A worried parent recently said to me – “The school is limiting the number of U.S. colleges to which my daughter can apply to ten.” My response: “Ten?! That’s a lot of applications!”
Until recently students were satisfied with applying to around six colleges. But with the tightening of admit rates, applicants are casting a wider net to distribute their chances of admissions 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 of students. All of this is making ambitious students 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.
I still believe, however, that ten colleges are more than enough for any student. The scattershot approach to applications is flawed for several reasons, not the least of which is that a student cannot possibly execute good quality on more than ten colleges. As students in class 12 struggle to complete their schoolwork and take standardized tests (SAT/ACT), 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 (e.g. your list of favorite 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 (e.g. I want to attend because of the diverse student body, renown faculty and world-class resources) the essay will not add value to your application.
Where I often see student’s list 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 test scores and 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%. Only if you have above 700 in all three sections of the SAT should you consider “trying” for an Ivy+ college (The Ivy league plus Stanford, Duke, MIT, Chicago).
A student I 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% admissions rate, the other two were public Ivies, notoriously difficult for out-of-state students. And he was waitlisted at five highly selective colleges. While we will never know exactly the reason for this outcome, my 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, I am quite confident that a number below ten is a good rule of thumb.