(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Liz Weston
LOS ANGELES, April 25 (Reuters) - On the surface, it seems to be a simple question: How many college applications should you submit?
The answer may be more than parents may think, and the reason is that the admissions process has become less predictable, college consultants said.
"I have one student this year who was waitlisted at the University of Chicago and accepted at Yale, Harvard and Columbia," said Shirley Bloomquist, a college counselor in Great Falls, Virginia with 30 years of experience.
Another student with similar credentials was accepted to the University of Chicago but rejected by Yale. "It's much more variable than it used to be," Bloomquist said.
There's a chicken vs. egg quality to all this uncertainty. The national college acceptance rate has steadily declined in the past 10 years, but that's in large part due to the growth in applications each student submits, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling's latest "State of College Admission" report.
The percentage of freshmen who applied to seven or more colleges rose from 9 percent in 1990 to 29 percent in 2011, before declining slightly to 28 percent in 2012, the report said. Seventy-seven percent submitted three or more college applications in 2012, compared to 61 percent in 1990.
Multiple submissions have been made easier by schools' shift to online applications and the success of the Common Application, a standardized form accepted by 517 schools. In addition, state university systems in California and New York allow students to submit one application for admission at any of their campuses, rather than requiring separate forms.
Applying to more schools means more costs. Application fees nationally average just under $40, although elite schools tend to charge more (Harvard $75, Stanford $90). Students can have their test scores sent to four colleges when they take the SAT or ACT tests. Beyond that, additional SAT reports cost $11.25 each and ACT reports cost $12.
Most colleges still accept most of the students who apply, yet the perception of more competition "isn't entirely imagined," the report noted. Colleges awash in applications can afford to be pickier - although uncertainty exists for the institutions as well. The average "yield" rate, or percentage of students who accepted college admission offers, declined from 49 percent in 2002 to 37 percent in 2009.
The unpredictability of the process is why many college counselors recommend students submit more applications - within limits.
"We're seeing a lot of students applying to 15 to 20 colleges, which we think is crazy," said Deborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego. "Eight to 12 is fine. For some, it could be six to eight."
Bloomquist said 10 applications is about right for most students, although she likes her clients to start with a list of 20 to 25 potential schools that can be winnowed down. Todd Weaver of Hanover, New Hampshire-based Strategies for College, meanwhile, recommends six to eight carefully chosen applications.
"You want to make sure you're applying at schools where you have a good chance of getting in," Weaver said, "rather than just scattering them to the wind."
College consultants suggest students apply to a mix of "reach," "target" (or "match") and "safety" schools. Reach schools are the long shots, where the applicant may get in but the odds are against them. (Even for top students, the Ivy League schools should be considered reaches, consultants said.)
Target or match schools are ones where the applicants' "stats" - grade point average, test scores, class rank - place them in the top 25 percent or so of applicants, giving them a good but by no means guaranteed shot at getting in.
Safety schools are those that aren't highly selective and where the applicants' stats exceed all requirements.
Here's how students and families can winnow down their lists and figure out if they are applying to too many schools:
1. There's no chance of getting in.
It's one thing to apply for a "reach" school, but quite another to be a B student applying to the Ivy League or even highly competitive state schools such as UCLA.
"Look at that application fee as a waste," said personal finance columnist Kathy Kristof, author of "Taming the Tuition Tiger." "Why spend that $90 on an application when you know you're going to get rejected? Save yourself the mental anguish."
2. The student wouldn't go, even if accepted.
Safety schools should be ones the student would be happy to attend, Fox said. If the student "would turn their nose up at the school," there's no point in applying since it creates unnecessary work and expense for the family and the school.
3. It's all too much.
Online and common applications have reduced, but not eliminated, the work required to apply to a school and there are the costs involved. Applying to Harvard, Princeton and Yale, for instance, will run you $215. Add in a few "safety" schools at $40 a pop, and extra score reports, and you end up with a huge bill.
Students also need to craft good essays targeted to each school and may need to meet other requirements, such as interviews. "It's too many if you're sacrificing your grades and your sleep and your senior year" to the application process, Bloomquist said.
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance Editing by Beth Pinsker)