It’s a tough question with a not-so-satisfactory answer: there is no “right” number of colleges you should apply to. Since you will only end up attending one school, it’s best to optimize your plan so that you don’t waste your time.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to establishing a college application plan that works for you.
1. Decide which colleges are your ‘safety’, ‘probable’, and ‘reach’ schools
Okay, let’s back up. What are these 3 categories?
- Safety Schools: Schools you are very likely to get into, based on academics and acceptance rate. It’s smart to pick both an academic and “financial” safety school, like an inexpensive state school that’s likely to give you a good amount of financial aid.
- Probable Schools: Schools that are about on your level academically– you fall within the SAT/ACT and GPA ranges for the students at that school.
- Reach Schools: Schools that are more competitive– you probably fall just outside the SAT/ACT range and the acceptance rate is likely lower than the other schools on your list.
It’s a good rule of thumb to apply to at least one in each category (unless you are applying early decision), making sure to keep your options open.
How do you decide which schools are safety, probable, or reach schools?
You can use our college admissions calculator to look up schools and see how likely it is that you’ll get into each.
Still stuck? Check out our ranking of the Most Popular Colleges for All Acceptance Rates, to see popular schools that are both easy to get into and harder to get into.
2. Consider a variety of different college types
You can’t ever be 100% certain a college is going to be the best-ever fit for you, so keep an open mind about which schools you might be excited about come springtime.
Intermixed with the safety, probable, and reach schools, it’s advantageous to pepper in a variety of different school types to give yourself even more options:
- Applying to all public schools? Consider one or two private schools.
- Interested in small schools? Check out one or two medium or large schools.
- Limiting yourself to in-state schools? See if an out-of-state school might be a fit, too.
- On a very strict budget? Sometimes more expensive schools give out more aid.
Whichever schools you choose, it’s imperative that each school has the major or program you’re looking for. Check out our list of the best colleges for over 60 majors to find the schools that fit you best.
3. Eliminate any schools that you know are a bad fit
One of the best reasons to shorten your list of colleges, besides the sheer amount of time spent preparing each application, is the fact that just applying to college costs money. Colleges charge college application fees, which average about $50-$70 per application. Applying to schools you either know you don’t like very much or know you can’t afford is not only a waste of time, it’s a waste of money, too.
First, make sure each school on your list has the program(s) you’re looking for.
Second, visit the Niche profile of the schools you’re considering and make sure the information you’re seeing fits with your wants and needs.
Here’s what you’ll find on each Niche college profile:
- A Niche Report Card for the college, grading each aspect of campus life
- How the college ranks in all different categories
- Admissions statistics and information
- An admissions calculator to help you determine your chances of getting in
- A cost breakdown
- Academics statistics and polls
- A list of popular majors
- A look at what students are like
- Polls and statistics about living on campus
- Earnings and average debt after graduation
- Student reviews on every aspect of student life
Once you’ve decided on a school, add it to your Niche profile so you can easily access the profile anytime you wish.
4. Benchmark against the averages
Are you on par with other students? Since you can’t ask each and every person at your school how many they’re applying to, we polled the high school class of 2017 to see how many colleges they visited, applied to, and got into:
Although the majority of students are applying to 4 schools or less, 25% of students are still applying to 8 or more schools.
What number would be considered average?
Although there isn’t a “right” number of schools to apply to, start by considering ‘safety’, ‘probable’, and ‘reach’ schools based on your test scores and GPA, making sure to pepper in different types of schools that might work for you. While researching college profiles on Niche, add each college to your list to easily access each college profile for researching and reviewing. And when you’re ready to start applications, eliminate any schools that you know won’t be a fit. Good luck!
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