The reason I bring this up is the terrible mistake that I see many seniors about to make: too many reaches. As we get closer to the beginning of the new school year, I’m starting to work with my students on finalizing their college lists. We won’t have everything nailed down for another month or so, but my students are beginning to identify their favorite schools in the reach, target, and safety categories. And I’m having the same conversation with almost all of them about the downsides of making your list too reach heavy.
The first reason I advise against applying to five or eight or ten reach schools is just the sheer amount of work involved. Reach schools for most students tend to be those highly-selective colleges that most of us can name easily (the ones that begin with Ivy and end with League). These schools also tend to require more supplemental essays, and their essays are more complicated. For instance, Stanford asks students to answer 11 additional essay questions. Many of those questions are quite short, but the topics are unique and don’t overlap with other colleges’ questions. The application fee is also $90, so applying to Stanford is not something to be done lightly.
Writing 11 essays for Stanford is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when Stanford is one of eight or nine colleges that you’re applying to. You can do a great job on those 11 essays, you can spend as much time as you need to brainstorm just the right topic, and you can do all the necessary revisions to get your tone and your wording exactly right. But when Stanford is one of 15 or 20 schools on your list, those 11 essays are going to get short shrift. And while the chance of getting accepted to Stanford is comically low, you will definitely have a better shot if you knock those essays out of the park than you will if you rush through them a week before the deadline.
So applying to fewer reach schools actually works in your favor by allowing you to do a better job on those applications and genuinely put your best foot forward. But it also benefits you months later when you get your admissions decisions. It’s very easy to underestimate how disappointing it feels to get a no from a college, even a college that you knew was a long shot.
In December, it feels like throwing another piece of spaghetti at the wall – it’s no big deal. But in April, every small envelope, every letter that begins “I’m sorry to inform you…” is painful. Getting two or three of those decisions is manageable; it’s just a part of life. But getting five or eight or ten of those no’s can feel crushing. And it can undermine the excitement you should be feeling about the schools that said yes to you, the schools that are psyched about you, the schools that want to give you scholarships and throw you a tiny parade.
So make a good choice for your future self and resist the urge to play admissions lottery, to buy just one more ticket, to apply to just one more school. Pick a smart list of schools with a manageable number of essays and do your very best on every single one of them. That way you’ll know, whether the decision comes back yes, no, or maybe, that you took your best shot.