How many schools should I apply to?
I am asked this question daily by students who have been told that they should only apply to a maximum of eight colleges. I am uncomfortable setting a hard and fast number, since so many individual factors come into play.
My rule of thumb is to have the right list of colleges so that you have maximized your chances of being accepted at colleges that you would be happy to attend. I often meet students who bring me a tentative list of colleges that is nothing short of all the Ivies with a smattering of equally selective schools thrown in for good measure. This year was more brutal than ever in terms of being accepted at Ivy League-caliber schools with schools such as Stanford, Harvard and Yale, which have reported admission rates of 5.6 percent, 5.79 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively. Even schools like the University of Chicago, which not long ago had an acceptance rate between 30-40 percent, now only admits 8 percent of applicants.
Knowing that college selectivity is tougher than ever, students should ensure that their list is well balanced. Simply applying to more schools will not accomplish this if all the schools on your list accept fewer than 20 percent of applicants. I try to discourage students from applying to too many selective schools, as there is a significant time and money factor involved with college applications. Each school that you apply to can cost up to $75, which might not seem significant until you multiply that by over 10 schools, along with additional precollege expenses such as college visits, SAT prep tutors and perhaps private college counselors. Moreover, I have found that if a student is turned down from one highly selective school, they are generally rejected from similar schools.
While I do not have a strict rule about any particular number of top schools to apply to, I do want to ensure that students have an equal number of probable and safety schools on their list. While many students have little desire to attend one of our excellent public universities, I usually encourage students to add at least one Washington public university in case the admission results, scholarship or merit money does not come through as hoped. I have also found that as May rolls around, senior year, students are less eager to leave the area as they thought they would be a year earlier when they were planning their college list.
Another consideration is whether or not you are hoping to receive merit money. I will often have students apply to more schools than usual if I am uncertain which school will be the most generous in their financial package. This has proven to be a wise decision for many of my students who are finding themselves receiving significant money from multiple schools, allowing them to weigh this financial consideration into their final decision.
Lastly, a student can apply to fewer schools if he or she feels assured of acceptance to one of their safety schools, which they would be equally happy to attend. In many ways, this can be an optimum situation, as it allows for a more relaxed application process and a win-win all around.
Joan Franklin is the owner of MI College Support, an independent college counseling practice (www.micollegesupport.org).