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Earlier this week a student came in with a list of 40 schools he wanted to apply to.

That’s a good way to start! But the Common App will only let you submit to 20 schools at most. There are others that don’t use the Common App (like the UC schools, the University of Washington, and universities in Europe), so you CAN have more than 20, but here are some ways to choose your final list:

  1. Think about geography. Do you despise winter? Then maybe schools in Maine can go. Do you hate humidity? Then maybe eliminate schools in the southeast. On the other hand, do you love beach days? Then make sure schools in California make it to your final list. Do you need beautiful fall leaves every year? Then keep schools in the northeast or midwest.
  2. Are you applying somewhere just because you feel like you should? If you’re applying to all eight Ivies, eliminating some can cut down on the number of essays you’ll need to write: those applications are no joke. Are your parents making you apply to their alma mater? There can be good reasons for this (like scholarships), but if you really don’t want to go there, have a talk with them.
  3. Is there a degree program, study abroad opportunity, or aspect of student life that you’re really excited about? When choosing your final list, take a look at the specific programs offered by each school. Keep the schools that inspire you.
  4. Is there a city you really want to live in? Maybe you want to try living life in a big city, or maybe you want a quiet mountain town. If there are any places you’re really excited to live in, keep those.
  5. Are sports really important to you? Big schools like CU Boulder and the University of Michigan have thriving sports programs, and athletes and non-athletes alike attend games and school events often. They also have massive lecture classes and lots of places to hang out. If that’s not your vibe, maybe you only want to apply to schools with a smaller student-to-faculty ratio.
  6. Is money an important consideration? State universities can be really expensive for out-of-state students, and schools with large endowments can provide big scholarships. Some schools will also give you scholarships for certain degree programs, or they might not offer scholarships at all. Financial aid is an important part of the equation, so talk to your parents and fill out the FAFSA.

After going through the whole list, if you still haven’t eliminated enough, then keep the ones you really want and look to see how many are reach, target, and safety schools. Aim to have around 5 reaches, 10 targets, and 5 safeties: fill in the gaps with schools you didn’t choose right off the bat.

Remember, 20 schools is the max, not necessarily a number to shoot for. The more schools you have on your list, the more work you’ll have to do during the college admissions process, but you also might have a nicer hand to choose from when decisions come in. When you start writing, focus on the schools you want to go to the most and take it from there: you can do it!