How Many College Applications and When Should I Submit Them?

One question I hear every week is “How many colleges should I apply to?”  I wish I could give families a definite answer, but there’s not one right number. I have had students apply to as few as three or four colleges, when the schools they are most excited about also happen to be schools where they are highly likely to be admitted.

I do think it’s important to apply to more than one college, because even if you know you will get into your favorite school, your preferences and your family’s financial situation could change during the year, and you want to be sure to have choices in the spring. But some students and parents get nervous if they haven’t submitted at least twelve applications, especially when they hear about other students who are applying to 15 or more schools. The anxiety and feeling of competition leads them to apply to additional colleges that they are not seriously considering, resulting in extra work for students and admissions officers, hundreds of dollars in unnecessary application fees, and more stress for everyone.

Some students want to apply to the most selective schools in the country and think that they will improve their chances of being admitted to one of them by applying to all of them. While I have seen students admitted to one Ivy and not another, it doesn’t follow that the more schools you apply to, the more acceptances you will gather. It is very possible for good students to apply to 15 of the most selective schools and end up with 15 rejections. In fact, a student who might have been admitted to one of these schools could end up sabotaging her chances by rushing to complete so many applications that she doesn’t take the time to tailor each application to a particular college. It’s very difficult to prepare 15 excellent applications. You are better off focusing your energy and submitting fewer thoughtfully prepared applications.

While it is essential to include some highly likely schools, the exact ratio of reach to highly likely schools depends on a number of factors, including your tolerance for rejection. If you dread the prospect of numerous rejections, apply to more highly likely and 50/50 schools, with just one or two reach schools that you just have to try for because if you didn’t apply you would always wonder if you would have been admitted.

Once you have finalized your list of colleges, it’s time to make a schedule. Some students were rushing to submit the Common Application on August 1, the first day the application was available. But the college application process isn’t a race, and there is no advantage to submitting the first application. It is much more important to submit your best application, and that takes time. Essays often take shape in the third or fourth draft, and putting an essay aside for a week allows you to come back to it with fresh perspective.

Applying to college would be simpler if there was one deadline for all colleges. But each school sets its own application deadline, and many schools have more than one deadline. Some colleges offer Early Decision or Early Action, where students apply early, often by November, and receive a decision by late December. Early Decision is binding, so if the college accepts you, you are obligated to attend. If you apply Early Action, you can still apply to other schools and wait until the May 1 notification deadline to decide on a college.

But these aren’t the only deadlines. Some schools have earlier deadlines for students who are submitting an art portfolio or who need to schedule an audition for a music, theater or dance program. Some colleges have early deadlines, as well as additional applications, for scholarship consideration or for honors programs.

Many public and some private universities use rolling admission, and if you are applying to any of these schools, you might want to submit those applications before starting your other applications. You should get a decision within six to eight weeks, and having an acceptance before winter break makes for a much more pleasant holiday season for the whole family. Some of these schools also allow you to apply for housing once you have an acceptance, and that could mean getting your preferred housing choice.

Applying to college is a lot of work and pacing is crucial. Whether you use a chart, spreadsheet or other method, find a way to keep track of all the deadlines. It can also be helpful to give yourself a deadline a couple weeks before each school’s official deadline, so that you are sure to get the applications finished in time. This is a good project for students and parents to work on together. While students are ultimately responsible for completing their college applications, the amount of work can feel overwhelming, and if parents can help with the organizational tasks, that can make the process less stressful for everyone.


Success Stories

  • Aaron F., Columbia, MD
    "Thank you so much, Audrey, for your help with my essays. I was amazed at how much time and thought you put in – your input greatly improved my essays. I also want to thank you for the way in which you helped me. You were able to give criticism in a way that was easy to digest, making the already stressful process a little smoother. I know that I …
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