Application strategy vs. number of schools applied to

This post is twofold: the first part is devoted to undergraduate applications (most of the content is actually applicable to law school applications as well), and the second part is devoted to PhD applications.


Surely one will run net price calculators before deciding to put a college on an application list or not. Because schools that, at first glance, look unaffordable at sticker price may well be affordable after all and vice-versa. So take that into account whenever you are to determine whether a school is off-limits or not, since you might want to minimize your debt load. This holds true especially if you want to hold a job that is contingent on maintaining a pristine credit record, like, say, accounting or other jobs where one is expected to hold financial responsibility, such as investment/international banking, or your career path calls for graduate-level, professional education.

Which leads me to the next section: check against your career goals and budget. If your career goals aren’t in any shape or form determined by undergraduate departmental or institutional prestige or you have some constraint due to geography or credentials, for instance, it’s OK to apply to a small number of schools.

By far the most critical schools to have on an undergraduate application list, and the schools one will often have the most trouble with, are the safeties, especially for those who aim for the top. It’s easy to fall in love with a match or a reach school. But, while human “chancers” on websites like College Confidential have their flaws, they are still better than undergraduate chancing algorithms on Cappex or Parchment. You have to make sure the safeties are affordable and that they are schools you like, because, while they are your fallbacks when you can’t get into a match or a reach school, you’re still attending a college in the end if you do your homework. How many safeties to have depend on how high you’re reaching and to how many schools you are applying. If you’re applying to:

  • 4 or less schools: at least half of them must be safeties/low matches
  • 5-8 schools: two safeties/low matches, the remainder split equally between matches and reaches
  • 9+ schools: two safeties/low matches, four-six matches/high matches, the rest reaches

When I used to do chancing on CC, I often described the chances of an applicant (provided the applicant wasn’t lying) as any one of the following:

  • Reach (0-20% chance of acceptance, as long as the chances are nonzero)
  • High match (20-40%)
  • Match (40-60%)
  • Low match (60-80%)
  • Safety (80-100%)

Of course, there are the students who won’t settle for less than a match if they get into one, and I wish every student the best in their application season, regardless of whether they are victims of the Tufts Syndrome or not. If you wish to attend law school in the US, despite the collapse of the legal job market, you can always go see Law School Predictor, but nowadays, LSP seems to underestimate odds of acceptance a little bit, given the collapse of the law school applicant pool that followed that of the legal job market.


For grad school, especially at the PhD level, the environment is so competitive one shouldn’t talk about safeties. That said, there definitely are schools that are easier to get into than others. There are some students whose school lists are apparently filled with reaches, with very little in the way of non-reaches. Some of these students are top ego-boost students, applying to highly-ranked departments with little or no clue about what they see themselves doing there (it’s more understandable in a field like pure mathematics, but not in other fields), while others are students whose credentials are average at best (by the standards of the PhD-bound crowd of a given discipline).

If you’re PhD-bound, although no school should actually be considered a sure bet (a safety in the undergraduate sense just doesn’t exist) there definitely exists schools that are less competitive to get into than others. When departments post average GRE scores, it gives you an indication but the picture then depicted is very, VERY incomplete, because the luck factor partially comes from the letters of recommendation, where you have no control over the content beyond whether your recommender knew you because of research or coursework. Add to that the fact that research experience, both qualitatively and quantitatively, hold more weight than GRE scores. Pay attention to the competitiveness of your discipline and even subfield within a discipline, for the optimal length of your application list depends on it. Here are some examples drawn from two different fields, physics and psychology that I’ve read about:

  • (Physics) Experimental condensed matter: 6-8
  • (Physics) Theoretical particle physics/cosmology: 10-12
  • (Psychology) Quantitative psychology: 6-8
  • (Psychology) Clinical psychology: 10-12

Even if you did as I said at the very beginning, factoring in the subfield and fit within the subfield, you should always have more non-reaches (in the undergraduate context, matches and safeties lumped together) than reaches, if only one more non-reach. You should also keep in mind, while searching for non-reaches, that you should pick non-reaches of varying levels of competitiveness, and make sure that a given non-reach is an offer you would accept if it was your only one. And split your non-reaches between “harder” and “easier” non-reaches.

There’s something said for ambition, but make sure the reaches are REACHABLE. Even a good fit isn’t enough for an application to be successful. For the record, my own list (as of August 28), as sorted in ascending order of reachability:



  • Princeton
  • UChicago
  • Columbia
  • Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • UPenn

Non-reaches (harder)

  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio State

Non-reaches (not-that-hard)

  • Tufts
  • Vanderbilt
  • Dartmouth


One last thing: applying to 10-12 PhD programs requires almost as much work as an upper-division course in the PhD’s field that is worth 3 semester credits or 4 quarter credits.


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