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What’s your magic number?

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By Steve Michaud

What is the “magic” number of colleges and universities to apply to? The simple answer: at least one. You can only attend one college at a time, and ultimately you’ll only select one. But for most students, applying to only one school isn’t a reasonable expectation.

There is no perfect formula of how many schools to apply to, but there is a formula for finding the college that fits. I advise students to apply to colleges based on their needs; therefore the number of schools each person applies to varies. Now, with online access, fees waived, the common application, and applications without essay requirements, applying to colleges can be easy.

I often encourage students to apply to four to six schools, and no more than eight or 10. But many students do feel compelled to apply to many schools. Here is some advice for going through this process:

• Clarify your priorities and match those to a college. Research and visit schools. While you’re there, talk to colleges about their criteria. This requires you to engage in critical thinking and decision-making before applications are even due.

• Casting a broad net of possible choices is a popular strategy. The idea is that applying to more schools improves chances for acceptance. But the greater the number of applications, the greater the risk of careless mistakes. An application should reflect your intention.

• Research may reveal a student fits many schools. It can be a challenge to narrow the list. Remember, the college you attend will be your home away from home for four or five years. Think about how close (or far) you’ll be to your family. Decide if you want an urban or rural setting.

• If financial aid is a priority, it may be advantageous to apply to more schools, widening possible choices. Discuss financial aid opportunities with schools and learn where each stands on merit and/or need based aid. Find out average financial aid numbers, and if there’s a drop-off in award monies after completion of freshman year.

• For some students, the best choice is to apply to in-state universities or colleges.

College admissions is not a perfect science or process, and it’s not just about numbers. It’s about finding the best fit through a diligent, mindful and intentional practice.

Steve Michaud, owner of Family Pathways College Counseling, is a practicing independent college counselor in Bozeman. Michaud has more than two decades of experience helping families across the country navigate all post secondary options. Contact him at: or (406) 570-1178.

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