Whether you are a high school senior currently applying to colleges or a junior trying to get a head start, choosing which colleges to apply to can be difficult. With over 5,000 schools in the US, most students tend to create a large, broad list of colleges. Usually, they do this with little rhyme, reason, or methodology. However, college is a significant experience in your lifetime. It is incredibly important to consider where and why you are applying to college. Now, this begs the question of what to do when you are trying to put thought into where you are applying but still cannot manage to narrow down your list.

Also Read: The Ultimate College Checklist

We’re here to help. We’ll go step by step on the measures you can take to ensure you apply to colleges that are the best for you.

Why is Narrowing Down Your College List Important?

Let’s take an example. Say that you have a bake sale fundraiser and you want to win the prize for the most sold cookies. You may think that you should bake a lot of cookies of a variety of types. You want to cover your bases by baking some crowd-pleasers as well as some special ones to get the customers’ attention. You’ve brainstormed your list and ended with 16 varieties of cookies to bake. The problem is you only have one standard oven to bake them all.

cookies, college

Baking cookies are like completing college applications!

This is not unlike the dilemma prospective college students face. Although the college application process has been greatly streamlined, there are still many college-specific materials required when applying to colleges. One of such materials is the supplementary questions you may need to answer to successfully apply to a college. Other colleges may use their own unique application or unique system of applications. Learn about all the different college application systems here.

Why the Analogy?

When you have a large number of colleges to apply to (let’s say 16), you’re only using one resource to generate those applications—you. What does this have to do with the cookies? You can only win the prize if customers buy your cookies. They’ll only buy your cookies if they are well-made and delicious. If you only have one oven, however, baking large quantities of cookies and ensuring the quality of each and every one of them is incredibly difficult. Some types of cookies will need more time than others which will feed into the time you have to make other cookies.

College applications, apply to colleges

Deadlines come up faster than you think!

The same thing applies to college applications. Each college application will need different amounts of time, effort, and consideration put in them. You will be the oven incubating them to perfection but you only have so much time on your hands. The quality of each individual application may not be up to par. In other words, the more colleges you apply to, the less time you will have to craft strong applications for each and every one of them. While the ultimate goal is to get into college, minimal time and effort placed into each individual application may not give you the results you are hoping for. Thus, to ensure the best results, you must narrow down where you want to apply to college.

How Should You Narrow Down the List?

The number of colleges you choose to apply to is ultimately up to you. Unfortunately, there is no optimal number that will give you the best results. We would say 1 to 15 colleges is an acceptable range for applying to colleges. However, most college counselors recommend that the average college-bound student applies to 6 to 8 schools. Assuming you’ve already researched colleges, their programs, and majors you would like to pursue, here are some steps to narrow down the number of colleges you are applying to.

1. Research Financial Aid Packages, Special Programs, Campus Culture, etc.

First thing you need to when narrowing your list is look at the additional factors that would benefit your experience there. Obviously, financial aid packages can significantly reduce the amount of money you need to commit to college. If you’re looking to study abroad, you need to research about some of the special programs the college offers to its students. Most importantly, you need to have an understanding of the campus culture. This is where a campus visit can help. Most universities also have virtual tours on their admissions site. Consider these questions:

  • What are the sort of organizations on campus?
  • What are the ideologies of the college?
  • Are there activities you would like to participate in on campus?
  • What makes you feel excited about the prospect of attending this college?

Side Note: Considering these questions now will help you when you are writing the essays or short responses required by each university. You will most likely have a “why this college?” question to respond to. Figure it out now!

2. Sort Your Colleges By Chance of Admission

Sort colleges

Time to sort your colleges into safety, target, and reach. This step is incredibly important so don’t skip it!

One mistake prospective college students make during their application journey is only apply to their dream schools. Dream schools are generally universities that are highly selective when choosing their incoming class. As a result, there is, unfortunately, a high likelihood that these students are not accepted to any of the schools they apply to. To save yourself from this fate, we suggest you sort your schools into three categories—safety, target, and reach.

Sorting colleges into these categories does not need to be hard. Using your GPA and SAT or ACT scores, find each college’s admission statistics. Colleges generally have an admissions report on the median scores and GPAs of their most recently admitted class as well as that year’s acceptance rate. Compare the statistics with your own scores to figure out whether you would easily get in (safety school) or not. If the scores are on par with your own, you can classify that school as a target school. If the statistics suggest that you would have some difficulty getting accepted, classify that school as a reach school.

3. Decide on Your Long-Term and Short-Term Needs and Goals

You will be spending the next four years or so at this university. You probably have certain goals or requirements in mind for your college experience. Some factors to consider include:

  • Campus location
    • Some students want to live far away from home for a taste of independence while others would prefer to stay close to home. However, distance should not be the only thing you consider. Certain students from specific backgrounds and environments may not thrive in campus environments greatly different from what they are used to. College is a time to grow as a student and person but certain changes may not be welcome changes. For example, if you grew up in the city and lived in a diverse community, you may find extremely put out or uncomfortable in a college in a rural community.
  • Size
    • Colleges can range from large, multidisciplinary universities with class sizes over 600 students to small, single discipline schools with class sizes of 50 to 60 students. There are pros and cons to schools on both extremes of the spectrum. If you are looking for a diverse environment with the freedom to easily switch majors, you may want to go to a larger school. However, if you know you want to pursue a specific program, a small school will give you many opportunities to make lasting connections in your chosen industry.
  • Student Population and Demographics
    • This has to do with both size and location but is as important as a factor as the two of them. The student body is where you will be making lasting relationships for the next four years. You should have some confidence that there will be like-minded people at your university as well as different-minded people to help you grow as a well-rounded person. Also, if you grew up in a diverse environment like the Bay Area, it may be jarring to go to a university that has a predominantly caucasian student population.
  • Selectivity 
    • Finally, the selectivity of the college matters. Do you care about brand names or the benefits associated with it? Do you mind healthy competition? Or do you prefer a less competitive environment when learning? Remember, the selectivity of the school can be a factor in the answers to all three of those questions and more.

4. Balance Your List

College counselors recommend that students apply to 2 safety schools, 2-3 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. While this range may differ for many of you, it is still a good way to balance out the number of colleges you are applying to based off of the requirements of each university. It is also a great method to determine how much time you will be needing to commit to each application. Once you have decided on a reasonable range of safety, target, and reach schools, go through your list and consider the pros and cons of each college. By the end of your deliberation, you should have a strong list outlining the colleges you want to apply to.

apply to colleges

Craft the final list!

Finally, ensure to involve your support network while going through this process of narrowing down your list. They may have some helpful insights to your specific application journey. However, remember that this is a decision that greatly affects you more than anyone else. Make sure you are happy and comfortable with your list. Good luck with applying! We’re rooting for you!