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How Many Colleges Should Your Student Apply To?

Suzanne Shaffer


With college admissions becoming more and more competitive, it can be tempting to apply to as many colleges as possible. But is it wise or beneficial?

I was perusing a group discussion on Facebook a few weeks ago where a parent was asking for advice on how to apply to 40 colleges using the Common Application. I was surprised that most of the parents had found a work-around since the application will only allow you to apply to 20 colleges. Some had created multiple accounts for their student on the Common App website. Many suggested using alternate methods such as college-specific applications, the Universal Application, or the Coalition Application for the additional schools.

Not one parent raised the question that perhaps 40 was just too many.

If your student can’t narrow down their college list from 40 to a manageable number, you have some work to do. There is a reason the Common Application only allows a student to apply to 20 colleges — and quite honestly, that’s still too many!

If you do your homework, your student should be able to create a manageable list that fits them academically, socially, and financially.

What Should You Consider In Order to Narrow the List?

When deciding the number of schools to apply to, your student needs to balance what they expect in a college with other priorities that can impact their decision. Here are four reasons why:

1. Applying to college takes time.

Applying to college is a time-consuming process. Each part of the application takes time, and each school will most likely have different requirements. Your student can use the Common Application for basic information, but each individual school can have additional requirements or supplements (including extra essays).

Apart from the application itself, your student will spend time researching schools and gathering admission information. Add to that talking to college contacts, meeting with admissions officers, and making visits to show demonstrated interest and it really adds up.

Each college and the associated research and application can consume a large portion of your student’s time during junior and senior year when they are also busy with school and homework, extracurricular activities, social life, and possibly a part-time job. You can see why so many students are stressed during college application season if there are too many colleges on their list.

2. Application fees add up.

The obvious reason that might stop your student from applying to 40 colleges is the cost. The average application fee is $50, with elite colleges and universities charging $75 or more. Applying to 40 colleges would cost you a minimum of $2,000. Not many families have that kind of disposal income in today’s economy.

Fees for applying to college don’t stop here. Your student will also have to pay to take standardized tests and to submit their scores to colleges. They can send scores to four colleges for free, but they won’t be able to see their scores before sending them. If they want to see their scores before sending a score report to the college, it will cost $12 per college to send the SAT scores. Multiply that by 40 and you're looking at another $480.

Fee waivers are available for both application fees and test fees if you can demonstrate financial need but applying for this waiver will take some time and most won’t qualify.

3. Is the college worth your student's time?

Before applying to any college, you should help your student calculate the odds of acceptance. Check out the college’s GPA and SAT/ACT score requirements and compare them with your student’s record.

You can find admissions requirements on a college’s admissions page or using College Navigator. To save a bit of time, try using a college acceptance calculator to determine your student's chances of getting accepted into any school in the country.

If your student wants to focus on schools that are highly likely to offer them admission, they should apply to colleges where they'll be considered an exceptional applicant. An added benefit — those colleges are also more likely to offer merit aid to entice your student to accept an offer of admission.

However, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. My daughter applied to Boston University with scores and GPA below their average requirements and was offered a spot. The caveat was they did not offer her any financial aid apart from student loans. If we'd done our research, we might have crossed that school off our list because it was simply not affordable without financial aid.

4. Prioritize quality over quantity.

In my opinion, the number of colleges a student applies to isn’t as important as the quality. A good college list needs to be well-thought-out and researched.

A good college list should have three “fit” criteria: financial fit, academic fit, and personal/emotional fit. Once your student has a tentative list, ask if every school has all three criteria before finalizing the list.

  • Financial fit: Does the college fit into your family’s budget? If it doesn’t fit financially, cross it off the list. While you shouldn't rule out a college solely based on an unaffordable sticker price, you need to discuss up front what will happen if your student is accepted and doesn’t receive any financial aid.
  • Academic fit: Does the college fit with your student’s academic aspirations? This might seem like a no-brainer, but academic programs and majors offered should be a key factor in attending college. Cross the school off the list if it doesn’t fit into your student’s academic learning style. For instance, is your student looking for small class sizes and strong relationships with his professors? A big school won’t offer this. Do they want high-level research opportunities? In that case, larger universities may be a better choice.
  • Personal/emotional fit: Can your student picture themselves attending the college? When they visited campus, did it “feel” right, and did they have a rapport with the students they met? You might think college shouldn’t be an emotional decision, but it is. Your student will spend at least four years of their life there. If they don’t fit into the campus environment and culture, they'll be miserable.

Building a Manageable College Application List

Creating a manageable college list will help reduce application stress. Your student can organize the list into three categories:

  1. The Best Bets: The colleges in this category are schools that will put your student at the top of their applicant pool. This means an excellent chance of being admitted with some merit aid to entice your student. Four to six colleges should be sufficient in this category, giving your student some great options.
  2. The Sure Things: These are colleges/universities with high acceptance rates and low admission requirements. That means a guarantee of an offer of admission. But carefully consider the choices and make sure these are schools your student would want to attend. You might be surprised that these colleges will also offer a quality education and a place your student can call home.
  3. The Dream Team: Your student’s dream colleges should be a reach but not impossible. These schools typically have low acceptance rates and tough application requirements. It’s perfectly acceptable to dream, but when it comes to creating a manageable college list, practicality and logic should be the guides. One or two schools in this category will be all your student needs, and don’t forget to measure them against the fit criteria.

What additional information does your student need to populate a manageable list and where can they find it?

Two good sources for college statistics are College Navigator and College Data. These two resources will help your student make an informed college choice. Numbers aren’t everything, but consider these important statistics when you are looking at schools:

  • Financial aid percentages: If you need financial aid, a college with a low percentage of merit aid should be eliminated from your list.
  • Acceptance rates: Look for colleges with high acceptance rates. Better yet, look for the colleges where your student would be a top applicant in the applicant pool. This translates into more merit aid in the financial aid package.
  • Faculty-student ratio: If your student is looking at a big school, consider the size of the program that interests them. They may get more personalized attention in a major with fewer students, or an honors college within the university if that's an option.
  • Freshman retention rate: If schools your student is considering have a low freshman retention rate, there’s a reason. Some colleges do a great job of taking care of their first-year students; some don’t.
  • Graduation rate: When you and your student research a college, look up the graduation rates. Low rates could be a red flag.
  • Average indebtedness: If average student indebtedness is high, and you need financial aid, this college might not make the final list.
  • Percentage of students employed after graduation: Colleges with a high percentage of unemployed graduates should be avoided, especially by students who need to incur student loan debt.
  • Rankings: Never rely solely on one set of rankings. Use the comparison tools to make a wise college choice.

So, How Many Colleges Should Your Student Apply To?

There is no magic number, but 40 is too many and two is too few. The quality of the applications and the colleges on the list are much more important than the quantity.

The bulk of your student’s college applications should fall into the “Best Bet” category. These are the schools your student can see themselves attending, and where they'll be at the top of the applicant pool.

If your student insists on applying to too many colleges, help them narrow down their list by doing your research and finding the best fits. In the long run, both you and your student will be less stressed and assured of a positive outcome.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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