The typical advice, and I agree with it, is to apply to 6 to 8 schools. But make sure you choose those schools carefully. This may sound obvious, but if you can't picture yourself being happy at a school, don't apply to it. Also, don't apply to a school simply because it has a great reputation or it's where your mom went or it's where all your friends are going.
Begin with 15 or so possible choices and narrow down your list after carefully researching schools, visiting their campuses and talking with students. Apply to those schools that are a good match for your personality, interests and career goals.
Also, be sure to apply to a selection of schools that will maximize your chances of being accepted somewhere. Look at the school profiles, and compare the admissions data to your own academic record and test scores. A wise selection of schools might look something like this:
3 Reach Schools
These are schools with highly selective admissions. Your grades and scores are below the averages for these schools. When you study the admissions data, you find that there's a possibility you'll get in, but it's a bit of a long shot. Be realistic here. If you got a 450 on your SAT Math and you apply to a school where 99% of applicants got over a 600, you're almost guaranteed a rejection letter. On the other side of the spectrum, if you have remarkably strong scores, you should still identify schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford as reach schools. These top schools are so competitive that no one has a good chance of being admitted (learn more about when a match school is actually a reach).
3 Match Schools
When you look at the profiles for these colleges, your academic record and test scores are right in line with the averages. You feel that you measure up favorably with typical applicants for the school and that you have a decent chance of being admitted. Be sure to keep in mind that identifying a school as a "match" does not mean you will be accepted. Many factors go into an admissions decision, and many qualified applicants get turned away.
2 Safety Schools
These are schools where your academic record and scores are measurably above the average of admitted students. Realize that highly selective schools are never safety schools, even if your scores are above the averages.
But if I apply to 15 reach schools, I'm more likely to get in, right?
Statistically, yes. But consider these factors:
- Cost: Most elite schools have application fees of $60 or more. You'll also need to pay for extra score reporting when you apply to a lot of schools: $15 for AP and $11 for ACT and SAT.
- Match: Did you really visit 15 reach schools and find that each one felt right for you? A student who thrives in the urban environment of Columbia University would probably go batty in the rural location of Williams College. And a small liberal arts college is a very different academic environment than a large comprehensive university.
- Time: The applications, especially at competitive schools, take a lot of time to complete. Do you really have several hours to devote to each of those 15 applications?
- The Personal Touch: Most select schools have supplements to the application that ask questions about why you feel you are a good match for the school, or what specifically about the school you find appealing. To complete these essay questions well, you need to research the schools and be specific. A generic answer about the school's reputation and great faculty will not impress anyone. If you can cut and paste your supplemental essay from one application into the next, you haven't done the assignment well.
A Final Word
Be sure to look at the most current data available when determining which schools should be considered "match" and "safety." Because of a recent surge in the number of graduating high school students, schools that may have been a "match" a few years ago might be a "reach" today.