Surveying the College Application Process in America

how americans apply to college

The college application process can be overwhelming. Writing a standout essay, obtaining letters of recommendation, submitting SAT or ACT scores, then tying it all together with a complete course transcript that highlights your academic career may feel more like an imbalanced juggling act than anything. But, before that process even begins, the most difficult question of all must be answered: where to apply.

From weighing the options of staying in-state versus out-of-state, to finding the appropriate number of colleges to apply to, there are many important factors to consider when applying for college. The answer is different for everyone.

At Grand Canyon University, we understand that the college application process varies from person to person. This inspired us to take a deeper look at how Americans apply to colleges and specifically at how location plays a role in this process.


With help from our partners at Grand Canyon Education, we surveyed 2,213 people across the U.S. to better understand how the college application process varies by state. We then compiled the results and highlighted patterns to see how Americans of different locations and backgrounds participate in the college application process. Read on to see what we found!

The U.S. States that Apply to the Most Colleges

The U.S. states that apply to the most colleges

First, we decided to take a look at which U.S. states cast the ‘widest net’ by applying to the most colleges. College-bound Californians ranked first, applying to almost seven different schools each. New York followed closely behind, with the average resident applying to nearly six colleges.

Residents of the states that compose the remainder of the top 10—New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia—apply to between 4.94 and 4.18 different colleges.

Another important finding is the discrepancy between the average number of colleges that private and public high school students apply to. Students who attended a private high school apply to nearly five schools on average (4.69), while public school students apply to between three and four colleges on average (3.52).

The U.S. States That Are Accepted to the Most Colleges

The U.S. states that are accepted to the most colleges

It’s no surprise there is a significant amount of overlap between the U.S. states that are accepted to the most colleges and the states that apply to the most schools. In fact, Illinois, South Carolina and Maine are the only states on this list to not overlap. New York and California ranked in the top two once again, as New Yorkers are accepted to just over four schools each (4.22) and Californians to almost four (3.57).

It seems as though Northerners have the best luck when it comes to college acceptances, as seven of the 10 states on the list are in the northern part of the country. Additionally, private school students are accepted to more colleges than public school students. Private high school students gained acceptance to an average of 3.35 colleges, whereas public school students were accepted to an average of 2.7 schools.

The U.S. States That Are Rejected from the Most Colleges

The U.S. states that are rejected from the most colleges

On the flip side, we decided to take a look at which U.S. states are rejected from the most colleges. As the state with the most college applications and the second-most college acceptances, California also has a high number of rejections. Residents of the Golden State are rejected from an average of nearly three schools each. Michigan ranks next, with rejections from an average of 2.53 schools.

The U.S. States that Apply To The Most In-State and Out-of-State Colleges

The U.S. States that Apply To The Most In-State and Out-of-State Colleges

Another big decision in the college application process is whether to apply for in-state or out-of-state institutions. In-state offers benefits like lower cost of tuition and potentially free room and board—but what college kid wants to live with mom and dad? A bonus of attending GCU is that we do not charge out-of-state tuition—it is the same tuition no matter what state where you live.

To find out where students are looking to attend, we analyzed which states apply to the most in-state colleges versus out-of-state schools. With application to an average of 5.1 in-state schools, it seems as though Californians like to stay close to home. Michigan ranked second, with applicants choosing an average of 3.81 in-state colleges applied to. Rounding out the top 10 states with the most in-state applicants are New York, Texas, Washington, Illinois, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Applicants in other states couldn’t wait to cross the border. Connecticut residents were the most eager to venture to new territories, applying to an average of approximately three (3.04) out-of-state colleges. Narrowly behind was New Jersey with an average application to 2.54 out-of-state schools.

Other states to make the list were Nebraska, Maine, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, Tennessee and Oregon. Notably, a majority of these states are in the north. Perhaps that’s why college applicants apply elsewhere—to escape the cold!

The U.S. States that Apply To The Most Reach Schools and Safety Schools

The U.S. States that Apply To The Most Reach Schools and Safety Schools

New York college applicants must be the most confident in their academic abilities, as applicants in the Empire State apply to more reach schools than any other state. A reach school is defined as a college that you may have difficulty getting into due to your current resume, or due to sheer acceptance rates.

Oklahoma is the state best-prepared for doomsday—in other words, avoiding the dreaded rejection letters. College applicants in Oklahoma applied to an astounding average of nearly seven safety schools. That’s two colleges more than the state with the second-most safety school applications, Arkansas, at 4.77.

College Application Insights

College Application Survey Insights

The graphic above highlights some of the other interesting findings from our survey. It’s evident that finances play a large role in the college application process. More than one in three applicants say affordable tuition is the most important decision factor in choosing a college and nearly 15% of respondents were unable to apply to a certain college due to the application fee. At GCU, we are committed to providing a quality, affordable education. We strive to keep tuition manageable with financial aid and an abundance of scholarship opportunities.

As we mentioned before, the college application process can be overwhelming. Over half of respondents wish they were better prepared for the college application process (61.9%). GCU does not require an essay for that very reason—to reduce the stress of the application season.

Through the tears, wrinkled foreheads and long nights filling out academic questionnaires, it all works out in the end. After tackling all of those college applications, 85.5% are satisfied with their final college decision. And for those that are not satisfied, transferring is always an option.

GCU welcomes undergraduate, graduate and transfer students with diverse interests, experiences and perspectives. While we wish the best for the applicants of any higher education institution, we hope that you find your home here at GCU.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.