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How to narrow down your list of schools

Mar. 25, 2013 - 08:39AM   |  
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Application rates to U.S. colleges and universities are soaring. Part of the reason? Panic.

Rising fear of competition spurs many students to apply to a greater number of schools — sometimes as many as 20 or 30, said Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser at, an online source for admissions information.

When you consider that most colleges charge a fee to apply — most in the $35 to $50 range and some as high as $80 to $90 — the cost can add up.

While experts say there’s no “magic number” for how many schools you should apply to, they do say that forethought and proper planning can keep the number manageable while still improving your chances of getting into a good school.

Grade yourself

Your “reach” plays an important role in how many schools you should apply to, Rubenstone said. Students whose top-choice colleges seem safe or realistic — test scores and grades in the upper half of a school’s typical admit zone — likely will have much shorter lists than students who set their sights on “reach” schools.

“If your GPA and test scores — SAT, ACT — are below the accepted-student midpoint at a college, you must consider this a ‘reach’ school,” she said. “If your stats are way below, the school is probably out of reach.”

In an effort to diversify, colleges often provide some wiggle room to those with military backgrounds. “But admission folks don’t want to set up any student for failure, so if the prospective student’s numbers aren’t at least somewhere in the ballpark, knock this school off the list,” Rubenstone said.


“I often tell applicants, ‘If you’re looking for financial aid, your list may need to be longer than if you’re not,’’’ Rubenstone said. To help students better gauge costs, colleges are required to post a “net price calculator” on their websites.

But don’t expect the new calculators to take all the guesswork out of estimating your bottom line, Rubenstone cautioned. Because of the unpredictable nature of need-based financial aid and merit scholarships, students “must often apply to more colleges than they might really want to in order to up the odds that at least one school will come through with the dough they require,” she said.

But would-be military students should not rule out a school just because it looks unaffordable, said Mark Montgomery, president of Denver-based Montgomery Educational Consulting, which helps students applying to college.

“The best analogy is the airlines,” Montgomery said. “Everyone is going to the same place, but not everyone is paying the same price.”

Other factors

Further pare down your list after considering:

Priorities. For adult students, this might include employment, spouses and children.

“Unlike teenagers, veterans must consider factors such as commuting distance to campus, opportunities for weekend or evening classes, special programs or advisers that are geared to nontraditional students,” Rubenstone said.

Social fit and learning environment. Colleges have a reputation for being liberal-minded environments, which doesn’t always translate into the greatest understanding of — or for — military students. No matter who you are, Montgomery said, you need to find some outlet for the things that make you you.


The reality is that it’s becoming harder to get into schools, but Montgomery points out that the overwhelming majority of colleges still accept 75 percent or more of students who apply.

“Make good decisions before you apply, [so] you can focus it and don’t have to waste time, energy and money on applying” to a bunch of schools unnecessarily, he said.

Rubenstone said her own private counseling service sets an upper limit of 10. “We don’t tell students that they can’t apply to more than 10 colleges,” she said, “only that we will provide application guidance for no more than 10 schools.”

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