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Deciding How Many And Which Colleges To Apply To

September 12, 2023 :: Admissionado Team

School Selection

The college application process is a significant milestone in any high school senior’s life. It’s a journey filled with excitement, anticipation, and yes, a fair share of anxiety. One of the first major tasks on this journey is creating a list of colleges to apply to. This list isn’t just a compilation of names; it’s a strategic blueprint that will shape the next four years of your life and beyond. But with thousands of colleges and universities out there, how do you narrow it down to the right mix of schools? How do you balance your aspirations with practical considerations?

Creating the Perfect List of Target Schools

The answer? You can’t create a perfect list, but you can certainly create a fantastic one. There are countless schools out there, including outstanding ones you may not even have heard of. The trick is compiling a list of places you’ve 1) heard of, 2) researched, and 3) would like to attend if accepted.

Truth is, it’s a tough task for many applicants. It’s easy to fall into the trap of tinkering with the list for hours on end. One moment, you might find yourself with 30 schools; the next, you’ve got 8, and you’re suddenly panicked that you left out “all the good ones!” At some point, you need to make an executive decision. “Here’s where I’m going to apply, I’m happy with my choices, and I’m going to dominate these applications!” Stand on a chair and declare it proudly if you’d like.

Now, I’m going to say something seemingly contradictory and might make you want to strangle me through your laptop screen… This list doesn’t need to be 100% final. Allow for some wiggle room because things can and do change during the application process. For instance, if you find the essay topics of a particular school irritating, it’s okay to drop it. Conversely, if you visit a school and fall in love with it, feel free to add it to your list for regular decision.

How Many Schools Should I Apply To?

This is a common question with no one-size-fits-all answer. However, generally speaking, the sweet spot for most applicants is somewhere between 8 to 12 schools. The division typically goes something like this:

  • 2-4 reach schools
  • 3-4 match/mid-level schools
  • 2-4 safety schools

Reach Schools

Reach schools are the long-shots, the real tough ones with the odds stacked against you. They’re not impossible to get into, but it’s going to be quite a challenge.

Match Schools

Mid-levels, or match schools, are the ones that you’re moderately certain you’ll gain acceptance to. These are schools where your academic profile aligns well with the average admitted student.

Safety Schools

Safety schools are those that you’re nearly positive you’ll get accepted to based on factors like the school’s average GPA, ACT/SAT scores of admitted students, and overall admission rates. However, remember that no school is a true safety without a standout application.

Researching and Selecting Schools

When compiling your list, thorough research is crucial. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, think like an admissions committee, and consider what each school is looking for. Utilize resources like school websites, college fairs, and campus visits to gather information.

Be sure to categorize schools accurately into reach, match, and safety categories. This requires looking into admission statistics and comparing them to your academic profile. Knowing yourself and understanding the competitive landscape will help you make informed decisions.

Can I Apply to More Than 8-12 Schools?

Now that we’ve got our baseline, many of you are still asking, “Can I apply to more than 8-12 schools?” First off, let’s clear one thing up… no student MUST apply to more than 8-12 schools, but of course, you can if you choose to and (more importantly) are able to do so without overwhelming yourself.

If you’ve done your research, you will have no problem whittling your choices down to a solid list of 8-12, all of which are schools you would be more than happy to attend. We find that the people who are building target lists that consist of more than 12 schools are usually doing so out of worry, and that’s totally fine. As long as you can devote a good amount of time to each application and you don’t end up watering anything down, we say go for it. More power to you!

Just keep in mind that applying to more schools doesn’t increase your chances of getting accepted to any one of those schools in particular. For example, UC Berkeley doesn’t care if you’re applying to one school or 100; 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. That being said, if you can apply to UC Berkeley along with 15 other schools without sacrificing the quality of your apps, go for it. If you can’t do so without turning out subpar apps, it’s probably not a good use of your time.

Allow Yourself Some Flexibility Because, Well, Life Happens

There’s a point where messing around with your master list becomes counterproductive, and you actually start taking away valuable time from meaningful application work. Worst of all, this kind of second-guessing can drive you insane. Our advice is to try to avoid that scenario altogether. At some point, you need to make an executive decision: “Here are all the schools that I’m going to apply to! I’m happy with my choices! Now, I’m going to dominate these applications!”

We suggest standing on a chair and declaring these bold statements proudly if that helps. Now, take a step down off the chair (carefully!) and get ready to hear something that’s going to sound extremely contradictory to all that… This list of schools doesn’t need to be 100% final.

Yes, we just told you to make an executive decision about the schools on your target list and move on, but you also need to allow for some wiggle room because things can and do change. After all, it’s an application process. Here’s an example:

You might discover that once you dig into University of Chicago’s application, you find their historically provocative essay topics to be irritating—“What is square one, and can you actually go back to it? Huh?”—leading you to decide that you don’t have much to say about any of them. That’s okay. If you’re feeling overwhelmingly negative towards a certain application, go ahead and drop it. It’s not the end of the world.

On the flipside, leave the door slightly open for new possibilities. Let’s say you’ve got a debate tournament being held on Amherst’s campus in October. Even though you hadn’t even considered it as an option, your visit is enchanting. The students seem intelligent and down-to-earth, and that New England countryside is just breathtaking! Go ahead and add it to your list—for regular decision, of course, since suddenly deciding to create an early application in October would be crazy-sauce.

Be Open, But Be Realistic

While you should of course be open to new options, the majority of your list you decide on must remain firm until your applications are complete. For those of you applying early somewhere—whether it’s Early Decision or Early Action—that’s obviously a school choice that needs to be solidly set at this point.

Also, a quick word to you early application folks: for the love of all that’s holy in this world, do NOT wait until you get that first decision to work on your other applications. That’ll leave you with only two weeks to finish everything else, and you might as well buy yourself a one-way ticket to Meltdown City.

The Ivy League Factor

Another piece to the “how many schools?” puzzle comes in the form of Ivy League applications. Often times applicants ask us:

How many Ivies should I apply to? Does it increase or decrease my chances if I apply to all of them?

The simple answer is this: You should apply to as many Ivy League schools as you want to, and applying to all of them neither increases nor decreases your chances of getting accepted (aside from the diminishing returns factor we just discussed, of course).

The Ivies Are Reach Schools

The important point that you should know about including any Ivy League school on your target list is that the Ivies should technically be considered reach schools for everyone. It doesn’t matter how incredibly gifted you are, your admission to any one of them, be it Harvard, Brown, or Yale is simply not guaranteed.

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.

The Most Important Thing Is a Balanced Strategy

We’ve touched on not wasting time creating the “perfect” target school list, what to keep in mind when you’re considering how many schools you should apply to, as well as the Ivy League factor. Now, let’s look at putting together a game plan.

A winning hand will be the perfect mix of mid-level, safety, and reach schools. Basically, 3-4 schools from each category. Why? Well, as any good gambler will tell you, you’ve got to hedge your bets. Having a range of schools on your list will help you set ambitious goals while giving yourself backup options. Fair and true, but it also forces you to do three very important things.

1. Know Your Cards

Picking your reach and safety schools forces you to evaluate your own profile and think like an admissions committee. Examine your strengths and weaknesses. Find the gaps in your application and do what you can to fill them. It’s one of the best ways to really get to know yourself and choose the right schools.

2. Know Who You’re Playing Against

In order to categorize schools into match, safety, and reach, you’ve got to do your homework. Too often, students will create lists based on what they think they know, without actually going into school admissions profiles. You need to know what your school is looking for and how you compare to the other applicants.

3. Put On Your Pokerface

The college application process is a grueling, stressful time. Having a balanced school list will keep you sane. Applying to safety schools will calm you with the reassurance that at least you’ll get in somewhere and not be stuck at home. Applying to reach schools will give you the satisfaction of having given it your best shot.

Know yourself, know your schools, and keep calm. That’s the best advice anyone can give about applying to college, and making a strategic and balanced school list is a great step towards acceptance. So don’t stress too much over creating that “perfect” list. Do your research, pick out your schools, and get just get started, which is usually the hardest part of anything.


Creating a well-rounded list of colleges involves a strategic mix of reach, target, and safety schools. Aim for a balance that allows you to stretch your potential while ensuring you have solid options. Research thoroughly, make informed decisions, and remain flexible throughout the process. Remember, the goal is to find a set of schools where you can see yourself thriving, not just getting in.

By following these guidelines, you can craft a robust college application strategy that maximizes your chances of acceptance and ensures you find the best fit for your future. So, compile your list, make your executive decisions, and get ready to dominate your college applications!