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.

Two upcoming free webinars

Students, parents, and counselors, we’ve got two excellent free webinars coming up featuring four of our Collegewise counselors who’ve collectively read tens of thousands of applications during their time as admissions officers at Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, University of Chicago, and Colorado College. Click into the links below to register. We hope to see you there. And if you can’t attend but want the information, please register anyway—we’ll share the recording for up to two weeks after the event, but only with those people who register.

How to Make Your Common App a Lot Less Common
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

The Art of the Short Answer
How to write effective responses to those short-answer prompts on applications
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

How to make calm application progress

I just might turn this past post built around Patrick O’Connor’s “What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps” into an annual September share here. O’Connor’s recommendations on how to make continuous application progress without over-planning, or worse, procrastinating, are both simple and sensible. And I can’t imagine any college applicant who follows it faithfully not enjoying both the thrill of application momentum and the wonderful calm that accompanies work done well ahead of deadlines.

Update on our Common App Guide

Common App Guide CoverSince its release just one week ago, over 1300 students, parents, and counselors have downloaded our Collegewise Guide to the Common Application. It’s the most comprehensive instruction you can find, written by a team of our counselors and former admissions officers who’ve collectively evaluated thousands of Common Apps, as well as helped hundreds of their own Collegewise students complete their own.

Students, parents, and counselors–you can get your own free copy here. And here’s a past post with suggestions for how each of those groups can best use it.

Monday morning Q&A: Applying undecided

Emily asks:

How should students who are applying with an “Undecided” major answer the “Why this college?” essay prompts?

First, Emily, you should know that there’s nothing wrong with applying as an undecided major as long as you apply to colleges that offer it as an option. There are plenty of students who aren’t yet ready to choose a major when they apply, and plenty of colleges that are happy to give them a year or two to decide.

The choice of major is just one reason a student might pick a college. So first, consider the honest reasons the colleges that currently interest you are on your list. Why are you interested in those colleges? Why do you think you could be happy and successful there? You probably have reasons that have nothing to do with majors. In fact, you might be choosing these schools in part because they seem like the right places to explore and find the right major. Whatever those reasons are, share them!

Second, consider what you would like to learn more about. College is school, after all, and most admissions officers will appreciate a sense that you’ve at least considered the academic offerings even if you aren’t yet ready to commit to one. There must be some subjects that you already like, or that intrigue you enough that you’d like to take some classes to explore them in college. Do the schools you’ve selected offer those subjects in addition to the “Undecided” option? There’s a big difference between telling a college “I have no idea what I want to study” and “I’m not ready to commit to a major, but I’ve always really enjoyed my science classes and even wondered what it would be like to learn more about physics every day.” See the difference? The latter answer sounds like an academically engaged student. The former answer does not. I wrote a past post about this here.

And finally, remember that colleges ask every essay question—including the “Why this college?” prompt—to learn more about you. So don’t respond to this prompt with a long list of things that the admissions readers already know about where they work. Tie those programs, offerings, or attributes to you and explain why you think there’s a match. I wrote more about this recently here.

Thanks for your question, Emily!

I’ll answer another question next week. Here’s the form if you’d like to submit one for consideration.

Monday morning Q&A: Will not visiting a college hurt your chances?

Here’s the first entry in my new Monday morning Q&A series.

Carmela asks:

“Will colleges take a decision not to visit as a sign of disinterest? We live on the West Coast and my student is applying to colleges that are in the Midwest and the East. We cannot afford to go on college visits. How do we explain this and demonstrate continued strong interest? She has already had preliminary contact with all the colleges and asked a question about AP tests vs. SAT Subject tests, but we don’t want to bombard them with silly questions. We hear that if the answer can be found on the website, don’t bug them!”

Good question, Carmela. The short answer? No, your decision not to travel great distances to visit will not hurt your daughter’s chance of acceptance.

In fact, the only circumstance where some colleges might question that decision not to visit is for students who live within a short (let’s say 1-hour) driving distance. And this is really only a concern with smaller private schools that are selective but not highly selective, because they lose many of their strongest applicants to other schools. A big public school like UCLA gets far too many applications to care (or to even notice) whether or not a student bothered to visit. And a highly selective school like Harvard has the luxury of knowing that most of their admits will take the offer. But a school like Claremont McKenna might wonder why a student who lives just 30 minutes away decided not to visit.

But families shouldn’t drive themselves crazy trying to decipher which colleges care about this and which do not. There are many ways to demonstrate interest in a college, and almost all of them happen naturally when a student is legitimately interested. That student will want to make the short drive to see the school. They’ll want to attend the information night at their high school. They’ll have great answers to the application question about why they’ve decided to apply to this school. All of those things happen naturally when a student selects colleges that fit them. And none of them are as effective when a student is just trying to appear interested.

Here’s a past post with more tips on how to effectively demonstrate interest to a college.

Also, that inclination not to bug them is a good one! It’s certainly not a good idea to ask questions just for the sake of appearing interested, especially when that information is available on the website. Thanks again for your question!

I’ll answer another question next Monday. If any readers would like to submit their own, here’s the form to do that.

Our new Common App Guide is here!

CollegewiseCommonAppGuideOur Collegewise Guide to the 2017-18 Common Application is here, revised and updated to reflect the most recent version of the app. And for the third year in a row, it’s free to anyone who wants it. You can get your copy here.

Here are a few suggestions for how you might use our guide:



  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help. We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.
  • Struggling with just a particular section or two? Our guide can probably help.


If you are the official college application reviewer in the house, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application (kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them).

High school counselors

  • Looking to brush up on your Common App knowledge? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll be a virtual expert.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a copy of our guide on your desk (or bookmark the link to save a tree) and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Do you have partners, employees, or interns who work with students? Our guide makes a great training tool.

What we ask of you

If you know a family, counselor, PTA president, community-based organization, etc. who could use this guide or who could put it in the hands of those it might help, please share our download link:

I hope you enjoy—and share—it.

Collegewise advice: there’s a video for that

If you’re applying to college and would like some trusted advice from experts, our filmmaker has been capturing some of our counselors sharing their favorite tips. Here are four new videos, all of which are hosted on our YouTube channel.

Five College Essay Clichés to Avoid

Questions to Kickstart your Essay Brainstorm

Debunking College Essay Myths

Asking for Letters of Recommendation

You can’t outsource consequences

In 2012, as I was preparing to self-publish version 1.0 of If the U Fits, I hired an outside copyeditor to proofread the manuscript. I wanted to make sure the book I’d spent the last year writing was typo-free. And it was important enough to pay a professional to make sure the job was done right.

Unfortunately, the job was not done right. I discovered only after the book had already been published that the editor had missed dozens of typos. I was angry, I was embarrassed, and I felt stupid for paying far too much money to—and putting far too much trust in—someone who clearly hadn’t earned it.

But as much as the typos may not have been my fault, it didn’t change the fact that my book with my name on it had errors on most pages. Nobody who bought the book would know or care that I’d actually paid for supposed professional editing. Nobody was emailing that editor to point out the errors. No part of her job description included standing publicly beside the work and accepting blame for anything that didn’t go right. I’d outsourced the proofreading work, but the consequences were all mine.

Students applying to college this fall, remember that you can’t outsource responsibility for your application. No matter where you go to school, no matter how much help may be available to you, you—not anyone on your application support team—are the one whose college future is at stake. If you miss a deadline, if you ignore requests for additional information, if a ball gets dropped because you thought it was someone else’s job to pick it up, you’re the one who will bear the consequences. Most colleges will not take “My parent/school counselor/teacher/private counselor was supposed to take care of that…” as a valid excuse.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t trust anyone to help you. You can and likely should seek help from qualified people who have some skin in the game.

But don’t sit back and expect other people to care about this process more than you do. Don’t wait for people to tell you what to do and when to do it. Don’t point at your parents or your counselor and claim this is their job. It’s your college future. These are your applications. This is your responsibility. And the most successful college applicants seek (if not demand) that responsibility; they don’t wait for someone else to offer it to them.

You’ll be less likely to try to outsource the responsibility for getting into college if you remember that you won’t be able to outsource the consequences on the other side.

Make “Why this college?” about you

Of all the questions on college applications, any version of “Why are you interested in attending this college?” could well be the one students struggle with most. It’s easy if you’re the rare student who’s interested in a major or program that very few other colleges offer. But most students don’t have their interest narrowed down that specifically. And that’s why so many applicants end up either expressing vague generalities like “You have a great reputation, top professors, and a beautiful campus,” or composing a list of specific features that they obviously just looked up on the college’s website, like “You have an 11-1 student-faculty ratio.” Neither of those approaches gets you closer to admission.

The best answers to this type of question have a lot more to do with you than they do with the college, and here’s why. The colleges are asking not just because they want to know if you’re a good fit. Even more importantly, they also want to know how likely you’d be to accept an offer of admission if one were extended to you.

Let me propose a scenario to better explain this to students who read this blog.

Imagine you received five invitations to the prom, each from someone you’d genuinely like to go with. You can only say yes to one, but here’s the catch—you’re not the only person each is asking. You have no real way of knowing who genuinely wants to go with you and who’s just playing the odds. You could be the first choice, the backup, or somewhere in-between.

In case this admittedly stretched analogy is failing, let me be clear—they’re the college applicants, you’re the college.

One way to get a sense of who would be most likely to take you up on your acceptance might be to ask, “Tell me more about why you’d like to go to the prom with me.”

Which of these two responses makes you feel more confident that they’d say yes to you if you said yes to them?

You have a reputation as a high-achieving student. You have a good GPA, you’ve participated in lots of activities, and you take four AP classes. You also were named all-league in both tennis and basketball, you’ve won a lot of department awards at school, and I heard that you’ve already started to win some college scholarship money. You have a part-time job, so I think you’ll be able to help pay for prom expenses. Finally, you eat salads at lunch a lot, which is a lot healthier than many other lunch options.

You might be flattered. It’s nice to hear someone say positive things about you. But this person just told you a lot about something you already knew well—yourself. And you’ve still got no sense why or if they really want to go to the prom with you.

Contrast that with this response:

I’m not a social risk-taker. I don’t go to the crazy parties, so I’m not looking to sneak booze into the prom or do anything else that so many other people are talking about doing. I just want to go with someone I like, dance, take some pictures, and have a fun night with our mutual friends that we can look back on and smile about. It’s our prom, and it’s a big deal. I think it can be a lot of fun without doing something that will get us in trouble three weeks before we graduate. I don’t know you well, but we’ve talked enough that I think you’re someone who might want the same thing. So if you want to go with me, I’d love to take you. I think we’d make a great prom night couple.

See the difference? Whether or not that description appeals to you is up to you. But you know where this person stands. You know a little more about them and why they think you’re a good prom match. And most importantly, their response gives you a sense that they might welcome a yes from you.

When you answer a “Why this college?” question, it’s fine to describe aspects of that college that appeal to you. And if you’ve found something specific—a major, a program, a professor, etc. that matches something you’re genuinely looking for in a college, say so! They’re asking, after all.

But remember that admissions officers don’t need you to tell them about the place they work. They want you to tell them about you, what you are looking for in a college, and why you both could be a good fit together.

There are times when it’s OK to make something about you. Answering a “Why this college?” question is one of those times.