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How many is too many?

One of my students in California has a classmate applying to 34 colleges. A New York city girl told me about a friend with 28 schools on her list. This year, I watched a list grow from 12 to 17 colleges and another from 16 to 24. What’s going on?

Before the 2020 pandemic, I offered one Standard package for up to 12 colleges. That year’s economic downturn motivated me to add a Limited Package of up to 8 colleges; spending less and applying to fewer colleges made sense for many families. 

Then the test optional admissions policies driven by the pandemic (it was impossible to test) required adding a PLUS package of up to 16 colleges. Many students began to gamble, figuring “why not try?” It is my job to help them, but to be honest as well.

College enrollment managers are gambling-averse strategists, focusing on yield. The institutions that easily fill their classes ten times with full pay students responded to the admissions deluge by issuing more deferrals each year. Students and families responded with anger and frustration. Applying became more stressful as decisions grew more unpredictable. I stopped using the term “target” (based on GPA and test score matching) because students were outraged about “targets” deferring them. “Possible” became a more precise alternative.

Some admissions deans told us to expect fewer deferrals and more outright denials this year. Students would know where they stand, rather than live in hope. It certainly simplifies the process for colleges. Let’s see.

A smart, balanced list of 5 to 12 (or 16) likely, possible, and reach colleges still makes sense. Gambling ratchets up stress because extra colleges are generally “unlikelies.” Too often, those 17th through 25th colleges simply tempt with “prestige,” and are “unlikelies” for every applicant, including valedictorians, competition winners, and published researchers.

While I wish that all my students are admitted to every college they'd be happy to attend, that’s based on my knowledge of the best fit. I wish them (and their families) the wisdom to believe that they drive their success–not the bumper sticker.


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