In this article, we will discuss the ideal number of colleges a student should apply to and frameworks they can use to guide their decisions. Many high school seniors struggle to figure out which of the 4,000 US colleges they should add to their list, and coupled with the fees of applying and the time it takes to write essays, it is a stressful process.
At Empowerly (empowerly.com), we have helped hundreds of students through this process and have general guidelines to help you, whether you are a student, parent, educator, or someone interested in US admissions.
We generally believe that students should apply to 10-20 US colleges, including state school systems like the UCs as 1 college. This is more than the average, but many of our students are aiming for Top 100 colleges. The Top 100 includes schools like UMiami, Emory, the Ivy Leagues, and a wide range of selective schools.
One of the most important levers we have in the admissions process is the number of schools we are applying to. By diversifying our risk and lowering the chance that we get rejected to all schools, just applying gives us a greater chance of getting into one of our reach schools.
Of course, there are fees associated with applying. Many colleges offer fee waivers for eligible students, and fees range from free to about $99 to apply.
If students are applying to more selective schools with sub 20% acceptance rates, we generally recommend they apply to 15-20 universities. This assumes they are not legacy applicants or recruited athletes.
Another exception to this guideline is if the student gets in Early Action or Early Decision to a school. We highly recommend that students apply early to a college. The first one can eliminate the number of applications we have to submit, and the second one does that for us definitively.
Why So Many?
Many counselors, students, and parents often ask why we recommend applying to more schools than the average. It is one of the biggest levers we have as an applicant to increase our chance of getting into a top school, and it helps us diversify our risk.
The downsides – more time and more fees – can be mitigated with proper planning, and fees can be waived. This method might not be for all students, but particularly for those that fit the “academic mold” without a recruited sport, this is a good approach. Most students applying to college fall in this bucket.
How Many In Each Category?
At Empowerly, we like to think of schools in four buckets – safety, target, reach, and high reach. Each of these has a certain number of schools in it, corresponding to the student’s risk appetite, their scores, and the number of schools in their desired profile.
Generally, we suggest an even mix across the four buckets, and often with a slight weighting to the target, reach, and high reach schools. Remember that a high reach for one student may not be the same for another. It depends on your grades – not everyone is applying to Harvard or Stanford or should apply.
In this article, we cover some basics on how many schools to apply to, to consider applying early to college, and breaking down your list into four key categories. We have many posts on this subject at our blog. You can visit and learn more at our website, or talk to a real person with a free consult below!