How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? Use This Method

How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? Use This Method

Published June 25, 2024

How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

Today’s students apply to as many as 10 to 20 colleges to ensure they have a good option when the dust settles. However, some students apply to only a few.  

Who’s right? Is there a magic number of college applications you should submit? This article covers the strategic factors that affect how many colleges you should apply to. 

How Many Colleges Does the Average Student Apply To?

The average student applies to 6-10 colleges. That number gives them options if they are applying to some selective schools that may turn them down. It also allows them to compare financial aid offers if they earn acceptance to more than one college. 

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Most students should apply to at least six colleges to spread their bets. Multiple factors go into college acceptance, many of which are beyond your control. One popular strategy is to apply a mix of reach, target and safety schools – at least two in each category.

How to Determine Your Reach, Target, and Safety Schools

As colleges become increasingly selective, one growing reason for applying to more schools is to increase the chances of being accepted into at least one.

When considering which schools to apply to, divide your choices into three distinct categories.

  • Reach
  • Target
  • Safety

We recommend choosing at least two in each category, for a total of at least six colleges.

What Is a Reach School?

Most students have favorite schools where they hope to get accepted, but their scores fall below the average incoming freshman. We call them “reach schools.” They should fill two to three spots on a student’s college list if six or more schools. 

Highly selective colleges, such as Ivy League schools, will turn down even exceptional students due to many top students applying. So, it’s important to be realistic when applying to a reach school.

Students with a 3.4 GPA and 25 ACT score shouldn’t spend the time or money applying to Harvard and perhaps should look more toward respected schools such as Drexel or Baylor, where their average ACT scores are closer to 25.

What Is a Target School?

Target schools closely match your academic credentials, so you stand a better chance of acceptance. Look for colleges where you match or exceed test scores and GPA and that have a vibe that appeals to you. Put at least two or three target schools on your list.

Your target schools are likely where you will go to college, so ensuring they have the programs and philosophy you want is especially important. 

What Is a Safety School?

Finally, if luck doesn’t swing your way, you should always have safety schools to fall back on. These are schools where your scores are far enough above the average incoming freshman that you should feel extremely confident about being accepted. 

However, these schools should not be considered a worst-case scenario or a school that you would never want to attend.

The college selection process is hard to predict, so you should be comfortable attending these schools, and they should be similar in majors and other areas to the target and reach schools you apply to.

The safety schools should take up at least two spots on your college list and give you a boost of assurance that you will be accepted and have somewhere to go to college following high school.

Should I Apply to 20 Colleges?

Some students apply to 20 colleges or more, but that’s probably overkill for most students. It may be hard to thoroughly research that many colleges to know if you like them. However, multiple colleges may recruit exceptional students or athletes, resulting in numerous offers to compare.

Applying to Multiple Colleges With the Common Application

The Common App makes applying to college easier, allowing you to fill out one application that nearly 900 schools accept.

However, applying to dozens of schools, even with the simplicity of the Common App, may still be unnecessary if you do not have the time to research and ensure you’re a good fit at each school.

The Common Application recognizes this and limits students to a maximum of 20 colleges.

How Much Do College Applications Cost?

College application fees can range from $50 to $100 each, so costs can quickly add up if a student wants to apply to 20 schools. However, you save on those fees using the Common App.  

Sending test scores costs money as well. When you register for the SAT, you can send your scores to up to four colleges for free. Students can do this up to nine days after the test date. After that, sending SAT scores to each additional college costs $12 per score report.

For low-income families, it is important to check to see if you can qualify for an application fee waiver, which will greatly reduce your costs and generate greater equality in terms of allowing. 

Building a College List With Affordable Schools

It can be pointless to apply to colleges you and your family cannot afford, even with financial aid. So, it’s essential for families to determine a budget, explore financial aid, and research college costs before applying.

 It can be heartbreaking to get accepted to a college you can’t afford or can’t afford with heavy, burdensome loans. Use a Net Price Calculator to help determine college costs.

Also, Road2College offers a data-rich tool called R2C Insights to help you build a smart college list. You can register for free here.

One Family’s Approach to College Applications

Sabrina O’Malone, best-selling author of the book Moms on the Job is the founder and president of WorkingMom.com, used a version of the reach-target-safety school strategy with her four children. 

She described these three rules of thumb:

  • Apply to a minimum of four “really-safe safety schools,” where your student’s GPA and test scores are significantly above the college’s 75th percentile. You can find potential college’s percentiles quickly and easily with the R2C Insights.
  • Apply to a few target or “match”  schools. These are colleges where your student’s grades and test scores are within the average for the college. You can also create a list of colleges that fit the bill, again, with this tool. Bear in mind these should be colleges showing net price calculator estimated costs that you can at least somewhat live with. To get the estimated out-of-pocket costs for your particular student and financial situation, simply Google “net price calculator + {school name}” 
  • Apply to one or two reach schools. (“Reach” in terms of either likelihood of admissions or affordability.) *Caveat: For many extremely selective colleges, their net price may actually wind up being the most affordable option for middle-income and lower-income families – despite their outrageous sticker prices.

So if you’ve got an academically qualified student, applying to many more “reach” schools can make sense. Especially the ones with low admission rates, which would result in very affordable costs to you. Know in advance that sometimes the costs of elite schools actually do come out to be more affordable than even a community college or state school.

How This Family Applied

One thing to keep in mind is that the number of colleges a student actually should apply to varies according to the student. Even within the same family.

Here’s how O’Malone described her family’s journey:

For example, in our case:

My oldest son (Class of 2020) applied to seven colleges. We had no strategy for him whatsoever. He just applied to whichever college sent him a fee waiver or had a representative visit his high school.

His stats were actually fair-to-middling.

In retrospect, only two were “really-safe safeties,” and the rest were target schools.

He ultimately chose the state school with a full-tuition merit scholarship.

My oldest daughter (Class of 2022) applied to almost a dozen colleges. (One reach school in Early Decision, the rest were really-safe safeties.) She got accepted into her reach school, which was among her most affordable options.

We don’t know the results of most of the other schools because she withdrew her applications before acceptances and most aid packages came in.

My middle daughter (Class of 2023) applied to 15 colleges. (Eleven really-safe safeties, three target schools and one reach.)

She got offered four full rides from those really-safe safeties, but she withdrew her pending applications when her top choice came through with a full ride.

My middle son (Class of 2023) applied to three colleges. (one target, two really-safe-safeties)

Since he was a 16-year-old freshman and was age-appropriately immature, he kind of needed to stay close enough to home to commute.

He chose the one with a full-tuition scholarship.

Target Schools: The Reality

O’Malone says to make sure your student knows they CAN get rejected from a target school – even if their stats are at or above the college’s admitted student averages.

She described her situation:

I won’t say which one, but it did happen to one of my kids.

And it makes sense.

If a qualified applicant demonstrates zero interest:

  • never even opens admissions emails,
  • doesn’t visit,
  • doesn’t follow the school on social media,
  • doesn’t do the strongly recommended interview,
  • plus they submit their application on the last day after getting a last-minute email with a fee-waiver from admissions…

that is giving a college every indication you won’t attend.

It becomes clear that it’s in the college’s best interest to use your application to decrease their acceptance rate, making their college rank higher by protecting their yield.

If you appear to be an applicant who has no interest in the college, selective colleges are almost certainly going to reject you – even though you’re qualified.

Here’s why: because wasting an acceptance on a student who isn’t likely to enroll actually hurts the college.

So whatever you do, pay attention to your target schools. Especially the ones that actually track demonstrated interest.

Bottom Line on How Many Colleges You Should Apply To

Apply to at least six colleges and as many as 10 to 15 – if you can effectively research and apply to that many and you want more options. The important thing is to be methodical and thoughtful. Choose at least two colleges in each category: reach, target and safety schools. ‘

Feel free to choose more in each category if more options make sense for you. Make sure you can afford the schools, and explore financial aid to ensure you understand what you’ll actually pay. 


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

👉 Looking for expert help on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List!

Other Articles You Might Like:

Rejected by a Safety School? Here Are Some Reasons Why

Is Your College List Balanced with Financial Safety, Match, and Reach Schools?

What Is Yield Protection and What Does It Have to Do with College Admissions?




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