ApplicationChoosing a College

Application Planning: How Many Schools?

By September 5, 2012 No Comments
Now that school is back in session and seniors are beginning (or, hopefully, have already begun) the application process, a big question is “to how many schools should a student apply?” For some students, the list starts at an overwhelming number, sometimes 40 or more! For other students, they struggle to find more than one or two schools. As the process continues and deadlines approach, the former students start to realize the amount of work necessary to apply to all of those schools, and the latter students feel the pressure of the uncertainty of applying to only a few. So what is the right number?


As with many college questions, the answer depends. I recommend my students apply to 9-12 schools. I understand that competition is self-fulfilling and that I suggest applying to more schools because it is more competitive. And this over-applying leads to more competition. But, I like to play it safe and help my students have at least a few good options in the spring.


3-4 “Foundational” Schools
Foundational schools are what we remember as “safety school.” Schools that were once considered “safe” now have increased applicants, lower admission rates, and higher standardized test scores and high school GPAs. Foundational schools are not necessarily guaranteed, but the chances of a student getting in are very high. You may even be able to break these into two categories – Safe Bet Foundational and Solid Chances Foundational – depending on your academic profile. Here are some characteristics of these schools and some reasons to apply:
  • The student is above the 75th percentile of entering freshmen on both standardized exams and GPA. The student has taken more rigorous courses and has participated more deeply in extracurriculars than the average freshman.
  • Students should want to attend a school they select in this category. Adding schools that do not appeal to students is silly; students should thoroughly investigate these schools as good options.
  • Merit-based financial aid could be significant at these schools. So, if you’re academically above the average student and love the school, you may be able to attend at a very reduced cost.
3-4 “In-Range” Schools
In-range schools are certainly not guaranteed, nor are they impossible. Chances of getting into an in-range school is almost 50-50. Your academic and extracurricular profile match the average freshman or, at least, fall within the 25th-75th percentile ranges they publicize. A few considerations:
  • In-range schools will see thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications from candidates with similar profiles. For these schools, you will need to make sure your application sets you apart.
  • Applying to a few different in-range schools may help with negotiating merit-based or need-based financial aid if you are accepted to more than one.
  • Students should research in-range schools to ensure that the level of rigor of the college’s coursework is consistent with what they were capable of in high school.
3-4 “Reach” Schools
Reach schools are generally difficult to get into, even if a student’s academic profile matches the average freshman. Some schools are a reach because a student has a lower ACT/SAT score or GPA than the 25th percentile. A few things to think about:
  • Reach schools provide students opportunities to challenge themselves academically and be in an environment of similar-minded students.
  • Applying to more reach schools does not increase your chances of getting into any individual school.
  • Students should not apply to reach schools unless they absolutely want to go there. If the student is really excited about six in-range schools, there really is no need to reach, unless a student would not be sufficiently challenged at any of those in-range or foundational schools.
Of course, this advice must be tailored to each student and family. Students applying only to state schools, for example, will not necessarily follow these guidelines. And, the distribution of schools can change as well. Obviously, though, you don’t want to switch out foundational schools for reach institutions. Make sure your list is relatively balanced so you can maximize your options and perhaps enhance your ability to negotiate financial aid packages.