What’s the Right Number of College Applications?

While there is no “right” number of applications per se due to individual circumstances, we advise that, for the great majority of students, the best number is 10. Less than 10 doesn’t spread your risk sufficiently and more than 10 dissipates your focus and effort.

Your Selection Criteria

The first step in selecting the colleges to which you’ll apply is to establish your criteria. These criteria are subjective and you alone should determine them. There’s no standard to which you should adhere. Your profile of an ideal college may include such wide-ranging factors as the size of the student body, faculty-to-student ratio, total annual expenses, core curriculum, majors and interdisciplinary programs, degrees granted, geographic location, local community, campus setting, campus life, social opportunities, work-study programs, mentorship programs, cultural venues, sports, and recreational opportunities, among many others. You can weight your criteria based on their importance to you.

You should initially be able to determine which colleges satisfy your criteria best through sources like college websites and course catalogs, the databases of a number of publishers, college guidebooks, governmental resources, guidance counselors, private educational consultants, and the colleges themselves by email.

Visiting campuses, starting in the summer after junior year or sooner, is the best way to screen colleges for fit. Make sure that you take a campus tour, arrange for an admissions interview, and set up meetings with students and faculty in your planned area of study. Staying overnight in a dorm and speaking with students will give you more useful information than any formal meeting or data source can provide.

The Three Tiers

A common approach to developing a College List for applications is to divide it into three tiers. The tiers organize the list into these subsets: 1.) Schools to which you will almost certainly be admitted, 2.) Schools to which you will probably be admitted, and, 3.) Desirable schools to which you have a small but real chance of admission.

There are a variety of names applied to the three tiers by college admissions professionals. At Louis Educational Consulting, we refer to them as Safety, Target, and Reach. To divide schools by tier, start with your high school academic record. This consists of your GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and other factors that vary among colleges such as class rank and SAT Subject Test scores.  The data set that you’ll compare it to is the academic records of those applicants who were accepted last year at each school you’re considering. This data is available to at no cost from the colleges themselves and a number of reliable third-party sources.

An overview of the three tiers is provided below:


A safety school is one at which your academic record falls well above the average GPA and test scores of the last freshman class. You should feel confident that you’ll be admitted to your safety schools. It’s important to select safety schools that you’d be happy to attend if none of your target or reach schools admit you.


A target school is one at which your academic record falls at about the average level of the last freshman class. You should have four target schools on your list. It’s reasonable to anticipate acceptance at your target schools, although there’s an unknown risk inherent in the variability of the volume and quality of applications from year to year.


A reach school is one that you aspire to attend and at which you have at least the possibility of admission. Your academic record places you below the average of last year’s successful applicants, but not so low as to eliminate you from consideration.

As is true in all three tiers but is especially true with reach schools, your chances of acceptance are much improved if you possess a strong hook, that is, a highly developed talent or a personal characteristic that enables you to satisfy a need or a diversity goal of the school. The “soft” factors in admission such as essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation also play a large part in admissions decisions because so many applicants have academic records that are nearly identical.

Early Admissions

The process of identifying the colleges that fit you best and narrowing them down to three or four in each tier is difficult and time-consuming. Adding to the complexity is the need to consider Early Admissions programs.

Early Admission programs vary widely in their terms and options. Many offer advantages to you as an applicant. For example, your chance of admission to certain colleges is improved significantly if you participate in their Early Admissions program. If you choose to apply to early decision colleges on your list, you’ll know if you were accepted before the deadline for applying during the Regular Admissions cycle. At that point, you’ll may want to reassess your College List. You won’t need to submit any more applications if you choose to accept a binding early offer of admission. Or perhaps you’ll prefer to apply to all listed colleges to optimize your ultimate set of choices.


The test of a College List is whether it produces the desired outcome — acceptance at one or more of your best-fit schools. Louis Educational Consulting has years of experience in assisting students in building effective College Lists. We follow college news closely, we attend professional association conferences, and we interact with educational experts. We attend college fairs, visit campuses, and speak often with college administrators. We stay well informed. Louis Educational Consulting should be your choice for expert  guidance in identifying and applying to the colleges and universities that are best for you.

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