Discover is no longer accepting new student loan applications.
Applications received on or before January 31, 2024, 11:59 pm CT will be processed as usual.

Discover Student Loans
Discover Student Loans

check mark   Article highlights

  • Applying to eight or nine colleges is a good target.
  • Including a mix of safety schools, match schools, and reach schools is recommended.
  • Looking at admissions requirements and cost of attendance can help you decide which colleges to apply to.

Figuring out which colleges to apply to is a big decision. Even if you’ve already decided where you want to go, it’s best to cast a wide net in case your plans change. But college applications cost money. Given that the average application fee is almost $45, according to U.S. World & News Report, applying to eight or nine schools is probably plenty. Here’s how to narrow down which colleges to apply to so you can make a list of schools you feel good about.

Research schools

Begin by making a master list of every college you’re interested in. You probably won’t end up applying to all of them, so don’t worry about the cost or the likelihood of getting accepted. The purpose of this exercise is to jot down any school you’ve been thinking about. That can include any community colleges, public schools (both in- and out-of-state), and private colleges, you’ve had your eye on. You can also jump online and research schools that have undergraduate programs that appeal to you. Once you feel good about your list, it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Look at admissions criteria

Every college admissions process is different, and acceptance criteria can vary from one college to the next. Go through your list of schools and research what each one looks at when considering applications.

Some schools consider your academic record and personal experiences that have shaped your life. Others may require certain high school coursework. You might also need to prepare an essay or answer personal insight questions. When going through each school’s admissions criteria, be sure to focus on the following:

  • Average SAT® and ACT® scores: While submitting SAT and ACT scores is optional at some schools, many colleges disclose admissions statistics. For example, the University of Pennsylvania shares the middle 50% of scores reported by enrolled students who chose to submit their scores.
  • Average GPA: Not every college shares this information, but many do. The University of Georgia is one example. Among the middle 50% of first-year students in the admitted class of 2026, GPAs ranged from 4.00 to 4.30.

Consider cost of attendance

According to the College Board®, the average sticker price for in-state four-year public college is $23,250. That number increases to $53,430 for private nonprofit four-year schools. It’s worth noting that the sticker price may not be your net cost when all is said and done. College costs can come down considerably after factoring in the financial aid you receive. Scholarships and grants can all reduce your out-of-pocket costs.

The first step in securing federal financial aid is to complete the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s wise to submit it as soon as possible as financial aid is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Once the FAFSA has been submitted, schools will use the information provided to determine how much aid you’ll receive. Schools will send you financial aid award letters usually around February or March for regular admissions if you’ve been accepted. At this point, you’ll know your true cost of attendance at each school that has accepted you, but you can still research general costs of attendance before applying. That includes tuition as well as room and board, fees, and more.

Narrow down your list of colleges to apply to

After reviewing each school’s admissions criteria and costs, you can begin paring down your list of colleges to apply to. Aim to narrow it down to eight or nine colleges you’d be excited to attend. Look at each school and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you afford to attend? If you aren’t sure, it’s still a good idea to apply. If you get accepted, your financial aid award letter will clarify how much federal, state, and institutional aid is available to you.
  • How do your ACT and SAT scores measure up? What about your GPA? Are they in the ballpark of what previously-accepted students have earned?
  • Do you meet all of the school’s admissions requirements?
  • Do you like the location of the college? And is the cost of living within your budget?
  • Does the college culture feel right to you? Taking a tour and connecting with existing students can help you decide if campus life is compatible with your personal preferences and values.
  • If you’re already leaning toward a college major, does the school have a good program? And is it located in an area that supports your desired field? For example, a student majoring in computer science might like the idea of attending a college in Silicon Valley.

Break your list down into categories

After you’ve narrowed your list down, make sure the schools fall into these three categories:

  • Safety schools: These are colleges you feel confident will accept you. They may not be your first choice, but they can be solid backup schools.
  • Match schools: These are schools you think you have a decent shot at, but you aren’t totally sure. Think of them as good target schools.
  • Reach schools: These are colleges that you’d love to get into, but the admissions criteria may be more competitive. You won’t know unless you try, so be sure to apply to some reach schools too.

Choosing the best colleges to apply to will depend on what you’re looking for in a school. You’ll also need to consider each school’s admissions requirements and cost of attendance. The goal is to put together a list of colleges that feel right for you.

College Board® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

SAT® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

How helpful was this content?




More to explore