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  • Writer's pictureTrudy Horsting

How Many Universities Should You Apply To?: Finding Your Magic Number

College applications are difficult for so many reasons. Deciding which schools might be a good fit is a challenge in and of itself. But even after that point, each application takes so much time, energy, and care. Many applications have their own nuances which must be addressed such as personalized essay prompts or additional recommendation requirements.

Additionally, college applications are expensive. No one can afford to apply to hundreds of schools, nor does anyone have the time to do so.

But does that mean you should apply to one, two, seven, fifteen? What is the right number?

Truthfully, there isn’t one.

There’s no one right answer because every person is different and in a different scenario. However, there are some factors to consider to help you make your own choice of your own perfect number.

The Standard Recommendation

If you Google the “right” number of schools to apply to, you’ll likely find the following recommendation: apply to a few “safety” schools, a few “possible” schools, and a few “reach” schools.

Safety schools are schools that you are extremely confident you will be accepted to. They are schools where your statistics (SAT score, GPA, extracurriculars, etc.) are above the average admission statistics, or very close to the upper end of the bracket.

Possible schools are the schools where you align more in the middle range of the admission statistics. You think it is probable that you will be accepted, but the complexities behind the admissions process means it's not a guarantee.

Reach schools are schools where you align more with the lower range of admissions statistics. There’s certainly a chance you’ll get in, but you know that this chance is lower.

The exact recommendations regarding how many of each of these schools you should apply to varies a lot. But typically, it's more “possible” schools than reach and safety schools. Besides that, it’s really up in the air regarding numbers. The categories are a good rule of thumb and make practical sense. But the process is certainly not straightforward and there’s no magical formula.

Questions to Ask Yourself

We recommend thinking less about finding the proper number and more about thinking critically about each school you add to your list.

It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to think about the perfect formula. But there is none. Thinking that you need to apply to x number of each type of school, often can lead you to apply to more schools than are necessary. Most importantly, it can lead you to apply to schools you aren’t even interested in.

Every school you apply to should be one that you’re excited to attend. You should be able to picture yourself being there. If not, it’s a waste of your time and your money to apply to the school.

If you wouldn’t go, don’t apply out of feelings of obligation.

Before you decide about each school, ask yourself these questions.

1. What are your chances of getting into the school?

This is important. It’s important to apply to some safety, some possible, and some reach schools. These terms are thrown around so excessively because they do mean something.

Applying to a mix of schools allows you to have confidence that you will receive some acceptances and allows you the opportunity to throw your hat in the ring for your dream institution with a lower acceptance rate.

2. Would you be willing to go there?

It seems like a silly question. But as we’re taught to apply to safety schools, many students are left applying to a handful of schools they really have no desire to attend. Instead, choose one or two schools you are likely to get into that you would truly be interested in going to and graduating from.

Getting in means nothing if you wouldn’t want to go there or would be miserable if you attended.

3. Do you like the location?

Do you like the location of the school? Would you be miserable going to a school where it rains most of the year, that’s in a rural area, or that is in a big city? Do you like the beach, or are the mountains your vice? What colleges are close to family or friends? Think about what locations you would like to live, be willing to live, or could bear to live for the next four years of your life. Don’t apply to schools located in areas you couldn’t fathom living.

4. Is it a good fit?

How do you think you would fit into the school? Is the major you want there? What about minor and certificate options? Are there extracurricular activities you would enjoy? Do you enjoy the campus? Can you see yourself living in the dorms there and eating in those dining halls?

If you can’t picture yourself there, it’s likely not the school for you.

5. What is the school’s reputation?

The reputation of a school isn’t everything, but it's something. Is the school highly ranked for the majors you are interested in? Is it lower on the totem pole? How much does this matter to you?

6. What is the cost?

What are your chances of receiving a scholarship or financial aid at the school and would you still attend if you didn’t receive the aid you think you are most likely to get? Is it in-state or out-of-state? How many loans would you need to take out to finance your education if you attended there?

If the finances don’t add up, don’t apply.

In Sum

There’s no right answer. We’ve all known people who knew exactly where they wanted to go to school, were confident in their chances of getting in, applied only to that school, got in, were accepted, said yes, and were happy. We’ve also all known people who apply to 20 schools, spend hundreds of dollars on application fees and months of their time only to be left with a plethora of acceptances for schools they weren’t even excited about.

However, is applying to one school the right answer? Not when you’re not very sure it's your first choice, very sure you’ll get in, and very sure you have a backup plan if things don’t go the way you’re hoping.

Is applying to four schools, seven schools, twelve schools the right answer? Maybe any one of these is the right answer for you. Each person has to find the right magic number for themselves.

The college application process is not easy. But the process becomes much simpler when you take a moment, pause, and consider if the school you’re thinking of applying to is one that you would actually be happy attending.


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