The College Search

I'm Applying to 25 Colleges. Is that too many?

Question: I'm planning to apply to 25 colleges. Most are universities ranked in the top 25 and several are liberal arts colleges, also in the top 25. A couple are in the top 50, and one is not ranked but is in my hometown. I have the scores, grades and activities to get me accepted. However, I'm applying to so many because of how competitive and selective the process is. I saw through my brother how one school will say yes, another no, and another will waitlist. My parents see any fees they have to pay as an investment and I do have fee waivers also. Is it wise to apply to so many colleges?

Short Answer: No, it's nuts.


Longer Answer: I completely understand the anxiety that drives your decision to apply to so many colleges. You've watched students like your brother--and probably other friends and schoolmates, too--receive admission verdicts that don't seem to add up. One highly selective college may say "Yes," while another slightly less competitive one says, "No, thanks."

Back when I was a senior, many moons ago, there seemed to be a much clearer correlation between a student's high school performance (grades, test scores, activities) and his or her college admission decisions. Now, however, thousands of truly extraordinary young people get turned away from top-choice institutions every year, and the process can appear to be almost random or even capricious. Indeed, there is a certain "luck of the draw" involved. For instance, your application may land on the desk of an admission official who loves your essay .... or not.

Yet, although such unpredictability inevitably leads to mega-long college lists like yours, I really have to say that I don't condone the practice. For starters, as wacky as the admission process is now, imagine how much crazier it would be if every senior was planning to apply to more than two dozen places (but would ultimately accept one offer of admission and turn down many others).

"That's not my problem," you're probably thinking. Especially, if you happen to be a white middle-class or upper-middle-class female, you've probably already realized that the odds are against you at the most sought-after schools, so you figure that this isn't a time to be philanthropic or to save future generations from admission anxiety but rather to sow many seeds with the hope that one will take root.

Fair enough. But what kind of senior year will this mean for you? Are you really looking forward to spending the next three months writing essay after essay, many of them proclaiming that you can't wait to spend the next four years on an urban campus or a rural one, in the crisp climate of New England or the balmy winters of the south?

It seems to me that any intelligent student ought to be able to hone in on four or five (or even six or seven) very attractive but "Realistic" colleges, where the odds of being admitted are quite good, as well as one or two "Safety" schools that would be highly satisfactory and sure-things as well. Then add another four or five "Reach" schools to round out the list at a more sensible 10 or 12.

Sure, you may not get into any of those "Reaches," but if you've chosen wisely, then you'll have several options among the "Realistic" group that will be rolling out the red carpet.

A list like yours, which must be very top-heavy with "Reach" colleges, suggests to me that you are not nearly as interested in finding a place where you'll be happy and engaged as you are in the prestige of the college you attend. If you are truly focused on making the best matches, you ought to be able to come up with at least several colleges that sound really great but are likely to admit you, too.

I realize that if you pare down your lengthy list and don't get the news you want in April from the more competitive colleges that remain, you'll always wonder if you deleted the places that might have admitted you. Like many other things in life, it's the "Road Not Taken," and you'll probably never know.

But in the name of sanity, I urge you to shorten your target-college roster, and focus on those places that excite you the most, not just the ones where you feel that the "odds" are in your favor.