How many colleges should I apply to?

Brennan Barnard
Brennan Barnard

Brennan Barnard, M.Ed, is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at Khan Lab School, CA and the Director of College Counseling for the College Guidance Network. He also serves as the College Admissions Program Advisor with Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

How many colleges should I apply to?

    Build a “college list” to help you decide what schools to apply for.

    Sort schools into various buckets based on how likely you are to be accepted.

    Consider other factors like financial aid, deadlines, and the possibility of visiting campus.

    Students and those who support them often ask how many colleges they should apply for. As with nearly everything in college admission the unsatisfying answer is, “it depends:” the answer could range between 5 to as high as 15. However, some students will only apply to one school. Perhaps they are a recruited athlete, and their list is determined by which college ultimately extends an offer.

    Other students might choose to apply to a school through a binding Early Decision plan, in which case it is one and done. Or maybe the school that a student wishes to attend has open enrollment (meaning they take 100% of the students that apply), so if there’s space, they are in.

    “Think carefully about how many colleges to apply to: be strategic and don’t stretch yourself too thin.”

    More commonly, students will apply to multiple colleges and universities. During the 2021-2022 academic year, the Common App reported that the average number of applications submitted by students on their platform was between 5-6. That number has been steadily increasing. In 2000, 13% of applicants applied to 7 or more colleges, and two decades later in 2020 that percentage had more than doubled, ballooning to 37% (an 184% increase).

    Is applying to 20 colleges too much? While you may find you have classmates who apply to 20+ schools, if you approach the search and application experience with intention, openness, and humility, you can find success and balance in a smaller, more manageable list, helping you avoid decision fatigue during the college admissions process.

    Building a college list

    Building a list of colleges to which you will apply is a dynamic and evolving process. Think of it as a funnel with different phases that narrows down to your final list. Ideally, during the research phase, you are casting the net widely, exploring 50 or more schools ranging in selectivity, location, size, and other criteria.

    As you begin to refine your choices, you might pick 20 or so colleges to visit either in-person or virtually. This will likely include tours, information sessions, and interviews if offered. Based on your experiences in the visit phase, you will hopefully narrow your list to between 6-12 colleges.

    To help you make informed choices as you decide what colleges to apply to, we have ranked the top colleges in the U.S. in terms of investment value.

    Factors to consider

    When you build your college list, you should keep several factors in mind that might impact the size and scope of your college list. These include the selectivity of the schools you apply for, the cost of tuition (as well as room and board), the possibility of visiting campus, availability of financial aid, and deadlines.


    Generally, we recommend that you divide your college list into 3–4 buckets based on your chances of being accepted. You will hear these buckets described by different names or labels, but the idea is the same. They are as follows:

    Uber Reach

    Also known as “Dream” or “Hail Mary” schools, many applicants do not even have this category on their list. For students without a significant “hook,” (like recruited athletes), this would include any college with an acceptance rate in the single digits. If a school’s average accepted student profile is far above your GPA and test scores (if required) then it would go in this very small bucket. It is unwise to have more than 1-2 schools, if any, in this category.


    These colleges include schools where your profile is below their accepted student average. If you have a 3.5 GPA and 1300 SAT scores, but the middle 50% of the students they admit have a 3.7-3.9 GPA and 1400-1450 SAT, then you should drop that college in this bucket. Consider limiting the number of these schools on your list to 1-4 colleges.


    This is your sweet spot. Also known as “mid-range” or “50/50” schools. These are colleges where your profile is within the middle 50% of the students they admit. In other words, the numbers line up, but the decision could go either way based on their institutional needs and your unique strengths and contributions. Ideally, this should be the largest bucket of schools on your list, between 4-6 colleges.


    You might have heard this referred to as “safety” schools, but the truth is that unless a college has open enrollment, nothing is guaranteed. Your chances of being accepted, however, are strong if your profile is well above that of the average admitted student. Every student should have at least 1–2 schools that meet these criteria and where you would genuinely want to attend.

    Unfortunately, some students apply to a school where they feel confident that they will be admitted, but in reality, they would never go. That is a waste of time (yours and theirs) and resources. If affordability and finances are going to play a role in the ultimate decision of where you attend, you should also make sure that you have schools on your likely list that are financially viable. In other words, you should know that either the cost is reasonable, the need-based aid is generous, or you will qualify for merit scholarships.


    You will find that it can be expensive to apply to college (a precursor of what is to come). Application fees average around $50 but can cost as much as $90 (especially at some of the most selective schools). That can quickly add up, which is just another reason to be intentional about building a reasonable college list.

    Some schools have abandoned application fees (because of equity or to increase their application numbers), and most colleges waive the fee for those whom it would cause a financial hardship. A free application is not a reason to apply to a school, but low-income students should also not see fees as a barrier.

    » Read: Everything you need to know about need-blind admissions


    Some students are unable to visit college campuses before they apply, either because they don’t have the financial resources to travel widely, or because of time limitations. International students also frequently have fewer opportunities to visit in person. Despite increased options for virtual tours and information sessions, students who are unable to see a campus firsthand might apply to more schools and then visit once they know where they have been accepted.


    Students who will need significant financial support to attend college might also have larger college lists. When they are unsure of the need-based and/or scholarship aid packages they will receive, students must make sure that they have ample choices, which can necessitate additional college applications.

    » Read: Financial planning for college students


    The timeline for your applications might determine the ultimate size of your college list. As mentioned above, if you apply through the first Early Decision round in November and learn that you are accepted, you might only have to apply to one school.

    Likewise, if you apply through non-binding Early Action or Rolling Admission plans and are admitted to a school that is high on your list, you might be able to eliminate some of the target or likely schools that you had on your list as backups. Therefore, planning and being strategic about your college list could save time and money.

    If you are denied of deferred to the Regular Decision pool during the early rounds, you should have your list of additional school to which you will apply ready to go, as the turnaround between receiving the decisions and Regular Decision or Early Decision II deadlines will be short. What initially was a college list of 1-2 schools might quickly become 10-12 if you don’t get the good news that you hoped. Have a plan B.

    Applying to several colleges at once

    Your college list might be significantly larger if you are applying to a state system like the University of California. They have their own system-wide application that you fill out once and indicate multiple campuses where you wish to be considered for admission. Again, only check off schools that you would actually consider attending. Remember that a college list that includes 10 applications might be 15 or more if you count each UC school separately.

    Likewise, some colleges use the common application system, which allows you to save time by applying to multiple colleges at once, although you may still need to fill out portions of the application individually for each college.

    Aim high with balance

    It is good to reach for the stars and not shy away from colleges that may seem like a stretch on paper. But keep in mind that applying to more reach schools does not increase your odds of being accepted. If you are going to apply to a large number of highly selective colleges outside your profile, you must be prepared to hear “no” a lot.

    The key is to start your search early, do your homework on each college, and consult your school counselor to ensure that you have a good range of selectivity. Your final college list will indeed “depend” on how thoughtfully and thoroughly you have approached this experience. Good luck!

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