How Many Colleges Should I Apply to?

How many colleges should I apply to

The search for the right college can be a tough experience for many. Especially since the competition has become so high and the uncertainty of getting into the college you want is never guaranteed. Many students may end up panicking and applying to colleges that they may not really want to go to. This is why we will review how many colleges you should apply to.

The key question is how many colleges should you apply to? Generally, it is better to limit the applications to around 7 to 10 colleges. If you have planned out a proper strategy this would be more than sufficient and would be effective in getting you into a good college.

The total applications can be distributed among 3 categories – Reach Schools, Target schools and Safety schools.

Let’s get familiar with the 3 categories before deciding on how to distribute.

  • Reach schools -These are your dream colleges. Which college would you like to get admitted to? You dream and aspire to be part of these institutions. Here you may not have a very good chance either due to the financial requirements or due to the scores needed (ACT, SAT scores do not fall in the range of recently accepted class), but there is a possibility- a sliver of chance exists.  These colleges will comprise your Reach Schools.
  • Target schools -These are schools where the scores you obtained for the SAT or ACT tests are within the average range of acceptance according to the past admissions. While your admission is not guaranteed, it is reasonable to expect some of these colleges to accept you as their student.
  • Safety schools – These are the schools where you know you will get accepted. Your academic credentials are above the average of what they usually accept.

These would also be colleges you would be happy to attend and there are some benefits that you would personally have by attending these colleges. In case the Target schools do not work out you could always choose among these colleges.

How do you Identify Colleges Right for You?

This will depend on your unique criteria. Some students will want a college close to home, others may look at career positioning and hence go for colleges that have a great name and prestige.

Some may choose based on financial requirements and they apply just because their friends are going there. So it depends on your unique needs. That said a few criteria you can apply are:

  • Financial requirements – Here you may need to get financial aid or maybe schools where it is easy for you to get a part-time job. This is an important factor because paying college fees can be a problem even if your academic scores are within range.

    Although if it is a college that is on your reach list, you can still apply and explore how you can afford the cost.
  • College rankings -This can be a huge decision making factor as most students would like to ensure that the colleges they choose have high rankings. This may help in their job search and also can be a status and position tool.

    Some students may not bother with rankings and may have other criteria. The ranking does help but they are not to be the only criteria you should consider when choosing a college.
  • Distance from home – Many students this would seem absurd as most students would like to move far away from home at this phase. But there may be reasons why a student has to be close to home.

    One of the reasons may be that their parents may need help or college cost is too high, there are dietary, religious or some other unique requirements that can be fulfilled only if you are staying at home.
  • College jobs – Availability of part-time jobs or on-campus employment. This can be a deciding factor for some students who may be funding for their college themselves partially or fully.

    Living in a college town with plenty of jobs might be an important factor when choosing colleges. Working while learning is a method that most students are adopting to ensure that they are not burdened with student loans when they graduate.
  • Location – Believe it or not for some students being in a city or a specific location may also be one of the top reasons they are applying to colleges.

Some factors that could be important would be picking a college in a big city or being near beaches or mountains…. there could be many reasons why a location may appeal to someone and lead them to choose colleges in the area.

Now let us look at some specific questions and clarify common doubts that students have at this point in applying for colleges.

How Many College Applications is too Many?

If you have applied to more than 15 colleges then that is too many applications! It also means that you have not given enough thought nor taken time to research the colleges properly.

You might have applied from feeling anxious rather than with understanding and clarity of purpose.

Overall a range of 7-10 colleges would be sufficient. Please remember that applications take time. This is not an ‘etched-in-stone’ kind of rule.

In some cases, you may need to apply to more and in some cases less. You do need to understand that there will be forms to be filled out the documentation to be submitted, money to be paid and essays that need to be written for each college you apply.

Imagine writing 15 essays!!

How many Safety Colleges Should I Apply To?

In the event that a student is applying for a total of 7-10 colleges, here is a possible scenario you may want to employ when you apply:

Reach colleges – Here you could possibly apply to 2-3 reach colleges. Remember that you may not get accepted to these colleges so do thorough research on which colleges you really would like to be in your dream list before you apply.

An example would be:

  • Ohio State University
  • Florida State University
  • Notre Dame

Target Colleges – Here you could look at 2-3 colleges as a back-up to the Reach college on your list. These colleges are the ones you really liked and would be just fine attending but you would still rather go to your reach colleges.

If you do not get accepted to the first three then you would look at:

  • University of Chicago
  • John Hopkins University
  • Duke University

Safety Colleges – The colleges for safety are the schools you know you have a very good chance to get accepted with no issues. You should apply to 3-4 safety colleges of your choice.

If some odd reason you have not got accepted then we would have to look at your safety list which may include:

  • University of Pittsburgh
  • Purdue University
  • University of Illinois

We just picked random college above as examples but you should probably pick colleges more strategically. Maybe you only look at Ohio colleges because you want in-state tuition.

When Should you Apply to College?

There are generally 3 programs that are available for applying for colleges which include early, rolling and regular.

  • Early – Usually early applications are due in early November and you know the decision by around December 15th. There are 3 programs in which Early application is possible.
  • Early decision – Here if you apply and get accepted you are committed. You have to join the college.
  • Restrictive early action – You can apply early here but this is not binding in case you are accepted. Here the only restriction is that you are not supposed to apply to other private schools early.
  • Early action – This action allows you to apply to other schools early and the acceptance by the college is not binding in any way.
  • Rolling applications are where you can apply to non-selective or selective schools and you can apply early and you will be informed within 4-5 weeks. This allows you to be informed earlier and make decisions based on that information.
  • Regular – Most students apply in the regular category. You would apply around January and generally, you would know by mid-March whether you are accepted.

How Many Students Apply to College Every Year?

The number of students applying to colleges in the United States is staggering. Wikipedia suggests that more than 4 million students graduate from high schools each year and many of them decide to go on to further studies.

Does it Cost Money to Apply to College?

Yes, most colleges charge an application fee and it can range anywhere from $30 – $80 or more, depending on the college.

But the cost of application is not the only cost you also need to consider the fees for tests, the cost of visiting the colleges, fees of consultants and advisors, expenses for sending transcripts and documents, etc.

These also need to be factored in when you are determining the overall costs of the application.

You may be able to get a fee waiver so check out this article on how to get college application fee waivers.

Can Colleges see other Colleges you Applied to?

No, the colleges do not have access to that information, but some colleges may ask during the interviews or while applying. Some colleges do share the list of accepted students with other colleges but only after the students have accepted admission there.

Can you Ask a College Why you Were Denied?

Yes, you can.

But it is not wise to wait around for an answer or try to make them change their decision. In most cases, colleges do not discuss why they did not select a specific candidate.

Calling up an admission officer may possibly help get some information but the actual reasons may not be revealed and candidates are given polite and vague answers. It is better to focus your energies on colleges that you are still hopeful for a positive response.

Do Colleges Send out Rejection Letters First?

Usually, the acceptance letters are sent out first. In cases where the committee finds that the eligibility criteria are not met or the applicant stands no chance at all, in these cases, the rejection letters for those candidates alone may be sent first.

Based on the acceptance of admission by an initial lot of students, the remaining applicants are dealt with.

Can Colleges Take Back Their Acceptance?

Generally, the colleges do not take back acceptance unless there is an extraordinary situation where there has been misinformation or possible misconduct.

In cases where after the college starts the student is found to not meet minimum criteria or have an issue with misconduct, such actions may be taken.

What is being Waitlisted?

Being waitlisted means that the colleges is not completely rejecting your application but has delayed decision till it gets the final acceptance of students and there is a possibility of selecting you in case there is a vacancy left.

This does mean that there is a small chance of being accepted but it is not a strong possibility. Probably it is better not to wait for their decision and secure your admission with another college on your list.


You want to make sure you have 7 to 10 colleges picked out to visit. This will give you a good number to choose from when deciding. This is a big choice in your life so make sure you enjoy it.

Once you pick the college its time to fill out the application. You need to check out our article college application requirements.

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