3 Steps for Deciding How Many College Applications You Need

September 11, 2018

Many students wonder, “How many applications should I submit?” The conventional wisdom is to apply to 5-7 schools. The conventional wisdom goes on to say that you should select a mix of Safety Schools, Target Schools, and Reach Schools. That sounds easy enough. But the conventional wisdom is not perfect. In this blog post, we explain why the conventional wisdom is flawed, and we offer three specific steps to help you achieve the best possible outcome from your college application process.

Step 1: Factor in the Cost

The conventional wisdom does not factor in COST. Many students only look at academic requirements like SAT/ACT scores when deciding where to apply. However, the annual cost of college is a critical factor when it’s time to make your final decision. Is there any college degree worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt? We don’t think so. So it is wise to factor in cost right from the start!

Step 2: Aim for 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions

It’s helpful to think about your end goal come springtime: you want at least three “admit” decisions that you can afford so that you can explore and choose the school that best suits you. What is the best way to ensure you receive at least three letters of acceptance from schools you can actually afford?

There are two attractive paths to ensuring 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions:

  1. 1 Safety School, 1 Early Action Admit, 2 Target Schools, 2 Reach
  2. 2 Safety Schools, 3 Target Schools, 1 Reach

The takeaway is that the best way to get to 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions is to have at least two “guaranteed locks” and a handful of likely possibilities. As long as one of the likely possibilities comes to fruition (along with your two “locks”) you will have reached your goal of 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions. Note that a successful Early Action application – assuming it comes with a favorable financial aid package – is like having a second Safety School because you know you’re in but Early Action is non-binding so you don’t have to commit right away.

Step 3: Avoid Application Burnout and Too Many Rejection Letters

It’s a numbers game so submitting more applications will typically yield more acceptance letters. Students who seek admission the most selective schools need to submit more applications than average. However, reaching for too many schools can lead to burnout and a lot of “deny” letters at a time when you want options and celebrations. Therefore we urge students and parents alike to be intentional as you add schools to your list.

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