While there is no magic number as to how many colleges you should apply to, there are several factors you’ll want to consider when making this decision. Some schools are finding that limiting college applications to only a certain number per student can help ensure a better fit when students decide which college to ultimately attend. The College Board says that “five to eight applications are usually enough to ensure a student is accepted into a suitable institution (depending, of course, on the individual student’s record and circumstances).” They also recommend that this number should be made up of a combination of safety, probable, and reach colleges.
Similar advice would be offered by college counselors, who see no reason for students to apply to 20 or more institutions, as often happens at elite public and private high schools. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in the fall of 2015, 36% of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges. In the fall of 2005, however, 17% of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more institutions. As you can see, this figure has more than doubled over the course of the decade.
Counselors claim that these students are overtaxing colleges with applications, that they waste time filling out the forms, and that they should narrow down the number of colleges to which they are applying. Along these lines, one private high school in an urban area decided some 20 years ago to limit students to nine applications. The high school has average SAT scores in excess of 1450, grade point averages of 3.7 (unweighted) and a student body that mixes students of different income levels together. One faculty member agreed to talk about their policy of limiting college applications without naming the school.
“Our students will apply to some of the most competitive colleges in the country,” says a college counselor at the school. “The bulk of them apply to the same places, like Harvard and similar places.”
Naming one top school, the counselor says that if 50 of his students apply, 20 will get in in a given year. In terms of promoting the policy, the college counselor at the school says he talks about the values of truly getting to know a college before applying.
“They have to take each application seriously, visit the schools, visit the website,” he says. “I want them to feel they know the places as well as a freshman would.” For most students, he says, seven to eight schools is the number they can handle when they take it this seriously.
The counselor describes the reaction of students and families to limiting college applications by saying, “On the whole, they react just fine, but that might be because the policy has been in place for some time, and because our school is private. It’s an element of how we do things,” he says. “It’s been really rare for a family to put up a fight.”
The goal of this policy is to direct students’ attention towards why they are applying to the schools they choose, and to encourage students to find a school or schools that they genuinely like, rather than schools their families like or schools that are more popular. This could very well help with preventing students from having to transfer schools partway through their education.
“The philosophy encourages students to focus on colleges where they will fit,” says the counselor. “College is an experience, not a commodity.”
David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he gets lots of questions about such policies, but NACAC doesn’t have data on them or a policy on whether they are a good thing. Anecdotally, he thinks these policies are more likely at private than at public high schools.
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