Monday morning Q&A: How many colleges to apply to?

Kathryn asks:

The number of colleges that guidance counselors at our high school recommend students apply to has risen over the last decade – almost at the same pace as college tuition. This year they’re recommending students apply to 8-10 colleges. That number doesn’t seem unusual in our area (outside Boston). If the increasing number isn’t just specific to our area, why is this happening? Our family has theories and frustrations, since we have a student who can’t find 8 colleges that he wants to apply to.

You’re right, Kathryn—it’s happening, and not just in your area. There are a lot of reasons, but here are the three that are really driving that change. In no particular order:

1. Submitting multiple applications has gotten easier.
I completed my college applications using a typewriter. Then came online applications. Then came the Common Application, which allows students to complete one application and submit it to multiple colleges. Adding just 1, 2, or 8 more no longer necessarily requires a comparable addition in time and energy required to do so.

2. Lottery logic runs rampant.
Many students, particularly those who want to attend the most prestigious colleges, use lottery logic and assume that the more schools they apply to, the better their chances of getting in. But as I’ve written before, that logic doesn’t work. Harvard’s Dean of Admissions explained the flawed approach of applying to 20 highly selective colleges in a bid to improve your odds by using the analogy of an archer standing 1000 feet away from the target. His words: “The fallacy is to think that if you apply to all 20 schools that you will broaden the bull’s eye…all a student has done is drawn a circle around the pea-size target 20 times.”

3. Fear.
There was once a time when a student could apply to just 2-3 colleges and feel confident they’d be admitted to one. With over 2,000 colleges in the country, that’s still a viable approach, but not for the most popular colleges. Add in all the surrounding pressure, anxiety, and drama that the admissions process creates and you’re left with fear. That fear sounds like:

“What if I don’t get in anywhere?”

“What if I was wrong about the colleges on my list?”

“What if we don’t get financial aid?”

And many families choose to combat that fear by applying to even more colleges.

There’s no universally accepted number of schools students should apply to, but the best way to combat the three behaviors above is to create a balanced college list. Here’s a past post on just how to do that, and another for families who may need help falling in love with less famous colleges.

Thanks for your question, Kathryn. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.