Question: How many college applications are enough?
My personal preference is to have four candidates by the end of the junior year. This provides for flexibility and financial aid comparisons.
College selection is an important decision, not only for the student but also for the family. That's why you need to spend some serious time considering your options. For students at the very highest levels of academic success (top five percent in class rank and National Merit contenders, for example), six candidate schools may be more appropriate. For general purposes, though, four good candidates will serve you well.
You must have a strategy to properly make your selections. The three categories of candidate schools are: stretch, reasonable, and safety. So-called stretch schools are those that might not admit you. Your qualifications for admission may be slightly less than adequate or the competition may be too keen. But stretch schools would be your ideal, if you can get in. If you have six candidates, then two should be a stretch. Four candidates should include one stretch.
Reasonable schools are those to which you're reasonably sure you can gain admission. These can even be very competitive schools, if you're a top-flight candidate. A candidate is reasonable if you fit within the general admission criteria the school publishes. Be warned, though. Meeting all admission criteria on paper is no guarantee of admission. There are intangibles, such as your profile (see essay above) and other less-obvious factors. Where you live can even work for or against you. So, be pretty certain of your chances before you rate a candidate as reasonable. With six candidates, make two or three reasonable. With four, two will do.
Safeties are just that--a sure thing. A candidate becomes a safety when profiles of that school indicate little chance of rejection. Example: it has an acceptance rate of over 85 percent. Give some thought to safeties. You probably won't have to go there, but if you do, make sure you'll be able to get courses you want. One safety is enough.
Once you have your list, do more research, visit all the campuses, and apply. Good luck.