Students casting wide nets in college search

November 22, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years | with 0 Comments

How many is too many?

The same question that can creep up on us late at night while staring into a bag of cookies is one that high school seniors and their families grapple with more and more when it comes to college applications.

These days, it is not unusual to hear a college-bound senior say he or she is applying to 10 or 12 colleges, or more, despite suggestions by experts that applying to that many schools may be unnecessary. Some say students looking to apply to schools by the dozen is a natural outgrowth of increased connectivity between students and colleges and universities; others believe the trend may be the result of mounting pressure on students to get into increasingly selective colleges.

Gayle Moriarity, counseling center coordinator at Bethlehem Central High School, says individual students are submitting more applications than in prior years and that the increase, she believes, is the result of a combination of factors.

“As college selectivity has increased, students and families feel the need to apply to more schools to increase their odds of getting into a good school,” said Moriarity. “This is what some counselors call a ‘shotgun’ approach: shoot for a lot of schools and see what ‘hits.'”

Moriarity cites other reasons for the jump in the number of applications, including:

  • Use of the Common Application, which allows students to easily apply to multiple colleges using one application;
  • Lasting effects from the economic downturn that spurred families to seek out more scholarship offers from schools; and
  • “Instant Admit” days where college admissions counselors visit schools, interview students, review applications for free and offer on-the-spot admission.

In Bethlehem, a suburban school district where approximately 90 percent of graduates enroll in two- or four-year colleges, Moriarity said the average number of college applications per student increased 60 percent from 2007 to 2014, from 4.2 for students in the Class of ’07 to 6.7 for the Class of ’14.

Bethlehem, it seems, is not alone. College application numbers at the school are following a U.S. trend that has been decades in the making. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the majority of students today are submitting three or more applications. Nearly a third of college applicants, 32 percent, submitted seven or more applications in 2013, up from just 9 percent in 1990.

“I applied to 11 schools, was accepted to nine, deferred by one, and rejected by one,” said Aidan James, a 2015 graduate of Albany High School, who admits to using the “shotgun” approach to his college search.

“Was that too many? Maybe,” said James, currently a student at Penn State University. “I am happy with my choice but sometimes I think I should have included more reach schools in my search.”

How to decide what’s right for you?

On its website, the College Board, which prepares and administers standardized tests (including the SAT) used in college admission, suggests that five to eight applications are usually enough to allow a student to find the right fit for their interests and abilities.

The organization, which represents 6,000 member colleges and universities, says no matter what the number, applications should be made up of a combination of “safety,” “probable” and “reach” colleges to allow for flexibility when students are deciding on a course of study, exploring financial aid options and setting career goals.

In providing guidance to high school students beginning the college search, the College Board recommends applying to one “safety” school, two to four “probable” or “target” schools and at least one or two “reach” colleges.

Safety schools are colleges whose flexible entry requirements mean there is little chance an applicant will be turned down for admission. Most students apply to just one safety, but the College Board suggests students want to consider applying to an academic safety and a financial safety school, one that will be affordable, regardless of financial aid.

Reach schools are known as such because they represent a student’s top choices, but the chances for admission are limited because the student’s qualifications fall short of the college’s average requirements or where the school only accepts a small percentage of students.

Application fees can add up

The cost of applying to colleges and universities is also a factor when determining how many schools a student should aim for. According to USA Today, the average application fee is $40, with some schools, such as Stanford University, charging as much as $90. For those students casting a wide net in their search, the application process alone can end up costing families upwards of $500.

There are ways to reduce the cost of applying to college without limiting the number of applications. The College Board offers fee waivers to high school students whose families qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch under the National School Lunch Program. The waiver allows eligible students to apply to up to four colleges free of charge.

Some colleges and universities also offer application fee waivers to students who show early and sustained interest in their schools. Students who email a school’s admission office often or take one or more campus tours are sometimes provided online fee waivers from colleges as a way to entice that student to apply. Showing interest in a school early not only increases a student’s chance of receiving an application fee waivers, it can also be looked upon favorably by some admissions counselors, according to COLLEGEdata, a college search website.

Others, like Union College in Schenectady, do not charge an application fee. The school is one of more than two dozen in New York State that offers no-fee applications.

Whether a student keeps the number of applications in that five-to-eight range or looks to apply to schools numbering into double digits, in the end, it is a personal decision made between students and families, Counselor Moriarity says.

“We want our students to be happy with their options and ultimately, with their college choice,” she said.


JoEllen Gardner has been a Communications Specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. She had one requirement in her own college search: no essay. She has written for a living since 1989.

Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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