It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that applying to more colleges increases your chance of getting accepted into a great college. The faulty logic is that you are casting a wider net, therefore you’re more likely to catch a fish. However, applying to dozens of colleges doesn’t provide any added guarantees. In fact, there are many downsides to applying to a large number of colleges (see our post on how to choose your short list). This post presents some reasons why you should consider limiting the number of college applications you submit.
Time & Stress
Students often underestimate just how much time it takes to complete college applications. While many components can be recycled, personal essays must be personalized for each college. You already have to research colleges, study for any standardized tests you’re taking, reach out to recommenders, and write essays on top of an already hectic senior year. Imagine how much more stress and work it will be to add to your agenda writing, editing, and rewriting several supplemental essays. While some colleges have only a few supplementals, you might also encounter something like Columbia’s application which requires eight short response supplemental questions. Furthermore, some schools have their own application systems (e.g. MIT, University of California, University of Texas), which means even more time spent on applications. This uses up valuable time that you could instead dedicate to building on your Spike, studying for standardized tests, or finely crafting essays for the colleges that you’re most interested in attending.
Some students also fail to consider whether they would actually attend every college on their list. If you have a college on your list that you would probably not attend, even as a last resort, you’re throwing away any time you spend on their application. This often happens when a parent or counselor recommends a ‘safety’ college where you have a good shot at being accepted, regardless of whether the student has interest in the college. A better approach is to start researching colleges early so that you have a manageable mix of appealing safety, match, and reach schools.
Lack of Personalization
If you’re applying to too many colleges, it’s hard to create a compelling application. Even if you’re using the Common Application, you likely still need to complete writing supplements. Oftentimes, one of the questions will pertain to why you want to attend that specific college or study a particular field. Colleges want to read a compelling case for why you are well suited to their program in particular. A good response requires research and familiarization, perhaps even a campus visit. This level of personalization is hard to achieve if you have dozens of colleges on your list, and you run the risk of submitting uninteresting answers that can apply to just about any other college.
If you have an extensive college list, you might also miss out on other opportunities to personalize a key component of your application, like a particular activity relevant to a program you’re interested in or details in the additional information section that communicate why you’re uniquely suited to their program. Admissions officers see right through the thousands of generic applications that come their way, commenting on the stimulating campus environment, challenging professors, and how you just ‘feel at home’ on their campus. You’ll have something much more interesting to share if you genuinely get to know a college and use that knowledge to tailor your application. Make it easy for the admissions officer to see just how great of a fit you are for their college
It is also worth considering the financial cost of applications. In addition to application fees, you’ll also have to send your standardized testing scores. These aren’t exorbitant fees individually, but added up they can certainly put a dent in your wallet. Just applying to ten schools and having to send your SAT and SAT II schools could easily cost over $1000.
How Many is ‘Too Many’?
We typically recommend about eight applications as a target. This is a manageable number, and you’ll be able to really focus on putting together compelling applications. This number also allows you to distribute your applications among safety, match, and reach schools so that you have a reasonable shot at getting into at least one of the colleges you apply for.
When Should You Apply to More Colleges?
There are a few limited cases where it makes sense to apply to many colleges. If there are some colleges that you would like to keep on your list that don’t require any additional supplemental materials (e.g. Fordham University, Middlebury College, Wesleyan University, Purdue University), and cost is not a factor, then it may be worthwhile to apply. This does mean less personalization, but there are university systems that actually encourage you to send your materials to multiple colleges within their system. Because supplementals take up so much time, we discourage students from applying to a UC unless they are applying to multiple schools in the system.
At the end of the day, ‘quality over quantity’ is a good rule to follow in most cases. We understand that applying to college is stressful, and it may seem like an added security to apply to many colleges. But try to put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer. Are you going to admit a student who has a great application, but everything they share could be relevant to just about any elite university? Or are you more intrigued by a student who is clearly excited about your school in particular, and has put in the time to craft a thoughtful application?