Nowadays, students can theoretically apply to more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone. Obviously, this does not mean students should apply to dozens of schools, as not all schools are a good fit for every student. For example, a school might not offer a major a student wants to study. Or the college has more commuters than students living on campus. Or it’s too big, too small, too urban, or too rural. You get the idea. Bottom line: students need to decide what criteria are important to them, and then apply to a range of schools that meet those criteria.

Choosing which colleges to apply to requires self-awareness, contemplation, and research—lots of it. It is also helpful to visit campuses whenever possible.

Over the past few years, we’ve tracked a steady rise in college applications. According to a Common Application report, between 2019 and 2020 and 2022-2023, applications increased by 30%. This explosion in application numbers stems from individual students applying to more colleges.

Note that a student may submit the Common Application to no more than 20 colleges in a single application cycle. The Coalition Application has no limit on number of schools, but only about 150 schools use this application.

How many schools should a student apply to?

Experts agree there is no exact number of schools a student should apply to, but we at International Counselors believe applicants should aim for about 10 schools. The list should be balanced with range of selectivity, including competitive schools, target schools (where the student’s decision could go either way), and then solid schools where the student is likely to be admitted.

Most colleges publish the high school GPA, test scores, and various demographics of first year-students. These statistics can be found on a school’s website or by searching the school’s name and “first year class profile.” When examining the profile, be aware that even when a student’s credentials (grades, rigor of coursework, and test scores), meet or exceed the school’s admitted student profile, there is no guarantee that any given student will be admitted.

Competitive colleges receive thousands of applications (sometimes hundreds of thousands), giving them an extremely large pool of qualified students to choose from. This allows them to be very choosy about who they admit and why. The reality is that you can do everything right and still not be admitted.

Students are more likely to be admitted to “target” colleges–those that don’t receive as many applications and where their academic credentials fall well within the admitted student profile. Yet, even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll be admitted into a target school. Admission offices are now operating under a model of “enrollment management,” which considers all sorts of factors, statistics, and algorithms beyond your control.

Likely schools are those where you are likely to be admitted because your academic credentials exceed those of college’s admitted student profile. That said, be aware that even when an applicant exceeds the college’s academic profile, they still may be turned down simply because the committee thinks they won’t attend.

Many of these “likely” schools are hidden gems. What’s important is identifying a list of schools that are a great fit for your student and that offers a range of selectivity.

ICC NOTE: The only colleges and universities worth applying to are the schools a student will be happy to attend.

Research will narrow down your college list

Applying to college takes time and work. Submitting applications to too many schools can quickly become overwhelming and may affect the quality of the applications. To narrow the list, students and their parents should consider the schools that fit the student academically, financially, and socially.

Consult the Fiske Guide. Scour each college’s website, especially the “Academics” and “Student Life” pages. Visit when possible. Students who are unable to visit a campus in person should attend their virtual information session and take a virtual tour. Talk to current students and alumni as you are able. Consult websites like and Google “Net Price Calculator” for each college you are considering.

And finally, talk to your college advisor at International College Counselors. Our expert college advisors have dozens of years of experience creating college lists, frequently visit colleges, commonly attend college admissions webinars and presentations, and many have worked directly in college admissions offices. We are here to help you!

International College Counselors

Need help honing your college list? No matter where your family is in the college admissions process, International College Counselors can help you with every aspect. Email or call us at 954-414-9986 to discuss how we can support you and your family! Also, make sure to register for our upcoming free webinar about building a college list:




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