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How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

September 15, 2020

by Matt Hughes

Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Maybe you're just starting your college search and exploring which schools might be right for you. Or maybe you already have your heart set on a dream school but aren't sure if you'll get in. No matter what stage of your college journey you're in, you'll be weighing your options and contemplating your chances, and at some point, you'll wonder, "How many colleges should I apply to?" 

There's no right answer to that question, but there is such a thing as too many. What follows is some practical advice for how to narrow your college search and decide how many colleges to apply to.

The Easiest Answer Is Just One

You've crawled through their website and pored over the guidebooks they sent you. You've followed them on social media and visited campus at least once. You may have even written to a professor or talked to current students who go there.

If you're 100% sure about your top school, then applying Early Decision (ED) is probably the best option for you. When you apply ED, you make a binding commitment that you'll attend that school if you're accepted. You'll generally find out whether you've been accepted before the deadline to submit Regular Decision applications to other schools on your list. 

At Bucknell, for example, our first Early Decision deadline (EDI) is Nov. 15 and decisions are released in mid-December. Our EDII and Regular Decision deadline isn't until Jan. 15.

What that means is that if you're accepted Early Decision, your college search could be done after just one application. 

What it doesn't mean is that you should put all your eggs in one basket. You should still explore and be ready to apply to a longer list of schools. You'll just save yourself time and application fees if you get into your Early Decision school. 

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Making Your College List: Likely Schools, Target Schools, Reach Schools

So whether you plan to apply Early Decision or Regular Decision, you should be ready to apply to a list of schools. But how many options should you give yourself? How many schools should be on your college list?

You should plan to apply to at least five or six schools, and perhaps as many as 10. Really, the only limits on the number of schools you apply to are your time and application fees, and some students do apply to dozens of schools (or to every Ivy League school) each year. But those application fees do add up, and for most it doesn't make sense to apply to that many schools. Instead you should focus on making a list of schools that are good fits for you.

The common approach is to organize your list into three categories based on competitiveness and apply to two or three from each category: 

  • Likely Schools: Schools where you believe you'll get in if you apply because your grades and/or test scores significantly exceed the college's averages for admission. 
  • Target Schools: Schools where your grades and/or test scores are in line with the college's averages for admission, and you think your chances of getting in are around 50-50.
  • Reach Schools: Schools that you'd like to attend but think may be a stretch based on how your high school experience compares to their admissions criteria and competitiveness. If you fall in love with a college with a low acceptance rate, you'll want to put it here, and consider it a candidate for applying Early Decision. 

Will Colleges Know How Many Schools I Apply To? 

Colleges are primarily concerned with your individual merit and how you'll fit into their campus community. It's common for students to apply to five, 10, 15 or more schools, and even a large number is unlikely to raise an eyebrow, assuming a college pays attention to it at all. 

That isn't to say you should apply to dozens of colleges; besides the cost, you'll also be making your decision about which school to choose more difficult in the end. At this stage, don't sweat too hard about whether you'll get in or put a school on top of your list because of prestige or name recognition alone. 

Choosing a college should first-and-foremost be about finding the type of school that's right for you. Once you figure that out, you'll have an easier time finding similar schools (or schools that offer similar experiences) that are both likely bets or more of a stretch for you. And even if one rises above others, you can also feel certain you'll be happy at any of them. 

Below are some more tips and things to keep in mind as you assemble and organize your college list. 

The Right Campus Fit 

There are a lot of different types of schools out there, from giant state and land-grant universities that feel like small cities to quaint rural campuses with just a few hundred students. There are schools that specialize in areas like engineering, science and the arts, and ones that take a more rounded approach.

Before considering specific schools or campuses, spend some time thinking about what you'll value most in a college experience. Do you want to go to school in a city with rich off-campus opportunities or do you want to immerse yourself in campus life by “going off to college” at a school in the country? Do you want to go to a place where all your professors will know you by name and you’ll feel like part of a tight campus community, or are you drawn to the idea of a larger campus? Do you want to live on campus all four years?

The best way to start figuring out what you're looking for, under ideal circumstances, is to visit a range of different types of schools, like an urban campus in your city or one nearby, as well as colleges in more rural and suburban areas; a large state university along with smaller and mid-size schools. Even if these aren't the schools you end up applying to, hopefully these visits will give you a sense of what feels right for you, and what you're looking for in a college experience. At the least you'll come across a few things you know you don't want. 

COVID-19 has made arranging those visits more challenging, or limited what you can experience when you're on campus, but colleges also offer alternative ways to explore life in their classrooms and residence halls. Whether you're able to visit or not, look for virtual tours (Bucknell's is here) or ways to connect with students and faculty at colleges you might be interested in, and sign up for their mailing lists so you receive their viewbook and invitations to in-person or online events. Also check their social media and YouTube channels — you may find a student-run account that gives you a less filtered look at life on campus. If you have friends or relatives who are now in college, ask them what they like and don't like about their schools. Try to think not just about the experience they're having but what you might or might not enjoy about it. Use it all to create a picture of what you're looking for in a college experience — a picture you can turn to when making your list. 

(In addition to in-person visits, Bucknell offers an audio driving tour for visitors to explore our campus from the safety of their cars as well as a virtual tour and welcome center with all the admissions publications you'll find in our real admissions lobby in Freas Hall, plus a video of the same preview session we give at the start of our campus tours. You can also get an inside view of student life by following our student-run instagram account, @iamraybucknell.)

 

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What Do You Want to Major In?

If you're planning to major in engineering, it's unlikely a music conservatory will make your college list. As you're starting to explore schools, you'll want to check what majors they offer and whether any of them fits what you want to study. Beyond that, you'll also want to investigate how easy or hard it is to take classes outside your major and think about how important that is to you. If you do want to study engineering but also get a minor in music, or similarly combine interests, you'll want to make sure the schools on your list will let you do so. (At Bucknell, we have more than 60 majors and nearly 70 minors, and students here do study engineering and music, along with many other combinations).

As you organize your list, be mindful of the admissions requirements and competitiveness of the program you're applying to as well. Sometimes a particular college or major at a university is much harder to get into than the college as a whole. Other colleges and majors require you to have taken certain classes in high school in order to apply — requirements that go beyond the university's general admissions minimums. Keep that in mind when you're deciding whether a school should go on your likely, target or reach list. You should also think about whether you would accept admission to a college if they admit you but not to your preferred program (although that shouldn't stop you from adding a school to your list).

If you don't know what you want to study yet, or think you do but aren't sure, most schools will also let you apply undecided. (At Bucknell, you can apply undecided to any of our three colleges — Arts & Sciences, Engineering and the Freeman College of Management, giving you time to explore multiple subjects.) In that case, focus on the options you want to give yourself when compiling your list, as well as the overall "fit" of the school for you.  

How Far Will You Go?

Another consideration to factor when making your list is how far you're willing to travel for college. Are you willing to fly to get to school or does your college need to be within driving distance? Do you want to be able to come home on the weekends, or are you comfortable only returning home during longer breaks? Is it important that you can drive to your home and back in one day? 

Use these questions to decide how far you'll be willing to travel to attend college, then draw a rough circle around your home where you'll look for schools. When you're making this map, be generous in your estimation, and remember that college is an immersive, residential experience; once you start school you may want to spend more time on campus than you might think you will now. You don't want to miss out on a school that's perfect for you because it's just a little bit farther away than you thought you were willing to drive, but it also doesn't make sense to look at schools on the other side of the country if you aren't willing to go that far. 

Test Scores

When you're organizing your list, be sure to check each school's admissions policies. Some may not require you to submit your test scores. (Bucknell has been test-optional since 2019, and many other universities have temporarily changed their test requirements as a result of the pandemic.) In some cases you might feel that your grades and activities better reflect you and your high school experience than your test scores do, and not including them might increase your confidence that you'll get into a certain school.

What About Cost?

You should keep cost in mind when you're making your college list, but you shouldn't let it stop you from putting a college you love on your list. Remember that the sticker price of a college isn't the price everyone pays to attend. As you're exploring schools, look for financial aid information on their websites to learn about average aid packages and scholarships, and get a sense of what students typically pay to attend. Include schools on your list that you're confident you can afford, but focus on finding schools that are a good match for you, regardless of sticker price. You won't know what a college will actually cost you until you receive your acceptance and financial aid offer, and you may end up with a better offer at a school you thought was beyond your reach than at another school with a lower sticker price. The time to decide what makes sense for your future comes later, when you have those offers in hand.

 

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Putting It All Together

With these tips in mind, you should be well on your way to narrowing your search to a list of schools that are right for you — and knowing you'll be happy wherever you get in. 

If you want to learn more, check our posts on choosing the right college for you and tips for choosing a college without visiting. If you want to learn more about applying to Bucknell, check our Apply page.

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