One of the key questions young people who are preparing for college frequently ask is "How many colleges should I apply to?" The answer, like many of the decisions surrounding higher education, is surprisingly easy. It is important to note that this is a follow-up to the same type logic I used in my article advocating only going to college when one knows what they want out of life (that is here!). As an extension of that logic, the answer to the question "How many colleges should I apply to?" is remarkably simple. The essential criteria for choosing a college ought to be: Programs, Affordability and Qualifications.
Arguably, there might be several colleges that have programs one wishes to learn about, but what tends to separate schools more these days is the cost of attending the college and the standards the school sets for their students. I advocate applying to no more than five colleges. The reasons for this are simple: it costs money to apply and it eliminates deliberately complicated decisions.
If one is judicious in the number of colleges they apply to, they will learn a great deal about the realistic chances of their goals succeeding by the responses they receive. Most people advocate a proportion that is roughly equivalent to one stretch school (a school it is unlikely one will get into), three practical schools (schools one would actually want to attend and/or could afford) and one safety school (a school that ought to be easy to get into that allows one to go to college regardless). I disagree with that logic.
First, eliminate the stretch school. If you do not have the qualifications and finances to go to a school, don't bother applying. This is not me saying lower your own, personal, bar, but rather acknowledging two truths. The first is that to apply, you still have to pay the "stretch" school to file the application and the higher education institutions that might be a stretch tend to have application fees about equivalent of a textbook. Save the money; you'll need it for the school you go to. The second truth is that even if you are accepted to the stretch school, the odds are not in favor of you going there. This is simple mathematics. Stretch schools are usually more expensive to begin with and are located further from your starting home than the more practical schools. So, even if you can afford the college, odds are you wouldn't be able to afford living there.
This is a great time to disabuse readers of the common "stretch school" notion: if you get in, you will find a way to afford it. That's a load of b.s. concocted by the Baby Boomers who recall what it was like when they went to school. Post-80s through contemporary higher education is a heavy competition and there are no wonderful, mysterious benefactors waiting around the corner to help Joe Underprivileged go to college. Instead, government loans are stingier than ever, work study programs that pay you to work in the field you are interested in are often taken by legacies who use their connections to get the job and are almost never enough hours to actually pay the tuition bill on its own, and scholarships have become a labyrinth of competitions that are often more work than the reward they could possibly pay. If you cannot afford a college and when looking over the information on said college there are not programs that would allow you to afford the true costs of the college, it only wastes your time and the time of the institution to apply there. If you apply to a stretch school, are accepted and plead poverty there are literally hundreds of prospective students waiting to take your place and in the business of higher education these days, almost every institution would rather deal with the next person who is all ready than help out the "project."
Second, eliminate your safety school. Safety schools are safe because they are easy and higher education is not about ease, it is about learning and growing through challenging yourself. Just as applying to a stretch school wastes the time of the school and your money, applying to a safety school wastes your talent and encourages you to underachieve. The reason for this is simple: if you are understimulated at college, it increases the likelihood of truancy and sloth. If you feel like you are already on top of all that the instructor is saying, it does not encourage you to apply yourself to do the work. College stretches into four to six years of boredom and partying which is far more likely to lead you away from your chosen career goal. As well, safety school degrees mean less to prospective employers than a degree from a better school (i.e. a 4.0 at Local Community is weighted less to a prospective employer than a 3.2 from Harvard).
There is one caveat for the safety school play. If the school you absolutely want to go to is proximate to a safety school and through the safety school, there is a way to attend the better institution and/or transfer later on, the safety school ought to be applied to. For example, students who want to go to Cornell University have frequently found that going to Ithaca College (or SUNY Ithaca) can more easily transfer into certain programs there and/or receive a Cornell degree by transferring late in the college experience. This has given them the best of both worlds, the relative lack of expense of a practical school and the challenge and degree from the better school. The important thing about this plan, however, is to make a firm plan. Know exactly when you would want to transfer to the better school and stick to that plan to achieve your goals. Do not become complacent at your safety school.
Ideally, though, eliminating the stretch and safety schools leaves one with the best choices of where to apply. The three colleges you have left ought to be ones you have thoroughly investigated (a personal visit is highly recommended), can afford and should offer you enough stimulation and challenge that any of them would be a good choice to attend.
Don't apply to a school you could not see yourself attending or would not want to attend! College ought to be an experience that helps you define what you want: even if your parents are paying (which, they shouldn't) it is you, the prospective student, who ought to embrace this valuable life opportunity and choose the path that will lead you to the greatest sense of personal accomplishment and growth. If your parents do not approve of your choice of college, this becomes a valuable opportunity to prioritize your life: you can live in their dreams of who you are or stand up and make your own path. The latter is more difficult, but it is ultimately more personally rewarding. Do not apply to a college because they have a program your parents think would be right for you. Apply for the program you want and pick the school that is best in that program that suits your needs, abilities and wallet.
Ultimately, there is no science to picking a school, but there is common sense. And common sense says, don't waste your money on the longshot you couldn't afford even if you were accepted and don't waste your time on an institution which will not stimulate you or help you achieve your goals.
For an exploration of a college, please check out my review of SUNY Binghamton University here!
For other reviews and articles, be sure to visit my index page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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