Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

What Is the Maximum Number of Colleges to Which I Can Apply?

POSTED ON 11/27/2014 BY The Red Pen

What Is the Maximum Number of Colleges to Which I Can Apply? | The Red Pen

Recently, a worried parent approached The Red Pen, stating that, “My daughter’s school is limiting the number of US colleges to which she can apply to ten.” Our counsellor was shocked, just not in the way the parent expected. Her response was, “Ten?! That’s a lot of applications!”

Until recently, applicants were satisfied with applying to around six colleges. But with the tightening of admit rates, applicants are now casting a wider net to distribute their chances of admission to good colleges. Indeed, many highly selective colleges claim that they could reproduce their incoming class three times over and still have a perfectly qualified pool. All of this is making ambitious applicants anxious. In response, applicants add more colleges to their list, hoping that they will be in the ‘right’ group of one of the three qualified batches for at least one top-tier college.

At The Red Pen, however, we believe ten colleges are more than enough for any applicant. This is because: 

1) The scattershot approach to applications is flawed:

Applicants cannot possibly execute good quality on more than ten colleges. As students in grade 12 struggle to complete their schoolwork and take standardised tests, if required, adding more unique college essays is an unnecessary burden and usually produces substandard work. While it is ok to repurpose some material from application to application as a list of your favourite books or what you did during the summer will be the same anywhere you apply, the supplemental essays on “Why College X” needs to be well researched and thoughtful. Colleges that include these essays use them to see if you really know why you want to attend their college. If your response is too generic, for instance, “I want to attend because of the diverse student body, renowned faculty and world-class resources,” the essay will not add value to your application.

2) Adding too many dream colleges:

Where we often see students’ lists bulging unnecessarily is in the “dream” category, colleges where they want to “try.” But remember, a dream college is not one where you have absolutely no chance and your marks are far below the college’s average. A dream college should meet the following criteria: 

1) It is your top choice college

2) Your marks and scores fall in the middle or slightly below the 25-75% median range

3) The college’s selectivity is above 15 percent

Only if you have high grades and strong extracurricular activities, should you consider “trying” for an Ivy+ college. This includes the Ivy league plus Stanford University, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The University of Chicago and other such competitive universities. 

A student we worked with last year violated several of these pieces of advice by applying to 22 colleges. In the end, he was admitted to only six, all but one of which we had considered “safety” colleges. He was rejected at eleven, nine of which had less than a 15 percent admissions rate, the other two were public Ivies, notoriously difficult for out-of-state students. He was waitlisted at five highly selective colleges.

While we will never know exactly the reason for this outcome, our hunch is that this student would have fared much better and not been waitlisted at so many colleges if he had spent his time perfecting fewer applications and even cultivating relationships with faculty and admissions at a more targeted number of colleges.

So with all of this in mind, choose your colleges carefully. Make sure they are the right ones for you and that your chances are well distributed in relation to your academic record–a group of colleges where your qualifications range from below the average to well above the average. Though there is no perfect formula or magic number, we are confident that a number below ten is a good rule of thumb. For more help in creating an ideal college list, get in touch with us.