Last month I received a call from a college counselor in New York. Five minutes into the call, he said, “My kids are hearing at school that they should apply to 30 colleges. What do you think?”

We are caught in a revolving, pernicious cycle and there is no end in sight. Here is how it goes: The more certain “designer colleges” get publicity, the harder they are to get into. The harder they are to get into, the more students and parents want to attend them. The more students and their parents want to attend them, the more applications said colleges get. The more applications they get, the lower their acceptance rates are. The lower their acceptance rates are, the more stress and angst is generated for high school students. This leads them to hedge their bets and apply to even more colleges, out of fear that they will not get in. This, of course, leads to even lower acceptance rates and the vicious cycle just continues, with no end in sight.

Here is an example of one of the myriad articles that can be found on this subject:

UC applications break records for 13th consecutive year
UC Office of the President, Thursday, December 14, 2017

“In the 13th straight year of record-breaking highs, more than 221,000 students applied for undergraduate admission to the University of California for fall 2018, an overall jump of 5.7 percent over last year, according to preliminary data released today (Dec. 14).”

I am sure some are thinking, “So what? What’s the big deal? The more colleges you apply to, the more chances you have of getting in and getting money.” While that sounds plausible, what people often fail to realize is that there are adverse effects of applying to too many colleges. Here are four reasons I believe that only in rare instances should a student apply to more than a dozen colleges:

  • Quality applications take a lot of time. Many applications have “school-specific” essays and short answer questions that are not easy to do well. I rarely find that students do a good job on these mini essays and short answers. The responses are far too general. Making them specific and appropriate for each school requires a lot of research. There is also a relationship-building component to submitting quality applications and this is also time-consuming. Submitting six to twelve “A or A+ college applications” is far better than turning in 20-30 B-level applications.
  • Senior year matters at a lot of selective colleges. The more you are “college application consumed,” the more potential you have for experiencing grade slippage in your senior year. This only decreases your chances of getting in.
  • There is a lot more than college admissions that should matter in your senior year. Your friendships and your family matter. Your physical fitness and your health matter. Your other extracurricular activities and interests matter. Having fun and enjoying life is also important.
  • Getting into too many colleges leads to even more stress. I recently met with a student and her parents and the student was admitted to 24 colleges. You would think this would have been a time of jubilation but it was not. The angst and second guessing involved in whittling this list down to even a manageable number of colleges was overwhelming. Attempting to visit all 24 schools was all but impossible and in the end, everyone knew she had applied to too many schools.

I recommend applying to one safety school, two to four Likely or Probably schools, two to four Mid-range or 50/50 schools, and two to four Challenge (aka Reach schools or Stretch schools) schools. If you like your Likely schools the most then you only need to apply to two to four schools and your safety school. You will not only increase your chances of getting in but you will enjoy your senior year more and become more well-rounded in important areas other than your college options.

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