How Many Schools Should Be on Your College List?

Factors to consider include money, time, financial aid, if you apply early decision, if you want a specific program, if you have specific needs, and if you apply to selective colleges.
Student using laptop to make a college list

A question that comes up repeatedly in the college search process is "How many schools should I apply to?" And the answer is that there's no magic numbers of schools that should be on your college list, but there are some things you can consider. According to CollegeVine, most students apply to 8-12 colleges. For the average student, this can be a good range to aim for. You'll want to have a good mix of reach, target, and probable schools. Reach schools are colleges where you have a small chance of acceptance, target schools are colleges that you have a pretty good chance of acceptance, and probable schools are colleges to which you are almost guaranteed acceptance.

Of course, 8 to 12 colleges may not be the correct range of colleges for everyone to apply to. Here are some factors to consider.

Why you may want to apply to a fewer amount of colleges

Money: It costs money to apply to college, and the more colleges you apply to, the more money you will spend. Application fees can be up to $90 each. Then there's also the cost of sending test scores. The SAT® and ACT® allow you to send four free score reports to colleges. Each additional SAT score report costs $14, and each additional ACT score report costs $18.50. Your first AP score report is free to send, but every score report after that will cost you $15.

Time: You should only apply to colleges that you would actually be willing to attend. Applying to a college that you have to interest in attending is not a sufficient use of your time or resources. The best way to know if you're really interested in a college is to visit it. But visiting colleges can take a lot of time, especially if the college is far from home. Additionally, you'll most likely have to write a supplemental essay specific to each school, which can be very time consuming between the school research and the actual writing of the essay.

Early Decision: If you're applying early decision to a college, you are required to attend if you are accepted. In this case, you would only be applying to one college.

Specific Program: Some majors, such as English or business, can be found at almost any college. Others, such as Floral Management or Theme Park Engineering, are very specific programs only found at a small number of schools. If you have your heart set on a very specific program, you'll probably only be applying to the small number of colleges that offer the program.

Specific Needs: Having specific needs may limit the amount of colleges you apply to. For example, if you know you will be living at home during college, you may only apply to schools that are within driving distance from your home.

Why you may want to apply to a higher amount of colleges

Selective Colleges: If you're applying to highly selective colleges, you'll want to apply to a decent number of them. Selective colleges receive more qualified applicants than they are able to accept. To narrow down the list, the admissions committee considers other factors, such as the essay or intended major. These factors will differ from one college to the next, so applying to a wide range can help improve your odds to being accepted to at least one of the selective schools.

Financial Aid Offers. One of the best reasons to apply to a higher amount of colleges is so that you can compare financial aid offers. The total cost of each school will vary based on what you receive in scholarships and grants. The Net Price Calculator on each school's website will give you a cost estimate based on your family's financial situation, but the amount of financial aid available can change year to year, and these sometimes do not take into account any merit scholarships you might receive from the school. The only way to know your actual cost of attendance is to apply. If you're interested in many colleges, but cost is the deciding factor, you may benefit from applying to all of the schools. Even though you'll pay money up front to send applications and test score reports, you might save more in the long run by selecting the college that offers you the best financial aid package.

When it comes to applying to schools, the right number to apply to really depends on the individual student. Do your research, consider all the factors, and then apply. And for more tips on applying to college, make sure to read our blog post, Creating a Balanced College List.