The typical college applicant is fixated on one question: Will I get in? A more productive one to think about is: Where should I apply? A student who applies to an intelligent mix of colleges can virtually guarantee success when the decision letters arrive in the spring.
Most important, do your homework. Don't wait to visit until after you are accepted. If possible, see every school before you apply so that you know that each one on your list is a good option. Second, do some if/then thinking. If Colgate and Columbia accept you but Bucknell and Brown do not, what will you do? Every college on the list should have a place in your strategy.
How many should you apply to? The right number varies. Students with a clear first choice where they are confident of admission may only need to apply at 1-3 colleges. Those playing the highly selective admissions game will probably want to cast a wider net. Like many counselors, I recommend that these students apply to a couple of "reach" schools, several more that are possible, and then at least two highly likely options.
While most students spend their time pining for Dream U., they generally don't pay enough attention to the "safe" category. The worst possible nightmare in college admissions (for students and their counselors) is not getting in anywhere. I tell my students that just in case it happens to any of them, I keep a revolver in my desk loaded with two bullets: one for each of us. With 2,200 four year institutions in the nation, every student should be able to find an appealing one where admission is reasonably certain.