How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

  • How do I identify the perfect college for me?
  • How many colleges should I apply to?
  • How do I pick a “safety” school?
  • How do I pick a “reach” school?
  • How do I pick s a “target” school?
  • What are common mistakes students make when creating a college list?

How do I find the perfect college for me?

Let’s begin by disavowing you of the idea that there is a singular dream college out there. Your life won’t “be over” if you don’t get into School X, because, in reality, there are dozens of other institutions that have the same core features as School X. While this might sound like we are trying to ruin your fantasy of the perfect university, we actually intend this to be exceptionally good news. The truth is that no matter who you are, whether you’re a valedictorian or B/C student, there are at least 40–50 schools out there that would be a fantastic fit for you.

How many schools should be on my college list?

Your college list should be somewhere between 8–10 schools including a healthy mix of safety, target, and reach institutions. In cases where a student is applying to a number of highly-competitive colleges, you may wish to increase this number to 12.

What is a “Safety” school?

A safety college is a college where your credentials — your grades and test scores — are better than those of the average admitted students, and where you are likely to be admitted. You’ll also want to make sure that one or two of your safeties are also financial safety schools. Places where your parents are comfortable covering 100% of the tuition plus room, board and other fees through some combination of savings, a 529 account, or low-interest government loans.

What is a “Target” school?

Three to four of the schools on your list should be “target” colleges — institutions at which your academic profile is close to the average admitted student and you realistically have a better than 50/50 chance at admission. How do you assess this? Simple — the average admitted student looks a lot like you.

What is a “Reach” school?

Many students pick “reach” schools that are more like “snowball’s chance in hell” schools. There’s no harm in an average student submitting an application to Yale — but there is also no purpose either. Reach schools aren’t high probability risks but your time is too valuable to go through the motions of, say, applying to Middlebury with a C average.

Common college list mistakes

A classic, yet unfortunate college admissions outcome involves students miscategorizing dream schools as target schools. As in, “My SATs are mediocre and my grades took a dip junior year, but I still have a good shot at Duke.” Not soberly and accurately assessing your own chances during the list-creation can only lead to bad outcomes come decision-time.

College Transitions’ final thoughts

To wrap up, your mission is to narrow down 3,000 potential colleges to a final list of 8–10 schools. Along the way, you’ll want to identify a list of prospective safety, target, and reach schools that includes institutions that are accessible, affordable, and truly desirable. The best way to accomplish this is to dig-deeper, researching how each school genuinely matches up with your needs and desires and always look at things through a realistic lens, not one that is too rosy or too gloomy. Following our advice will enable you to sculpt the college list equivalent of Rodin’s The Thinker or Michelangelo’s David; failing to adhere to these principles will likely leave you with an uninformed, poorly-conceived mess and quite possibly, diminished college prospects.



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College Help

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We created College Help as a resource for college preparation as we made costly mistakes in our school decisions. We’re here to help you make the right choices!