The amount of colleges you select is dependent on three main considerations:
Probability... Cost... and Time.
This consideration looks at how likely it is for you to actually gain admission to a school. We know the matrix of the college admissions process and how complex it can be. Most importantly, we know how selective some colleges are and how low their acceptance rates are, particularly for international students.
It's important to note that when it comes onto college, grades aren't the only thing that play a role - ESPECIALLY for colleges in the USA. College applications these days are taking on a more holistic approach -- meaning that there are several pieces of the pie that make up a complete application.
As much as grades (GPA, high school transcript and standardized test scores) are an integral part of the application, colleges also want to see strong essays, recommendations, extracurricular involvement, course rigor and if possible, interviews.
It's important to divide your college list into three (3) main categories: Safety (Sure Thing); Target (Realistic); and, Reach (Unrealistic).
Safety Schools are the schools you think you have a pretty good shot at getting into based on their acceptance rates and requirements. How do you determine this? Google is your best friend.
If School X has an admissions rate of 50% with an average GPA of 3.0 and an average composite SAT score of 1200, and you have a 3.8 GPA with a 1350 SAT score? School X would probably be a good safety school for you.
Target Schools are those schools to which you have a fair chance of gaining admission.
Keeping the same 3.8 GPA and 1350 SAT score as above, if School Y's average GPA is 3.8 and the average composite SAT score is 1300, School Y would be a target school for you.
Reach Schools are schools to which your chances of admission are slim.
If School Z has an average GPA of 4.0 and an average composite SAT score of 1450, then School Z would be considered a reach school for you (given your 3.8 GPA and 1300 SAT score).
Why Bother Having A Mix Of Schools?
You might think, "Why should I even apply for a reach school if my GPA and SAT score don't match their average?" Well... It's an average!
An average SAT score of 1400 would mean that there are admitted students who probably scored a 1600, and also some who probably score 1150. As said before, the nature of the college application is holistic and incredibly subjective. Human beings are reading your applications - not robots ticking off checkboxes. Your application won't get thrown out because you didn't meet the school's average GPA or SAT score... so why not shoot for the stars!?
The cost consideration is two-fold.
Firstly, the application process has costs attached to it, as most schools have fees incorporated in their application processes. And trust... the fees will add up. Application fees vary greatly and can range from FREE to $250US. So be very strategic in your planning so as to avoid spending unnecessary money during your application process.
Some colleges may offer application fee waivers for families who cannot afford the application fee. Most times this waiver must be signed off by your high school counsellor. If this is something you / your family is interested in, please reach out directly to the schools you're interested in for more information.
Secondly, you must consider whether the cost to attend the schools is affordable to your family. It is unwise to fill your college list with schools that your family cannot afford, in hopes of gaining financial aid -- especially if you are not eligible for application fee waivers and will spend a lot on application fees. Have honest conversations with your parents about what 'affordable' looks like and plan accordingly.
The college application is a time intensive activity. Despite many US colleges using the Common Application - a one time fill web-based application that goes to all schools you're applying to - each school may still have differing requirements.
Some schools may have a number of supplemental essays, some may ask for additional recommendations, others may ask for additional financial aid documents. The compilation of these can be extremely stressful and time consuming.
Don't burn yourself out over-applying to colleges. Strategise and maximise your efforts.