11/18/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

How Many College Apps (and College App Essays) Are Too Many?


A recent piece in The New York Times, "What is the Perfect Number of College Applications to Send?" has tapped into a disturbing trend in college applications that I've seen in my business: students applying to dozens - and dozens - of colleges. Last year, I worked with two families whose children applied to 18 colleges each, despite my encouraging them to narrow the list and conserve their resources. Resources include time, money, and emotional health.

Each application costs money, and so does sending SAT/ACT results to each college. And many schools these days require supplementary essays. It's not just a matter of pressing SEND along with your credit card information.

One issue that the article does not address is the application essays that accompany these dozens of applications. Because schools now receive such a flood of applications, they need more ways to distinguish between students - and ways to read between the lines to see how serious students are about attending their school. Enter the supplementary essays. Some schools ask for just one; other schools, including Tufts, Brown, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Wake Forest, ask for upwards of three, four and sometimes six additional pieces of writing.

The girl in the Times article is applying to 29 colleges - to hedge her bets - but no one is asking how or when she'll have the time or the energy to write what might be at least 30 additional essays. Some students say to me, "It's just 150 words. That's not an essay, is it?" Yes, and those 150 words count. They need to be coherent, informed, well-written, and personal, even if you are just writing about why you want to attend that college.

The other issue the Times piece doesn't really address is strategy. Is there a perfect number of schools to apply to? No, but the point of choosing schools is to be strategic rather than scattershot.

First, apply to schools that you actually want to attend, or that you have some reason for wanting to attend. Have you visited the school? Does it have an atmosphere or programs that interest you and suit your needs? Is there something about the curriculum - the courses required of you to graduate - that is either hugely appealing - or might be a real turn-off? Do you even know what's offered and required at these many schools to which you're applying?

How will you know any of these things? Each website is a place to start, but websites are sources of information as well as advertisements. They will not give you the low-down on what it's really like to be a student in these places. These three resources will give you another perspective: 1. College Prowler - tons of statistics and up-to-date student comments about every aspect of the institution. 2. The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, edited by the Yale Daily News - a sassy, student's-eye view of some 350 colleges and universities, arranged by state. 3. The Best 378 Colleges, full of great stats and quotes from students and administrations about what each school offers.

There is a reason for the idea that you should choose schools in three categories: reach, target, safety. If you choose well, you do not need 10 in each category. If you have done your homework and are choosing schools that are suitable for you - and your family's budget - the list should be much smaller than that.

Still, you may wonder: what's wrong with applying to 15, or 20, or 30 schools?

1. It's not necessary to use your own and your family's resources this way if you've picked colleges that are suitable and expressed your interest, by applying early and/or through conveying the excellence of the match between you and school through your essays.

2. If your plan is to choose your colleges carefully, you can spend your time learning what different schools offer and writing the required essays in a way that will convey your interest. Believe it or not, colleges want to choose applicants who want to attend their school. They are looking for that in your application. Many schools are "selective," but there's a huge difference between a university that admits six percent of the applicants and one that admits 35 percent. In addition to looking at the "percent admit" rate, look at the percentage of students who enroll after being admitted. Oftentimes, the higher the admission rate, the lower the enrollment rate.

3. If you get into a dozen, or two dozen colleges, you will then have to chose which to attend. If that seems like a great luxury to envision, it might not seem that way if you have just a few weeks in which to decide, and no time or money to visit any of the schools.

The Common Application came into being in the 1970s, and it seemed like a great way to make applying to college easier. One application, and that was it. The ubiquity of the personal computer was far from anyone's thinking back then.

Now that students can just press SEND, the most selective schools are deluged with tens of thousands of applications, from people who are encouraged to "try their luck." This drives down the admit rate, making the schools seem even more "selective." Other colleges are deluged with applications from people who have no interest in going there. The profusion of application essays is a way for schools to pick up actual interest - so that the schools themselves can make better choices about whom to accept.

It's not up to applicants to make the college admissions officers' lives easier, but it is important for applicants, and their families, to understand the big picture. And it might make sense for high school counseling offices to set limits on how many applications a student can send in. The high schools, after all, have to send transcripts and letters to every college, and teachers are enlisted to write letters of recommendation. There are already limits at some schools.

The mania to apply to more and more and more colleges will either continue and skew the process even more than it's already skewed, or enough families and administrators will put the brakes on at different points in the process. I'm hoping for the latter.

Elizabeth Benedict is the founder of Don't Sweat the Essay.