Recently, the mother of one of my students casually mentioned that her child intended to apply to 20 colleges. My eyes widened, but luckily, I caught myself before blurting out, “no, that’s too many!” So, how many colleges should a student apply to?
Before determining how many colleges to apply to, students must develop a college list. There isn’t a “right way” to build a college list, but students need to think carefully about what they want in their college experience and focus on finding colleges that are good fits for them. Some students like to start with a broad list of 20 to 30 colleges, which they narrow down as they uncover the criteria that matters most to them in their college experience. Others prefer to start with a narrower list of three or four colleges, research them to discover the criteria that matters most to them, and then build a list from there. Either way, building a college list is an iterative process – one that requires research and refinement.
Once students know what kind of colleges are good fits for them, they need a “balanced” list, that is a list that contains colleges with different probabilities of admission. Broadly speaking the categories include “wild cards” (colleges that admit less than 10% of applicants), colleges with a low probability of admissions (admitting less than 25% of applicants), colleges with a medium probability of admissions (admitting between 25 to 50% of applicants) and colleges with a high probability of admissions (depending on the student, colleges that admit upwards of 50 to 70% of applicants). What constitutes a balanced list varies by student: for some students, their list may contain three or four colleges that are wild cards, while for others their list may have one or none.
Regardless of the distribution of colleges in each admissions category, students should have lists with “vertical integrity.” In other words, the student experience at each college on the list should be similar. If, for example, a student wants to attend a large university with a “rah rah” student vibe, all the colleges on the list should meet those criteria and differ only in their admissions probability. Conversely, if a student wants to attend a small liberal arts college, they should build a list with that type of college, with the appropriate number of colleges in each admissions category for that student.
But back to the original question: once students have a balanced list with vertical integrity, how many colleges should they apply to? As with everything in college admissions, it depends.
Perhaps surprisingly, most students apply to a relatively small number of colleges. According to a 2020 report from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA only 18% of students applied to 10 or more colleges in the 2018-19 application cycle. Last year, however, a confluence of factors resulted in students applying to more colleges than in previous years, and applications skyrocketed at the most selective colleges (although the average student still applied to only 5.8 colleges).
There is no way to know whether the number of applications each student submits in the 2021-2022 application cycle will be like last year or will revert to pre-pandemic norms. So, while in pre-pandemic times I advised students to apply to 10 to 12 colleges, for some students, especially those applying to the most selective institutions (the wildcards and colleges with a low probability of admission), that number may need to be bumped to 12 to 14 this year.
Why not 20? Although most colleges use the Common Application, which allows students to submit one application and one personal statement to all the colleges to which they will apply, individual colleges often have supplemental applications that include additional essays and short answer questions. These supplements are an important part of the application and take time to complete. If students are burdened with too many applications, they may not be able to give each the time required to write quality applications. Alternatively, students may sacrifice schoolwork to complete applications, jeopardizing their fall semester grades. In addition, applying to college costs money; application fees for 20 colleges could add up to nearly $2000.
But most importantly, there is really no need to apply to 20 colleges, even in these uncertain times. If students think carefully about what they want in their college experience and build a balanced list of about 12 colleges that are good fits for them, then they should have many excellent options to choose from in the spring of their senior year.
Kate Sonnenberg is a graduate of Princeton University and the Columbia University School of Law. Prior to launching KS College Success, she worked in the Princeton University Admissions Office, where she read and evaluated thousands of undergraduate applications. Kate also volunteered for nearly a decade with the Princeton Alumni Schools Committee and chaired the committee that interviewed students in northern New Jersey. She has taught writing at the undergraduate and graduate school level and am trained and certified in the Wow Method, the leader in college essay coach training.