How Many Colleges To Apply To?

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More Students Are Applying to Dozens of Colleges, But Is That a Smart Strategy?

With colleges receiving more applications than ever before and admissions rates dwindling each year, many college-bound students are deciding to hedge their bets and apply to as many schools as possible in order to secure sufficient offers of admission. Just this week it was reported that seniors at a New Jersey high school applied to, on average, 45 colleges each, with one student applying to as many as 70. There have been other reports of students applying to dozens of colleges ­– sometimes 30, 40, even 50. But is this really beneficial? How much is too much when it comes to college applications?

The truth is, you can apply to too many colleges. Even the Common Application recognizes this, and only lets students apply to a maximum of 20 colleges. However, many students get around this by creating multiple Common Application accounts. But when it comes to making smart application choices, even 20 colleges is too many to apply to.

So what’s the magic number? It varies for each student (which is why it’s important to have a good college counselor!), but at IvyWise we advise students to apply to a maximum of 12-15 best-fit colleges. These colleges should be a mix of target, reach, and likely schools, any of which you’d be happy to attend.

Why place a limit on the number of colleges students should apply to?
When applying to college it’s important to do thorough research on the schools to which you’re applying. Students should become experts in each college, and it’s hard to learn everything you need to about a school in order to craft a compelling application if you’re also applying to 30 other institutions. In short – the higher the quantity of applications the lower their quality. You want a manageable college list in order to be able to do sufficient research and know that a school is a good-fit for you and how to properly articulate that in your essays.

Speaking of essays, most colleges on the Common Application have school-specific supplements, with additional questions and essays. Since each essay should be tailored to the school (again, this is where research is key!), a lot of time will be spent writing, editing, and revising essays. With 2-3 additional essays per school, this adds up to A LOT of writing if you’re applying to dozens of colleges.

Even if you start all these applications in the summer, with such a high volume of colleges to apply to, all of this essay-writing will spill over into senior year – a time when students should really be focusing on their grades and extracurriculars. Theoretically, a student’s senior year should be the most academically challenging, and since colleges look for students to improve grades or maintain already high marks, it’s important not to let other things like excessive application essays take away from time that should be spent on current schoolwork.

The college application process is already stressful enough without adding a layer of additional, and sometimes unnecessary applications. Students shouldn’t apply to colleges they don’t intend to enroll in just to rack up acceptances. Not only does this create more application stress, it also takes spaces away from students who really want to attend that particular college. It can also get very expensive. Application fees are not cheap and only those who need them most are able to get application fee waivers.

Instead, work with your college counselor to build a small, balanced list of colleges that you really want to attend. Focus your energy on doing comprehensive research on these colleges, identifying the academic and social aspects of the school where you’d be a good-fit. If you start early and plan ahead, you can get a majority of your applications done before the start of senior year, leaving you time to focus on your senior year courses. A smart application strategy like this will leave you with some great acceptances come spring, without having to submit dozens of applications in the process.

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