As with most things in life, the correct answer is individual. “Several” is the number that allows you to confidently enter application season. Here, then, is a five-step guide to choosing your magic number.
Step 1: Determine Your Admissions Budget
Before you begin to apply to colleges, take stock of your admissions-specific financial resources. Entrance exams like the ACT and SAT cost money, as do campus visits. Even the applications that you submit carry a fee. While this is a small amount relative to the tens of thousands that you might spend on tuition, it does add up quickly. How many schools can you afford to apply to, given your budget?
Step 2: Consider the Rarity of Your Intended Major
If you intend to major in a particularly narrow field, you may find that relatively few colleges offer such a concentration. For example, there are only a handful of schools with an undergraduate degree in astrobiology. If your major is rare, apply to those colleges that offer it – you may ultimately apply to fewer schools than a prospective English major, but that is perfectly acceptable.
A corollary to this step can be summed up in the following question: “How important are specialized university facilities to your career plans?” When I applied to college, I pictured a career spent studying particle physics, and having a functional particle collider on campus was one of my primary college decision criteria.
Almost every college in the U.S. offers a degree in physics, but fewer boast of particle colliders. Even more relevant to my search was the fact that many large state schools required science faculty to include undergraduates in their research activities. Some small schools offered that opportunity too, but their research facilities were sometimes limited.
Step 3: Gauge the Selectivity of Your Intended Major
If your prospective major is highly competitive, consider applying to a greater number of schools. This can help you ensure that you are admitted to at least one college in your program of choice. Many business and engineering concentrations, for instance, require an accessory admissions process that is often more rigorous than the one that the school as a whole uses.
There is no hard and fast rule for determining the number of competitive programs to apply to. The upper limit on applications will be dictated in part by your budget.
You can also speak with admissions officers to gain a sense of how competitive you will be for entry to a particular college or major. If you are set on a specific concentration, but your admissions portfolio is not ideal given the competitiveness of the major, you may want to apply to a larger number of schools – perhaps six to 10.
Step 4: Review Your Other Needs
Colleges vary widely in their culture, location, social environment and a host of other nonacademic features. Depending on your criteria, you may have a very short list of possibilities to work with – the Department of Education’s College Navigator lists exactly two private, nonprofit colleges located in rural settings in Alabama, for example.
Another important need involves finances. If your tuition budget is limited, it may be important to you to attend a public college in your state of residence. In some states, this requirement may present you with just two or three choices, naturally shaping the number of schools you will apply to.
Step 5: Ensure You Are Comfortable With Your Number
I would recommend a minimum of three applications: one target school, one stretch school and one safety school. Even if you are positive that just one college is perfect for you, it is well worth having a backup plan.
The more difficult problem lies in deciding your maximum number – in other words, how many is too many? Again, the goal is to feel as comfortable as possible as you begin to apply to schools. Ideally, you want to have several acceptance letters to choose from.
If your discussions with admissions counselors and your own research suggest that you are borderline for admittance, six or seven applications may be warranted. More are likely unnecessary – if seven of seven colleges turn you down for a competitive program, the eighth almost certainly would have as well.
Remember that there is a cost in time, money and stress when sending out applications. The key to success lies in striking a balance between the factors discussed above.
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