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Articles / Applying to College / Developing Your College List: How Many Schools is Enough?

Developing Your College List: How Many Schools is Enough?

N Written by Nina Berler | Aug. 9, 2021
Photo of woman with computer writing a list by Soundtrap on Unsplash

How Many Schools Should You Apply To?

As you work on your Common App, you may be wondering...how many colleges should I apply to?

Here in the very competitive New York Metro area, list size has always been a concern. But now that the bulk of colleges are remaining test-optional, you can again expect large numbers of applications to selective colleges and large public research universities.

In general, students should aim to apply to around 12 colleges.

Of course, there is no universal number, and many factors affect the size of your list. But why 12 schools? And how do you know when enough is enough? Good students with demonstrated need often pay well below sticker price—so let’s put financial considerations aside for now and take a look at four steps to build your list of schools

Follow these 4 steps to build a list of 12 colleges to apply to:

  1. Start with what you love
  2. Diversify your list
  3. Take out an insurance policy
  4. Edit your list down

The Basics of Building a College List

Starting Point

Begin with what you love and want to study. What are your talents and interests, and which colleges deliver a program in which you will be able to thrive? Working on your own or with a counselor, list colleges having programs that are most appealing.

Next, apply geographic preferences and constraints. Do you want to be on the East or West Coast? Is proximity to family important? Do you prefer urban, rural or access to a college town? Do you mind being on a plane? Depending on your answers to these questions, there may be colleges to add to this list. (For example, an East Coast student who likes Jesuit universities might add Santa Clara University if the West Coast is appealing. A student who wants a large university with a strong business program might add Indiana University.)

At this point, your list should contain 4-6 colleges.*

Before going too much further, consider the most important aspect of your candidacy: academics, as indicated by junior year grades and rigor in the senior year. How does your academic profile stack up against those of recently admitted students?

(Look at a college’s admissions page or use CC’s College Finder to search for schools by GPA or test school, and click the heart icon to save a school to your list.)

Note: The importance of academics may be tempered somewhat if you have a really good story to tell or have done incredible project-based work in your field of choice, so don’t rule out a college entirely, especially in the test-optional era. (That’s why I don’t recommend getting too attached to Naviance’s scattergrams.)

If you have an Early Decision I choice, back that up with Early Action colleges fitting the criteria above. Say you are a strong student interested in studying neuroscience in the Midwest and have decided to apply ED to the hugely selective Northwestern. Consider adding Michigan and Wisconsin to your lists; both have non-binding priority programs. (You want to get in those apps for early consideration in the event that Northwestern does not work out in your favor.) You should also consider a college with an Early Decision II option, for example, WashU.

You should add about 4 colleges.*

*Some university systems allow you to apply to multiple campuses with just one app. You can apply to an unlimited number of campuses with the UC App. Colleges in the United Kingdom use UCAS, which allows up to five colleges. So just add one per system!

Diversifying the List

Unfortunately, students often compete with peers at their high school, who (no shock) apply to the same colleges. I encourage you to consider colleges that make sense but aren’t popular with peers. But do your research rather than just throwing on names.

Add another 2 colleges.

Take Out an Insurance Policy

We never know an institution’s priorities; anything can happen in the admissions process. So add a few colleges where you can see yourself, especially if they like to accept students from your high school. Virtual tours help if you can’t travel. Check with your counselor to see which schools frequently admit students from your high school.

Who knows; those colleges may try to lure you in with scholarships or honors programs. Virtual tours help if you can’t travel.

Add another 4 colleges.

Edit the List (Again)

Every year, students pack their lists with brand names (e.g., Ivies, Big 10). But colleges with name recognition should not make the list for that reason alone. Sure, there’s an article every year about a student who gains admission to all eight Ivy colleges, but those institutions are very different in size, location and community. A student who loves the urban feel of UPenn may not want the coziness of Dartmouth, and vice versa.

So look again at your criteria. Find out the personality of the campus through visits and research.

Reduce your list by 2-4 colleges.

Now What?

Using the logic above, your list should now contain about 12 colleges.

Of course, this is a suggested number only, undoubtedly more relevant to a student on the East or West Coast than to an applicant from the Great Plains. But you get the idea. Take a thoughtful, targeted and somewhat cautious approach to your list, and you’ll improve your chances of a positive outcome next spring.

Remember: You don’t have to send in all the apps early, or all at once. But you do have to be committed to the process, and that means staying on top of deadlines, essay requirements and, once you submit, whatever colleges ask for in the portal.

Keep Reading

Read on about pros and cons of different application deadlines or other college admissions topics.

Dive into the discussions on CC's college search and selections forums.

Check out Nina's eBook on Supplemental Essays

Or, search for schools by state, major, GPA and more in the College Confidential College Finder.

Find a school you like? Click the heart to save a school to your list!

Written by


Nina Berler

Nina is the founder of unCommon Apps, a college and career readiness consultancy. She has an AB with Honors from Brown University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, NYU. Nina is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC). Her ebooks, Supplementing the College Supplement and Mastering the College Interview, are available on Apple Books.

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