There's no denying that the advent of the common application and the increased ease of applying online have fueled a rise in the number of schools to which students apply. But that doesn't mean you have to join the trend.
Indeed, narrowing your list to a reasonable number - for starters, think single rather than double digits - can yield benefits that go beyond financial savings (after all, those application fees do add up). You will have to make up your mind at some point. And though some students believe they're raising their odds by applying to a dozen schools or more, they may be spreading their efforts too thinly. If you think the "individualized" answers you've been churning out to the "why I want to go to your school" question have started sounding blandly interchangeable, admissions officers probably will, too.
To winnow the list, break down the process step by step.
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STEP 1. THERE ARE NO "MUST-APPLY'S"
Rather than searching for a perfect match that meets your preconceived notions of college life, reframe what you're looking for as "one of many good matches," says Michael Popkin of activeparenting.com. "There are many colleges that [students] will be happy at and will prepare them for a successful life."
Those schools aren't necessarily the most prestigious or famous-or the ones all your friends are looking at, either. Although his father encouraged him to apply to his alma mater, Dartmouth, one student from a public high school in central Pennsylvania decided the Ivy League wasn't for him; he preferred a lower-pressure academic environment. Another public high school student, this one from New York, felt so strongly about supporting American troops in Iraq that he applied only to schools that offered ROTC.
STEP 2. KNOW THYSELF
For the majority of high school students, even familiar-sounding names (Big Ten, Ivy League, Mom's alma mater) "are just names they've heard or pictures they've seen," points out Mike Riera, head of Redwood Day School in Oakland, Calif., and author of Staying Connected to Your Teenager.
By contrast, they do know about themselves. Students who take "a few hours to think, talk, and write about" the places, activities, and settings they enjoy, the learning styles that suit them best, and the subjects that motivate them begin to develop what Riera calls "an internal map" of what they're looking for.
The challenge, then, is to find schools that value those strengths. Maybe your learning style is better suited to a work co-op program than sitting in a lecture hall. Perhaps you need a school that lets you explore different areas before you commit to a major. As to school size, Riera suggests thinking about whether you like to know most of the students whose faces you'll see or whether you like being surrounded by lots of faces you may meet or may never get to know.
Career counselors and online assessment tools can help you articulate your interests and needs. And as you explore your interests, you may discover that what you originally thought you were looking for isn't what you wanted, after all.
STEP 3. IDENTIFY A PLACE TO LIVE
After looking inward, look outward: Imagine the environment where you'll want to spend the next four years. Think about where you live, where you've traveled, areas of the country you've enjoyed - or have not - Popkin suggests. Do you want the urban energy of a city or a small-town atmosphere? Is climate a factor?
Are there outdoor activities you long to pursue and be near? A hiking and mountaineering enthusiast from Connecticut, for instance, applied to schools in Colorado to be close to western national parks. A New York student limited her applications to schools with access to riding stables.
Another aspect to explore: How closely, or not, do you wish to replicate the atmosphere of your high school? Did you thrive at that very large-or very small-school? Is it time for a change, or do you want more of the same?
Distance from home matters to some students more than to others. Joy Silberg and her husband, Richard, of Baltimore asked their three daughters during their college search: "Why go across the country when there are fabulous schools in close driving distance?" All three of them ended up in a different type of school in a different geographic area, one in a southern town (University of Virginia, in Charlottesville), another in New York City (Barnard), and the third in the Pennsylvania countryside (Franklin and Marshall).