How many applications?


By Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D.

Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness


Recently, I noticed a social media post within a “mom’s group” that asked for names of colleges this mom’s daughter should investigate. The mom said the college search process had become anxiety-inducing and thus her daughter was having enormous difficulty deciding where to apply. There was no mention of what interested her child or what she wanted to do for a living.

In addition, I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend about college applications. My friend has one child in college, and two others actively visiting college this fall. I asked how many applications his kids planned to submit. He was not sure but assumed it will be more than a handful. 

I then told this friend about a student I know of who submitted 18 applications last year. I understood the student was applying to schools with very low acceptance rates and thus was attempting to improve her odds of gaining entrance to an elite school, but I recall thinking, “That sounds insane!” This student was rejected at a few schools but had several from which to choose. The kicker in this story, however, was that she accepted one offer only to back out quickly when she was offered a spot at another college where much to my surprise, she had never once set her foot on campus. My friend and I then lamented how crazy the entire college search and application process is.

All of this got me to wonder . . . just what is the optimal number of colleges to which students should apply in their senior year? The College Board, for instance, suggests applying to five to eight colleges, but adds that even if a student has a suitable list that matches interests and needs, there is no guarantee it contains the best colleges for that particular individual.  The College Board, therefore, encourages students to winnow down their lists to under ten schools at the end of their junior year, and then with their families, finalize the list by thinking deeply about these questions:

  • Has the student researched each college (online or by visiting the campus)?
  • Does the college have the courses and programs the student wants to study?
  • What are the student's financial needs?
  • Is each college a good match, considering the student's academic and social needs and interests?

Meanwhile, Michael Luca, a professor at the Harvard Business School wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review in which he argues that students ought to apply to far more colleges to increase their odds of the following:

  • Getting accepted
  • Being happy and successful where accepted
  • Having the opportunity get merit aid and financial assistance if needed

Having said that, Luca acknowledges three main obstacles students should consider when applying to a large number of colleges:

  1. The cost
  2. The gamble
  3. The time commitment

Let’s examine each of these obstacles, one by one. 

  1. The cost: It is important for students in need to know that they may be able to have their application fees waived. Those who do not qualify, however, will be paying hefty sums. For example, the University of Minnesota charges $55 to apply, but other schools charge upwards of $100. Ouch! 
  2. The gamble: Luca argues that by casting a wider net students might gain access to a college that is a reach for them academically. While that could end up being a good thing, it also might backfire and prove to be too much of a stretch. Therefore, students would be wise to use a tool like to determine the average test scores and GPA for incoming students at schools of interest to see if they are in that range. 
  3. The time commitment: The college search and application process can be incredibly stressful and time draining. Students can cut down on some applications by using the Common App, but even that demands quite a bit of time. Is filling out dozens of college applications—when fewer might do—a good use of time during the senior year, when students still need to balance high school academics? On the other hand, as Luca points out, in terms of lifetime value, graduating from college is important. As students learn in our Ramp-Up to Readiness™ curriculum, a college degree has an enormous impact on one’s life in terms of income, stability, health, and more. 

So, what is the bottom line to the number of college applications students should submit? The best answer, it seems, is that there is no definitive answer, but there are some basic targets at which to aim:

  • Apply to several safe, match, and reach colleges.
  • Do not apply to a name; apply to colleges of interest that fit what a student wants and where they can be successful.
  • Due to the hefty price tag of a college degree, students would be wise to cast their nets wider than in the past because schools have vastly different types of financial aid packages available. 
  • Prioritize the most applications to the colleges that align with a student’s academic and financial needs.
  • If a student is considering filling out 20 applications, read this list again.

About the Author
Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness™ at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. Ramp-Up is a college and career ready curriculum for grades 6 - 12 that strives to make sure all students have an equitable opportunity to achieve social and economic mobility through higher education—whether it be at a two or four-year college, a trade school, or an apprenticeship.

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