College Search - How Many Colleges to Include

Hear tips on picking a college from Liz Eshleman, director of College Planning and Placement at Devon Preparatory School.

May 12, 2010 7:36:42 AM PDT
The number of colleges and universities to which your child will ultimately apply depends on the child. Some will require a dozen or more. Others may be able to get away with one or two, depending on their focus, grades, and financial constraints.


The general rule of thumb, though, is to divide your choices into three categories: reach schools, range schools, and safety schools. The reach schools are what you and your student regard as dream destinations. Usually, these are colleges whose successful candidates have grades a bit above your child's grades, but are worth trying for, on the chance that there's something singular about your kid that wows them. Usually, only one to three of these make the list. Range schools are those nice, attractive colleges that usually accept candidates with test scores and GPAs similar to what your child has produced. It's not uncommon to include four to six of these schools on your list, just in case you don't make the cut at all of them. Safety schools are those to which your student easily qualifies and will almost certainly gain admittance. The idea with including a couple of these on the list is that, if all else fails, at least your kid's going to college.

In my daughter's case, we abandoned the above strategy, because she was so focused on what she wanted, and so few campuses had her specific major. What's more, a visit to one of them early on in the process produced an admissions interview that left us with a strong impression that she was a lock, not only to be accepted, but to win some substantial scholarship money. That interview pretty much sealed the deal. To be safe, we applied to two colleges, and she was accepted by both, but we went with the initial favorite.

My son was a different story. His major, mechanical engineering, is offered by what I recall to be hundreds of colleges nationwide. And even though he narrowed the search to about a half-dozen states, we were still looking at dozens of different possibilities at the outset. We ended up applying to ten universities, he was accepted at seven, and it was about twenty-four hours before the May 1st decision deadline before he finally narrowed it down to one.

By the way, I wouldn't necessarily limit your child's choices to the most affordable schools, even if your ability to pay is limited. More and more expensive and elite schools have begun adopting aggressive need-based scholarship programs in recent years, and you may be surprised at what's available once your child's foot is in the door. If there are financial constraints, I'd simply have an agreement with your child that if an elite school accepts them, whether they actually get to go there will depend on the aid package offered. I'll talk more about financial aid and scholarships in a future blog.

MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: Submitting An Application, When Will I Hear If I'm In?, Wait List, When Must I Decide?, What If I Have Trouble Deciding?, Merit Aid, Need-Based Aid, Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Savings Accounts, Myths About The Cost, What Is Upromise?, The Best Way To Pay, College Troubles, College Depression, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface

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