We’ve all been given the spiel – the one about how crucial it is to find a school where you’ll be happy, since you’re going to be spending the next four years of your life there. And we’ve all been given the other spiel – the one about how much college costs and if you don’t find grants or scholarships, you’re going to spend the rest of your pathetic life paying off loans while simultaneously finding swimming pools full of debt (not liquor) and diving in (hate to burst your bubble, Kendrick). Both of these warnings, no matter how daunting and scary, are wise words of caution. Yet, too often students find themselves unable to meet both of these incredibly important demands.

The solution? Apply to a lot of schools.

It’s Simple Math: Maximize Your Chances

“The college process has become so incredibly competitive that I felt applying to sixteen schools was the only way to ensure that I would have a chance of attending a good one,” states Megan Kiely, a soon-to-be student at Villanova University. Megan’s logic is the same that I followed when I applied to seventeen schools last year. And it’s especially true if you’re looking to apply to top tier colleges and universities.

With so many qualified applicants and the newfound ease of the CommonApp, college admissions has become somewhat of a betting game. If you’re qualified, or right on the border of being qualified, there is no longer a definite promise that you’ll get in; and so you must join the game. What one school doesn’t see in your essay, another potentially will. Whatever trait University A passes you over for, University B might adore. By applying to a wide range of schools that match your test scores AND personality, you are effectively ensuring that you will be spending the next four years at a place that you love.  Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, you are giving yourself a better chance of receiving some generous financial aid offers – which leads me to my next point.

The Money Factor

According to my hypothetical book, there are three types of colleges you want to apply to when taking into account the financial situation. First, there are the cheaper public schools. These schools usually don’t offer that much scholarship money and might be a little stingy on the need-based aid, but they start with a lower sticker price. I’d contend that at least one of these schools is a necessity on the list of any applicant considering money in the final equation.

Next, you have the top tier colleges and universities. Here is where the need-based aid is found. TP staff writer Jasmine Russell knew this during her application process. “My family qualifies for quite a bit of financial aid, and almost all of the schools I applied to would pay about 95% of my college expenses,” she said. “I needed to increase my chances of getting into at least one, therefore ensuring I wouldn’t have oodles of debt for my undergraduate education.” I can personally attest to the fact that these schools offer a lot of need-based aid. Colby College met 100% of my professed need – and did so without loans. Wesleyan University, too, met my need, and with only minor amounts of their aid coming from student loans; but since most of these schools are quite selective, it is imperative that there are at least a few on your prospective list.

Finally, there are the safety/low-match/”foundation” schools that you know you’ll get into – and hope you’ll get scholarship money from. It’s surprising when you find out just how much scholarship money some of these universities dole out each year. Search for scholarship programs present at some of your safety and low-match schools, and make a master list of them. Once again, maximize your chances by applying to a lot of these schools, because some of these scholarships are just as competitive as top tier colleges and universities. Christine Fossaceca, a sophomore at Villanova University who applied to over 20 schools two years ago, said she did so “because [she] wasn’t sure what [she] was going to be able to get” in terms of scholarships. Christine added, “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but an essay can be worth thousands of dollars.” It can be a lot of work, but more times than not, it’s worth the effort.

The Bottom Line: Options!

Honestly, you want options – and not just financial options. Of the seventeen schools I applied to, there were Ivies like Yale and Brown, small liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan and Amherst, Catholic universities such as Villanova and Providence, state schools including UConn, and even some business schools like Bentley.

My guidance counselor would stare at my list, utterly baffled by the random assortment of schools, but it made sense to me – simply because I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t want to limit myself to a particular area, or specialization; it just wouldn’t have made sense. TP staff writer Joanna Flores (who applied to fourteen schools) sums up my feelings perfectly when she says, “I was more terrified to lose out on a fantastic four years [by not applying] than to get rejected.”

The lack of options is what forced TP editor Cassie Scaman, who only applied to two schools, to take a gap year. Cassie states, “I didn’t apply to a lot of schools, and I wish I had. The first time around I was supposed to go to Georgetown, but decided the atmosphere and major choices weren’t for me.” At that point, after admissions decisions are already sent out, it’s too late, which is why there is no shame in maxing out your CommonApp.

Sarah Wiszniak, a vlogger for TP, points out that applying to thirteen schools allowed her “to rank schools and really take into account the pros and cons of each one.” Size matters. Location matters. Majors and student body and financial aid and religious affiliation all matter. So please, give yourself these options.

Handling the Work

Unfortunately, it’s not just the CommonApp you need to worry about. Most schools also require one, two, sometimes three or more supplement essays – but all hope is not lost. Christine Fossaceca perfected the art of “recycling essays and shortening/lengthening them as needed.”

TP contributing editor, Mollie Yacano, agrees with me when she says she “didn’t find the work overbearing, but also enjoyed the admissions process.” These essays provide a wonderful opportunity for you to find out things about yourself, to truly discover what makes you tick and what you think colleges should know about you when reviewing your application. It’s exciting for all, and with the right mindset, a fun challenge for some.

Mollie also says that she “had already gotten a lot of the hard work done before senior year started,” which means the final trick to handling a maxed out CommonApp is to start early. Tackle those supplement essays before September, and you’re in great shape to give yourself some tremendous options come March and April. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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the author

Eric Aldieri is a junior at Villanova University double majoring in Philosophy and Humanities. You can contact him at or @ealdi94 .

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  1. Danielle on July 23, 2013

    This strategy works for a) families who can afford to pay the application fees for 17 schools at an average of 50-75 dollars apiece or b) for families who qualify for fee waivers. Beyond that, this seems to be a good strategy for students who are more on the border when it comes to their chances of being accepted at top universities. For students whose chances are considerably more favorable than most, this strategy may lead to a surplus of acceptances at schools such as Yale, Amherst, etc. which can be overwhelming when you only have a month to decide. I know some students in this position, and their families resorted to double-depositing which is unethical by most school’s standards because they just couldn’t make the decision on time (visiting all of the schools again, negotiating financial aid packages, etc.). I do agree, however, that college admissions has become a crapshoot for 99% of those applying and this is definitely a strategy worth considering if you are in the right financial and mental position.

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