A funny thing happens around college application time. Students and parents who have been so thoughtful about the college process up to this point suddenly start throwing spaghetti against the wall.

If you’re unfamiliar with the analogy, it means taking a haphazard approach toward a particular goal (throwing the spaghetti) and then reevaluating based on what looks most effective (which noodles stick to the wall). (Incidentally, it turns out that contrary to popular belief, throwing actual spaghetti against the wall is not a good indicator that your pasta is done.)

Here’s what that looks like in the college process: students fill out the common application online. They see that all it takes is a few extra clicks for them to apply to an additional school. Or two. Or ten. They think “Why not double my number of applications? It’s very little additional effort and I’m bound to increase my odds.”

While it’s true that this approach may create additional opportunities for students to be accepted (or rejected), we highly discourage this practice. Read on to learn all about the risks of overdoing it when it comes to college applications.

“Diversification”: Good for Business, Bad for College Applications

Anyone with investments and a good financial advisor knows that it’s wise to diversify your portfolio. Diversification allows you to minimize the overall risk you take by distributing your money across various industries, companies, and types of assets. Students and their families are often inclined to embrace diversification when it comes to college applications, but the truth is, this isn’t the stock market. Spreading themself too thin when it comes to applying to schools can actually hurt a student’s chances of getting accepted to a school that’s an excellent fit.

The reason it’s so tempting to apply to additional schools, as mentioned above, is that the common application makes things super simple. At least, that’s how it seems. But the college process is about a LOT more than a few keystrokes on your computer. When a student is tempted to add one more college to their list, they are not taking into account two significant factors of the college process: time and fit.

The Right College Deserves Your Time

Let’s look at time first. Students should be putting forth serious and committed effort to properly vet and apply to schools. Consider the following:

Supplemental Essays: Many schools require students to answer additional essay questions beyond the personal statement on the common application. These questions are unique to each college, and students won’t do well with a copy/paste job that feels generic and unspecific. If a student is applying to too many schools, it will be incredibly time-consuming to write each of these essays thoughtfully, much less go through edits and revisions.

Don’t believe us? Check out these essay questions from the University of Chicago. Imagine filling out 20 applications like that, and doing them well!

Research: Students should have completed a deep dive into the schools that make it onto their college list before beginning the application process. This research could include such activities as browsing the website, visiting the campus, speaking to college counselors, students, or alumni, and gaining a deep understanding of the school’s values, student population, and demographics (urban/rural, public/private, liberal arts/tech., conservatory or other specialty, etc.), as well as majors or courses of study that the student could potentially pursue. (FYI, we’ve created a College List Kit that walks your student through this research process.)

If a student wants to apply the right way, those few clicks on the Common App are now looking like a significant investment of time and energy.

You may be asking, why does the “right way” matter anyway? Isn’t it possible to just see where your student is accepted and then make a decision from there?

It’s possible, yes, but we don’t recommend it. That brings us to our second big factor, which is fit.

Finding the Right Fit

You wouldn’t marry just anybody, and you wouldn’t accept just any job. Likewise, students shouldn’t go to any college that will take them. Finding the right fit between student and school is integral to having a successful and meaningful college experience.

Students should be evaluating schools based on criteria such as location, topics of study, departments, campus culture, values, cost, financial aid, and career opportunities. While there are a lot of schools out there, there will probably only be a few that will check all (or even most of) your boxes.

The desire to apply anywhere and everywhere is often an indicator that students have not gone through the process of deciding what they really want out of a school and identifying colleges whose profiles are a good match. Instead of filling out additional applications, students should look more carefully at schools to see which ones would be the best fit, and then focus their energy on sending those schools stellar applications.

Hasty Applications = Fewer Acceptances

It is entirely possible that students who are overwhelmed with applying to many schools will actually receive fewer acceptances! The more applications there are to fill out, the less time and attention there is to devote to each application. Students may miss out on an acceptance to their dream school by diluting their energy instead of putting together a really thoughtful application for the college that interests them most.

Last-Minute Decisions = Unnecessary Stress

Students who are not discerning and apply to too many schools often face incredibly difficult decisions as acceptances come back. Assuming a student does receive a high number of acceptances (which may be unlikely for the reasons described above), they now have to research each school under a tremendous time crunch, as there are usually four weeks between when colleges issue acceptances and when they expect decisions. A student who was accepted to 15+ schools is unlikely to fit that many visits into a month-long period, and who wants to deal with that kind of stress right at the end of senior year?

Start early and choose the right schools prior to filling out applications, and the game-time decision will be much, much simpler. After all, if every school a student applies to is a good fit, there is really no wrong choice to make!

Now that we’ve (hopefully) warned you off the scattershot approach to college applications, you’re probably wondering how you should go about this process, and how many schools you ultimately want on your college list.

In general:

  • Students should start researching early, and make college visits when possible to determine what they are looking for in their future school. You can use our College List Kit as a guide to help with this research.
  • Once students have identified some schools of interest (this might be around 20-25), they should do in-depth research on each school to identify which ones are the best fit for them.
  • From there, students can create a list of 8-12 schools that really interest them. These are the only schools where students will apply. The likelihood of acceptance on the college list should vary, with some schools being “safe schools” (likely to get accepted) and some schools being “reach schools” (acceptance is more uncertain).

While we’ve only provided a few quick bullet points here, check out our blog for lots more guidance on the college application process!

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