Image from Pexels.

Image from Pexels.

Welcome to TP’s 12 Days of College Apps series, where we’ll be helping you out with your most pressing college app questions during the remaining 10 days until applications are due (December 20th-31st). Each day, we’ll feature a different post to help you suffer less and get more out of your super exciting admissions process experience. You can view all of the posts in the “12 Days of College Apps” series HERE.

So, without further ado…

On the fifth day of college apps, The Prospect gave to me…ideas for how to decide what colleges to apply to at the last possible second!

“Lily, I got to that University of Virginia app and I just…I couldn’t…” I remember having this conversation with one of my friends in high school back when we were seniors. This particular friend (whom I’ll call Sarah) had applied to 14 school over the course of seven days, and by the time she reached her last application, she’d broke down.

What made Sarah upset though was that she’d actually really wanted to go to UVA over several of the other schools she’d applied to first, and she was kicking herself for wasting time on applications for schools she either had no chance of getting into or not desire to attend if she got in over an application for a school that was a match both in stats and characteristics.

Are you finding yourself in a similar situation, where you feel like your list is inadequate, overwhelming, and/or imbalance? Here are some tips, peeps.

1. Go through your college list and name 5 things you like about each school that are characteristics of the students and the school as a whole (the “essence” of the school, if you will) and not just random little things.

This list should include things that the students are known for (for example, Wesleyan students are known for being liberal, independent, and critical thinkers, all of which I liked when I applied) and not tiny things like, “Oh, I really liked this ONE PROFESSOR when I visited…” Also, don’t include any classes or programs on this list; I can guarantee that you will end up changing your course of study at least once while you’re in college, and you don’t want to go to a school just because of one particular program that you will probably end up dropping when you get there.

Some example questions to ask yourself:

  • What are three words generally used to describe the student body? Do I like these traits?
  • If I want to be a “social” person on this campus, what will I spend my time doing? For example, Washington and Lee is 85% Greek life…so if you want to know people, you’re going to have to go Greek; are you okay with that?
  • Is the community centralized or extremely fragmented? There’s a huge difference between how student interact with one another at Davidson and New York University. This will matter a lot more than that one class you want to take.

If you find that you cannot name five things you love about the school that are about students and student life and not about classes or very specific, tiny things, I would suggest rethinking whether or not to waste several hours applying to the school and draining your bank account to pay for the application and standardized testing scores.

2. What should I keep: safeties, matches, or reaches?

Frankly, this is totally up to. If you did the exercise above and still didn’t shake any colleges (which, if you didn’t get rid of anything, please go back to tip number one again, because I guarantee you feel kinda “meh” about at least one of the schools on your college list), it’s time to look at each “group” of applications.


College lists are usually at the end of one of two extremes when it comes to safeties: Either the applicant has far too many (a friend of mine applied to 17 schools and considered 11 of them to be safeties) or far too few (conversely, I knew someone who applied to only one safety and too many reach schools, and the safety was the only school he got into). Obviously, admissions counselors and professionals everywhere constantly argue over the “number of safety schools” question, so it really is up to you.

At the end of the day, when you’re trying to decide whether or not to keep a safety school on your list, there’s an important and very obvious question to ask: If you got rejected from all other school except this one, would you want to go to this safety school?


Most people keep matches because there’s a good shot of them accepting your lovely face. Unless you absolutely hate a match school (which is most definitely still possible), why take it off the list? No matter what, make sure that match school make up a fair amount of your list (don’t just have one school that’s a match and 20 schools that are safeties and reaches).


Typically reach schools are colleges you consider “name brand” and therefore awesome to go to if you got in. I think the bigger problem is applying to way too many reach schools (compared to your number of safeties and matches) than too few. So, if you’ve figured out your safeties and your matches and feel like you have a significant number of both, I say apply to whatever reach schools you want; just make sure you have those safety/match school applications done first!

3. Looking for more schools to apply to?

Again, make sure all of your necessary apps are done before you start trolling for more colleges. It’s easy to use college searching as a form of college application procrastination, but obviously it’s a lose-lose situation. My only tip for this is to really make sure you still like the random colleges your find and apply to. I had one particular friend who applied to eight random schools after he’d completed his other apps (hoping he’d like one of them if he got in), and he ended up getting rejected from six and not liking the other two that accepted him. To him, it might not have been worth it; to other people, it might be.

Looking for a way to prioritize which of these extra colleges’ apps you should tackle first? Here are a couple of things to think about:

  • Student body characteristics/qualities (do you like the general type of students who go there?).
  • Academic rigor (will you be able to succeed there?).
  • Student life (Housing, food, resources, etc.).
  • Location (if it’s one of those things that matters to you).

4. Sometimes you just need that #YOLO mentality.

Trisha Arora, a former TP college writer from way back in the day, probably has the best story of anyone as to how she ended up at her college. It was the night that all Regular Decision apps were due, and at 9pm, Trisha had a panic attack after completing her college applications and decided she wanted to apply to more liberal arts schools. She Googled lists of “best liberal arts colleges”, saw that Wesleyan had no supplement, and applied to it (along with a couple other schools) with less than an hour until the deadline. Obviously, Trisha got into Wesleyan and the rest is history.

Moral of the story? Sometimes those little random moments of, “Eh, why the hell not?” are totally awesome. Just make sure they’re your last resort when it comes to applying to schools.

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the author

Lily Herman is a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Besides bopping around on The Prospect, Lily is a columnist for USA TODAY College (read the Quad Report, yo); an editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a contributing editor for the campus blog Wesleying; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and an editorial/marketing intern at HelloFlo. When she is not studying or awkwardly waving at people around campus, Lily enjoys eating Sour Patch Kids and re-watching the Friday Night Lights series finale (she's Team Saracen, by the way). Also (shameless plug alert), feel free to follow her on Twitter, or email her at lherman(at)theprospect(dot)net.

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