How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? Read This Guide

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With college application season upon us, many high school seniors (and their parents) are wondering: Which colleges should I apply to?

There’s no magic number, but most counselors recommend that students apply to 5-8 colleges.

When deciding how many schools you should apply to, there are a few factors to consider.


Applying to colleges can be expensive, so you may want to discuss a budget with your family before deciding how many schools you’ll apply to.

  • Application fees are typically $50-$75 per college. But the costs don’t stop there: You’ll also have to pay to send test scores.
  • Both the SAT and the ACT provide four free score reports, while students who take AP tests may send one free report listing all AP scores per year.
  • Additional reports cost $11-$15 per school.

Of course, applying to colleges is an investment, but you still want to be realistic about how many applications and score reports you can reasonably afford.

If your family qualifies based on financial need, you may also be able to waive application fees.


Applying to colleges is not only expensive but also time-consuming.

These days, many colleges use the Common Application (Common App), which means that you can apply to a variety of schools by filling out just one application.

However, many colleges also require supplemental essays in addition to the Common App essay.

  • Each additional essay may take you at least 2-3 hours to write. Plus, some colleges don’t accept the Common App, so you may need to fill out several applications.

As you finalize a list of schools, make sure you have a realistic idea of how much time it will take to apply.

Remember that if you try to fill out too many applications, you may end up rushing and submitting low-quality work.

Or you may find yourself anxiously juggling school, homework, extracurricular activities, and a too-large pile of college applications.

Early Decision

Are you planning to apply early decision anywhere? If so, you may only need to apply to one school. Early decisions are binding.

This means that if you are accepted by a college or university early decision, you must attend that school.

These decisions are sent out in December, before the deadline for most college applications.

Of course, you should have alternate colleges in mind in case you aren’t accepted early decision to your dream school.

If you do apply to other schools, you’ll need to withdraw these applications if you’re accepted early decision.


All of the factors above are reasons to apply to fewer colleges, but you should apply to more colleges if the schools on your list are particularly selective (such as Ivy League universities).

  • If you are determined to attend a university that only accepts a small percentage of applicants, you can increase the odds of acceptance to at least one selective university by filling out many applications.

If you do take this approach, be prepared to receive some rejection letters along with your acceptance(s).

General Rules

Regardless of how many schools you finally decide to apply to, there are a few general rules you should follow.

Do Your Research

Before applying to colleges, it’s essential to spend time researching schools. Make sure you only apply to schools that meet your needs.

For instance, ensure that each school has a strong program in the major(s) that you are interested in pursuing.

  • Decide whether you would feel more comfortable at a big or small school, and visit campuses to make sure you can envision yourself living and learning there.

College applications require a lot of time and money, so you shouldn’t apply anywhere you wouldn’t be genuinely happy to attend.

Be Realistic

While doing your research, you should also look into the test scores and GPAs of average accepted students. Be positive but realistic about your chances of admission to each school.

If your scores are well below the average numbers posted, particularly if the school is selective, your chances of acceptance are very low.

  • Princeton University, for example, sent acceptance letters to only 6.4% of applicants for the class of 2021 (1,991 of the 31,056 applicants).
  • 9% of applicants with a 4.0 GPA were accepted, while only 2.6% of those with a GPA below 3.5 received acceptance letters.
  • On the SAT, Princeton accepted 8.2% of students who scored a 1500-1600, while accepting only 1.2% of those who scored an 1100-1250.
  • No applicants who scored below this range were accepted.

If there is something particularly exceptional or unique about your application, you may still have a chance.

However, it’s important to make sure you are reasonable when applying to schools, and that you won’t be crushed if you receive a few rejections.

Apply to Some Reach Schools

Of course, you should apply to at least one or two reach schools.

These are schools that most likely won’t offer you admission based on your qualifications and their accepted applicant profiles.

These should be dream schools that, in an ideal world, you would most want to attend.

Even if you don’t match their usual profile, you might as well still apply and see what happens!

Apply to Some Target Schools

You should also apply to 2-3 target schools.

  • These are schools that you like and have a decent chance of being admitted to based on your qualifications.

Although the reach schools may be your top choices, there should still be one or two target schools that you would be thrilled to attend. Perhaps you visited campus and felt at home, or maybe they have a strong program in your field of interest.

Whatever the reason, these should be schools you would be pleased to attend if your reach schools don’t offer admission.

Apply to At Least Two Safety Schools

It’s also essential to apply to at least two safety schools.

These are schools that you are almost certain will send you an acceptance letter.

You want to be positive during admission season, but it’s also important to have a backup plan.

  • An acrobat wouldn’t perform without a safety net, and a high school senior shouldn’t apply to colleges without a few safety schools.

Your safety schools will likely be your last choices.

At the same time, try to find safety schools that you would be reasonably happy to attend.

If the reach schools and target schools don’t work out, you don’t want to be left without any college options at all.

Rank the Schools

During or immediately after the application process, it’s a good idea to rank the schools on your list.

  • Which school do you most want to attend?
  • Which school do you least want to attend?

This will make the decision process easier as the acceptance letters start rolling in.

Once decisions are sent out, you won’t have too much time to decide.

Deciding where to attend college is a lot of pressure, so planning in advance will make choosing less stressful.

Once you receive financial aid packages or scholarships from schools, too, then you can also factor cost into your decision.

Part 2: Ask Yourself These Questions

1. Does this school have a strong program for my intended major?

This is the most important consideration as you search for the best college for you.

  • Check to see which schools have the strongest or most renowned programs in the major of your choice.

If the major is still undecided, list your top three areas of interest, and try to find a school that is considerably strong in all three.

Some schools may not even offer the program you want, so it’s crucial to ensure that the school you select has the correct program and seems to excel in this area.

2. What’s the average student-to-faculty ratio?

You may also want to find information about the average student-to-faculty ratio in each class.

  • While you are still taking general education courses, it’s likely that you may be in classes with 100 or more students.

However, as the time comes for more advanced courses, you’ll want a school with relatively small class sizes.

This will allow you to get more individualized attention and assistance.

In addition, it will give you the opportunity to build relationships with professors, which can lead to glowing letters of recommendation for graduate school programs or important connections within your field.

3. Does the faculty have a good reputation?

Of course, the student-to-faculty ratio doesn’t mean much if the faculty isn’t top notch.

Ideally, you want to attend a school that is known for having excellent professors who are considered to be experts in their field.

  • Do professors have published books and doctorate degrees in their subjects?

You’ll also want to investigate how often courses are taught by actual professors vs. teacher assistants or graduate students.

  • It’s unreasonable to expect that you will always be taught by a full-fledged professor, but you do want to ensure that you are getting the best education possible from the most knowledgeable and qualified experts.

It’s also a good idea to check student ratings and reviews. Are professors approachable? Do they answer student questions and help students learn and succeed?

4. What’s the total enrollment at the college or university?

In order to find the right college for you, you have to ensure that it’s a place where you feel comfortable.

The quality of education is very important, but you won’t be able to focus on your studies or adjust well to life at college if you don’t like the overall atmosphere.

  • One consideration is whether the college is large or small. Do you want to attend a big, bustling school, or learn in a more intimate setting?

You can find enrollment numbers for any college or university online, but you’ll also want to walk around campus to see how you feel about the number of students milling about and if you feel that you could be comfortable as one of them.

5. When you’re visiting during the college search, do you notice happy students?

For the same reasons, you’ll want to find out if students are happy at any college or university you’re considering.

  • Do students feel supported?
  • Are they able to find a comfortable balance between school and life?

Most college review websites offer rankings or statistics on overall student happiness at a variety of colleges and universities.

You can also ask current students if they like the school and if they feel that they and a majority of their friends and classmates are happy.

6. Is the college in a big city or small town?

You should also consider if you want to attend school in a big city or a small town.

  • Are you more comfortable in an urban environment or a rural setting?
  • Would you prefer to live somewhere with a college town feel?

When you visit colleges, spend some time checking out the surrounding area as well.

Is this somewhere you will be comfortable and happy?

Finding the right college also means finding the right four-year home.

It’s also best if the city or town is one where you would be happy living long-term if you happen to land the perfect job.

7. Is tuition within your budget?

If money is a concern, find a good college that’s also affordable. If tuition is extremely expensive, is it likely that you could earn scholarship money to attend the school?

Does the school significantly raise tuition each year? If this is the case, it’s difficult to calculate how much four years of tuition will cost, although you can anticipate that it’ll be more expensive than the school’s current rates.

  • For some students, their dream college is worth taking out extensive student loans, especially if they’re anticipating landing a high-paying job after graduation.

However, this is certainly something to discuss with your parents in order to find the right college.

8. Is dorm life to your liking?

If possible, it’s a great idea to tour the student dorms or, better yet, find a friend or acquaintance who will let you visit.

  • Are dorms air conditioned?
  • How many people will share a bathroom?
  • Are the dorms affordable?

Do you need a quiet environment for studying or sleeping?

If so, does this school provide the necessary environment, or are the dorms loud party scenes?

These are all questions to consider, because the dorm will be your home for quite a while, and it’s likely to be the place where you do a great deal of your academic work.

9. Is the school close to home?

For some students and families, the perfect school is worth the distance, but for others, distance is a key factor in finding the right college.

Do you want to explore somewhere far away from home, or do you prefer somewhere that is within easy driving distance?

Is it important that you are able to go home on weekends? Are you likely to feel overwhelmed and homesick if you’re too far away?

10. Does the school itself have a good reputation?

Check how well the school ranks academically.

Is it a name that potential employers will recognize and respect?

This isn’t always a factor in finding a good job after college, but attending a renowned school can help make the hiring process easier.

  • Does the school have a proven track record of producing successful alumni?
  • Does it seem like a place that will help you reach your fullest potential and become a success in your field?

Although answering these questions is a major step in finding the right college for you, we also highly recommend visiting a few of your top colleges.

Walking around campus, talking to students, and visiting popular spots at the school can help you determine if the college “feels” like a place you can live, learn, and succeed.

Conclusion: How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

There’s no magic number for the number of colleges you should apply to, but there are some general guidelines.

Apply to 5-8 colleges.

  • If the schools you’re interested in are extremely selective, then you may want to fill out more applications, but going over 15 isn’t recommended.
  • Remember that college applications require time and money, and don’t overdo it.

Do your research and select at least 1-2 reach schools, 2-3 target schools, and 2-3 safety schools.

This gives you a chance of getting admitted to your dream school while ensuring that you’re still accepted to a reasonably good college or university.

You can also rank these schools in advance. That way, you’ll find it easier to decide where to go as the acceptance letters start rolling in.

By following these guidelines, you can help make the college application process much less stressful.

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