How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

So, you’re starting your senior year of high school and thinking about applying to colleges. Congratulations on making it this far! You’re almost there! If you’re having trouble deciding how many colleges you should apply to, you have come to the right place. With so many options to choose from and different requirements for each college, many students feel overwhelmed before even starting the process.

Completing just one college application may seem daunting (not to mention the significant financial commitment!), let alone submitting an application to multiple schools. To guide you through this decision, we’ve put together a few suggestions to eliminate some confusion and help you answer this question for yourself.

No Perfect Number

Responses to the question of “how many schools you should apply to” will vary depending on who you ask and what your goals are. Across the web you might read that you should apply to 4-12 colleges, but does that wide range really help you at all?

Below we have outlined a better process for deciding how many colleges to apply to:

  • The time and financial commitment—Applying to schools requires time and money. Each application you fill out can range from completely free to a whopping $75. The more you apply to, the more it will cost and the more time you will need to dedicate to the process.   
  • The amount of time you will have to make a final decision once you start getting acceptance letters—The more colleges you apply to, the more options you may have to weigh come decision time. If you are under a time constraint, you may not want to have too many schools from which to narrow down your final choice.
  • How specific your interests areIf you are certain you want to major in forestry, the list of potential schools is going to be narrower for you than for someone who is undecided.
  • If you have a frontrunner that offers the option for early decisionSome colleges allow you to submit an application early and will respond before other schools’ deadlines. In this situation, you may only need to send in one application.
    Keep in mind, however, that an “early decision” application requires you automatically to forfeit admission anywhere else if you’re accepted. Even if that isn’t a requirement, “early action” applications should be approached with caution.
    Know that there is a possibility that you might
    not get admitted into the school you send an early application to. Make sure to have your other options in mind and avoid putting off any work toward your other applications while you wait for the early admission decision.

Create a College List

The most important things to consider are not the quantity of applications, but rather the schools themselves in comparison to your needs. You should do your research before it is time to apply so that you have an idea of the schools you believe could be the best fit for you.

There may not be an exact number of universities you should apply to, but creating a list of schools you’re interested in is the best way to make that decision for yourself.

Your college list should include a combination of the following:

Target Schools

Target schools are colleges that check the majority of your boxes. Your GPA and test scores make you a competitive candidate.

Reach Schools

Reach schools are a competitive stretch, possibly with a low acceptance rate and high admission requirements. Your grades and test scores may fall below the average student’s.

Safety Schools

Safety schools are colleges or universities you feel confident you will get into. Your credentials are above the average student’s.


There is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to college applications. One thing most experts do agree on is applying to two “safety” schools. Although you should not apply anywhere you would not be willing to attend, it is nevertheless wise to submit an application to two schools that are almost sure to accept you based on the average test scores and GPA of their students. That way, no matter how many target and reach schools you apply to, you’ll at least be confident that you are likely to be accepted somewhere at all.

You’re the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to submitting applications and deciding how many schools you should apply to. Your choices will be in your best interest depending on how you consider several factors, including your present financial or time constraints as well as your future goals.

Find the schools with the qualities you value, get an idea of your probability of getting in to each one, and feel confident in choosing the right number of applications for you.

More Helpful Guides:

Understand Your Needs and Put Them First: The College Search

Should You Apply to College Early?

Why You Should Visit Your School Counselor (Early College Prep)

The Nitty Gritty: Quantitative vs. Qualitative College Evaluation Methods

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