How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? - Strategies and Tips

Picture of student wearing a red backwards hat listing which colleges they want to apply to on a whiteboard
April 26, 2024
Tips for finding the right amount of schools to apply to
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Building your college list can be exciting, but college applications can be time-consuming. How many colleges should you apply to? Read on to learn how many colleges you should apply to. 

Crafting the perfect college application takes time, diligence, and patience. Students often wonder, “How many colleges should I apply to?” The short answer is 7 to 12, but other factors must be considered.

We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how many college applications you should submit. If you’re feeling indecisive, read on to learn how to decide which colleges you should apply to.

Should I Apply to Multiple Colleges? 

As students think about college, they all have the same question: what is the right amount of colleges to apply to? Well, you can apply to multiple schools, and you should! Applying to just one college can be a risky choice. Even if you’re confident you’d be accepted based on your GPA, test scores, and more, applying to just one college puts all your eggs in one basket. 

Schools have become more competitive: meeting minimum requirements doesn’t guarantee acceptance. The best college lists have variety: a mix of safety, target, reach, and far-reach schools:

  • Safety schools: Schools that are most likely to accept you, where your GPA and test scores exceed those of the average admitted student. 
  • Target schools: These are schools that are likely to accept you, but there’s still a chance they might not. Typically, your GPA and test scores will match or be slightly higher than the average of admitted students. 
  • Reach schools: These are colleges where you have a much slimmer chance of acceptance. Your GPA and test scores may be lower than those of the average admitted student. 
  • Far-reach schools: Far-reach schools are unpredictable, with low acceptance rates or schools that are unlikely to accept you because of your GPA and test scores. Some examples of far-reach schools include Ivy League schools and other prestigious institutions like Stanford University or MIT

It's best to apply to schools from each category for a well-rounded college list. Applying to more than one (or even two or three) is always in your best interest!

How Many College Applications is Too Many?

While you definitely don’t want to apply to too few schools, there is such a thing as applying to too many. The College Board suggests students have 5 to 10 colleges to consider by the end of their junior year. 

The advice varies depending on what sites you visit. Generally, the average number of schools to apply to ranges from 5 to 15, and 7 to 12 appears to be the most common. Any more than 15 is probably too many: you need to tailor your list if you have 20 schools to consider! 

Recommended Number of Reach, Target, and Safety Schools to Apply to 

That being said, you shouldn’t apply to an equal number of reach, target, and safety schools. Instead, follow this breakdown:

  • Reach schools: around 30% of your applications
  • Target schools: around 50% of your applications
  • Safety schools: around 20% of your applications

To give you an example, if you’re planning on submitting eight applications, two to three should be reach schools, four should be target schools, and one to two should be safety schools. 

The bulk of your applications should be to target schools, and the rest should be split between your reach and safety schools.

Factors to Consider When Applying to Colleges

These are other factors to consider before you jump in and craft your applications. 

Time Spent Crafting Applications

College applications are time-consuming, especially if you’re applying through different portals. The more colleges you apply to, the more time you’ll need to perfect everything before submission. 

Application Fees 

While the Common and Coalition Apps are free, the colleges you apply to have varying application fees. If you’re not eligible for fee waivers, you’ll be left to foot the bill. 

Chris Krzak, Assistant Vice Provost and Director of Admission at the University of the Pacific, said, “People are going to be going up over $500 in application fees if they apply to more than seven [schools].” 

Remember, you’ll need to pay fees for every school you apply to. If you have to use different application portals, this can become more costly. 

You’ll Need to Write Many Essays 

You need to factor in additional application essays. Most schools require students to write supplemental essays, often describing why they’d be a good fit for the school or their educational goals. 

These essays can range in length, but they’re usually between 100 and 500 words long. Consider how many essays you’re willing to write before determining how many schools you should apply to. 

What to Consider When Narrowing Down Your List?

Deciding which colleges to apply to can be challenging, but considering these factors can help. If you want to expand your list or reaffirm your choices, consider taking our School Selection Quiz! 

Start With College Research 

Doing your college research is a crucial first step in determining which colleges you want to apply to. Many students begin researching in junior year. College research ensures the schools you apply to fit your vision and cater to your needs. 

Consider Preferred Geographic Location 

Some students don’t care too much about where their school is, but for others, location is everything. Some students want to stay in-state to be closer to home, while others are okay with attending school across the country. Your preferred location is entirely up to you.

The School’s Prestige 

Take prestige with a grain of salt. Although Ivy League schools such as Harvard have incredible name recognition, there are many other excellent colleges to consider. 

You should also think about what school is best for you. If you’re applying to some top-ranked schools because you think you should, they may not be the best fit for you. 

School and Class Sizes 

Another important decision is determining whether you'd be happier on a smaller or larger campus. Do you see yourself thriving in a class of 500? Or would you prefer smaller class sizes?

There’s no right answer here. For some, a bustling campus is appealing, while others prefer a quieter setting. 

Rural or Urban Schools 

How does the prospect of learning in major cities like Los Angeles or New York City make you feel? Or, would you be more at home in a rural, quieter setting? 

Again, there’s no right answer, but it can help you figure out which schools would be best for you. 

Tuition, Costs, and Financial Aid Opportunities 

Finances, tuition, the cost of attendance, and financial aid availability can impact your choices. For most schools, tuition is higher if you’re an out-of-state student and lower if you’re an in-state student. However, tuition costs vary by school. 

If you’re moving to another city, you need to factor in the cost of living, transportation costs, and more. Some schools also offer need-based financial aid to cover some, if not the entire cost of tuition. Determine what schools offer before making your choices! 

Campus Life 

Campus life is crucial to many students. This includes what clubs and organizations the schools have: how would you contribute to the campus while you’re there? If you’re going to spend four years on a college campus, you want to ensure you’ll be happy there. 

Program Availability 

Program availability is a huge consideration. For instance, if you’re interested in doing pre-med coursework, some schools may be a better fit for you than others. If engineering is your focus, MIT or Cornell University are fantastic options. 

If you’re unsure where you want to take your education, that’s okay! However, if you have an idea of the area of study you want to pursue, you should check what programs relating to that study each school offers. 

Resource Availability 

Resources are crucial: does the school you want to apply to have undergraduate research opportunities, libraries, or anything else that will help enrich your academic experience? Most top-ranked schools, including the Ivy League Hidden Ivies, are well-funded and have adequate student resources and opportunities.

Common Mistakes

Here are some common mistakes people make when deciding how many colleges to apply to:

  • Applying to Too Many Schools: Some people apply to a lot of colleges, thinking it boosts their chances. But this can overwhelm them and waste time and money on applications they might not really want.
  • Not Applying to Enough: On the flip side, applying to too few colleges might limit your options and cause you to miss out on opportunities.
  • Ignoring Your Right Fit: Applying to colleges without considering if they're a good fit for you can lead to disappointment later. Research and understand each college's programs, culture, and environment.
  • Not Considering Backup Options: Failing to include safety schools or backup options in your list can leave you in a tough spot if you don't get into your top choices.
  • Waiting Until the Last Minute to Apply: Procrastinating on applications can lead to rushed decisions and missed deadlines, reducing your chances of getting into your desired colleges.

When applying to colleges, remember the above mistakes and avoid them as much as you can!

How to Calculate Your Chances of Admission?

If you want to see your chances of getting admitted to a college, check out this free calculator. The College Admission Chances calculator will help you determine your admission chances. All you have to do is input your academic profile, and the calculator does the work!

Tips to Find the Best Fit Schools

Choosing the perfect schools for your list is challenging, regardless of how sure you are about your career path! To make this process easier, consider the following tips:

  • Self-reflect: Reflect on your academic, social, and personal preferences to identify what matters most to you in a college. While prestige and ranking are important, don’t let them be the sole determiners for you! You’ll be spending four years at college, so consider the environment, opportunities, and location!
  • Research extensively: Explore colleges based on your criteria, considering factors like location, size, majors, and campus culture. Take time to do thorough research to ensure you’re choosing the best programs and schools to meet your needs and profile. 
  • Be realistic: Don’t bother applying to several schools that are well out of your reach. Know how competitive your application is and work within it!
  • Consider finances: Evaluate the affordability of each school, factoring in scholarships, financial aid, and potential student loans.
  • Seek counsel: If you don’t want to face the pressure of creating your college list on your own, let expert counselors do the leg work! They can easily determine your best-fit colleges based on your profile, strengths, and goals.  

Choosing the right college is a significant decision that can affect your entire future! Take your time and carefully consider your options.


Do you still have questions about how many colleges you should apply to? These FAQs can help. 

1. Is It Recommended to Apply to Only One College?

No, you shouldn’t only apply to one college because you’ll limit yourself! There’s no guarantee you’ll get into this one college, so you should have multiple backups!

2. Is There an Ideal Number of Colleges I Should Apply to? 

The short answer is no. The length of your college list depends on how many safety, target, and reach schools you want to apply to. The average number of colleges students apply to is 7 to 12.

3. How Do I Decide Which College to Go to? 

Deciding which college is right for you can be challenging if you receive multiple acceptances. Consider your priorities, like program availability, geographic location, and more. 

4. How Many Safety Schools Should I Apply to? 

It’s in your best interest to apply to at least one safety school, but you can also apply to two or three. 

5. How Many Reach Schools Should I Apply to? 

Generally, students apply to one or two reach or far-reach schools, although you can apply to more if you feel your GPA and test scores are strong enough for a better possibility of acceptance. 

6. Is Applying to 20 Colleges Too Much? 

The answer is generally yes, but it depends. If you would be happy at any of those 20 schools and are prepared to write multiple supplementary essays, you can. However, we recommend narrowing your list. 

6. How Many Colleges Can You Apply to? 

You can apply to 20 colleges through the Common App and as many as you want (that are member schools) through the Coalition App. 

7. How Many Colleges Should You Apply To Early Action?

While there isn’t a limit to how many colleges you should apply to early action, most students only apply to up to two to three because they have earlier deadlines. But, you can essentially apply to as many as you’d like if you’re eager to get your decisions and doing so won’t compromise the quality of your applications!

Final Thoughts

Applying to college can be fun and exciting, but crafting stellar applications takes time. How many colleges you should apply to depends on how many schools fit your criteria. 

If you’re stuck on which colleges you should apply to, consider chatting with an admissions counselor. No matter which college you decide to go to, you should feel happy and confident with your decision.

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