How Many Schools Should You Apply To?

Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

In this article, we will discuss the ideal number of schools you should apply to. We also review the frameworks students 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.

Each college application is a potential opportunity for your educational future. It’s tempting to apply to a large number of schools to give yourself plenty of options, but as college application costs continue to rise, how many applications is too many?

At Empowerly, 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.

How many?

We generally believe that students should apply to 10-20 US colleges, including state school systems (like the University of California system) 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 University of Miami, Emory, the Ivy Leagues, and a wide range of selective schools.

One of the most important levers families have in the admissions process is the number of schools to which we apply. 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.

A few warnings

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. So, when you’re asking yourself how many colleges should you apply to – keep this in mind.

There are also a few exceptions to the total number recommended. 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.

  • Target (match) schools: Your overall applications package is in line with average accepted student data for the college. It’s likely you will be accepted to some of your target schools.
  • Reach schoolsYour grades and test scores are on the low end or lower than the average accepted student scores, but close enough that you may have a chance at acceptance. Additionally, the most selective colleges should always be considered reach schools regardless of academic profile. For example, Harvard has an acceptance rate of 6%, which means you have a low chance of admissions regardless of your application.
  • How do I apply this to my list?

    Online tools are essential to better understand colleges and categorize them as safety, target and reach schools. By better understanding the admissions data of a college, you rank yourself as highly likely to be admitted (a safety school), somewhat likely to be admitted (a target school), or somewhat unlikely to be admitted (a reach school).

    You should rank your schools as safety, target and reach schools according to how your overall academic performance compares to school admissions data. This includes GPA, class rankings, and standardized test scores such as the SAT and ACT.

    What do you recommend?

    At Empowerly we recommend a medium risk approach. While you should have a secure number of safety schools, you shouldn’t limit your options when applying to colleges. For this strategy, you should aim to apply to around 10-15 schools. A medium risk college applications package should include around:

    • Safety schools – 4
    • Target schools – 4
    • Reach schools – 4

    This would look something like the chart below:

    Low RiskMedium RiskHigh Risk
    30% safety schools33% safety schools20% safety schools
    40% target schools33% target schools30% target schools
    30% reach schools33% reach schools50% reach schools

    Any fewer, and you risk not being admitted to a best-fit school. Any more, and you may not have the time to appropriately tailor each application as needed. Once you place schools as safety, target and reach, you can refine your application choices based on which schools are a fit for your interests and extracurricular activities.

    Generally, we suggest an even mix across the major 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.

    Does this work?

    While the medium risk approach has been successful for Empowerly’s students, with admissions rates over 3 times the national average, an essential part of each student’s success is personalizing their plan. A target school for one person might be a reach or safety school for another person, and vice versa. The most successful college application strategy includes understanding your application package in relation to college acceptance data and considering a range of schools. As a result, you will position yourself for acceptance to your best fit college.

    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. If you’re still stuck wondering how many colleges should you apply to, that’s okay; it’s a confusing process! For more tips and advice, the Empowerly community is here for you. We highly recommend book a consultation to learn how to find your best fit colleges below.

    Questions? Let us know!