How Many Colleges Should Students Apply To?

Today we kick off a new feature here on the blog: "The Question of the Month." We'll be asking high school college counselors, independent counselors, deans of admission and other experts, such as financial aid officers and psychologists, to respond to our questions about all things college admission. Then we'll bring you their advice on the subject of the moment -- from essays and scholarships to interviews and extracurriculars -- including any words of wisdom on how to handle it all on a day to day basis. 

For October, we asked a group of counselors:


"How many colleges should students apply to?"


Mai Lien Nguyen
College and Career Center Coordinator
Mountain View High School
Mountain View, California


People sometimes approach the question of how many colleges they should apply to as if they are preparing for an emergency (e.g. how many extra batteries, water bottles, and matches might I need in case an earthquake hits?!).  The ideal number of colleges on a list really depends on each student’s situation, and each person’s balance of “safety/likely, target/match, and reach” will vary. However, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • You should be able to articulate clear and specific reasons for why each school is on your list and why you would be happy to attend that school.  If you can’t give distinctive and substantive reasons for why a school is on your list, then you need to take it off, or do more research on it.
  • Look realistically at your schedule and make sure the workload of essays, supplemental questions and materials (e.g. portfolios, auditions, etc.) is manageable.  Having too many colleges on your list can become a huge burden, both in terms of time and money.  If you know you won’t be able to give every application the time and care that it deserves while maintaining your grades and activities, you should consider trimming your list.  Remember that your workload may include applying for scholarships as well.
  • Have at least two “safety/likely” schools that you would be happy to attend. This ensures that you really do have a “safety,” and that you can have at least two colleges to choose from in April.  Be sure these schools and others are affordable for your family as well.
  • “Because I want to see if I can get in,” is not a good enough reason to have a school on your list.  The college search is ideally a journey toward self-knowledge, not a trophy hunt.

Sara Ringe
Assistant Director of College Counseling
Whitfield School
St. Louis, Missouri

When you’ve run out of time, energy or money (hey, those application fees are expensive!), you know that you have officially applied to enough colleges. Typically, that means that you should apply to no more than 10 colleges, and it’s also appropriate to apply to as few as one if you, your family and your college counselor have determined it’s the right thing to do for your individual process.  If you’ve done a thoughtful job of compiling your list, which I know you have, then all of the schools on your list will be good matches for you. You should fit within the “target profile” of many of your colleges (that means you should be getting in); perhaps a few of them are beyond your reach. If you start the process by applying to your top colleges in both of those categories, then by the time you’ve run out of time, energy and/or money, you know that you’ve already applied to the schools that meant the most to you.

Carolyn Lawrence
College Admissions Advisor

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how many colleges a student should apply to; the answer will be different for every student.  However, three questions can help students decide if the number of colleges on their list is appropriate.

  1. Can I explain why all of the colleges on my list are right for me? If your answers to this question are superficial – such as rankings, prestige, location, or a friend’s suggestion – it’s likely your list is too long. Before you add any college to your list, you should be able to explain how the college aligns with the things you personally need to be happy and successful in college.
  2. Will I have enough time and energy to put my best effort into every application? Even the simplest applications require time and effort.  Can you really handle the work involved in completing 15 or 20 applications? Be honest with yourself.  It’s better to do an outstanding job on fewer applications than to do a so-so job on too many.
  3. Do I love my “safe bets” as much as I love my “reaches?” Build your college list from the bottom up; fall in love with the schools that are most likely to love you in return before you add colleges that are less likely to admit you.  If you do, you’re apt to find that you really don’t need to apply to as many colleges as you think you do.

    Finally, don’t let fear sway you into panic mode.  If you’ve carefully thought about the reasons why every college is on your list, and do your best job with each application, you’ll end up with great choices!

Carey Socol
Director of College Guidance
LREI (Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin HS)
New York, New York

At the first high school I worked at for 10 years as a college counselor, we had a limit to the number of schools each student applied to. The rule was 8 private colleges and an unlimited number of public schools.  The philosophy behind this guideline was that if you did your research comprehensively, understood your chances with regard to admissibility at particular schools and hedged your bets both in the “reach” category and the safer and target options, you would not need to apply to more than 8 colleges. Add to that an unlimited number of public schools, which tend to be larger and offer different financial opportunities (in-state). We insisted that students follow this guideline. We also felt if too many students within one school apply to the same group of colleges, it could potentially crowd the field.

Now that I am the Director of College Guidance at a private school with a much smaller class size, I do not limit the college list. However, I am still a firm believer that if you properly do your college research, a list should be anywhere from 8-12 schools. Sometimes it can be even smaller. In most cases, I suggest 3 safe options, 3 target and 2-3 reach schools. Measuring what schools fit into which category can be done by looking at a college’s admit statistics and seeing where your grades and standardized testing fit into their range. I would also highly suggest that you seek guidance from your high school college counselor who typically maintains a comprehensive track record for the acceptance history from your school and will have another perspective into your chances of admission.  Keeping a realistic and holistic view of the process and understanding the best fit for you will undoubtedly lead you down the right path. 


Our experts' responses reflect not only the wisdom of their experience, but also their schools' philosophies and policies. There is a great deal of diversity in American education and some of that will be on display here. Make sure to check with your own school about their policy on any particular subject discussed here.

We would like to extend a special thank you to the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), who partnered with us on this post, and in particular counselors Marie Bigham of Greenhill School, Jody Sweeney of William Penn Charter School, and Sarah Markhovsky of Severn School.








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