How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A female student holding a pen and thinking

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

For students who are dedicated to attending one of the top schools in the United States, it may seem like a good idea to simply apply to as many colleges as possible. While there is certainly a certain amount of logic connected to casting as wide a net as possible, there are also lots of reasons why students would be wise to put a cap on the number of schools they target and apply to you.

A man sitting by the window is lost in thoughts

If you’re asking yourself, “How many colleges should I apply to?” Well, then you have come to the right place! Let us at AdmissionSight break down everything that a high school student should know when it comes to making a list of schools to apply to when application season rolls around.

Let’s get started!

How many schools should I apply for?

In previous generations, the admission process of high schoolers was far less complex and far less competitive than it is today. In fact, not so long ago, it was considered completely unnecessary to even attend schooling past high school unless a person was interested in academia or pursuing a job that required extra education, such as becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Now, the circumstances are far different. Today, it is generally believed that any high school student should absolutely pursue a four-year education. These degrees are considered a baseline requirement for jobs and careers across many different industries.

In fact, it is now starting to become far more common for young adults to pursue graduate degrees simply to make themselves more attractive in the job market. But that is a conversation for another time. Let’s refocus on the number of schools that students should be applying to for their undergraduate education.

Typically, the majority of high school students who are applying to four-year programs are going to end up applying to anywhere between eight and 14 different schools. The reason why this has been considered a good number for students to aim for a number of years is that it allows students to target certain kinds of schools in different sections that make up that larger number.

The advised breakdown tends to be:

  • Four to six target schools
  • Two to four reach schools
  • Two to four safety schools

What is a good number of schools to apply to?

Depending on what kind of student you are, eight may seem like far to many and 14 could even seem like too few. But there are some pretty good reasons why these are the numbers that any high school counselor, and many college admissions consultants would advise a high school student to aim for.

Just to be clear, it is important for students to know that the definitions of the target, reach and safety schools are going to depend entirely on their standing as a student. These types of schools will primarily have to do with factors such as a student’s grade point average throughout their high school years as well as the scores that they earned on either the SAT or ACT.

A sad man looking at his laptop

When it comes to a safe school, students should target schools that they are most likely to get into, even if they do not necessarily dream of attending. Quite often, students will target schools that are structurally similar to their target or dream schools, but perhaps a bit less prestigious.

For example, a student who is targeting Harvard as a reach school, may look at schools like Tufts University or USC as their safety schools. For a student who is targeting the University of Michigan as their target school, they may look to schools like Indiana University or Iowa University as their safety schools. Typically, safety schools should be where a student would place in the top 25 percent of admitted students.

In the case of target schools, these are the schools that are both lofty and ambitious goals, while also being wholly realistic. Ideally, a student who identifies target schools where their statistics would place them in the mid 50 percent of students that are admitted. For obvious reasons, this is going to be the largest section of schools, because it is made up not only of schools that interest you, but also a list of schools that you think are attainable goals.

While these schools may not be at the tippy top of your list, they should all be schools that you would be very excited to get accepted to and attend. We at AdmissionSight advise that students spend a lot of time identifying their target schools – as well as working on the applications for them – because statistically, you are most likely to end up at one of these schools.

For reach schools, you have probably already managed to figure out what these kinds of schools are. These are often the schools that students all over the world dream of attending. Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago can all be considered dream schools for the vast majority of students.

Essentially, all schools that are highly prestigious and selective will be reach schools for any student, no matter how accomplished he or she is. Beyond that, students should identify reach schools as schools at which their statistics would land them in the bottom 25 percent of admitted students.

For that reason, students should work hard on these applications while also knowing that it may not be entirely realistic that they end up earning admission to the school. It’s not impossible, but it is something of a…well…reach!

Is a list of 12 colleges too much? Should I even bother?

While most students will – rightfully so – spend the vast majority of their time trying to figure out which schools they want to go to for college, there should also be a fair amount of through committed to how many schools a student should apply to.

While more schools may seem like the best decision, purely because it welcomes the most options for success, there are some important things to consider on this front. Most importantly, high school students need to think about the amount of time and energy they will be willing and able to commit to applying to different schools. Obviously, the more schools students apply to, the more work they will be giving themselves.

With that being said, innovations such as the Common App have made it far easier for students to apply to many different schools with a few clicks of their computer mouse. In fact, such innovations have definitely led to an increase in the number of schools that students apply to.

What is the recommended number of universities to apply to?

S, is 12 schools too many? Well, if you ask the College Board, one of the most trusted names in the world of college admissions, students really should really try to narrow their options down to the five to eight school range. The reason for this is because it obviously limits the amount of work that a student has to do in order to actually complete all those applications.

Students need to keep in mind that there is – ultimately – a tipping point of some kind in which the number of schools that are being applied to is actually going to weigh on the student. As a result, the actual quality of the application that a student is sending out could be reduced, thus reducing the likelihood that they gain admission to any of their reach or target schools.

A man writing a letter on a desk.

Remember, senior year of high school is not going to be a breeze by any stretch of the imagination. Beyond worrying about applying to schools, students will also have to make sure that they are also keeping up with their course, their extracurriculars and also having enough time to sometimes relax and decompress from what is likely one of the more stressful demanding phases of their lives to date. So, taking the time to really narrow down your college search is ultimately going to be very likely to be a more successful – and enjoyable – experience overall.

With that in mind, it is also important to not be too conservative when you are identifying the schools that you want to attend. More often than not, the students who tend to regret not applying to more schools are the kinds of students who are dead set on attending just one or two schools. Based on their level of confidence, they may even end up simply applying to their number one dream school. This is, for many obvious reasons, not advisable for any student no matter who impressive, intelligent, and accomplished he or she is.

How many safety schools should I apply to?

There is absolutely no doubt that applying to colleges and universities is a stressful time. Not only do students want to find the best fit for them and the future of their education, but they often also want to be proud of the school that they are able to attend.

Still, it is important for students to approach the application journey as responsibly and pragmatically as possible. That is why the inclusion of safety schools into any student’s list of schools that they plan to apply to is so important. If anything, applying to schools that you feel very confident about getting into will help you sleep at night as you await the letters coming in from the schools that are a bit higher on your wishlist.

A person wearing a red shirt is writing on a notebook.

When it comes to how many safety schools a student should apply to, as previously mentioned, it should probably be no less than two schools and no more than four. You want to have at least two in order to keep your options open, but you also do not want to have too many that the time you are spending on these applications ends up eating into the time that you would otherwise be spending on applications to your target or safety schools.

Another question that you may have about safety schools is how people are supposed to actually identify the right safety school for them. After all, one student’s safety school could very easily be a different student’s target or reach school. It all depends on the obvious factors within a specific student’s application profile.

One of the best ways to find the right kind of safe schools is to just do some research. You likely already know your target and reach schools, try a quick Google search to see what other schools students who apply to those schools tend to send in applications to.

You can also look at admissions statistics and see what kinds of GPAs and test scores students tend to have at specific schools. If your grades and test scores are quite a bit higher than the average, chances are pretty good that you can consider that school to be one of your safety schools.

Beyond that, if you are still somewhat unsure of what schools you should be targeting, there is always something to be said about speaking with the counselor at your high school. They are a wealth of knowledge that can help you narrow down your entire list of schools.

Just make sure that you have a meeting scheduled well ahead of the time that you actually want to stay applying to schools, as counselors tend to be quite overworked and you may have to wait a bit of time before you can actually have an in-person meeting with them.

Finally, if you work with an admissions consultant, such as AdmissionSight, your consultant will also be a major resource for you when it comes to identifying all of the schools that would be a fantastic fit as a safety, target or reach school.

How many colleges should I visit?

Visiting colleges is a really fun and important aspect of the application process. Typically, students plan their college visits during their junior year of high school. It is most common during the spring semester of that year. That way, students will have the memory of those visits fresh in their mind when they start applying in a few months. On top of that, students will get to see the school when it is full, as opposed to visiting the school during the much quieter summer months.

Four students walking with their backs facing the camera.

It’s typically recommended that students visit at least five to six schools and no more than 10 to 12. We recommend this range because students should be able to visit enough schools so that they get a diverse and clear idea of what a student likes and dislikes about various campuses across the United States.

Beyond this, it is important for students to be strategic about the way that they visit schools. After all, depending on where they live and where the schools that they want to visit are, they may have to plan a few different school tours. For many students, they try to schedule an east coast trip, a Midwest trip and a west coast trip. Of course, many students also visit schools in the south as well!

Here at AdmissionSight, we would advise that students focus most on visiting their target schools, as these schools tend to be the most realistic options. Beyond that, students may definitely want to visit some or all of their dream schools for some added motivation and visit their safety schools just to make sure that they’d be comfortable attending one of those schools if a safety school ends up being the best option for a given student.

More than anything, this experience of visiting schools should be seen as a fun and exciting experience where high school students can broaden their horizons and get a better idea of where they may end up spending four of the most inspiring, educational, and formative years of their lives.

Need more advice on applying to top-tier colleges?

Here at AdmissionSight, we know how stressful and demanding the entire college application process can be for students. That is especially true for students who are determined to apply to and get into some of the most prestigious and competitive schools in the world. Of course, students are going to feel pressure, but the ideal outcome is that the planning a student did leading up to this experience will make it as smooth as possible.

We love helping students accomplish their lofty goals. That’s why we’re so proud of the fact that 75 percent of the students that we work with end up getting accepted to an Ivy league or top-10 school in the United States. If you think you would benefit from our guidance, feel free to contact us today to set up a free consultation.


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