Around this time of year, we often begin seeing “feel-good” stories on the news in the U.S. about high school seniors who applied to and were accepted to dozens of colleges. The media will often add information about the collective scholarship awards the student was offered among all of those schools, as if we’re meant to get the warm fuzzies about this feat.

Here’s the deal, though.  I never want to downplay or disrespect the work those students put into those accomplishments, but boy are those stories unrealistic and ill-advised. As a college counselor, my first thought is typically, “Who advised this student to apply to so many schools? And WHY?”

With a few exceptions (e.g. competitive theater and music programs), most students honestly shouldn’t apply to more than 10 colleges they have thoroughly researched and know are a good fit for them, and I see 5-8 as a healthier spread. 

Why so few? 

Well, for starters, applying to 5-10 colleges is no small undertaking. In addition to a main college essay, many colleges require supplemental essays or short responses that take time and savvy to complete successfully. It’s not uncommon for a single university to have 4 or more supplements a student must also reply to, and some colleges have as many as 8 required supplements.

Let this sink in: this year I’m working with one student who is applying to 10 colleges and is writing a total of 42 (FORTY-TWO) supplement responses. That’s just for admission– not scholarships, not honors programs. Just admission. They have meticulously researched and visited every one of these colleges and know they’re a good fit. They are taking on this challenge fully informed and with professional guidance every step of the way, and through every writing.  I fear that is often not the case with those “feel-good” stories we see on the news. I worry about students’ mental health and life balance when taking on an objectively unnecessary number of applications. 

Next, there’s the burden of keeping up with so many applications. In the digital era, it is most common now for students to submit their applications and then receive emails from each university instructing them to activate their “prospective student portal” online. Colleges maintain communication with students about their application materials, admission status, and scholarship and other opportunities via these portals. For students, this translates into a constant need to stay on top of their email and action items from colleges they’ve applied to. In the middle of it all, they are also being aggressively marketed to by other colleges via e-mail as well as managing emails from their teachers and other relevant life obligations. It can become overwhelming quickly, especially for adolescents whose brains are not yet fully developed to manage this many obligations at once.

School, family, and extra-curricular obligations don’t stop while kids are applying to college. For many, they must also juggle after-school jobs. Application fees tend to run between $30-$90 as well, so students and families who don’t qualify for fee waivers face incredible expense as the number of colleges they apply to grows. Applying to dozens of colleges lines the pockets of universities’ admissions coffers and puts students in a position where their application experience ceases to be in their best interest. 

I don’t seek to burst anyone’s bubble, but I do want to advocate for common-sense, best-fit admissions for every student out there.  This means assembling a modest list of colleges ranging from safeties (schools you’re likely to get into) to reaches (highly competitive schools that are often a reach for everyone applying), ALL of which jibe with your personal values and what you’re looking for in the next chapter of your life rather than falling for media hype and playing the “pick me” game with the biggest, potentially most expensive decision of your life up to this point.