Updated: Dec 13, 2019
There is no algebraic equation for the perfect number of colleges to which you should apply.
But students who thoughtfully curate a balanced list of schools tend to have a less stressful application process than those who apply to dozens. They end up with a list of colleges they're excited about, plenty of which are well within their admission and financial reach. And they feel more in control of their college destiny because they're not at the mercy of admissions decisions from a long list of highly selective colleges.
As you are crafting a list of schools that meet your best fit college specifications, include schools that fall into each of the following three categories: dream, target, and safety. Use our college search to compare colleges by cost, admission criteria, and more.
If getting in and paying for college weren't issues, where would you want to attend? A dream school is a college where your academic credentials fall in the lower end, or even below, the school's average range for the cohort of students accepted the previous year. Dream schools might be long shots, but they should still be possible. Don't let the sticker price of a financial reach school scare you off! Financial need, academic strength, and a college's desire to have you on campus can all influence your financial aid award and make the cost of attendance more manageable.
A target school is one where your academic credentials (grades, SAT or ACT scores, and class rank) fall well within the school's average range for the most recently accepted class. There are no guarantees, but it's not unreasonable to expect to be accepted to several of your target schools.
A safety school is one where your academic credentials exceed the school's range for the average first-year student. You should be reasonably certain that you will be admitted to your safety schools. Like your dream and target schools, these should also be colleges you'd be happy to attend. In addition to admissions criteria, it's a good idea to think about financial aid when creating your list of safety schools—make sure there is at least one school that you know your family can afford on that list.
Send college applications to a few schools from each category (for example, three dream schools, three target schools, and two safety schools). Applying to a range of schools will ensure that you set ambitious goals and give yourself some back-up options where you know you can be happy and successful.
Check out our video on creating your college list:
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This article first appeared on The Princeton Review