Students studying for finals week in the Electrical and Computer Engineering building.

How many colleges should I apply to? Your college search questions, answered.

The time has come, and the wait is over. You’re about to start applying to colleges!

First of all, congratulations. You’re embarking on one of the seminal journeys of your life, and the application process is sort of like waiting for the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 3/4. Except, in the non-Wizarding World, there’s 4,298 Hogwarts Expresses leading to 4,298 different Hogwarts, and you eventually have to board just one.

Option paralysis is the name of the game when it comes to the college search process, and it’s something everyone falls prey to at one point or another. Still, you can go about the application process in a smart, efficient way that minimizes your chance of feeling like you’re swimming upstream without a paddle in sight. So read on, because we’re going to help you tackle the common “How many colleges should I apply to?” dilemma.

And just to be clear, there isn’t one right answer to that question. How many colleges you apply to comes down to your unique situation, the amount you can afford to spend on application fees, and more. These tips aren’t meant to help you find “the perfect number,” just your perfect number.

Student doing research on potential colleges to apply to.

Doing Your Homework

As we mentioned, there are more colleges in the United States today than you can shake a stick at (unless, of course, you have all the time in the world and a healthy supply of sticks). In all likelihood, many of these institutions are not on your radar and never will be. But the ones you’re at least semi-interested in? Aye, there’s the rub.

You may be looking at the Ivy League, the Big Ten, colleges on the West Coast, or universities in the East, but without doing your homework, the only real attraction to these places are their names and reported reputations. So, before you start churning out applications like there’s no tomorrow, research those places that make you excited to be a student and narrow things down. Dive deep into what the particular college offers you in the way of academics, social outlets, research opportunities, and anything else you feel is a non-negotiable part of your future college experience.

Once you’ve finished your research, pick your top colleges. Remember, there’s no magic number. You could decide on only three, or maybe as many as fifteen.

Student meeting with their advisor to discuss college.

Assigning Rank

Once you have your list of schools locked in, it’s time to break things down. Ideally, your dream colleges will fall into three categories: “safety,” “target,” and “reach.”

1. Safety

Two to three of your selections should be colleges that, based on your qualifications, you should be a shoo-in to be admitted to.

2. Target

These are schools that are within your reach to be admitted to but are not quite sure things. The majority of colleges you apply to should fall into this category, so be sure to include at least two to three target schools on your overall list.

3. Reach

You should consider these schools just that — a reach, or an inspirational college that is unlikely (though not impossible) to offer you admission. If you’re dead set on reaching (ha ha) those “reach schools,” you may have to apply to more schools total; the more applications you send out, the more likely it is you will be admitted to at least one of these colleges.

Now, at this point, you might be asking, “But how do I know which of my colleges fall into each of these categories?” We suggest talking to your high school counselor. They can help you better assess your chances of being admitted to a particular school based on your academic history.

In addition, you can look at incoming class statistics for each of the schools on your list. Many colleges, including UIUC, provide such information on their websites.

Student getting work done in a library.

Consider Time/Money

Now it’s time to prepare your application materials, with “target schools” prioritized first. Or is it?

Before you go full tilt into crafting your very best essays and scouring your back catalog of extracurricular activities, you’ll want to consider three additional factors related to the application process.

1. Early Decision

If you have decided to apply early decision for a particular college, make sure that this is your absolute, full-stop first choice. Early decision can be a great process to take advantage of, especially if you are very confident in your chance of admission to your dream school. Still, you must keep in mind that if you do end up going this route and are accepted, you must attend this university.

2. Time

College applications are true-blue time annihilators. Even if you’ve done all of your research well before application season rolls around, you’ll still be spending a lot of hours filling out forms and writing essays.

True, applying to multiple colleges through the Common App or Coalition will save you some time, but most colleges have additional questions and maybe even additional essays in addition to the ones you have already written for these shared applications’ general sections.

So depending on when you start the application process, the number of colleges you apply to may shrink or grown from your original plan.

3. Money

The almighty dollar does indeed rule everything around us, and costs related to college applications can pile up fairly quickly. Although fee waivers are available in some cases, many students will pay between $50 and $75 per application. Even if you’re completing a smaller number of applications, always be mindful of your ability to pay for applications without overextending your bank account.

The application process can be difficult, especially if you expand it out to dozens of colleges. So, to keep your stress levels down, it’s always important to weigh your options before jumping into the fray.

Everyone you know will apply to a different amount of colleges. You may only apply to three, while your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former college roommate may apply to forty. It really doesn’t matter how many or how few schools you decide to apply to. What matters is how you come to the number that’s right for you. We hope we’ve put you on the right path to finding that perfect number.

UIUC Admissions

UIUC Admissions

We're here for you as you prepare for college. Whether you're looking for guidance on the college search process or have questions about Illinois, we hope our blogs will help!

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