How many schools should I apply to?
This is definitely one of the questions we get asked most here at Admissionado, and it’s for good reason. Students want to know the optimal number of schools, so that they can devote enough time to each application and maximize their chances of admission all around. That’s a totally legitimate concern.
Here’s the problem: there’s no magic number that works for every applicant. This is because everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to application workload. It doesn’t mean that someone who can handle more applications is better than someone who’s comfortable with less. There are major considerations when taking on too many applications, such as diminishing returns (your overall product suffers after you exceed a certain threshold of work) and total application burnout. If you ask Admissionado staffers how many applications we completed back in the day, you’ll see that our numbers vary widely. When I applied to college, I created 10 applications total. Cleo Handler, my podcast cohost, applied to over 20 schools.
Even though the precise number is different for everyone, I’ll give you a few tips to get you closer to figuring out what’s right for you. My first piece of advice is that, in general, the sweet spot for most applicants is between 8 to 12 schools. It’s the number range we see most often, and the majority of clients ultimately feel most comfortable here. The division typically goes something like this: 3-4 reaches, 3-4 mid-levels, and 3-4 safeties. Mid-levels are schools that you’re moderately certain you’ll gain acceptance to, and safeties are ones where you’re nearly positive you will (based on certain factors like average GPA/SATs of admitted students and overall admission rates). However, keep in mind that you still have to create a great application with standout essays; without that, no school is a safety.
Now that we’ve got our baseline, many of you are still asking, “Can I apply to more than 8-12 schools?” Let me begin by saying that nobody must apply to more, but of course you can if you choose to and are able. If you’ve done your research, you will have no problem whittling your choices down to a solid list of 8-12, all of them schools you would be happy to attend. People who are applying to more than 12 are usually doing it out of worry, and that’s okay. As long as you can devote a good amount of time to each application and you don’t end up watering anything down, go for it. Just know that it doesn’t increase your chances of getting accepted to any one school. For example, UC Berkeley doesn’t care if you’re applying to one school or one hundred; they’re going to evaluate your application on their terms regardless of your other school choices. The same goes for every top university and liberal arts college.
This leads to another familiar set of questions:
How many Ivies should I apply to? Does it increase or decrease my chances if I apply to all of them?
The answer: you should apply to as many Ivies as you want, and applying to all of them neither increases nor decreases your chances. A lot of conspiracy theorists out there think that Ivy League AdComs share information, picking and choosing amongst students, deciding who gets in where. This simply isn’t true. It’s illegal, and the AdComs don’t have enough time for it anyway—Harvard alone deals with 35,000 applications in a matter of weeks! They care about the 2,000 students they want to admit, that’s it. It’s insane to think they’re turning to the other schools and saying things like, “Hey, Princeton… we’ll trade you Louis Winthorpe for Billy Ray Valentine,” or, “Hey, Yale… we’re not going to accept Marty McFly and you shouldn’t either. The boy has the gall to apply to both Harvard and Yale?! The nerve!”
All kidding aside, the important point that you should know about the Ivies is that they are a reach for everyone. It doesn’t matter how incredibly gifted you are, your admission is simply not guaranteed to any one of them. That’s just the brutal nature of today’s super-competitive landscape. However, there are ways to increase your chances. First, select schools (not just Ivies) that you would really love to attend, and translate this passion into your applications. Second, make sure you have plenty of time to devote to each separate application. Applying to eight Ivies—all reaches with difficult applications—might not be the most practical way to spend your time. Finally, create applications that showcase you as a three-dimensional candidate with a unique point of view who will add tremendous value to any university community.
By Stephen Black, Admissionado Senior Consultant