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According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. Ten years earlier, in the fall of 2005, 17 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more institutions. The College Board says, "There is no magic number, but five to eight applications are usually enough to ensure that a student is accepted into a suitable institution (depending, of course, on the individual student's record and circumstances). This number should be made up of a combination of 'safety,' 'probable' and 'reach' colleges."

Similar advice would be offered by college counselors, who see no reason for students to apply to 20 or more institutions. Nationally, the average is lower, but at elite public and private high schools, many students are applying to far more than the range of five to eight. Counselors complain that these students tax colleges with applications, that they waste time filling out the forms and that they should better study the colleges to which they are applying.

In contrast to the many low-income students who apply only to one or two colleges even though they could benefit from applying to more, the students applying to 20 tend to be wealthy.

Faced with this very real scenario, one private high school in an urban area decided some 20 years ago to limit students to nine applications, except in extraordinary circumstances (they don't come up much). The high school has average SAT scores in excess of 1450, grade point averages of 3.7 (unweighted) and a student body that mixes immigrant children with the wealthy. The high school has for more than two decades limited college applications, reviewing each year if the limit should stay in place. The places students want to go are predictable (Ivies and top liberal arts colleges). The school is comfortable with its policy and agreed to talk about it -- but only on condition that it not be named, as it doesn't want controversy.

"Our students will apply to some of the most competitive colleges in the country," says a college counselor at the school. "Bulks of them apply to the same places, like Harvard [University] and similar places."

Naming one top school, the counselor says that if 50 of his students apply, 20 will get in in a given year.

In terms of promoting the policy, the college counselor at the school says he talks about the values of truly getting to know a college to which one is applying. "They have to take each application seriously, visit the schools, visit the website," he says. "I want them to feel they know the places as well as a freshman would."

For most students, he says, "seven or eight" is the number they can handle.

And that's why the review every year has stuck with nine as the number. There is always an appeals process for students who feel they "must" apply to more colleges, but few appeal.

How do students -- and parents -- respond to the policy?

"On the whole, they react just fine," he says. But he admits that might be because the policy has been in place for some time, and because the school is private. "It's an element of how we do things," he says. "It's been really rare for a family to put up a fight."

"I do think the overall limit makes sense," the counselor says. "You have to take care of your life. If students are absolutely miserable, who wins?"

Asked if, after a decade of working with this system, he could imagine working in another system, he says, "I don't know that I would work anywhere else."

"The philosophy encourages students to focus on colleges where they will fit," he says. "College is an experience, not a commodity."

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he gets lots of questions about such policies, but NACAC doesn't have data on them or a policy on whether they are a good thing. Anecdotally, he thinks these policies are more likely at private than at public high schools.

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