How Many Colleges Should I Apply to?

July 9, 2022

A great sculptor stares at a giant hunk of stone and can visualize, in their mind’s eye, a finished work of art; the average person just sees a rock. When it comes to the task of creating a list of prospective colleges, most teens and their parents are intimidated and understandably so. In the realm of higher education, the “giant hunk of stone” are the more than 3,000 four-year colleges in the U.S. From this unwieldy list, your task is to ultimately find schools that are affordable, accessible, and a quality fit.  Fortunately, this type of sculpting doesn’t require the talent of a Michelangelo or a Rodin. A bit of knowledge, realistic self-assessment, and a willingness to step back and see the big picture is all that is required to sculpt a perfect list. So, let’s get started on thoroughly answering the question–How many colleges should I apply to?

This blog will answer the following questions:

  • How do I identify the perfect college for me?
  • How many colleges should I apply to?
  • What is a “safety” school?
  • What is a “reach” school?
  • How do I identify a “target” school?
  • What are common mistakes students make when creating a college list?

We also encourage you to visit our FREE college list building tool: College Investigator. This tool allows you to search hundreds of top universities, build a college list, export to a CSV, and sort and compare schools by dozens of important variables. 

Check out our video below for a quick overview of the College Investigator tool!


How do I find the perfect college for me?

Let’s begin by disavowing you of the idea that there is a singular dream college out there. Your life won’t “be over” if you don’t get into School X. In reality, there are dozens of other institutions that have the same core features as School X. While this might sound like we’re trying to ruin your fantasy of the perfect university, we actually intend this to be exceptionally good news. The truth is that no matter who you are, whether you’re a valedictorian or B/C student, there are at least 40-50 schools out there that would be a fantastic fit for you.

Having an open mind at the start of the process is critical. Too often students get fixated on a particular college for silly reasons—like an intense attraction to UNC’s powder blue or a developing an unhealthy fixation for a particular elite school solely because of its U.S. News ranking. Not to say that surface-level attraction means nothing but you’ll really want to consider factors like proximity to home, your family’s financial situation, your admissions prospects, majors offered as well as outcome data like the strength of their career services, alumni network, and grad school/job placement.

How many schools should be on my college list?

Your college list should be somewhere between 8-10 schools including a healthy mix of safety, target, and reach institutions. In cases where a student is applying to a number of highly-competitive colleges, you may wish to increase this number to 12.

What is a “Safety” school?

A safety college is a college where your credentials—your grades and test scores—are better than those of the average admitted student, and where you are likely to be admitted.  You’ll also want to make sure that one or two of your safeties are also financial safety schools. Places where your parents are comfortable covering 100% of the tuition plus room, board and other fees through some combination of savings, a 529 account, or low-interest government loans.

Another important point here is that Ivy League and other elite colleges are rarely, if ever, “safety” schools. These schools receive applications from many more top-notch students than they are able to admit. Even if you are the valedictorian of your high school class with stratospheric test scores, schools with single-digit admit rates should never be considered safety schools.

What is a “Target” school?

Three to four of the schools on your list should be “target” colleges. In other words–institutions at which your academic profile is close to the average admitted student. Therefore, you realistically have a better than 50/50 chance at admission. How do you assess this? Simple—the average admitted student looks a lot like you.

What is a “Reach” school?

Many students pick “reach” schools that are more like “snowball’s chance in hell” schools. There’s no harm in an average student submitting an application to Yale—but there is also no purpose either. Reach schools aren’t high probability risks, but your time is too valuable to go through the motions of, say, applying to Middlebury with a C average.

Ideally, “reach” schools are where your grades and test scores are actually lower than those of the average admitted student. Admission isn’t likely, but it isn’t impossible either. You hold out hope that your killer essays and special talents/background will win the hearts of an admission officer.

Common College List Mistakes 

A classic, yet unfortunate college admissions outcome involves students miscategorizing dream schools as target schools. As in, “My SATs are mediocre and my grades took a dip junior year, but I still have a good shot at Duke.” Not soberly and accurately assessing your own chances during the list-creation can only lead to bad outcomes come decision-time.

The flip side of this scenario involves students who sell themselves short in the college application process. These individuals only develop a college list consisting of institutions that are academically inferior to the college into which they could have been admitted, given their academic potential and capabilities.  As a result, the student usually enrolls at a college that is less selective.  Unfortunately, less selective schools often have lower graduation rates, fewer resources, and fewer opportunities for postsecondary and professional success.

Another common mistake is not factoring in your choice of major into your admissions probability calculation. For a detailed explanation visit: The Admissions Impact of Your College Major Selection.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts – How Many Colleges Should I Apply to?

To wrap up, your mission is to narrow down 3,000 potential colleges to a final list of 8-10 schools. Along the way, you’ll want to identify a list of prospective safety, target, and reach schools. This list will include institutions that are accessible, affordable, and truly desirable. The best way to accomplish this is to dig deeper. Research how each school genuinely matches up with your needs and desires. Further, always look at things through a realistic lens, not one that is too rosy or too gloomy. Following our advice will enable you to sculpt the college list equivalent of Rodin’s The Thinker or Michelangelo’s David; failing to adhere to these principles may leave you with an uninformed, poorly-conceived mess and quite possibly, diminished college prospects.