Finalizing Your College List

By Leanne Soulard

September 14, 2020

It’s a question we get all the time: What is the “right” number of schools to which a student should apply?

I’ve been doing this work for more than a decade and I’ve seen it all, from as few as two schools to as many as 30. Years ago, I worked with a student who applied to 26 schools and I honestly believed that I would never see that kind of list again – until a few years later when a student applied to 30. I’m not sure what shocked me more – the application fees or the student’s ability to maintain consistently high-quality writing for every supplemental essay she had to write. It was impressive.

My professional recommendation is that a final college list should be comprised of about 10 schools. It should be noted, however, that my recommendation for an initial college list is about 20-30 schools. Starting with a number this large ensures that students are investigating every kind of school available to them: small liberal arts college, large research university, city, rural, near, far, etc. Students have access to a wide range of tools to assist them: The CollegeBoard’s BigFuture college search tool, a school-based program like Naviance or Guided Path, college information sessions hosted by the school counseling department, and virtual campus tours, just to name a few. The idea is that, in the end, the final 10-ish schools will have a lot in common and they will all likely reflect students’ preferences for the academic environment and social setting. Within the final list, there should be three categories:

  • Reach – one or two schools at which the student’s academic credentials fall below the range of the average freshman.
  • Target – 4-6 schools at which the student’s academic credentials fall within the range of the average freshman.
  • Likely – 1-2 schools at which the student’s academic credentials fall above the range of the average freshman.

No matter how many applications a student decides to submit, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no correct answer to this question. The final college list is deeply personal and it’s also a major milestone in a student’s college journey that deserves to be celebrated!

Stay up to date

Latest News and Events