How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

Application Strategies
September 12, 2019
Applying To College Can Be Overwhelming...

As if that weren’t enough, there are over 5,000 colleges in the United States. That number alone can be intimidating, especially if you are unsure about where you’d like to apply. Regardless of the number, it’s possible to narrow down your college search.

If you want to get a clear picture of the right college for you, then the best thing you can do is to narrow down your list of schools as much as possible. By organizing a set list of schools, you’ll save time and money, all while opening up the best options for yourself.

What You’ll Find In This Article:

It's No Secret: College Applications Are Increasing

In 2010, Yale University received a total of 21,099 applications. This number includes early action and regular action, in-state and out-of-state. In 2018, they received 30,932 applications, showing a 46% increase over the last 10 years in the amount of applications Yale received.

For public universities, The University of California Los Angeles received a staggering 102,242 applications in 2017 in contrast to their modest 57,000 in 2010. Over the past decade, they have seen a 77% increase in the amount of applications they received.

Many colleges in the US are seeing a dramatic increase in their incoming applications just like these.

There are simply more high school students wanting to go to college. Not only that, but they’re each applying to a larger number of colleges to expand their options.

How Many Colleges Does The Average Student Apply To?

The main college application tool that has contributed to the increase in application numbers is the Common App. The Common App is an online service where  students can apply to multiple colleges at once, using only one application.

With the Common App, students no longer have to fill out multiple applications for each respective school. This is primarily why the average student now applies to 7 to 10 colleges.

Typically, students separate these 7-10 colleges by three categories: reach, safety, and target.

  • Reach schools are colleges that you know you have a small chance of getting into. This could be because you don’t meet the GPA requirements, or because your test scores are too low.
  • Safety schools are “back ups”. These are the colleges that you still would like to go to, but that aren’t exactly your top choices.
  • Target schools are your top choices, and are schools you have a good shot of getting into. This means that you meet all their requirements, including GPA, test scores, etc...

It’s important that you create reach, safety, and target school lists because it gives you a structured view of where you’re applying. Depending on which schools accept or reject you, you’ll be able to make an informed decision because you know which ones carry priority and which don’t.

This is also important because you never know which of your reach schools will be impressed with your application and accept you. Alternatively, you may find yourself in need of a back-up when other plans fall through, making safety schools equally as important.


Regardless of how many colleges you should apply to, is there a limit?

Realistically, there is no physical limit on how many colleges you can apply to, however, if you’re using the Common App, there is a limit of 20. Due to the legitimacy of the Common App, students should take this limit as a hint that they shouldn’t apply to more than 20. Even applying to more than 10 colleges is pushing it. Theoretically, you have the ability to apply to as many colleges as you want; it just isn’t recommended.

Why You Shouldn't Apply To Dozens Of Schools

Applying to over a dozen schools isn’t a good idea. It’ll inevitably leave you frazzled and unorganized, and you may confuse yourself along the way about what kind of school you want to go to. Additionally, applying to dozens of schools is a waste of energy because of how low the pay-off is. Your application may be seen by more universities, but without a focused plan for where you want to apply, you’ve increased your workload without significantly increasing your chances of acceptance.

With a larger amount of schools on your list, you increase the amount of variables there are, and because of this, it can only lead to an uninformed decision.

Applying to dozens of schools is also a waste of money, especially if you plan on applying to each school separately. The average application fee is $43, but some schools charge up to $90. While there are application fee waivers available to some students, it still won’t cut the cost significantly if you’re planning on applying to a large number of schools.

This is why it’s important to draft a list of your top choice colleges in the first place. It saves you time, money, and sets you up to make a well-informed decision in the long run.

How Do You Know If You're Applying To The Right Schools?

Compiling your list of schools takes a certain level of focus. It’s important that you research the schools you’re interested in and organize them into separate lists, indicating which ones are your reach, safety, and target schools.

Pay attention to the differences between Ivy League, Public, and Liberal Arts schools, and keep in mind what kind of financial aid you’re eligible for.


When it comes to choosing your reach, safety, and target schools, there are a handful of simple guidelines to help you.

Reach schools are colleges that have a strong program for your area of academic interest, and you’re chances of being accepted are 20% or lower. You know that you still have a chance of getting accepted, but you’ll have to work extra hard to make a reach school your reality. Most students usually include a couple of Ivy League schools in their “reach school” list.

Your safety school list should be made up of your “back up” schools, serving as a cushion just in case of a rejection elsewhere. Ideally, your GPA would be higher than the school’s average, and the programs they offer would still interest you.

Finally, target schools are your top choice schools that you have a good chance of getting into. Your GPA lies well within their accepted averages, and they have excellent programs for what you would like to study.


Another part of compiling your list of schools includes deciding between Ivy League, Public, and Liberal Arts schools.

Ivy League schools are considered the most prestigious colleges in the US. This grouping of eight schools in the New England region are extremely difficult to get into, and are known for their rigorous academics.

Public universities are made up of larger institutions and state schools. These are some of the largest colleges in the US, and they offer a wide range of majors and minors. These schools are typically athletic-driven, although there are numerous opportunities for students who have other interests.

Liberal arts colleges are usually smaller, and offer a more diverse education. The goal of liberal arts colleges is to deliver a well-rounded education in social studies, history, art and culture regardless of your chosen field of study.


While compiling your list, it’s also important that you keep in mind your specific financial situation, and what colleges may offer your more financial aid.

There are many variables to consider, like how much tuition or housing will cost, and how much financial aid you’ll ultimately need. Luckily, there are many ways students can pay for college. Don’t let the high cost of a college keep you from adding it to your list. While it’s important to remain realistic, you should still apply to the schools you want to go to.


While your final choice of college will be up to you, it can still be very helpful to consult with a college counselor as you create your list of schools to apply to.

College counselors, whether they’re your school guidance counselor or a professional counselor like a member of our team here at WeAdmit, have tons of experience helping students pick schools they can both get accepted to, and be happy studying at. Don’t discount your counselor’s advice. Especially if you’re hoping to get into more competitive schools, you should consider talking with a counselor a standard part of preparing your college applications.

The Final Verdict: How Many Colleges Should You Apply To

More and more students are applying to college than ever before; in fact, statistics show that most US colleges saw a 40% average increase in received applications over the past 10 years.

Despite this flood of applications, we still encourage most students to  apply to 7-10 colleges: 2-3 reach schools, 2-5 target schools, and 3-5 safety schools.

If you apply to only a couple of schools, you’re left with very few options. If you apply to a dozen or more schools, you’ll have too many options and risk not giving each application the attention and care it deserves. Applying to anywhere from 7-10 schools gives you a nice middle ground with just the right amount of cushion, while giving you the freedom to be ambitious and realistic at the same time.

In the end, you should decide which schools are your reach, target, and safety schools by paying close attention to your GPA, your desired area of study, and your needs in terms of financial aid. Keep it simple, and just apply to the schools you truly want to go to. Security is important, but if you’re not applying to schools you’d be happy at, then what’s the point? Find that healthy balance, and you’re golden.

Of course, this isn’t always an easy decision to make. If you’re finding yourself unsure how many (and which) schools to apply to, don’t be afraid to reach out to one WeAdmit’s professional college counselors. We’re here for you, and are excited to help guide you through every step of the college application process. After all, picking which colleges to apply to doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, it can be exciting!

With A Well-Researched List In Hand, You Can Feel Confident As You Decide Where You’ll Spend The Next Four Years Of Your Academic Career!



Need more Information?

Gain all the information you need by getting in touch with our admissions team or booking a free 30-minute counseling session.