I agree with @happymomof1 that building the list from the safety (sure thing for admission, affordable, and student likes it) up is the way to go. It’s very easy to pick reach schools, in my opinion. I suggest at least two safety schools, because it’s nice to have a choice if it comes to that.
I suggest that students figure out their criteria for college…the things they want their college to have…and go from there. This needs to be compatible with family affordability.
Let me describe my older child, the performing arts major. He wanted a school in an urban area so he would have access to performances to see as well as possibly be part of. He wanted good public transportation so he could get to these things. He wanted a very strong teacher on his instrument (this is where networking with his music folks came in). He wanted very strong student ensembles plus a variety of them
Note…he didn’t mention conservatories, or rankings of schools. He made a list of characteristics of the school he wanted.
His final school application list included both conservatories and universities with strong conservatory like music programs within the university. Some were smaller schools, and some larger. He applied to only 7 schools. Again, he vetted the list before the applications were sent. But in addition, he had to consider the added audition at each place to which he applied. Seven was manageable. I’m not sure more would have been.
His variety of colleges was a good one and we agreed with it. Top criteria ended up being the private instrument teacher, as it should be for musicians. (Adding, there is a music majors forum here where you can get tons of information about music majors).
I think having a variety of application places is important. Students can really change between October when the start to submit applications, and May when they have to actually choose a college to attend from their accepted list.
Even for this musician, he had three schools with early auditions, and he had those acceptances before the middle of December. He knew he was going somewhere!