How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

As senior year of high school approaches, you naturally start to think about applying to colleges and it can be difficult to decide on exactly how many colleges you should apply to.

A good rule is to apply to 9 colleges: your final list should include 3 safety schools, 3 target schools, and 3 reach schools.

How to Decide Which Colleges to Apply to

When deciding which colleges to apply to, one of the most important considerations is your chance of admission at each school. If you apply to enough schools with a good chance of admission, then it is almost guaranteed that you will be accepted to at least one school.

So, how do you decide which colleges to apply to? First, identify at least three colleges of each type: safety, target, and reach schools. Then, choose the final three of each type to apply to, based on other criteria, such as available majors, geographic location, and financial considerations.

Think carefully about your decisions…

Let’s start off by looking at the major factors that determine whether a college is a safety school for you.

Safety Schools

A safety school, also called a backup school, is one where you have a high chance of admission, based on factors such as:

  • Standardized test scores (such as the ACT or SAT, and possibly SAT 2 or AP exams)
  • GPA and Class Rank (your course load will matter here too – take AP and Honors courses to show that you are committed to rigorous academics, and that you are not afraid of a challenge!)
  • Recommendations (ask teachers who know you well and are familiar with your work)
  • Resume (extracurricular activities, such as sports, clubs, and personal projects)
  • Other (personal statements, essays, and supplemental materials for an application)

Many publications will provide information about the average ACT or SAT scores and GPA or class rank at a variety of colleges. For example, the Princeton Review has information on the range of SAT scores for the 25th to 75th percentile for colleges (the middle 50% of students).

One of the biggest factors that makes a school a safety school is the overall chance of admission. If your test scores are well above the 75th percentile at a particular school, then your chance of admission will increase. With enough factors in your favor, you could increase your chance of admission to 70% or higher.

To choose safety schools, start by looking for schools where the majority of applicants (over 50%) are accepted.

From those, choose schools where your GPA or class rank and test scores place you well above the average.

This is where the math really starts to work in your favor. If you have around an 80% chance of getting into each one of your three safety schools, then there is a 99.2% chance that you will be accepted into at least one of the three (1 – 0.2*0.2*0.2 = 1 – 0.008 = 0.992, or 99.2%).

Make good choices!

Target Schools

A target school, also known as a reasonable school, is one where you have a good chance of acceptance, based on your statistics and those of the average accepted student.

Target schools are more academically rigorous than safety schools, with tougher admission requirements and lower overall acceptance rates. A target school has a better academic reputation than a safety school, but you will need a stronger application to get in.

To make your application stronger, try to get a recommendation from a teacher or a person in your network who went to that school.

Also, work hard during the school year to improve your GPA. Take the time over the summer to do some preparation to boost your standardized test scores on the ACT and SAT (Testive can help you with this!)

Reach Schools

A reach school, also known as a dream school, is one where you have a low chance of acceptance, either because your GPA and test scores are lower than average, or the school is incredibly selective (or both!)

At many reach schools, even well-qualified students will be hard-pressed to get in. For example, Ivy League schools are a reach for most students. These colleges could accept many students with high GPAs and perfect ACT or SAT scores.

However, don’t sell yourself short when it comes to reach schools! If you have a 10% chance of getting into each one of your reach schools, then you have a 27.1% chance of getting into at least one of them (1 – 0.9*0.9*0.9 = 1 – 0.729 = 0.271, or 27.1%).

Remember that Harvard accepts only about 5% of their applicants. If your qualifications are below their averages, then your chances may be even lower than that!

Even so, remember that your safety and target schools are part of your overall plan, so you can afford to take some chances when you decide on the reach schools you will apply to.

Go ahead, reach for it!

Factors to Consider When Choosing a College

There are several other factors to consider when choosing the colleges you will apply to. We already covered selectivity above, but you should also consider factors such as geographic location, availability of majors, post-graduation outcomes, and cost of attendance.

Geographic Location

If you decide to live closer to home, you may also be able to save on tuition costs by attending a college in your home state (more on this below).

If you know which industry you want to work in, you can choose a college close to one of the hubs of your industry. For example, if you want to work in the technology space, you might consider colleges in Boston. On the other hand, you could make a good start with a finance career in New York City.

Availability of Majors and Research Opportunities

Pay attention to which majors are offered at the colleges on your list. Even if a major is offered, you should try to get a sense of the reputation of the department and its graduates.

If you know that you want to do research in a particular area, choose a college with professors who are doing research in that area.

Finally, think about complementary majors or minors. If you major in music to pursue a career as an artist, you may want to double-major or minor in marketing and advertising to get the word out about your work!

A computer science major is a good complement for a math major, and knowing how to program will never hurt you.

Post-Graduation Outcomes

If you are interested in a college, you should try to find out how well students do after graduation. In particular, pay attention to the outcomes of students who majored in the same area that you hope to study.

College is a big investment of time and money, so you want to make sure that you get the most out of it that you can. You also want to make sure that you will have plenty of opportunities to choose from before you graduate.

Cost & Scholarships

If financing your education is a potential challenge, then one good option is a public in-state school. Tuition at these colleges will be much cheaper if you are a resident of the state they are located in.

For example, at UMass Amherst, the in-state tuition (for a Massachusetts resident) for the 2018 to 2019 academic year was $15,887, versus $34,570 for out-of-state tuition – a difference of over $18,000 per year – over $72,000 for four years!

If the cost of college is still a challenge, even with in-state tuition, then you should spend some time researching and applying for scholarships. Many small scholarships ($500 to $1000) go begging, with nobody to apply for them and win them. Seriously – look into it!

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Into a College

If you want to improve your chances of getting into a college, whether safety, target, or reach, there are a couple of things you can do to pull out all the stops and kick your application into high gear:

  • Specialize – choose one or two sports, clubs, or activities, and really dominate in them. Instead of being over-involved and not really shining in any one area, choose a few places where you can really stand out.
  • Show Initiative – take up an independent research project, either on your own or with a teacher or mentor. Include this project as part of your application, and you will stand far apart from the average applicant. You might also consider starting a team sport, club, or activity if it does not already exist at your school or in your community. Being a founding member, doing fundraising, and organizing the new group shows initiative and leadership ability!
Other Things to Remember When Applying to Colleges
  • When applying to colleges, there are a few other things to take into account:
  • The cost of applying to each college (an application fee can be as low as $25, but some are close to $100 each!).
  • The cost of taking tests (ACT, SAT, AP) and sending scores to colleges (along with the cost of test preparation).
  • The work required to fill out applications, and also to write, revise, edit, and proofread supplemental essays for each application.
  • Whether to apply early decision or early action.
  • Going on campus visits – you should visit before applying if you can, but certainly before accepting. I would not attend a college sight unseen!

By including a reasonable mix of safety, target, and reach schools on your list, you can shoot for the stars while also giving yourself a backup plan.

Aim for the Stars!

There is a lot to think about during junior and senior year of high school, when you are preparing to apply to colleges. With so much on your mind already, why worry more than you need to? When it comes to test preparation, Testive has you covered.

By |2020-03-24T14:53:48+00:00March 24th, 2020|Admissions, Uncategorized|

About the Author:

Jonathon Madore has been tutoring and coaching students for nearly a decade. He has taught at College of the Holy Cross, Boston College, and Quincy College. He enjoys passing on as much of his knowledge as possible, and guiding and mentoring students to the best of his ability.