How many colleges should I apply to?

More important than the number of colleges is having a balanced list, with colleges in each category (Likely, Target, and Reach) to make sure you have several options when it comes time to making your final college choice. As there are many factors that influence colleges’ admissions decisions (the number of applications, standardized test scores, grades and course choices, interviews, recommendations, activities, application essays, the college’s demographic/geographic needs, and personal qualities such as leadership), having a certain grade point average and test scores similar to those of accepted students is not a guarantee of admission.

Some colleges pay attention to whether or not the student is applying for financial aid and whether or not they have demonstrated an interest in the college by visiting, communicating with the admissions officer assigned to their school, interviewing, and/or meeting a college representative at the student’s high school, and others don’t. Some consider the college’s history with the student’s high school—who they have admitted and not admitted in the past—and others do not pay attention to this. Some look at where a student is from and this can affect the admissions decision—e.g., if the student is from an under-represented area of the country or from outside the US—and others do not look at this.

Make sure you have likely, target, and reach colleges on your list, any one of which you would be happy to attend.

Below are descriptions of each category:

Likely: Consider a college to be a Likely if you have a 75% or better chance of acceptance because your GPA and test scores are better than 75% of applicants (in the top 25%) for students admitted in the past and your record and course choices are well above the expectations for their average admitted student. Your record and application as a whole suggest admission is a very strong possibility. Your grades are consistently higher than the college’s reported averages; your place in your high school class is higher than their typical admitted applicant; and their selectivity rate in general is in the 60% range or higher. I recommend applying to two to three Likely schools. If merit scholarships are important to you in your college search, weighting your list in favor of Likely colleges is a good idea as your chances for academic scholarships are greatest at these schools.

Target: This is a school where you have a 30-60% chance of admission. The school has an acceptance rate of approximately 50%. Your credentials for admission are truly competitive and your profile places you somewhere in the middle range of that college’s applicant pool. Your standardized test scores are within the 25th to 75th percentile range. The closer your scores are to the 75th percentile, the better your chances are for acceptance. This is a school where admission is a possibility, but neither a guarantee nor an improbability. In a world where college admissions statistics are constantly changing, I stay current on these numbers, so can offer students several options for colleges in this category. I recommend applying to three to four Target schools.

Reach: Your record and application as a whole makes it less likely that you will be admitted, however, since applicant pools change annually, it is worth including this college on the list. Your standardized test scores may be near or in the bottom 25% of accepted students. At the most selective schools, admissions officers rely heavily on subjective impressions of an applicant when making their decisions. Also, even one factor, such as a low test score or grade, can be enough for a college to warrant a Reach designation, especially at the more selective colleges. Some colleges are Reach schools simply because they are uber-selective—the percentage of applicants admitted is extremely small and many have similar academic and extracurricular profiles, thereby affecting the chances of admission for everyone. I recommend applying to two to three Reach schools.


I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for all you have done to bring clarity to the college selection process. The questionnaires, email exchanges, and our meeting were so helpful in finetuning our thought process and guiding our conversations. We are so very grateful to you for sharing your expertise with us.