How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? Is There a Perfect Number?

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Application season is a crazy time.

There are deadlines to keep track of and fees and the crazy feeling that your whole future is hanging in the balance. You might feel like you want to apply for every college you could ever think of, or you might not want to apply to any. I’m advocating a balance. Don’t get overwhelmed and don’t go overboard. The number of schools you should apply to varies per person.

I don’t think there’s a perfect number, but there is benefit to having a strategy. Your list might start out two pages long, and that’s OK. Do some heavy editing. Figure out what schools are a better fit than others. Consider location. Consider potential majors. Consider cost. As for a guesstimate at a number, I’ll suggest somewhere around five. Here’s a five-school strategy you can keep in mind:

Two Safe Schools

There’s nothing worse than getting back a batch of rejections. It turns out Harvard didn’t think your 3.0 GPA was good enough, who knew? The truth is, you don’t know who will and won’t accept you. It’s only smart to have safety schools as backup. If all else fails you’ll have a place to attend in the fall, and there’s always the option to transfer. Plus, this gives you wiggle room. You might realize you actually want to attend the state school nearby, or you might have to. You never know what might happen. There could be financial hardship that prevents you from attending the dream school, or there might be a family emergency. Life is unpredictable. It’s better to be safe and have a backup than being forced to take an unexpected semester off.

Two Target Schools

Know yourself. Target schools are schools where you meet their requirements, and they meet your requirements. They have what you’re looking for, and you have what they’re looking for. They aren’t safety schools, so they aren’t necessarily a sure thing. Still, there is a good chance you can get in. More than that, you want to get in! These are the schools you’re interested in. These are the schools with the program you’ve always wanted to be a part of. It’s an attainable goal, but a goal nonetheless. Work hard to make the goal a reality.

One Dream School

We can’t always be practical. It’s fun to have a letter you’re waiting for. Application is fun when you have a reason to wait for the mailman. The dream school is the one where you’d scream if you opened the big envelope. Waiting for acceptances from safety schools just isn’t as fun. Finding out that your number one choice said yes is worth throwing a party over. Put the dream school on your list. Dream big. Write a killer essay. You might not meet all of their requirements, they might accept a small percent of applicants, and getting in might be a huge long shot. That’s all the more reason to apply. Rejected or accepted, it’s great that you tried!

Of course, five schools might not be enough. The categories are what matter. Just make sure you have a balance. Applying to six dream schools isn’t a good use of your time or money. Really taking the time on each application and making your essay specific to the school makes a difference. If you apply to too many schools, you might be spread too thin. Choose an amount that’s manageable for you. Don’t miss the deadlines because you failed to keep track. Plus, applications cost money. Set up a budget beforehand, that should influence your final number. As an estimate, the costs are often $50 per school. Even with five you’re looking at $250. Be practical in how you spend your money. You want options and room to change your mind, but you always want to be excited about the process. Know yourself and know what you want. Know your grades. Know your goals. Know where you want to be at the end of four years. Now is the time to dream and the time to get practical. Use the five-school plan to find your perfect balance.

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Paige Dinneny is a recent graduate of Biola University. Born and raised in Southern California, she currently lives in Long Beach and is now pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction at Cal State Long Beach. Her days are filled with many jobs including social media marketing, retail and this! She spends her free time writing, watching the Game Show Network and going to concerts.