Travel back in time with me, if you will, to 1999. College admissions had recently transitioned from a buyer’s market to a seller’s, and application totals at many colleges began the steady climb to what continue to be unprecedented numbers. Twenty years ago marked my foray from college admission into college counseling as well. I have been on the front lines with students and parents through three different iterations of the format of the SAT, the evolution of web-based college searching, and the transition from paper to online applications, including the expanding reach of multiple online application platforms. 1999 was not just the beginning of my career in college counseling, but of an ongoing commitment to help students keep their wits about them in what, for many, is an overwhelming process. This includes helping them to be strategic about their college lists.
The ease of applying to college has been hastened by the availability of online applications. No longer do applicants need to summon their best penmanship or—imagine this—find a typewriter to fill out applications. On the Common Application alone, an applicant can access roughly 800 colleges and universities. But how many applications should students send? And is there such a thing as too many?
Each year at this time, a frequent topic of discussion with my rising seniors revolves around their developing lists of colleges. Many have spent their spring break visiting numerous schools, and are planning summer visits to many more. At this point in the process, a good number of my students have a short list of schools they want to apply to; I work with them to spend the summer and part of the fall rounding out that list to include roughly two safeties, three-to-five targets, and maybe a couple of reaches. Seven or eight schools, possibly as many as ten, when chosen strategically across each of the aforementioned categories and satisfying a family’s checklist, are ideal.
Inevitably, however, moments of uncertainty, overzealousness, inability to eliminate choices, and even panic ensue for some students and that list of 7-10 inches upward into the teens and even twenties. Because it’s so easy to add “just another school” on the Common App or Coalition Application platforms, many students figure, “why not” apply to four or five or ten others. After all, what harm could there be?
The Challenges of Demonstrated Interest
Have you heard the term demonstrated interest? Put simply, it means that a prospective applicant has shown a school some amount of attention prior to becoming an applicant. Many colleges use whether or not an applicant has demonstrated interest in them as an indicator of how serious the applicant is about attending the school. One of the best ways, but certainly not the only way, to demonstrate interest is to visit campus. Requesting information from a school, responding to mailings and emails, clicking on the links and spending time on the sites—these are all ways colleges gauge interest, too. How many schools are you willing and able to visit? How much time do you have to spend online responding to colleges’ inquiries? How about meeting the admissions representatives of the colleges when they come to your high school, or attending local programs and events sponsored by colleges? The more schools on your list, the more time you will need to spend essentially assuring many of those schools of your interest level.
More Schools = More Essays and More Money
What about the applications themselves? Sure, it’s easy to add schools on any of the online platforms, but consider that many schools using platforms like the Common Application will often have supplemental essays for you to write. These essays require a good amount of thought and research, and need to satisfy the admission reader’s sense that you have clear and specific reasons for applying to the school, which you have connected to your interests and goals. These essays take time, too. You cannot just write one and cut/paste a school’s name into it. Ask yourself how much time you’re willing to spend on this, and whether that is time you ought to instead spend on any number of other endeavors, such as your academics, your extracurriculars, or even sleep or time with friends. And then, there is the cost of applying to consider. Most colleges charge a fee for application, sometimes up to $80. Those costs add up.
No Applicant is an Island
And what of your fellow applicants? Look at it this way: If you are a particularly strong student who decides to just “throw a few more schools” onto your application list because they’re safeties… will your being in those schools’ applicant pools eliminate the chances other, less strong students may have at those schools? What if a school you’re particularly keen on but that may be a bit of a reach has an overabundance of applicants who are stronger than you are who have chosen to do this? It may surprise you, but where you apply doesn’t impact only you.
This isn’t the Lottery
I’ve heard the reasoning used by many applicants and their parents over the years that when it comes to reach schools, students should apply to a large number of them because the more chances you take, the more likely that at least one of them will pan out. This may be true of some things, but it is not so in the world of college admissions. In this world, the law of averages does not apply. A top-heavy list is only likely to set up an applicant for disappointment.
When it comes down to the end of the process, the applicants who tend to reap the best results are those who build and stick to reasonable lists, who spend the appropriate amount of time communicating with and applying to those schools, and who don’t spread themselves too thin.