Online applications have made it really easy to apply to college. Applicants no longer need their best penmanship or—imagine this—to find a typewriter to fill them out. On the Common Application alone, an applicant can access roughly 900 colleges and universities. But how many applications should students submit? And is there such a thing as too many?
At this point in the process, most seniors we work with have a short list of schools they want to apply to; at Bright Horizons College Coach, we work to help them round out that list to include roughly two safeties, three to five targets, and maybe a few reaches. Seven or eight schools, possibly as many as 10, chosen strategically across each category are ideal.
Inevitably, however, moments of uncertainty, overzealousness, inability to eliminate choices, and even panic ensue for some students, and that list of seven to 10 inches upward into the teens and even twenties. Because it’s so easy to add “just another school” on the Common or Coalition Application platforms, many students figure, “why not” apply to four or five or 10 others. After all, what harm could there be?
Have you heard the term demonstrated interest? Put simply, it means that a prospective student has shown a college some attention prior to applying. Many schools use demonstrated interest as an indicator of how serious the applicant is about attending. One of the best ways, but certainly not the only way, to demonstrate interest is to visit campus. In the age of COVID-19, requesting information from a school, responding to mailings and emails, clicking on links in those emails, and spending time on the colleges’ sites are other ways to show interest. How many schools are you willing and able to visit? How many hours can you dedicate to meeting remotely with admissions representatives or attending virtual programs and events? The more schools on your list, the more time you will need to invest in demonstrating interest in those colleges.
More Schools = More Essays and Higher Costs
What about the applications themselves? Sure it’s easy to add colleges, but many schools using platforms like the Common Application require supplemental essays. These require a good amount of thought and research and need to assure the admission officer that you have clear and specific reasons for applying to the school that connect to your interests and goals. These essays take time and must be as strong and thoughtful as your main essay. Ask yourself how much time you have to do these—is it enough to write them well? Also consider how much time you are willing to spend on this, and whether that is time you ought to spend on academics, extracurricular activities, or even sleep.
There is also the cost of applying to consider. Most colleges charge an application fee, often around $50 and all the way up to $90 (we’re looking at you, Stanford!). Those costs add up.
In this time of economic uncertainty, some families think they should apply to dozens of colleges to maximize their chances of snagging a good college deal. We assure you that the makeup of your college list determines your ultimate college price much more than the number of colleges on that list. A reasonable list of seven to 10 colleges that includes at least one in-state public and a few safety schools where you are likely to be recruited with merit scholarship funding should ensure that you have some reasonably priced options to choose from in April. Now that Net Price Calculators are available on every college’s website, you can usually predict financial aid offers long before submitting applications for admission. There’s no use applying to 20 colleges that you won’t be able to afford. Instead, you can use information provided on the colleges’ websites to anticipate costs and design a reasonable—and affordable—college list.
This Isn’t the Lottery
We’ve heard many applicants and their parents reason that when it comes to reach schools, students should apply to a large number of them to increase chances of acceptance to one. In college admissions, the law of averages does not apply. If you have a 10 percent chance of acceptance at 10 of the schools on your list, you still only have a 10 percent chance at each of those 10 schools. You don’t increase your odds in any way, and a top-heavy list only sets an applicant up for disappointment.
You Can Only Attend One College at a Time
While you might be proud to rattle off your college applications and acceptances, that pride has an expiration date. In March, students will have heard back from colleges and universities that both admitted and denied them. Hardly anyone will be asking you where you applied; they’ll be asking where you were admitted. Two months later, they’ll be asking where you’re going. And beyond that first week of freshman year, they will have definitely moved on to other questions. It won’t be: where else did you get admitted? It will be: how did you do on that calculus test? And the last time I checked, there is no place on your resume to list your college acceptances.
The applicants who reap the best results are those who build and stick to reasonable lists, spend the appropriate amount of time communicating with and applying to those colleges, and don’t spread themselves too thin. Be strategic. No one needs 10 safety schools. No one needs 10 target schools. And certainly, no one needs 20 reach schools. In the end, you only need one school: the college where you’ve chosen to enroll.