How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Reader John J. read my earlier article about the increased number of applications colleges are receiving, in which I reveal that the average student applied to more than a dozen universities this season. He asks a question I hear frequently from students:

It seems like colleges are becoming more selective with their applicants because each of them are receiving a lot more applications each year. Does this mean I should apply to even more colleges? My counselor recommended that I apply to 3 reach schools, 3 good matches, and 3 safeties, but I'm afraid that 9 isn't enough. Does this sound like a good number? Can schools see how many colleges you've applied to? Do they care?

Hi, John. Great questions. I'll start by answering your last ones first.

Yes, colleges are able to see how many schools you have applied to. They can do this by looking at your FAFSA -- the form you filled out for federal financial aid. Because you have to list all of the universities you may potentially attend on the form, admissions officers have figured out that looking at your list will reveal how many and which other colleges you are applying to. And, yes, some do care.

Choosing the number of students to accept in any given year is a difficult art for admissions committees. They must make sure to accept enough students to make up for the fact that many will decide to attend a different school, but not so many as to over-enroll the university. As a result, they like to minimize their risk as much as possible. They do this by selecting qualified applicants who also seem likely to attend the college. If an overqualified student applies to their school and also to 20 others, the admissions officers may decide that the applicant is not worth the risk and deny their application. This is why some students experience rejection from colleges they thought were "safeties".

Put yourself in their position: would you ask a girl out on a date if you were almost certain she would say 'no'? A college doesn't want to take that risk either.

Your counselor gave you good advice. However, applying to 9 colleges should be the absolute maximum. I generally recommend about 5-7: 2-3 reaches, 2 good fits, and 1-2 safety schools. However, you have to be realistic in your categorization of colleges. In other words, Harvard is never a 'safety' no matter how good of a student you are.

Stick to those magic numbers and you are very unlikely to be penalized for over-applying. It might be tempting to send out tons of applications, especially since it's easy to apply online to most universities. However, resist this temptation. Pick the 5-7 colleges that interest you the most and focus your attentions on them. Your time is better spent refining those specific college essays anyway.

Good luck!

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I would apply to a gazillion colleges because the Common App makes it possible with one app. Colleges accept students all the time who don't call or visit the campus, but have the profile they're looking for. So you get rejected at a few. So what? Qualified tudents get rejected by schools they've fallen in love with all the time.

I don't see any value in limiting students to a specified number of colleges. In fact, it's counterproductive. More college acceptances in a high numbers game generates 2 advantages: increase of the possibility of being accepted somewhere, and working with more leverage to get more financial aid by working several school offers against each other's.

The dating analogy: if the girl (college) gave you the impression that she wanted to go out with you (student), you can continue to make all the right moves to make her think you'll ask right up to the last minute. This academic foreplay is a game students can play like a Stradavarius if they know how to play.

- Coach, 03/23/08 at 4:50 am

Hi Coach! Thanks for your response.

Even with unlimited time and money, I'm still not sure I'd recommend that students apply to as many universities as possible. Colleges are jealous, and don't like to know that they are simply one-in-forty of the schools applied to. They have a tendency to ask about other colleges in interviews. And even if a student is not interviewed, they will find the same information on a student's FAFSA. Universities know the other schools a student is considering, and would not risk their matriculation statistics if the number is too high.

Further, time and money are not unlimited. Even with the common application form, almost all colleges have supplemental paperwork they require (which often take an hour or more to complete, especially if additional essays are needed), and charge individual fees in the realm of $50-$100 each. There's no reason to waste both time and money applying to a college a student knows he or she would not want to attend.

Finally, using other acceptances as leverage in financial aid bargaining worked a few years ago, but is becoming much less effective now. With the number of applications rising substantially, and with college finances stretching thinner each year, universities have their pick in a large field of very qualified applicants, many of whom would accept even a meager financial aid package. Many students who ask for a financial aid boost will hear, "we're sorry, but we have reached our cap on financial assistance," even with leverage.

There is something to be said about "academic foreplay," as you mentioned, but even a classical-lover's ear will grow tired of a Stradivarius if bowed for too long and by too many swooning lovers.

- Brian Cavner, 03/23/08 at 11:19 am

Jealosy implies that LOVE is at stake; each college wants to feel the l-u-v. Admission offices, to my understanding, are not informed by their financial aid office what colleges are listed on the FAFSA, and the Common App may ask about other colleges, but the student isn't required to answer that question.

Time isn't wasted on applying to other colleges. My student needs leverage from other collleges he has no intention of attending, and he will write these appeals in just the manner you suggest - to communicate the l-u-v. Your suggestions in this regard of tact and humility were terrific, btw.

My student will let each college believe that they are the one and only, and they won't detect otherwise. It's all in how you play the game, and there's no way I'm disclosing how my student will do it.

- Coach, 03/24/08 at 8:48 am

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