How many colleges does it make sense to apply to?

This Ask the Dean article was originally published in 2018, and recommends applying to between 8-12 schools. Is that number still relevant? How many schools are you planning to apply to, or did you already apply to? How many is too many? So much has changed in the last few years! Please share your thoughts!

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Minimum is 1 safety where admission and affordability are assured, and which is otherwise a suitable college to attend (has the desired academic programs, does not have any “deal breaker” aspects).

Note that a favorable admission (and financial aid / scholarship if needed) early notification from an early action, early decision, or early rolling application can provide a safety early in the application season (obviously, if binding early decision, you are done). But you need to be prepared to apply to another safety if the early notification is not a favorable one.

Beyond that, any number of others is fine, but applicants should realize that unique applications, essays, etc. can add up, so that applying to too many can mean not being able to put best effort into all of them. More colleges also means more cost of application fees and the like.


I think that number still stands as long as you have a good mix. If you do too many it haunts you as it becomes evident to the AO’s that you did not spend enough personalized time/effort for their school. My D21 did 12 (2 reaches, 4 targets of varying degrees - some harder, some more on target, one low target/high safety, 4 safeties) - too many safeties for her but that was her choosing. She really spent a lot of time on the target/reaches - interviewed, did all optional stuff and got in to 11/12 (including both reaches) and WL at one (? target). She definitely didn’t need more - could have swapped a safety or two for another reach or two though!

I feel she landed better than many I read about who applied to insane numbers. She has two top 20 choices (incl. an ivy) and got some great merit at her top targets.


I think students don’t realize how many essays are required beyond the common app prompt. My D applied to 8 schools and wrote 19 unique essays. I think the 8-12 schools, is still solid advice. I think beyond 12, the quality of the application is going to drop off unless there are no additional essays.

D broke her list up with 2 safeties (real safeties with 70%+ acceptance rates), 2 reaches, and 4 matches. That 20/60/20 breakdown was recommended by her GC and I think makes good sense.


I agree that it isn’t the number of applications but the quality of them, both in terms of crafting essays and crafting the right mix of schools. While there can still be surprises in the number of applications at a specific school, you will never know that’s an issue until it’s way too late. I think students run into trouble with a list that is too reach heavy and not spending enough time showing the school why they should be admitted.

D20 applied to 10, accepted ED to her top choice, and withdrew the other 9. Her school saw an unprecedented increase in the number of apps this cycle and there would have been no way to predict it. While no one knows for sure, I think we can expect a bit more “normal” cycle next year with vaccines and visits because students can be more targeted and less panicked in their strategy.

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My 18 year old applied to 20, many more that her siblings, got accepted at 19. She needed merit, really wanted to go OOS, and this was a weird year. She applied to some southern schools due to covid restrictions in the northeast, and is ending up at one of them. ETA at this time, she plans on becoming an actuary, half of the schools had that major in arts and sciences, but she can also go that route through a business school and major in something else, and she’s only 18. She was on the fence through the application process.

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This would vary tremendously based on the individual circumstance. There’s not reason to fill out 8+ forms just because it’s a “right” number.

There’s a student near us whose parents both went to Penn State and is locked into Penn State. His GPA/SAT/etc. are way above their 75th percentiles - it more a question of whether he’ll get into the the honors college. With a first choice that’s basically a safety, any other applications don’t seem to be valuable.

My older D didn’t have an interest in reaching to elite colleges. She preferred to be with “her people”. She applied to 7 (and 1 reach because it was literally a checkbox on the Common App) and got into all of them.

My younger is ambitious. She’s set on applying to MIT, Stanford, Caltech, CMU as a start. So once we get reasonable matches and a safety or two, 10 might make sense for her.

Over 10 strikes me as either a lack of an effective search or adoption of a shotgun strategy under the fallacious “if I apply to more, I’ll get in to more” mindset.

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It depends upon what the student is looking for. My kid did a very thorough, in-depth search according to the teacher for his instrument (performance music, but not at a conservatory - wanted dual degree), the ability to easily do dual degree, and highly-ranked academics. He came up with a grand total of six schools, I think. One was our state flagship (safety), which happened to have an amazing instrumental teacher. One was a highly competitive Ivy, which had a great symphony and his favorite conductor, but he’d have to study privately for instrument. Plus about five universities with schools of music, great teacher, good academics. He applied early action to the Ivy, got in, withdrew the other applications that he had been forced to submit early, for chasing merit money, and didn’t apply to the rest.

There really is no reason (other than perhaps chasing money) to apply to more than one rock solid safety. The whole idea is that it’s a safety - you are sure to get in. For match schools, makes sense to apply to maybe three, unless you’re chasing merit money. Perhaps three well-chosen reaches, that are a great fit in terms of location, academics, “vibe”. Applying to 100 reaches is not going to increase ones odds of acceptance.

There are threads from this year, of people who applied to nearly 20 reaches, and didn’t get into a single one. And there are threads from people who applied to a bunch of matches, and are sitting on 20 acceptances. Congratulations! They can only go to one. Why apply to so many?

So yes, I do think that 8-12 is about right. I hear that the common app fee waiver allows 20, which seems ridiculous to me, should be about half that number.

This is my view. I almost agree with @ucbalumnus, except I might be a bit more cautious and would apply to 2 safeties. Many decades ago however I did not follow my own advice and I did only apply to 1 safety plus 1 reach.

Once you have picked out two very good safeties, what else to add IMHO depends upon how you feel about your safeties and what other schools come to mind.

I have to agree with @ucbalumnus. I think it depends on your goal. My youngest D wanted to apply to only one school. It was a “safety” but also the school she wanted to attend. I made her apply to 3 other schools all “higher” ranked. She was accepted everywhere. She is now in grad school at her safety doing exactly what she had planned to do when applying.

If your student is interested in a selective school or if you want to get the lowest cost then applying to more schools may be necessary. Our oldest D applied to 7 schools. A safety, 4 matches and 2 reaches. Money was an issue but she was happy with her safety. One of her matches ended up making the school even more affordable than her safety and it too was her number 1 school.

I think the better a student understands what they need and want from their education and the family understands what they can and will afford the easier it is to choose where to apply. Disregard either and it is much more likely that the student will be disappointed come acceptance time or that the family will come to regret the financial implications of the decision.


This is the definition of the perfect safety! Too many students are disappointed if they have to choose their safety. If properly chosen though, it should compete for the top spot. :+1:t3:


If the student’s first choice is a safety (assured admission, assured affordability) or becomes one early due to early (EA, ED, or rolling) affordable admission, then there appears to be no reason to send out any more college applications.