My son is working on college applications now. He isn't sure whether he wants to major in communications, psychology, business or physical therapy, so we have a few schools on our list for each. When his counselor saw that he has 24 schools on his list, she called me and seemed annoyed, saying that was too many. She recommended we instead pinpoint schools that have all four majors or that he lists something general as his major and then he can change it if he figures it out later. But I only want him applying to the schools ranked high for each major. Is there a problem with applying to this many schools? My husband says we should do what the counselor advises but I disagree.
The counselor may be cranky, but she's also correct. There are many reasons why your son shouldn't apply to 24 colleges, and here are a few of them:
This intertwined trifecta is the biggie. The requirements of two dozen colleges (even if most are Common App or Coalition App members) is sure to be overwhelming to any teenager who is trying to be a strong student as well. Your son's stress level will skyrocket and the quality of his individual applications will suffer. Moreover, we live in an era where "Demonstrated Interest" can play a role in admission verdicts. Your son can't possibly have enough time to prove his devotion to so many schools. He is far better off with a shorter list that will allow him to convey what he likes about each target college and to suggest to the admission officials that he might actually show up in September.
More than half of all undergraduates change majors, and "The Dean" has even seen figures as high as 80 percent, especially if you start back with the intended major claimed by high school seniors. Your son already has varied interests, which is actually a plus, but it also suggests that he may have even more interests by the time he needs to make a choice. So while it makes sense for him to focus on colleges that offer all of his frontrunners, his main objective should be to pick places that he loves for other reasons ... size, location, campus vibe, etc.
Whenever I hear about students who prioritize "the rankings" when choosing a college, I ... well ... rankle. ;-) Rankings sell magazines and draw website traffic, but they don't address whether a college or university is really the best fit. And this applies to ranking departments within institutions as well. Sure, when a student is potentially interested in any academic field, it's worthwhile to ask what classes are offered, what opportunities such as internships and study abroad are available outside of the classroom, how enthusiastically students speak of their professors, whether those professors seem eager to chat with applicants in person or via email and where recent grads end up. But to say that you are directing your son to only to colleges where each of his possible majors is "highly ranked" is a bad idea. Instead, he should pare down that target-college roster to provide time to ask these questions above. Yet his key objective should be to home in on colleges and universities where he believes he will be happy and engaged overall. This will boost the odds that he'll find his academic and personal passions there, whether these include the majors on his present docket or completely different ones.
When it comes to naming a future major on his applications, your son needs to know how "binding" the choice will be. For instance, if he picks "business," does that shunt him into a specific school within a university? "If he chooses "physical therapy," is he actually applying for a "direct entry" program where he is expected to go straight through to a doctorate? Since your son isn't yet certain of his goals, your counselor's advice to select "something general" is wise, if this selection isn't binding. "Undeclared" might be the smart plan if it is. (Policies will vary from college to college ... which is another good reason to cut that college list or risk hours of website treasure hunts for often hard-to-find information.)
Another downside of a 24-college list is the cost. Application fees add up quickly, and visits can be expensive but usually provide the best way to see just how "right" a campus feels. And although merit aid can be difficult to predict and thus seeking it can necessitate casting a broader net than some families would like, the juiciest merit scholarships almost always require extra essays (sometimes lots of them), and even when no supplemental application is required, colleges tend to direct their top merit bucks to students who seem keen to enroll. As noted above, your son will have a tough time showing that kind of ardor to so many admission committees.
Aim for Eight to Twelve Colleges on the List
A list of 24 schools makes a heavy workload for the school counselor (no wonder she's cranky!) and will reduce the possibility that she can contact colleges to lobby for your son, especially if he lands on waitlists. When a counselor tells a college rep that "Jared really loves your school and I can certainly see him there" or "Ajay will definitely attend if admitted," it can carry a lot of clout. But most counselors won't go to bat for students who have scattered their applications widely. And if karma plays any role in your life's decisions, consider that your son will ultimately choose just one college. So with a 24-college list, he's taking many spots away that other candidates would love to snag. I've told many parents over many years that applying to too many colleges seems greedy.
Finally, you've explained how the school counselor feels about your son's lengthy college list and you've said that your husband agrees. But how about your son himself? Does he really want to chain himself to a desk and churn out endless essays? (As the mother of a boy not too much older than your own, I can hear the groans!) So "The Dean's" advice is to you is to help your son create a list of eight to 12 colleges with a balance of "Reach," "Realistic" and "Safe" admission risk and where he can take classes to explore his current academic interests as well as new ones. Above all, encourage him to include only places that he will feel excited to attend, and he can't truly dig deep enough to gauge his excitement if his list is longer than his arm!
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This article first appeared on College Confidential on November 6, 2018.