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  • Writer's pictureHollis Bischoff

When less is more in college apps

Republished with permission from the Los Altos Town Crier. Originally appeared in the August 15, 2018 edition.


During the next few months, high school seniors all over the country will be finalizing their college lists and preparing applications. They’ve worked hard over the past year to research and select colleges that reflect their goals for the future, or they have assembled lists based on the recommendations of family and friends.

College applicants’ lists hold the power of the future, but it might be more accurate to state that the applicants hold power over their lists. Following is my advice for aspiring college applicants to own their lists and to help others own theirs.

Excessive applications

One major mistake seniors can make is to apply to too many schools. Thinking that more is better is a great way to ruin the first semester of your senior year and decrease your chances of having choices when the final college admissions decisions come in. Here is what you should think about when deciding how many colleges to put on your list:

  • Each school will cost between $75 and $100 to apply to.

  • The national average of schools applied to is six.

  • Many top and mid-tier schools using the common app are looking for ways to find students who “fit,” and they use supplemental essays to help determine who should be admitted. This can add between four to six essays per application; the extra work adds up quickly.

Added stress

One of the most significant reasons for the escalating stress and unpredictability in college admissions is the submission of excessive applications. They artificially lower the admissions rate (after all, regardless of how many applications you submit, you will only be attending one college), increase reliance on waitlists and decrease your likelihood of being admitted to schools, because the competition becomes fierce. Keeping your college applications to a reasonable number will help everyone get a fair shot and help you keep your sanity.

Your list should be balanced among “likely,” “possible” and “reach/unlikely” schools. As you make your final decision, pretend that each school is the only one to which you’re admitted. Would you be happy at that school, if it were your only choice? While it is rare, occasionally students only get accepted into their likely schools, so making sure that each is a school you love will make the transition to college much happier and smoother. Remember that each school on your list was chosen for its fit to you.

Given the current admissions statistics for the University of California system, it would be very risky to consider any UC, except for Merced and possibly Riverside, as a “possible” school. The rest of the UCs are so unpredictable and competitive that they should only be considered as “reach” or “unlikely” schools, even for those with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. For most Californians, out-of-state schools should be an important part of a balanced school strategy.

Cost considerations

Please consider cost in the final college list. For anyone, $72,000 a year is a lot of money for an undergraduate program, so make sure that there is at least one financial safety school on your list. You can go to the net-cost calculator for each college to determine what you may be eligible for in the way of either financial or merit aid.

If your family income exceeds approximately $150,000 annually, do not count on financial aid at any school. Most elite schools do not award merit aid, so expect to pay full freight for top schools. Consider that you are more likely to receive merit aid where you are in the top 15 percent of the incoming student body, calculated via unweighted GPA, so those likely schools will be your best financial bet.

Graduate school

Attending an elite undergraduate school is not necessary to gain admission to an elite graduate school. Top grades, research experience and great extracurriculars are necessary. Being at the top of a class rather than at the bottom will provide you the best chances of getting those goodies, which will optimize acceptance to great graduate programs.

Realistic expectations

If you decide that you must exceed the national average of six college applications, you should consider no more than 10 unique applications, including at least three likely (top 15-25 percent of the class) and three possible schools (where your statistics place you in the 50th percentile or higher and the acceptance rate is above 30 percent).

It is in your best interest to be ruthlessly realistic about where you fit academically. As a general rule, the following are considered as one each in the total application count: UCs, CSUs, UCAS and Toronto universities, because applying to multiple schools within those applications doesn’t add any work. However, UCs do charge for each school’s application.

Following these guidelines will help seniors own their list, maximize their chances to be admitted to best-fit universities and reduce stress.

Hollis Bischoff is college admissions adviser for CollegeUnlocked. She earned a graduate certificate in college and career counseling from UCLA and is a Certified Educational Planner. She blogs about college admissions at and tweets at @collegeunlocked. For more information, email

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