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 College Applications: How Many is Too Many?

Have you ever heard the saying, “Nothing worth having comes easy?” If you consider a postsecondary degree “worth having,” your college search should take significant time and effort. A hurried search can yield either a short list with few viable options or a much longer list that creates another set of problems. In an admission environment with easily accessible online applications and financial aid-hungry applicants, long lists have become more and more common. 

When you consider all the various components of each college, a clear list of potential postsecondary options will reveal itself. College counselors typically stress one important piece of the application process to help students find a healthy list of target schools. “When a college is suggested to a student, they very often don’t do the necessary research,” said Jane Mathias, director of guidance at the Nardin Academy in Buffalo (NY). Research helps you narrow down your pool of potential colleges through visits to campuses, meetings with faculty and conversations with students. “Start with schools that are close to you,” Mathias said. “See a class, be in a dorm for a night.”

Survey data from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA indicates a growth in the number of applications per student over the last 18 years. The percentage of students submitting seven or more applications has risen from nine percent to 22 percent since 1990. Scott Anderson is the director of outreach for the Common Application. Previously, he worked as a college counselor, where he recommended a list of six to eight schools for his students. “There were not many students who could justify a list longer than eight colleges,” Anderson said.

While a long list of possible colleges might sound appealing during an application season filled with uncertainty, an application surplus carries a weight of its own. According to Anderson, a student with an excessive amount of applications will likely face one of two fates in the spring. Either the applicant will receive more rejection letters, adding unnecessary emotional strain on the admission process, or more acceptance letters, resulting in a tougher final decision.

In the fall, most students concentrate on obstacles in front of them, like maintaining a good grade point average, writing college essays and gathering recommendations. Anderson advises students to also conduct extensive research about each institution. “It would be much easier to narrow that decision now, rather than in April when you’ve got one month to evaluate financial aid packages, go back and revisit colleges, make all of these decisions at a very, very busy time of year,” he said. More research translates into a quicker decision in the spring.

Counselors often recommend a range between six and eight colleges to keep a narrow, focused list. They did not pluck those numbers from thin air, so consider the benefits of staying in that range. Using this range, target schools should take up the majority, leaving room for any safety and reach schools you would like to include. Julie Beck, an independent counselor in Eugene (OR), usually recommends one reach, one “safety that you would actually go to,” and three target schools. “That should be enough, if you’ve really done your research,” Beck said.

Occasionally, circumstances permit more applications. At the Jewish Community High School at the Bay in San Francisco (CA), the number of applications per student spiked in 2009. “For the class of 2009, due to the recession and uncertainty about financial aid awards, I strongly recommended that students apply to somewhat more colleges,” said Geoffrey Smith, dean of college advising at the academically competitive private school. Eight to 12 were my exact words, which may explain the upward blip in that year.” Students hunting for the best financial aid offers sometimes find it difficult to adhere to the traditional application limits, but research always helps to keep the process under control.

Today, students can research prospective colleges in a variety of ways. “Ideally, it’s great if you can be on campus, sit in class, spend an overnight,” Beck said. The value of campus visits cannot be overestimated, but, as Beck admits, not every student has the resources for multiple trips, especially if they require extensive travel. Social media sites and student blogs allow prospective and enrolled students the opportunity to easily share information. Sometimes a series of conversations with enrolled students can give you more information than an official campus tour.

Connecting with colleges on their official Web pages is a great an easy way to start your research!  

There are more than 4,000 degree-granting colleges in the US. Scott Anderson advises students to be wary of any college representative who tries to offer an easy path to admission. Most colleges are looking to find students who will fit their respective communities, just as you are looking to find your new home. “I would advise all students, regardless of what application tool they are using, to be thoughtful about where they’re applying and make sure that every school on their list is there for a reason,” Anderson said.

He also commented on the media frenzy surrounding highly-selective schools, which inspires some students to fill out more applications out of desperation. “The Chicken Little, sky-is-falling-scenario does not apply to most students, and they need to know that, and feel good about the many, many options that they have.” To maintain sunny skies throughout the entire admission process, research as early and as often as you can.  

Written by Sean Nyhan
Updated February, 2012


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