How many universities should we typically apply to?
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First, there is no right answer.
If your dream school is Williams College, then you should apply early decision. If you get in because you are well prepared and met all the criteria for a successful Williams admission, then you will have had to apply to only 1 college.
If you are an average student, meaning someone with a B GPA and average 1050 SAT or 21 ACT test scores and have average ECs, etc, then the only purpose of applying to a lot of schools is to see if you can perchance get accepted into a higher tier college above where your stats would place you. You might get into a better school if you are BIPOC background or the school has a need to expand diversity including regional diversity or they just need a Tuba player or someone who adds to the kind of class they wish to build. In that case, you might apply to a few target schools and mostly hard targets just to see what happens. I wouldn't apply to elite colleges because that just seems like a waste of your time or effort and money.
If you are a very good student and have say, an B+ to A- UWGPA and have 1250-1350 SATs and 26-29 ACT, then you have more reasons to apply to harder schools because you want to leverage all your hard work and see where it takes you. In this case, I would apply to just 1 safety school, like 3 targets and maybe 6-9 hard targets and a few reaches for the heck of it. Since many of the schools will still be test-optional, submitting test scores will help you if say the middle 50% of these schools is 1200-1400 or 25 to 30. I would focus on Top 100-200 schools, and maybe some top 50 schools as your hard targets. Also some of the good liberal arts colleges like Trinity, Mount Holyoke (if you are female), and larger Universities like Syracuse, U Pitt, UC schools on the West Coast.
If you are a great student with a 3.85-4.00 Unweighted GPA, lots of leadership ECs, some major spike activities, challenged yourself with the hardest classes like taking 6-12 APs or IBs, and have SAT tests scores between 1450-1600 and ACT scores between 32-36, then you are in the top 1 to 2 % of applicants. You will face the hardest competition to get into a Top 20 school because that space is super crowded right now.
Admit rates are at historical lows because a.) everyone and their cousin think they have a shot. b.) applicants don't really think their lack of test score will hurt them, c.) colleges love the clout and high yields so they have no incentive to make more space or build more dorms or expand their campuses. Ivys and Top Elites are like the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins of the college landscape. Most people who get in can a.) afford to get in either through the front or side door, b.) it's sometimes not a meritocracy on who gets in because they still give preferential treatment to recruited athletes, legacies, development candidates, sons and daughters of employees, VIPS, and anyone on the college's dean's list of special connections. c.) have something not necessarily an academic edge that justifies their admissions such as coming from a BIPOC or marginalized background or someone low-income d.) an low demand unique spike-like being the 2nd best bassoonist in your state.
Therefore if you are high achieving, you have the best chance of getting into a great college if you a.) do as much research upfront as possible to figure out what you can give to the college in terms of skill, talent, clout, connections, or future payback. If you just have a 1600 SAT or 36 ACT, that's not that impressive to them as having 1 million subscribers on your youtube channel which is about reviewing high tech consumer products. b.) have the very best essays possible because that's one of the only things you can present in your voice that they can gauge you by. If it's a "meh" essay, your application will hit the waste bin on the first round. c.) curate all your ECs carefully so you don't get pigeon-holed as a generic type of candidate. You want your application to stand out so you don't want to appear as someone who checked off all the boxes but is really a boring personality to them. Again, if you know Stanford is your #1 school and you spent 4 years prepping to apply to Stanford and know that you are a prime candidate, then apply early. You might very well get in and don't have to worry about applying to more schools. Now if you don't have a top school or would be happy at say lots of schools if you got in, then it's important to apply to as many as it is practical for you. I would not apply to many safeties, maybe just 1. As for targets I would maybe pick 2 or 3. Hard targets I would apply to 5-6, and the rest of my efforts would be on the "Reach" schools. Don't apply to all 8 Ivys unless you really don't care where they are located or what the college vibe is there. I see youtube videos of the best students applying to all 8 Ivys, Stanford, Duke, Vandy, JHU, WashU, NYU, MIT, Berkeley, UCLA, Tufts, Caltech, and think to myself, this person has no clue what they like or doesn't like. They are just shooting at Top School Shotgun style either desperate to get into one or as bragging rights that they got into as many as possible. To the people getting into all 8 Ivys? Learn how to share the spotlight, please!
If you are a great student, remember that you will be a great student regardless of whether you get into Harvard or whether you end up at Occidental College or Claremont McKenna, or Wake Forest. Its' what you do with your time there and how much you learn in college that matters, not what your diploma says. If you aspire to be a doctor or lawyer or architect. It won't matter what undergrad degree you apply to grad school with. The applicant with a 515+ MCAT score or 165+ LSAT score with a 3.9 GPA is going to look better than someone who had poor grades at MIT. Those applicants are going to get into the Top 10 Medical Schools or Law Schools etc.
If I wasn't going to a Top Ivy, I would be just as happy going to any of dozens of Liberal Arts Colleges, especially like Vassar, Colgate, Hamilton, Middlebury, Bates, Bowdoin, or Pomona. Even Mount Holyoke, Trinity College, Pitzer, or Bryn Mawr would have been great college experiences in my opinion. Once you get out of your house and actually travel and visit the schools in person, you gain a whole new perspective of what life and learning could be at these places. You can't get that information from a virtual tour. Yes, you can take a virtual tour of the Getty, the Louvre, the MET but if you actually visit the museums and see the real collections in person, it changes your perspective of what is amazing or not.
My big advice is to make sure you apply to schools you can see yourself being happy at and making great friends and memories with. It's not all about the clout.
I would say 8 is typically a good number. Aim for around 2 safety schools, 3 target schools, and 3 reach schools.
More is always better since you will have a higher chance of getting into at least one of them. Probably between 12-15 is good, bit you can definitely apply to more of less depending on your preferences and how difficult the schools you apply to are to get in!
Honestly Five is good if you apply to a range of schools. Applications can be up to $100 so I would shorten it as much as possible. Me for example, I have two target dream schools I have pretty good chances at. But I also have two other maybe schools and one safety in which I should have more than 80% and 90% at getting into.
I don't see a need to apply to reach schools. Since they are reaches realistically I don't think you would be set on attending them like your targets since your chances are low. Unless you are certain you would attend if you got accepted I would skip them to save money.
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