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How Many Colleges Should I Apply To? How to Make the Ultimate College List

01 NOV 2021

With nearly 3,000 four-year institutions in the US, it might be tempting to apply to as many as possible. The more applications, the better chances of getting in, right? While there is some truth to this statement, it’s not necessarily the best method. So, how many schools should you apply to? While there is no exact formula or a perfect number of schools to submit your applications to, most students apply to 4-8 universities. So, how do you narrow down your options to create the perfect college list?

Let’s break down all your questions about the number of colleges you should apply to and how to build your list of prospective colleges.

Is there a limit on how many colleges you can apply to?

Yes and no. Some application platforms set limits, and others are unlimited. For example, although over 900 colleges and universities use the Common Application, you can only apply to 20 of these schools. If you choose to apply through the Coalition Application, you may apply to as many colleges as you wish. But, only about 150 schools use this application platform.

The UK’s application system, University and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS), limit students to five application submissions.

Additionally, some universities and university systems bypass these application platforms, and you must submit your application through their personalized system. For example, if you want to apply to any of the schools in the University of California system, you must submit your application through the University of California Admissions platform. You may apply to all nine campuses, although each campus has its own application fee ($70-$80 USD).

Here are some other popular schools that don’t accept the Coalition or Common Applications. You can always add these schools as part of your college list.

  • Georgetown University
  • Loyola University, Chicago
  • MIT
  • Brigham Young University
  • US Naval Academy
  • US Military Academy (West Point)

Is there an advantage to applying to too many colleges?

If you have your sights set on an Ivy League university or any highly competitive school, it’s a good idea to submit applications to a solid number of schools. Grades, test scores, essays, and extracurriculars factor into where you’re likely to gain acceptance. The stronger your application, the better your chance of getting into these elite universities.

While theoretically, the more colleges you apply to, the higher chances you’ll gain acceptance to one of them, but this method has a downside. College applications cost money and take time and a considerable amount of effort. The Common and Coalition Applications save some time, but many schools also require additional essays and information beyond these applications. Additionally, if you try to apply to too many colleges, you may get overwhelmed, and the quality of your applications could suffer.


Need help deciding how many colleges to apply to and creating your college list? Crimson’s expert admission advisors can help you build the perfect college list for your profile and improve your chances of getting into your reach schools! Schedule a free consultation to learn more about of Admission Support program!

Factors to Consider Before Applying to Colleges

Before you begin applying to colleges, you should consider the following factors:

  • Application Fees: How much do you want to spend on your applications? It costs about $60 USD for each application.
  • Time: Filling out college applications takes time. The Common App and Coalition App both have their own set of essay questions, and many colleges require applicants to answer additional supplemental essay prompts. Each of these responses requires not only thoughtful introspection but extensive writing and editing.
  • Program Availability: Not every college offers the same majors or programs. Some colleges specialize in a particular subject area, making them more desirable to students interested in those specific areas. Research your top colleges to ensure they offer your desired courses and programs. Ideally, your college list should include schools that specialize in your particular area of interest.
  • Size and Location: Do you enjoy four seasons or prefer a location that stays warm year-round? Do you prefer a college in a large city or one situated in a rural setting? Maybe you thrive studying around thousands of students. Or perhaps you prefer a smaller, more intimate college setting. Answering these questions will also help you narrow down your college list.
  • Clubs and Organizations: Research your top colleges and determine if they offer the clubs and organizations you’d like to join. If you’re interested in a fraternity or sorority, see if those colleges offer a vibrant Greek life.

How I Got In: What We Learned from Top College Admits from Harvard, MIT, Stanford & More

How Many Colleges Should You Apply to?

The perfect college list consists of schools in three categories: Safety, Target, and Reach. When you choose colleges in each of these categories, you have a higher chance of getting into one of them.

Here is a brief overview of safety, target, and reach schools.

Safety Schools (Choose 1-2 schools)

Safety Schools, sometimes called “back-up schools,” are schools you’re practically guaranteed admission to because your grades, qualifications, test scores, and class rank are stronger than the school’s average for admitted students. In general, safety schools have high acceptance rates. You only need to select one or two schools because you know you’ll likely get into them. But don’t just apply because you know you’ll get in. Choose safety schools that you can see yourself attending.

*Note: Ivy League schools never fall into this category.

Target Schools (Choose 2-3 schools)

To be considered a Target School (or Match School), your grades and test scores should fall into the accepted range of the school’s most recently admitted class. While acceptance isn’t guaranteed, you should have a 40-60% chance of getting accepted. Obviously, there are no guarantees, but applying to two or three of these schools should give you a high probability of getting into at least one of them.

Reach Schools (Choose 2-3 schools)

If your grades and academic credentials fall in the lower range or below a school’s average from the previous year’s accepted students, then that school would be considered a Reach School (or Dream School). Your chance of getting into these schools is low but not impossible. These schools are so difficult to get into because their acceptance rate is extremely low- think Ivy League. That means only a few students get accepted, and even the best of the best sometimes get rejected.

Another reason you may not get accepted to a reach school is because your grades, tests, or general academics don’t match the school’s average. Again, there’s always a chance your essays or extracurriculars might catch the attention of an admissions officer. Still, if you don’t meet the minimum requirements for a specific school, your chances of gaining admission will be small. Getting into your reach school might be a long shot, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!

How to Choose your UCAS Courses (UK Universities)

If you’re applying to UK schools on the University and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) platform, you can only apply to a maximum of five courses. Those five courses can be at one university or five different universities (or something in between). Another thing to keep in mind is that you can apply to Oxford or Cambridge through this platform, but you can’t apply to both universities.

With so many options, it can be overwhelming to just choose five! Crimson’s strategists work with you to help you narrow down your criteria and choose the best courses for YOU. We’ve created an ebook with everything you need to know about choosing your UCAS courses.

Crimson’s Top Tips for College Selection

Choosing how many colleges you should apply to isn’t an easy decision. Many factors play into this decision. Thankfully, we’re here to help. Here are our top tips for college selection.

  • Don’t apply to colleges you don’t want to attend. It seems simple, but you might be tempted to apply to a college because you fit into their criteria. But if you can’t picture yourself there, it’s not the school for you.
  • Prioritize your wants and needs. You’ll be spending at least four years of your life at college. Don’t choose a school covered in snow for half of the year if you prefer warm weather. If you like the small school atmosphere, don’t choose a huge school with thousands of students. Make a list of what matters most to you and stick to it.
  • Visit your top schools. If you can, visit your top schools. Being on campus is different than looking at photos online. You’ll get a complete picture of what life is like when you can walk the campus and take it all in first-hand. If you have any additional questions, get them answered during your trip. Schedule a meeting with an admissions counselor or even ask students on campus. Sometimes you get the best answers this way! If you cannot visit, the next best option is to take a virtual campus tour and reach out to the college with your last-minute questions.
  • Use our university admissions calculator. We’ve created a calculator to help you see your chances of getting into the schools on your list.
  • Speak with one of our admissions advisors. From determining how many colleges you should apply to and creating your college list to supplemental essay support and extracurricular advising, Crimson helps you with every aspect of the college application process. Book a free consultation to learn more!

Final Thoughts

Crimson helps students just like you select colleges that are just right for you. We help you determine which schools are safety, target and reach and the number of colleges you should apply to. In general, we see the highest success rates when students apply to one or two safety schools, three target schools, and three reach schools for a total of 7-8 schools.

Interested in learning more about how Crimson can help you determine how many colleges you should apply to and how to create your college list? Schedule a free 1:1 consultation with one of our academic advisors today. They are looking forward to meeting you and showing you how Crimson can help you reach your university admission goals.

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