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How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

Send applications to the right number of safety, “reasonable” and reach colleges.

One of your biggest high school dilemmas is deciding how many colleges you should apply to.

You’d expect the answer to be: “It depends on your grades and your extracurricular activities, as well as your hopes, dreams and goals.” It’s not.

Believe it or not, there is a number that fits almost all applicants. If we told you now, you wouldn’t bother to read the rest of the chapter! So first, a bit of explanation.

Safety Schools

For each qualified applicant, there are three categories of colleges you should consider. Start with your “safety schools” or “fall-back schools.” They may not be the colleges you’ve dreamed of attending since you were a kid, but you have an excellent chance of receiving a college acceptance letter from them.

Your grades and test scores meet or surpass the colleges’ requirements, and other factors – a family connection, perhaps, or you specialize in an area they’re looking to better – increase your odds of getting in. You should be selective in picking out your safeties, because if you don’t get in anywhere else, they should be colleges you’re happy to attend.

Reasonable Schools

After safeties come “reasonables.” They are colleges at which you have a reasonably good chance of being accepted. They’re not near-guarantees like safety schools, but based on the statistics of previous freshman classes, you should be competitive with the rest of the applicants.

Reasonable choices can go either way, so you shouldn’t be surprised by either acceptance or rejection.

Reach Schools

Reach or “stretch” schools are colleges where your qualifications may fall a little short. They are worth applying to because you’d love to go there even if your grades or test scores aren’t quite up to snuff.

If you’ve got one reach in particular that you’re dying to attend, it’s worth thinking about applying early action, single choice early action or early decision to help your chances of getting accepted.

How Many Colleges Fall Into Each Category?

The best way to figure out which colleges fall into which category is to meet with a college adviser. You may also want to conduct your own research.

You’ll get a good idea of what each college is looking for in an applicant and what kind of student each one accepts. Be realistic about your strong and weak points and how they’ll affect your chances, and you’ll have a better shot at getting into colleges that are a good fit for you.

How Many Colleges Should You Apply to? The Magic Number Is…

If you’ve got the time, money and inclination, applying to nine or ten colleges (at least two or three in each category) isn’t out of the question.

If there are only a couple of colleges you really want to attend, and you and your adviser both feel you have an excellent chance of being accepted, then applying to as few as three or four (at least one in each category) is acceptable, although not encouraged.

But the magic number is six, including two safeties, two reasonables, and two reaches. It gives you an excellent chance of getting into at least one college, and a pretty good chance at being able to choose between two or more that have accepted you.

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No matter how many colleges you apply to, the most important thing is to apply to a broad enough spectrum of colleges so that you’re certain to attend a college where you are happy.

Four years of your time and tens of thousands of dollars are a lot to invest in a school you’ve merely settled for or applied to out of desperation at the last minute. Early research will mean more enjoyment during your college years.