If you’re wondering how to apply for college, the first step is making your list. The number of colleges a prospective college student should apply to is one of the first questions that comes up during the application process. The short answer is there is no set number. The general rule of thumb is 5-8 schools, but that is quite a broad generalization. For example, applying to all of the Ivy League schools meets that quota, but it probably doesn’t do much for you in terms of getting into college.
Applying to five schools is the most you’ll need if you have the right strategy. It’s not so much how many schools you apply to as it is how well those schools fit you. The general strategy is to pick 1-2 “safety” schools that you know are all but a guarantee, 1-2 “probable” schools, and 1-2 “reach” schools. With that being said, all three of those phrases are about how well you did in high school and how well you did on your SATs or ACTs.
Your standardized test scores, cumulative GPA, and strength of schedule are the three main factors that determine your acceptance into a school. There are several other factors involved, but using these three will give you a rough idea of which schools are most likely to accept you. Most colleges list their SAT/ACT score range on the admissions page in the prospective student section of their website. Make a list of 3-5 selections for safety, probable, and reach schools. If you just meet the low end of a school’s score range, then that is a reach school. If you’re at the top or slightly over, then that is a safety school. Anything in the middle can be classified as a probable school.
Once you have this rough list, you can start going through and cutting the list to 1-2 each by considering other factors. One of the biggest factors is how well the school fits your major. For example, most schools have an education program for aspiring teachers, but some schools put much more of an emphasis on it than others. Check which schools on all three of your lists have the best reputation in terms of your prospective major.
Price and distance are also important factors. When it comes to price, it is important for the parent to keep their child grounded. Don’t let your child fall in love with a $40,000 a year school just because of its big name when it is going to give them an average education at best. Distance from home is more important than students realize. Most students think going to school across the country and enjoying the limitless freedom will be amazing, but then they get homesick two months in when they’ve been living off of Ramen for a week and have no clean clothes. You should have a healthy mix of distances from home among your list. Make sure to have at least one school that’s within 50-75 miles of your house. It’s also a good idea to apply to your local community college as an extra- safe safety school.
Getting this list from 10-15 down to 5 can be a challenge. The best advice you can receive is to remain realistic throughout the entire process. Understand that it is okay to not have a GPA that can get you into an Ivy League school, and that applying to one as your reach school isn’t realistic if you aren’t one of the top three students in your graduating class.
Don’t waste any of your applications. Applying to a safety school you wouldn’t actually attend just so you can get accepted may be good for your self-esteem, but it doesn’t do anything for your educational progression in the long run. Your safety school needs to be a school you wouldn’t feel disappointed about attending. It should be affordable and relatively close to home. A public state university is usually your best option. These schools are also more likely to accept AP credits, which can save you both time and money. Again, there is no shame in having your safety school be your local community college. In fact, that may be your best bet if your GPA and standardized test scores aren’t up to par for your dream school. If you can get a 4.0 through two years of junior college, then that will carry much more weight on your application than your high school GPA.
When you pick your probable schools, it is vital that you have a realistic grasp of your academic ability. Confidence is important, but all the confidence in the world won’t make Harvard a probable school if you maintained a B average through high school. A good rule of thumb is to pick a school or two where your standardized test score falls directly in the middle of their range. That way you essentially have at least a 50-50 shot of getting accepted.
Picking your reach school is the most challenging aspect of the process, as you don’t want to waste this application. You don’t want to apply to a reach school just because it has a prestigious name. This school should be a reach in the sense that it also offers you benefits above and beyond your other selections.
A final word of advice that applies to the whole application process is to remain emotionally detached from any campuses before you are officially selected. Too many times does a high school senior fall in love with their first choice and only applies there, only to find out when it’s too late that they aren’t accepted. You should have things you love about all of your schools, and you shouldn’t prefer one over another too much at this stage. Let yourself worry about what specific college is best for you once you have an official acceptance letter.