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How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

How to get into college should not feel like gambling

Choosing which schools to apply to is like choosing a basket of stocks to invest in; it’s all about minimizing risk.

In planning how to get into college, it is important to have a sound strategy that’s based on logic -- not emotions -- to guide you in determining which universities to apply for and how many.

It is not about a fixed magic number of universities you should apply to. You can apply to 20 schools, but if they’re not the right 20 universities, you very well could get rejected by all of them.

Rather, a balanced college list should protect you against multiple types of risk. This is about removing emotion from this very expensive investment you’re about to make, so you’re not making decisions based on “what feels right” because that can change depending on the day.

How many colleges should I apply to?

A common strategy for minimizing the risk of not getting any admission offers is the Tiered Approach often cited by college admissions tips blogs.

For example, if you apply to three universities that are all highly unlikely to accept you, then you still haven’t protected yourself against the Risk of Having No College Options.

That’s like an inexperienced stock investor choosing to buy Apple, Samsung, and Sony stock and thinking he has a “diversified” portfolio. But in reality, since all three are in the same sector, if the tech industry performs poorly, then all three companies are likely to underperform, essentially guaranteeing the stock investor will lose money.

That’s why many students go with the Tiered Approach, in which they apply for a set of 1) safety schools (extremely likely to offer you admission), 2) target schools (likely to offer you admission), and 3) reach schools (low chance of gaining admission).

How to get into a good college: protect against multiple types of risk

The problem with the Tiered Approach is that it is incomplete: there are other types of risk as well. So we must protect against those, too.

Just like how there might be individual sector risk in the stock market (e.g. pharmaceutical industry underperforming while the overall market is thriving), the same idea can be applied to college admissions.

For example, your academic and extracurricular qualifications (as well as your overall resume for college application) may be strong, but certain universities (let’s use small liberal arts schools as an example) that you apply to may all still reject you because they don’t see you as being a good fit for their campus environment. Or they don’t believe you’re the best candidate to help them build a well-rounded student body. You followed the Tiered Approach, but you didn’t realize that it fails to account for the nuanced needs of individual universities.

Example of another type of risk: You get accepted into multiple universities. But you don’t get accepted to the right programs within those schools to justify their price tags. Or you are unable to secure as much financial aid as you originally expected, so your out-of-pocket cost of attendance goes up. You got accepted into college, but they’re not the best options for your professional and financial future.

How to research colleges to apply to: 3 keys

Those are just a few examples. But the point is that all the universities you apply to should meet the following criteria:

(1) Have programs that will allow you to access the career you want

Why are you pursuing a college degree? Most likely, it is to be able to get a job and have future financial security. If that’s the case, then whether or not a degree from a particular university’s program helps you get that should be the single most important factor in your decision to attend.

Remember, college is an investment, not just something you pursue after high school because that’s what you’re “supposed to do.” And it’s definitely not the “best four years of your life,” because if it is, then that means it’s all downhill from there.

(2) Be colleges you are willing to attend

This is self-explanatory. Why would you waste time and money to get accepted into a college you have no plans to attend?

Do the heavy lifting before you apply and understand what to expect in college, as well as your post-graduation career options at each college. That way your decision won’t be swayed by insignificant vanity factors like the gourmet cafeteria food at Bowdoin College or the “feel” of the UC Berkeley campus. This is to take emotion out of this extremely important decision.

Also, rank your choices and write down why before applying so you’re not swayed by the emotions of acceptance letters.

(3) Protect against multiple types of admissions risk

If you apply to 20 schools and all are “reach” schools, you still might get shut out. If you only get into schools you can’t afford to attend, then that’s not a good path forward either.


You basically want to tailor your overall resume for college application to the set of colleges you apply to. This is to cover all possible scenarios so you maximize your chances of having affordable (ROI-positive, i.e. your future expected earning power justifies the price tag of the degree) options that will provide you a strong start to your professional career.


College is an investment. A very expensive investment. We must rely on logic, not emotions, when we make decisions on our investments. This applies to your college search.

We must maximize our chances of getting a degree from a school that will help get us closer to our long-term career goals.

At the same time, we must protect ourselves against multiple types of risk by having a balanced college list.

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