How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

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Experts typically suggest students apply to four to eight schools, however there are a few things worth considering to find your ideal number.

[Featured image] Woman sits are her laptop in her living room and works on her college application. She has a pen in hand and is writing notes while doing research.

When it comes to college application decisions, there are very few “shoulds.” That being said, many experts will generalize best practices to determine what is likely to be most suitable for the most people.

When it comes to the number of colleges you should apply to, many experts suggest students submit four to eight applications, though some experts recommend submitting as many as 15 applications.

Regardless of expert opinion, your college decisions depend highly on your wants and needs. As you think about the number of colleges you want to apply to, some factors worth thinking about are:

  • Your personal preferences

  • School profile

  • Application costs

In this article, we’ll discuss how you might consider each of these factors to determine the number of college applications you feel comfortable submitting.

How many colleges can you apply to?

Although experts often recommend applying to four to eight schools, there is no strict limit to the number of colleges you can apply to. If you’re applying through the Common App, you can apply to up to 20 schools on a single profile. However, no higher regulating body tracks your total application submissions, so you can apply to whatever number of colleges feels right for you.

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Creating your college list

It’s generally good to apply to a small range of universities to increase your chances of getting into the best program for you. One study from a Harvard University professor determined that students who apply to four schools rather than three get into more selective programs, ultimately leading to better long-term financial outcomes [1].

Of course, applying to more schools implies additional time and financial commitments, so it’s important to be thoughtful about the number of colleges (and which colleges) you ultimately apply to.

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As you create your college list, ask yourself three questions:

  • What schools do you want to go to?

  • What schools can you feasibly get into?

  • How much money are you comfortable spending on college applications?

Let’s take a closer look at each question:

Your college preferences

The only schools worth applying to are the schools you want to attend. Understanding what you want in a college can enable you to generate a list that aligns with your desired outcomes.

Think about the educational and social experiences you hope to have in college and the type of schools that can offer those opportunities. For example, if you want to learn computer science, you may want to apply to schools with strong computer science programs.

Beyond program offerings, think about the types of environments that can best accommodate your living needs. Earning your associate degree typically takes about two years, while earning your bachelor’s degree can take four or five years. Consider your living needs over the next couple of years. Perhaps you want to remain close to home, or you need a school with accessible childcare options.

Prioritizing your college wants and needs is one way to narrow your college list to include only the schools that offer what you’re looking for.

Target, safety, and reach schools

Once you have a list of schools that align with your desired characteristics, take a closer look at the profile of each school’s incoming class. Many universities will publish information such as the SAT and ACT score ranges, high school GPA, and various demographics of the first-year students. You can often find this on the school’s website, or by searching the university’s name and “incoming class profile.”

Using this information, you can guess the general likelihood that you’ll be admitted into each of your desired colleges. Organize your list by your reach, target, and safety schools.

  • Reach schools are the schools that you’d like to go to if money and qualifications were no issue.

  • Target schools are the schools where you squarely fit within the average grades and test score ranges of the previously admitted students.

  • Safety schools are the schools you feel confident you’ll be admitted to based on your qualifications.

Experts often recommend applying to a mix of reach, target, and safety schools.

Your application budget

The primary limiting factor in determining the number of colleges you should apply to may be your application budget. For each school, you can anticipate paying an application fee plus a fee to send your entrance exam score—either the SAT or ACT—to the school.

Application fees vary significantly from school to school. US News & World Report calculated that the average application fee across 889 universities was around $45, but some fees are as high as $100 [2].

Regarding exam score fees, the SAT and ACT allow students to send their scores to four schools for free when they register for the exam. If students want to submit score reports to additional schools, that will cost $12 for each SAT score report and $16 for each ACT score report. Remember that it also costs money to sit for the exams—$60 for the SAT and $63 for the ACT.

These fees can add up quickly. Assuming you only sit for one entrance exam, applying to four colleges—generally the minimum recommended number—can cost $240. (That’s $45 per application, plus $60 to sit for the entrance exam.)

Think about how much money you are willing and able to spend on your college applications, and then calculate how you can distribute that budget across your list of desired schools.

Application fee waivers

Many schools offer waivers for students who want to apply but can’t afford the application fee. Likewise, you may be able to qualify for an entrance exam fee waiver. Find more information about fee waivers through College Board or Common App.

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Managing your college applications

Making your college list is among the first steps toward applying for college. From there, it can help to stay organized so that you don’t miss any important deadlines and can submit applications that you feel confident in and proud of.

Here are some tips for managing your college applications:

  • Track important dates: Marking a calendar with key dates and deadlines can help to guide your focus on the most critical or immediate tasks. Some dates you may want to be aware of are your entrance exam dates, when applications are due, when FAFSA is due, and when decisions come out. You also may want to impose deadlines upon yourself, like when to ask for your letters of recommendation, finalize your essay topics, and finish filling out the application form.

  • Use the Common App: The Common App is a standardized application form many schools use to help students streamline their application process. Instead of filling out eight applications for eight colleges, if all eight of your schools accept the Common App, you can condense your efforts to one application. Some schools will have supplemental questions alongside the Common App, but using this platform can still be a time saver.

  • Repurpose essays: Although many schools will include essay questions unique to their application, you may notice some common themes as you begin writing your essays. As long as you stay on topic and keep each individual essay prompt in mind, it’s okay to repurpose some aspects of your essay across applications. (Of course, you never want to repurpose work that isn’t your own.)

Getting started

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Article sources

1. Harvard University. “Small Differences That Matter: Mistakes in Applying to College,  https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/pallais/files/smalldifferences.pdf.” Accessed September 13, 2022.

2. US News & World Report. “Colleges With The Highest Application Fees,  https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/colleges-with-the-highest-application-fees.” Accessed September 13, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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