How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

In addition to gathering all of the application requirements: standardized test scores, transcripts, recommendation letters, essays, and so on, you also have to worry about selecting the right number of schools to submit applications to.

Let’s face it, those application fees can really start to add up if you apply to a ton of schools. That’s why you have to be strategic in your planning.

So, how many schools should you apply to?

You should apply to at least 5-7 schools. When you only apply to one or two schools, you are taking a risk. You may be turned down or you might be narrowing your options too quickly.

When determining your top 5-7, your list must consist of the right mixture of schools based on the likelihood of you getting accepted. You must ensure that you have a balance of Long-Shots, Targets, and Safeties.

What’s a Long-Shot School?

You should choose 1-2 “long-shot” schools. A long-shot school is an academically challenging school where your competition will be high and the admissions committee’s decision will be based on how you stack up to their admissions requirements. These are schools that you know you only have a slight chance of being accepted to.

You can determine if one of the schools on your list is a long-shot by evaluating how well your academic profile matches up with their admissions requirements. If your grade point average or standardized test scores are below the school’s average, then you might want to consider this school a long-shot.

You should include a couple of these types on your list; you might just be surprised by the outcome. You could make it to the wait-list, or better yet, you could get accepted!

What is a Target School?

You should choose 2-3 “target” schools. A target school is a school that you’re pretty certain you’ll get accepted to. You’ve checked out all of their admission requirements (GPA, average ACT/SAT score, course requirements, etc.) and your academic profile seems to match up quite well with previously admitted students.

Since you meet most or all of their admissions requirements, you should feel confident that you have a good chance of being admitted to these colleges, while keeping in mind that there is a slight possibility of denial.

Having a hard time selecting target schools? No worries. Try talking to your high school counselor.  He or she should be able to help you determine if a certain school on your list should be considered a target.

What is a Safety School?

You should choose 1-2 “safety” schools. A safety school is a school that you should be admitted to without difficulty based on their admissions requirements and your grades, test scores, etc.

Make sure that you select your safety schools carefully.  Your safety list should include schools that you believe will provide you with a good education and a place that will make you happy. While these schools most likely won’t make it to the top of your list, these should at least be schools that you wouldn’t mind attending if all other options fell through.

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Lauren Anderson is a certified school counselor who's passionate about helping students all over the world successfully transition from high school to college! After spending 6 years as a business professional, she obtained her Master’s degree in School Counseling and now spends her spare time helping students.

10 Responses to “How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?”

  • Stephanie on June 3, 2011

    This article is a bit misleading because it does not give a compelling reason for applying to a reach school. Some students might be perfectly happy applying to matches and safeties! Also, there’s no mention of financial reaches and matches, which is also a huge deal-breaker in the selection process. Is a school really a match if you and your parents can’t afford it? Parents and students must communicate to ensure the dream school will also be a financial reality.

    • TheCollegeHelper

      Hey Stephanie, thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you. Some students may be perfectly happy with applying to matches and safeties, and that’s totally fine! :)

      However, there are many students who really want to attend a certain college, but aren’t sure if their academic profile will meet the college’s admissions requirements and as a result, they just don’t apply. I’m simply encouraging students not to give up so easily. It’s okay to have 1-2 of these types of schools on your list because you just might get accepted.

      You also bring up a good point regarding college affordability. I agree that finances are an important part of the college decision-making process. I address this topic in many other posts on the site.

      Check out this one:

      I welcome your feedback on other articles; it’s much appreciated!

  • Ben on October 18, 2011

    Hi again, just another quick question. Would it be better to do grade forgiveness before I apply to the colleges I desire or it doesn’t matter? I’m really hoping my GPA goes up decently, I would be so happy if I were to get accepted to UCF.

    • TheCollegeHelper

      The College Helper on October 19, 2011

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks again for your comment! I’m not quite sure what you’re asking so I need a little more clarity. Does your high school have grade forgiveness or are you talking about the grade forgiveness policy at UCF?

      If you’re talking about the grade forgiveness policy at UCF, then this program only applies to current students. It allows current students to repeat a course and have the repeated grade computed in their GPA in place of the original grade.

      If you really want to go to UCF and you don’t have enough time to raise your GPA, maybe you should consider a community college.

      This would allow you 2 years to boost your GPA, then you could try transferring to UCF. Does this sound like a good option for you?

      Check out this post:

      • Ben on October 20, 2011

        Sorry for the confusion! My school does grade forgiveness if you fail a class, thats why my GPA is currently a 2.9. And I just really want to go there without attending any community college. I heard today at school that it is possible to get into UCF with a GPA of 3.1 and a score on the ACT of 26.

        • TheCollegeHelper

          The College Helper on October 20, 2011

          Hi Ben,

          I agree with the information that you were provided at school. 10% of UCF’s current freshman class had GPA’s between 3.0 and 3.25 in high school. Also, 75% of admitted students score a 24 or above on the ACT, so a score of 26 would give you a good shot at getting admitted.

          And, yes I do think you should do grade forgiveness if you think it would help boost your GPA and not take away from your ability to study for the ACT or do well in your other classes. It will show the admissions committee that you’re committed to doing well in school.

          However, keep in mind that your high school transcript will still show the original grade…so you should focus more attention on scoring high on the ACT and writing your admissions essay.

          I wish you the best of luck! Let me know what happens.

  • Kristen Q. on March 14, 2012

    My son has ADHD but is unable to take meds because of the several side effects. He has a weighted GPA of 2.89 in his Jr. year. We have not yet got back his SAT or ACT scores. He has taken several Honors classes and failed only one.(algebra 2) I think his SAT scores will be good bc he tests very well. Does he stand a chance at getting in a state school or will he have to attend a private school here in NC?

    • TheCollegeHelper

      TheCollegeHelper on March 15, 2012

      Hi Kristen,

      Thanks for visiting our site! Based on GPA alone, yes I think he has a shot at getting into a state school. Once you get his test results back, use Petersons and College Navigator to determine if his academic profile is in alignment with the schools your son is interested in attending. Also, don’t hesitate to work with your son’s school counselor. He or she could be a good resource.

      Good luck!

  • Kyle on August 19, 2012

    Hi, I’m looking to transfer to University of Florida, from a community college, first getting my associates in art, Right now my gpa is 2.4 but I will be able to get it to a 3 if not higher by the time I transfer, do you think I will have a better shot at getting in since I would have an associates degree?

    • TheCollegeHelper

      TheCollegeHelper on September 5, 2012

      Hi Kyle,

      Thanks for visiting our site!

      Yes, I think having your associates degree will definitely help you, however the University of Florida will also consider your high school transcripts and standardized test scores when they make their decision, so having your AA degree does not discourage the college from reviewing your high school academic profile.

      Visit this link for more info about the University of Florida:

      Looks like the minimum GPA that they accept from transfer students is 2.0 and approximately 42% of transfer students actually get admitted, so I’d work hard to improve your GPA in order to increase your chances.

      Best of luck!

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