The Princeton Review's 2016 "College Hopes & Worries Survey" Reports on 10,000 Students' & Parents' Application Perspectives & "Dream" Colleges

  • 72% Report High Stress Over Applications
  • 88% Say Financial Aid Very Necessary
  • #1 "Dream" College: Stanford, #2: Harvard
  • 99% Say College Is "Worth It"

NEW YORK, March 23, 2016 — Some call it “the other March madness.” Now through April, it's nail-biting season for more than three million college applicants and their parents as college acceptance and rejection letters land in their e-mail or snail mail boxes.

According to The Princeton Review's 2016 College Hopes & Worries Survey – the company's 13th annual survey of college applicants and their parents – nearly three out of four (72%) of the over 10,000 respondents this year reported high levels of stress about their applications.

Concerns about how they will afford the colleges they get in to contribute heavily to that stress. Hopefully the college letters with financial aid award offers, also arriving now, will bring good news. Almost nine of 10 respondents (88%) said financial aid will be "Very" or "Extremely" necessary to pay for college, and 65% of that cohort deemed it "Extremely" necessary.

For the fourth consecutive year, Stanford was the college that both applicants and parents most named as their "Dream" college. Harvard was the second most named. (Lists of students' and parents' top 10 dream colleges follow.)

Overall, respondents' views about college are upbeat: 99% believe college will be "Worth it" and the plurality of respondents (44%) viewed the chief benefit of earning the degree as a "Potentially better job and income."

The Princeton Review, one of the nation's best known education services companies, has conducted this survey annually since 2003. Findings for the 2016 survey are based on responses from 10,434 people: 80% were college applicants, 20% were parents of applicants. Respondents hailed from all 50 states and DC, plus several countries abroad. The 16-question survey ran in The Princeton Review book, The Best 380 Colleges: 2016 Edition Penguin Random House, August 2015), and on The Princeton Review from August 2015 through early March 2016. A complete survey report is at College Hopes & Worries.

Top 10 "Dream Colleges"

Answering the survey's only fill-in-the-blank question, "What 'dream college' do you wish you or your child could attend if acceptance or cost weren't issues?", respondents wrote in names of more than 500 institutions.   

The colleges students most named as their “dream college” were:

  1. Stanford University
  2. Harvard College
  3. New York University
  4. University of California — Los Angeles 
  5. Princeton University    
  6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  7. Columbia University    
  8. University of California — Berkeley    
  9. Yale University 
  10. University of Southern California    

The colleges parents most named as their “dream college” for their children were:

  1. Stanford University
  2. Harvard College
  3. Princeton University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  5. Duke University    
  6. University of Michigan — Ann Arbor 
  7. University of Notre Dame 
  8. New York University    
  9. University of Pennsylvania    
  10. University of Southern California    

For survey questions with multiple answer choices, findings among respondents overall (students and parents) indicate:

Applications are stressssssss-ful.

72% of respondents gauged their stress levels as "High" or "Very high" – a 16% increase over 56% who reported such stress in 2003, the survey's initial year. Students reported higher stress levels than parents.  

Toughest factor? Tests.

Asked which part of the application process was the toughest, 37% (the plurality) of respondents chose the answer, "Taking the SAT®, ACT® or AP®s" while 32% chose "Completing applications for admission and financial aid." 

College cost estimate? $50,000+

85% estimated their degree to cost "More than $50,000." Within that cohort, 41% said "More than $100,000." Parents' estimates were higher than students'. 

Biggest worry? Debt.

39% (the plurality) said their biggest concern was "Level of debt to pay for the degree." For 32%, their biggest worry was "Will get into first-choice college, but won’t have sufficient funds/aid to attend." In 2006, the answer most selected by the plurality (34%) was "Won't get in to first-choice college" (chosen by 22% this year).   

Main benefit of college? Jobs & Earnings.

44% said the biggest benefit of a degree was a "Potentially better job and income" while 32% said "Exposure to new ideas" and 24% said the "Education."

Distance from home of “ideal” college? Parents: near. Students: far.

51% of parents chose "Less than 250 miles" as the ideal college's distance from home: 69% of students chose answers in ranges from 250 to 1,000 miles.

Other findings report: how many colleges students were applying to and what factors will influence their college choice when decisions are due May 1. 

The Princeton Review also asked respondents their advice for next year's applicants. The most repeated advice: "Start early."

About the Princeton Review

The Princeton Review is a leading tutoring, test prep and college admission services company. Every year, it helps millions of college- and graduate school-bound students achieve their education and career goals through online and in person courses delivered by a network of more than 4,000 teachers and tutors, online resources, and its more than 150 print and digital books published by Penguin Random House. The Princeton Review is headquartered in Natick, MA and is an operating business of Match Group (NASDAQ: MTCH).  For more information, visit For more information, visit The Princeton Review. Follow the company on Twitter @ThePrincetonRev.

The Princeton Review is not affiliated with Princeton University.


  • Penguin Random House / Princeton Review Books



Note To Editors:

Robert Franek, Senior VP-Publisher, The Princeton Review, is available for interviews.  Survey findings in infographics are at: College Hopes & Worries. A reporter resource "Dream Colleges" list alphabetical by state/city/college is below.

“Dream Colleges” of Students and of Parents

Alphabetically by State / City / College / List


  • Berkeley / University of California, Berkeley - #8 Students' "Dream College"
  • Los Angeles / University of California, Los Angeles - #4 Students' "Dream College
  • Los Angeles / University of Southern California - #10 Students' "Dream College"; #10 Parents' "Dream College"
  • Palo Alto / Stanford University - #1 Students' "Dream College"; #1 Parents' "Dream College"


  • New Haven / Yale University - #9 Students' "Dream College


  • South Bend / University of Notre Dame - #7 Parents' "Dream College"


  • Cambridge / Harvard College - #2 Students' "Dream College"; #2 Parents' "Dream College";
  • Cambridge / Massachusetts Institute of Technology - #4 Parents' "Dream College"; #6 Students' "Dream College"


  • Ann Arbor / University of Michigan – #6 Parents' "Dream College"

New Jersey

  • Princeton / Princeton University - #3 Parents' "Dream College"; #5 Students' "Dream College"

New York

  • New York / Columbia University - #7 Parents' "Dream College"
  • New York / New York University - #3 Students' "Dream College"; #8 Parents' "Dream College"

NortH Carolina

  • Durham / Duke University - #5 Parents' "Dream College"


  • Philadelphia / University of Pennsylvania - #9 Parents' "Dream College"