The answer to this question is simple: at least one.
Before you dismiss the simple answer as a weak attempt at wit, consider this: you can attend only one college.
Or for those who transfer from one college to another, you can attend only one college at a time.
I have worked with students who have applied to only one college—and been blissfully happy. These students are able to clarify their priorities with crystalline clarity. They then have the good sense to recognize when a school matches those priorities. When the find this perfect match, such students feel they need to look no further—and they don’t.
But there are other sorts of students who apply to only one college. All students who (successfully) apply Early Decision to their first choice college apply to only one college. Again, they make the decision to put all their eggs in one basket. But before they can concentrate their eggs in this way, they have to do their homework. They have to really consider what it is they want in a college. And then select the one college that seems to fit those criteria the best.
But most students apply to more than one college for one of the following reasons:
- Some of the schools on the short list are more difficult to get into than others. So the student casts the net broadly to see who accept her.
- The student has narrowed down his list, but cannot identify a clear favorite by the time the applications are due.
- The student (and her parents!) seek financial aid. Whether need based or merit based, or both, and wants to wait to see what sort of aid package is offered.
So how many is the right number?
Well, it depends on which reason we’re focused upon. If the student is trying to ensure admission to at least one school, then two or three is the minimum number, with the list growing to no more than ten depending on the circumstances.
When a student is particularly indecisive, their inclination is to apply to more, not fewer colleges. Usually I try to force the student to narrow the list to no more than ten, and usually about six or eight. One of the reasons for this is that more applications can mean a lot more time (and money) spent on their preparation. Especially when a student is applying to highly selective schools that require multiple essays. The student is better off applying to fewer colleges and making sure that each application is a gem. To do otherwise risks spreading oneself too thinly—and each individual application may suffer from the collective weight of the burden.
When it comes to financial aid, the number can be more fluid. Again, if the student and the family are careful in selecting the colleges according to each college’s history in awarding merit and need-based financial aid, then they can keep the list relatively short. However, with some students (especially those for whom a full-tuition scholarship may be essential), we have expanded the number of applications in order to give the student more possible options—and a better financial aid package in the end.
College admission is not a science. It’s more art. So it’s difficult to develop a hard and fast rule on the number of applications each student should complete. Generally, I do not think it is necessary to sprinkle applications all over the place. It’s better to engage in the hard thinking and decision-making before the applications need to be completed.
In the end, the number of applications each student fills out depends on who they are, what they want, and what they need.
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