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How Many Applications Are Enough?

Helping your students build their college lists

In this climate of competitive admission, students need your help finalizing their lists of colleges they plan to apply to. How many colleges should a student's list contain? And how should a student decide which colleges to include?

There is no magic number, but five to eight applications are usually enough to ensure that a student is accepted into a suitable institution (depending, of course, on the individual student's record and circumstances). This number should be made up of a combination of “safety,” “probable” and “reach” colleges.

More than numbers

Even if a student has a suitable number of colleges on a list, there is no guarantee that it contains the best colleges for that student. To help a student finalize the list, Janet Stetson, associate director of admission at Bard College, suggests asking:

  • Has the student really researched each college (online or by visiting the campus)?
  • Does the college have the courses and programs the student wants to study?
  • What are the student's financial needs?
  • Is each college really a good match, considering the student's academic and social needs and interests?

Narrowing the list

By the end of junior year, students should have five to 10 colleges under consideration. This allows for some flexibility in choice of major, career plans and potential financial aid or scholarship options.

"Safety" colleges

Institutions with flexible admission standards are often treated as "safety" colleges. This term refers to colleges whose requirements mean little chance of rejection for that applicant. Most students apply to just one safety, but a student may opt for an academic safety and a financial safety.

"Probable" colleges

A "probable" college is one that the student feels will fulfill needs and desires; one the student could happily attend, even though it may not be the first choice. The student should fit the general admission criteria in academic and social arenas. A good rule of thumb is to have two to four probable colleges under consideration.

"Reach" colleges

These are the top choices, but ones that are less likely to accept the student. This may be because the student's qualifications match or fall slightly short of the college's average, and the competition for the limited places in the freshman class is intense. Students should have one or two colleges in this category.

Sizing up the competition

In addition to their own abilities, students must consider the crucial factors of a college's selectivity and yield rates. The first is associated with the percentage of applicants that a college accepts; the second means the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll. This information — which can be easily obtained from college admission staff, our College Handbook or on College Search — helps to determine a student's chances of getting into specific colleges.

Debra Wingood, who worked in admission at colleges such as Tufts, Georgetown and Duke, tells students preparing for college applications: "Make an informed forecast by studying the admission process, the colleges and, most importantly, yourself. ... Plan on investing time and effort as you probe, question and evaluate. Use your resources; seek insight from those you know."

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