How many is too many when applying to college?

I have seen a lot in the 20+ years that I have been in the college admissions profession. Whether it is the changes and effects of affirmative action policies or the continued discussions about the validity of standardized testing, I can honestly say that I listen, contemplate, and understand both sides of most arguments. However, I do not understand how and why students apply to 20+ colleges every year. I find it baffling that there are 20+ schools that a student would want to attend, and then even more head-scratching is why it is so celebrated. When I see social media posts about “X student was admitted into 30 schools and received 50 million dollars in scholarships,”  I shake my head. In my opinion, this is not what college admissions is about, and this is not what we should be hailing as an accomplishment for our children. 

I remember hearing a story of a celebrity when they received their first check being very excited and buying three cars. When they got all the cars home, their dad looked at them and said, “why do you need three? You can only drive one at a time.” While it’s always good to have options, like driving a car, a student can only attend one college at a time. So that begs the question: if a student can only attend one, why would they apply to 30, 40, 50, or even 60 colleges? There are any number of assumptions that I can make, but the conclusion I often come to is it has little to nothing to do with the institutions.

While the introduction of multiple digital application platforms has made it easier for students to apply to so many colleges and universities, one could argue that it also inflates application numbers at these colleges. This can lead to alarmingly low admit rates at elite universities. Students and families have the right to apply to as many schools as they choose, but how many is too much? Educators in the profession aim for the process to be focused and intentional. Most school counselors would agree that an ideal college list should include anywhere between seven to twelve schools. This range will allow students to have safety schools (schools they are confident will accept them), target schools (schools that fit the academic and admission profile), and reach schools (schools that may be more selective, but they want to take a shot). While there is some flexibility on the college list, there is a general feeling that applying to more than 20+ schools shows a lack of focus in the college search process and a desire to see how many acceptances one can accumulate.

Now let me be clear, I am all for celebrating students and their acceptances, however, I also think it’s essential to think about the flip side of the equation and consider potential rejections and what that can do to a student’s emotions and mindset. With so much attention being focused on the mental health of teenagers, isn’t it important to think about all of the potential outcomes, good and bad, that this process can have? The college search is personal and will vary from student to student, but we think it should be specific and not formulaic. As students go through the college search process, I hope they think about what matters to them the most. For some, that may be location; for others, it may be cost; for many, it will be a major or a social environment. However, there has to be maximum focus to the list and not just applying for the sake of applying.

I define college success as having options. Ideally, a student’s college choices will include scholarships and schools that have what students are looking for. However, if their choices include schools they do not desire to attend and simply want to post on social media, I would ask why. Just like the sentiment of the celebrity’s father said, they will have to choose one! Yes, we want to celebrate success in the college admission process. Still, more importantly, we want students and families to be thoughtful about why and where they are applying and how those schools can nurture students as they begin this defining moment in life.

Written by Timothy Fields, Senior Associate Dean at Emory University and co-author of the forthcoming book The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation about Education, Parenting, and Race for Understanding the Choices.

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