It Is to Your Advantage to Apply to Fewer Colleges?

Contrary to popular myth, it may be to students' advantage to apply to fewer selective colleges, rather than more. The table below cross-references students' total number of college applications with the percentage of colleges to which they were accepted. The data was collected from Polytechnic in Pasadena, one of the country's top independent day schools. The conclusions below were presented at the 2016 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference. 

The trend is clear. Students at this high school saw an inverse correlation (as one variable goes up, the other goes down) between the number of colleges to which they applied and the percentage of colleges to which they were accepted. In other words, as students applied to fewer selective colleges, they were ultimately admitted by a higher percentage of them.

Additional insights that can be drawn from this data: 

  1. Early Decision and Early Action are very powerful. Students applying to 1-5 colleges enjoyed an extremely high acceptance percentage. It must be highlighted that these groups were made up almost entirely of students applying Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA). Applying ED and EA are clearly very effective means for increasing students’ chances of success. However, we would note to families that applying Early Decision (ED) does not come without its drawbacks as the decisions are binding. Our preference is to apply EA, if possible. In either case, the decision to apply ED or EA should not be taken lightly and should be carefully weighed with the assistance of a professional college counselor.

  2. When applying to selective colleges, sometimes less is more. We shared the above data with several of the country's top college counselors and asked them why the data trended the way it did. The consensus was two-fold: 1) ED and EA are very effective, and 2) when applying to the country's top colleges, fit is a key ingredient to success. At the school above, students who focused on fewer right-fit colleges were likely able to devote more time and energy to each application, and were thus better able to articulate the reasons that they would be an excellent fit at each college to which they applied.

  3. Applying to more than 15 colleges appears counterproductive. The acceptance percentages fall dramatically once students begin applying to more than 15 colleges. This data suggests that students who apply to 15 or more colleges (or in some cases 20 or more) are spreading themselves too thinly. They are less able to focus on the colleges that are the best fit for them, and may even suffer from temptations such as writing "cut and paste" essays, which ultimately result in fewer successful applications.

Does this data suggest that there is a perfect number of selective college applications that each student should strive to hit? We would argue that it does not because every student’s situation is unique. What is often right for one student is not right for another. What we can reasonably conclude from this data is that there is no inherent advantage to a “shotgun approach” that involves applying to as many selective colleges as a student can muster. In the context of selective colleges, quality and fit are much more effective than quantity.