How many Colleges should I apply to?

College searches can be very difficult to navigate. There are 5,300 colleges/universities in the country so how many should you pick?! I am here to tell you how many to apply to and what type of colleges to apply to.

By: Katelyn Pramberger, Political Science and Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University, 2023


The 3:3 Rule

The average student applies to between 7-10 colleges. I recommend applying to at least 9 schools (as long as your financial circumstances allow you to do so). What is important is not how many schools you apply to, but what type of schools you apply to. This is why I have the 3:3 rule: apply to 3 types of schools: safety, target, and reaches. A safety school is a school you are likely to get into. This means that statistically you are in the top 25% of admitted students. A target school is a college that you have a good chance of getting into but not set in stone. This means that statistically you are in the 50th percentile of admitted students. A reach school is one that you are less likely to get into, many times these schools are referred to as “dream schools.” These tend to be highly selective colleges and statistically you stand at the bottom 25% of admitted students.

I recommend that you apply to 3 safeties, 3 targets, and 3 reaches. This will ensure you get into some type of school while still maximizing your chances of getting into your “dream school.” 


When to apply to more schools

That said, if you are looking to get into a highly selective college, you should consider applying for more schools. You should maintain your safeties and targets and add a few more reaches. 


This is because many top colleges have acceptance rates in the single digits which means these competitive schools receive far more qualified students than they can admit. Because of this, you must maximize your options by applying to more competitive and target schools.


When to apply to less schools

On the other hand, applying to fewer colleges is not very ideal because it lowers the chance that you get into your desired school. This is why we maintain the 3:3 rule. That said, cost is a consideration. While there are ACT and SAT fee waivers for students with financial need, most students pay around $75 per college application along with ACT/SAT tests which cost around the same. These costs can build up and make it hard to apply to more than 9-10 schools.


College applications also take a lot of time to complete because many colleges require supplemental essays and sometimes a separate type of common application like the coalition application.


Another reason to apply to less schools is if you apply early decision. This means that you apply to one college and if you get in then you are required to attend. You can, however, apply early action to colleges at the same time (November 1st). 


Overall, I would generally recommend abiding by the 3:3 rule to maximize your chances of getting into college. That means applying to around 9 schools. But, if you have extraneous circumstances, this can vary person-to-person. Good luck!

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