How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? The Difference between Reach, Target, and Safety Schools

With the start of fall comes the start of college application season. Ah yes, long nights filled with standardized identity questions, personal essays, and stress. Lots and lots of stress. Luckily, many schools use The Common Application to help lower some of the repetition that comes from applying to multiple schools, but even with a generalized application, the ever-present question of how many colleges should you apply to still seems to loom over the heads of many.

And in all honesty, this is a hard question to answer. I'll start off by saying this — there is no exact number, and the answer varies for each person. Some students may choose to send in applications to up to 20 schools, while others feel confident only applying to one or two. Though everyone is different, and each case truly does depend on the individual's situation, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to counting out schools.

Applying to multiple schools can get expensive (the average college application fee is around $40, but some can be as much as $90, according to U.S. News & World Report), not to mention the process can be mentally exhausting. With so many different options out there, it’s important to have a plan. The College Board recommends that students should apply to between five and eight different colleges. These schools should fall into three categories: reach schools, target schools and safety schools. Let's break it down.

1. Reach Schools

Reach schools are the ones on your list with the highest admissions standards. They are the ones that are going to be more challenging to get into, since they usually choose their applicants from a more highly competitive pool. Your reach schools should include one or two top picks, places you’d love to go not just because of the school’s reputation, but because they are a good fit for you and what you’d like to pursue. According to the Princeton Review, your academic credentials should either match or fall just short of what your reach school requires. If you’re GPA doesn’t come close to what your reach school typically admits, it might be a better use of time to apply somewhere else instead.

2. Target Schools

Target schools are the ones you should feel pretty good about getting into, even if you are not 100 percent certain about your chances. (Just about everyone will concede to the fact that college applications are becoming more and more competitive as the years pass.) Apply to two or three target schools. These should be places where you'd be excited to spend the next four years, and could still find opportunity for growth without feeling like you just barely made the cut.

3. Safety Schools

Rounding out your college application list should be two or three safety schools — places you feel confident you'll get accepted. Safety schools have gained something of a negative connotation, but it's always a good idea to have a backup plan in place that you can feel sure about. While these colleges may not be your first choice, they are less selective when it comes to accepting applications, and they usually come with other perks, like more affordable tuition — a definite win in anyone's book.

When choosing your dream, target, and safety schools, it’s important to come up with a list of places you can actually see yourself being happy with in the long run — schools that meet your needs (both socially and academically) regardless of whether or not it’s your top pick. That way, no matter what the end result, you’ll end up someplace that you can feel confident is a good fit.

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