Awhile back, I recommended that ambitious high school students should apply to a lot of colleges, far more than the 4 to 8 of high school guidance counselor lore.
Not only is there a sizable randomness factor in acceptances, there is another, semi-independent source of randomness in financial aid offers. So, if you can't afford to pay more than $40,000 per year, multiplying the probabilities for acceptance times generous financial aid can point out the discouraging unlikelihood of getting the deal you want at the school you want.
Some vastly rich private colleges, such as Harvard, offer "need blind" admissions and fully discount to meet financial need, but the odds of getting into Harvard are 10 to 1 against. Schools that are easier to get into are generally harder to get highly generous need-based financial aid from (although they are easier to get merit scholarships from).
My son brings home the story of a girl at his high school who applied to two dozen colleges … and then at the very last moment added two more and had to beg her teachers and counselors to write recommendations a couple of months after the official fall closing date for such requests.
Well, it turns out that while she was accepted at a number of colleges, many of them stiffed her on financial aid. Fortunately, those last two, the 25th and 26th she added to her list, gave her acceptable financial aid packages. She would be in trouble today if she had stopped at merely 24 applications!
A medical student seconds my theory:
I think you've figured out the secret to getting into a good college, something I discovered myself about 8 years ago. When I was in high school I wasn't motivated to do a whole lot other than my homework, some SAT classes, some hospital volunteering, and a bit of debating my senior year.
That said, I went to Cornell in the Ivy League when a lot of the other "smarter" guys who had gone to my average suburban public high school had to settle for the public U. of Michigan or the like.
Our high school basically pushed hard the idea of "boiling down" colleges you'd want to go to to about 4 your senior year, and then applying to those. I've always been a life long skeptic, and the way I looked at it was that if these top schools have acceptance rates of about 10-20%, you should try to apply to a good number of them to get a spot. I applied to 9, I got into Cornell and Tulane, even though I was overall a mediocre applicant other than my grades and SAT score. I didn't even bother with backup schools, because I knew I could go to U-Toledo any time I wanted and perhaps later transfer to Michigan.
There was one guy who was valedictorian the year before me, who did *everything*. He ended up at U-M, because the only other places he applied to were Harvard and Yale. My year, the other Indian guy in my class (who was a lot more motivated than me) applied to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan. He also went to Michigan - quite disappointed because getting in there certainly doesn't take staying at school everyday until 6 pm for 4 years and winning a whole cabinet full of debate, mock trial, and science olympiad awards; this guy could have easily gotten into Cornell, U-Penn, or Northwestern.
When I applied to 9 colleges my year, it was practically unheard of in the state of Ohio. The guidance counselors and school teachers discourage it purely because it means more paperwork for them.
I'm just amazed that some of these kids spend so much of their youth slaving away at these extracurriculars, and then completely screw up their college chances by applying to too few schools.
The Princeton Review offers a hint of one of the more Machiavellian angles of what's going on behind the scenes that causes your high school guidance counselor to give you the bad advice to limit your number of applications.
"The second possible scenario in safety schools might go something like this: Johnny's app sleeps with the fishes. Admissions committee's might not be receiving the quality apps they want from a certain high school. To hammer their new message home, an admissions office might reject an applicant or several applicants from that high school to set their new agenda in VERY clear terms. Basically, it's a message to the high school that hey, they're not gonna take students of this low caliber—whatever that caliber might be—anymore. Didn't think admissions counselors were such playas, did you?"
In other words, your high school guidance counselor doesn't have your best interests at heart. He has, at best, the interests of future student bodies at heart. If your school develops a reputation for applicants turning down admission offers from colleges, the colleges might retaliate on subsequent applicants from your school.
I don't know, but I suspect that this mostly happens at the elite prep schools that have lots of students apply to famous colleges each year. At run-of-the-mill high schools, counselor over-workedness is a more likely explanation.