years of exploring general classes, you'll have a chance to improve your grades, and you'll probably have a good idea of what you want to major in.
Quality Over Quantity
Finally, don't overdo it. You might think that applying to twenty schools will only increase your chances of being accepted to one. If this is what you're thinking, then you probably haven't considered how much time and money college applications can take up.
Each single application will cost between $40 and $60. Some elite schools even charge $90. All those fees add up quickly. Additionally, it's only feasible to visit a few schools if you're looking out-of-state. If you can afford to make campus visits, you'll want to do your research and choose those trips wisely.
There's no way around it, you have to spend quality time on each application. Even if the school uses the Common Application, you will have to tailor your essays and get letters of recommendation for each school. Investing time into each application and making sure they are done right is a much more sound approach.
There are so many colleges and universities out there, it can be overwhelming to think you're going to narrow it down to a handful and then pick just one. But if you do your research and really get specific, you'll find that the range of good choices quickly shrinks to a manageable number. Then you stand a much better chance of finding the school that's just right for you.