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How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

By Carolyn Desalu · September 21, 2023 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Between school, homework, and extracurriculars, you likely have a packed schedule. Now, you also need to find time to work on your college applications. The question is, how many should you fill out?

You don’t want to apply to too many schools, since each application takes time and money (thanks to steep application fees). At the same time, you don’t want to apply to too few, and risk not getting into college at all.

There’s no one ideal number but, as a general guideline, the College Board recommends applying to five to eight colleges, and to include a mix of reach, target, and safety schools. However, the perfect number for you will depend on your personal circumstances.

Read on for a closer look at how to pick the right number — and the right mix — of applications to set yourself up for college success.

How to Decide How Many Colleges You’re Going to Apply to

Like many things in life, there isn’t one simple answer. However, a common rule of thumb is to apply to between five and eight colleges. As you make your list, it can be a good idea to include one to two schools in each of these three categories: safety, target, and reach schools.

A reach school is one where acceptance may be a stretch based on your academic profile, but it also shouldn’t be entirely unrealistic. A target school is one where you stand a relatively good chance of admission.

A safety school is one that you are fairly confident that you’ll be accepted to. This way, you can create a balance of dream schools that you’d be thrilled to attend and schools that would be a good fit if some of the other, loftier options don’t work out.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Determining Reach, Target, and Safety Schools

To determine which schools are a reach, target, and safety, you’ll want to compare your grades, GPA, and SAT or ACT scores to the average academic profile of recently admitted students at each school. This should give you an idea of how you line up when compared to students currently enrolled at the school.

Most colleges and universities have admissions profiles where they include information like the average GPA, SAT, and/or ACT scores of current classes. Another option is to take a look at the College Board’s Big
Future
, where you can create a profile and compare yourself to the academic profile of the schools you’re interested in attending. This isn’t a guarantee, but it can give you a good idea of what types of schools you can realistically expect to get into.

Recommended: Do Your SAT Scores Really Matter for College?

Is More Better?

If you are extremely passionate about attending a highly selective college, you may have to increase the number of applications you submit. Generally, the more selective a school is, the greater the chance you won’t be accepted. So it could be worth sending out a few extra applications to be sure you get admitted into a school that you are excited about attending.

Is Less Best?

Applying to colleges requires both time and money. While some students may qualify for fee waivers, students can generally expect to pay an application fee for each application. College application fees currently average $56 and, in some cases, run significantly higher. It could be worth setting up an application budget so you have an idea of how many schools you can reasonably afford to apply to.

Each college application will also require your time and attention. Students may not realistically have the time to fill out 20 applications. Another reason some students may consider applying to fewer colleges is if they have specific needs or are interested in a particular major or field of study that is only offered at a few schools.

Planning Your Applications

With that in mind, you’ll want to take some time to review which schools you are actively interested in applying to. Before applying to a school, try to get a good sense of the types of programs offered and what life on campus may be like.

You can take this time to think honestly about what you want out of your college experience and craft a list of schools that could fit the bill. Try to avoid applying to any schools you wouldn’t realistically want to attend. As you compare schools, it can be a good idea to rank your choices. This can help you determine when you may want to apply early decision or early action to a top school.

Both early action and early decision are application routes that allow students to indicate that a specific school is their top choice. If a student applies early decision, they are committing to attending that school should they be admitted. Early action usually allows students to receive a decision earlier than traditional applications, but admission is not binding.

Note that some schools may only offer either early action or early decision, or may not offer either.

The college applications process can be a lot to handle. If you are ever feeling overwhelmed by the scope of it all, consider talking to your guidance counselor or another confidante who has experience with college applications. They can help you navigate the ins and outs of the process and may be able to provide some insightful advice.

Recommended: Ultimate College Application Checklist

Planning for the Future

Part of the college planning process also involves figuring out how you’ll pay for your education. So in addition to your college applications, you’ll want to be sure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This provides access to federal financial aid, including grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans.

If you find that savings and federal aid, including federal student loans, aren’t enough to pay for school, you might then explore getting a private student loan. These are available through banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Loan limits vary from lender to lender, but you can often get up to the total cost of attendance (which is more than you can borrow from the federal government). Interest rates vary depending on the lender. Generally, borrowers (or cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates.

Keep in mind, though, that private loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-based repayment plans and deferment or forbearance — that automatically come with federal student loans.

💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

The Takeaway

The college application process will look slightly different for everyone. But a general guidelines to apply to five to eight schools and to include a mix of reach, safety, and target schools. To come with a balanced list, it’s a good idea to compare your academic profile to that of the average accepted student at your desired schools.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.


Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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