How Many Colleges Should You Really Apply to?

A recent New York Times article asked high school seniors why they were applying not just to a few colleges, but to dozens. The students cited an ever-competitive admissions environment where highly qualified applicants are eclipsed by supernaturally qualified applicants and no one can be too careful.

Several experts in the article correctly recommend that students focus on fewer schools that are a better fit, rather than throwing handfuls of applications at the wall and hoping one will stick. Some simple math explains why this is good advice, and why getting into a good college isn't as hard as you think.

College admissions has changed dramatically over the past thirty years, and the new reality is quirky: getting into any one top college is more difficult than it was in the 1980s, but getting into one of the top colleges is actually much easier. To maximize the chances of acceptance to a selective college, students should apply to 10-14 colleges. And forget ranking those colleges; each should be a school where acceptance would bring utter joy, even if it means bad news from the other 9-13.

Three major shifts have changed the strategic landscape:

1) Use of the Common Application has risen dramatically, making it easier for students to apply to many colleges. Between 2001 and 2012, use of the Common Application increased 281%. Like it or not, you put yourself at a disadvantage by applying to too few schools.

2) Colleges have expanded use of early decision because it raises yield and drives down acceptance rates. To get ten students through regular decision, most colleges must accept thirty students, since many will choose another school. Early decision students, however, agree to enroll if accepted, so accepting only ten students means ten enrolled students.

3) Most importantly, colleges have added dorms and classrooms, and several large colleges have joined the ranks of the elite. While there are only 9% more American students applying to top colleges, there are a whopping 55% more seats available for them.

People think the admissions process is harder than it was 30 years ago, when it's actually easier. They think a college admissions officer is St. Peter at the gate; in fact, he or she is more like a casting director trying to create a diverse, qualified body of students who will like and learn from each other. The best way to gain acceptance to a school where you will be happy and successful is to be yourself on your application and do enough research that your list contains only colleges that are genuinely a good fit. If you find yourself fixating on one dream school, or unable to find 14 schools that would make you ecstatic, then you simply haven't done enough homework. Remember that the odds of admission are much higher than most families think, then turn down the stress level accordingly.

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