College Corner: The numbers game: deciding how many schools to apply to

Published on Monday, 9 June 2014 19:06 - Written by

In my years as a college adviser, and especially in the years since most of us went off to college, one of the things that has changed the most is the number of applications that most students complete.

A generation ago, most students applied to only a couple of schools. In fact, about 40 percent of freshmen in the 1970s applied to only one college, according to a report by the Higher Education Research Institute.

Today, however, most students apply to several schools; about 80 percent apply to at least three, and about 30 percent apply to seven or more. It’s easy to understand why: the online process and the growth of common applications have made it much simpler to apply to multiple schools, often with only a few clicks. And, with elite schools growing ever more selective, many students simply want to hedge their bets.

However, there comes a point where applying to multiple schools is no longer a good idea. It can get expensive and time-consuming to complete 15 applications. But more than that, apply to too many schools and you’ll face a tough spring. If you get accepted at multiple schools, you may have a difficult time making a decision. If you don’t get accepted at most of them, you’ll be faced with a long and deflating string of rejections.

At the same time, applying to just one or two can be risky, unless you’re 100 percent certain you’ll get in. And if that’s the case, you may be settling for a school that won’t challenge you and may not provide the education you deserve.

For most students, a number somewhere in the middle — perhaps somewhere between four and eight — is probably about right. More than that and you probably won’t have time to research the colleges thoroughly. Fewer and you may not be fully exploring your options.

Of those schools, I encourage students to have a mix of “target” schools, “reach” schools and “likely” schools.

Target schools — those that are a good match for your test scores, class rank and GPA, and to which you are likely but not certain to get in — should make up the majority of your list.

I suggest students apply to no more than two reach schools; these are the campuses where you have a chance of getting in, but where your test scores and grades are lower than the average successful applicant.

Finally, you should consider including at least one likely school, one where your statistics are well above those of the average freshman, and where you might even qualify for automatic admission.

It goes without saying that each of these schools should have a good program in the field you are most likely to choose, and that you can actually envision yourself attending each school. It makes no sense to apply to a university where you won’t be happy — no matter how sure you are that you could get in.

Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college adviser for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, financial aid, and find the college that’s right for them. Have a question for Donna? Send it to You just may see your question answered in a future column.