How many colleges should I apply to?
As a general guideline, many counselors recommend that students apply to somewhere between five and eight colleges. You can categorize your college choices into one of three categories: safety, match, and reach. The idea is that one or two should be "safety" schools — that is, schools where you feel you are very likely to be accepted, based on factors like class rank, test scores, or extracurricular activities. On the other end of the spectrum are the "reach" schools, where you think you have some chance of being accepted, but it's not a sure thing. These are schools where the competition is difficult, but your admission is possible, assuming some factor like an excellent recommendation or an especially good essay that makes your application stand out in a positive way. In the middle are your "match" schools, which are schools where your qualifications match pretty closely with the schools' admission standards.
In general, a common misperception is that students should apply to as many schools as possible. The line of thought is that as an increasing number of students apply to more schools each year (partly because online applications have made the application process easier than ever), the initial acceptance rates at these schools will go down. However, it is important to realize that many of the students who are accepted won't actually enroll in classes at the school. These students have applied to a lot of schools, and they're only going to attend one of those schools.
In a 2010 article on college admissions, New York Times/Chronicle of Higher Education writer Eric Hoover reemphasizes this point. In many cases, Hoover notes, the increased number of applications makes the college appear more selective than before by changing the application-to-acceptance ratio. The result? "Students hedge against the plummeting admissions rates by flooding the system with even more applications," Hoover writes. This perpetuates the escalating cycle. Since schools generally charge a fee for each application, and since attention to detail will usually produce a better application than a hastily-assembled generic effort, students may be better off not entering that pattern of escalation (applying to more and more schools).
In fact, a 2009 report from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute showed that more than 79 percent of students are accepted by their first-choice college! That's encouraging, and it also suggests that it's not necessary to go overboard with applications. The takeaway here is that you can save time and effort by sending in more carefully-put-together admission applications, and by also applying to schools that you really want to attend and are likely to be granted admission.