Why Do I Need to Apply to Safety Schools?

Admit Guru
4 min readApr 14, 2021

Summer’s fast approaching, which means many of you will be building or revising your college list ready for the grueling process of college applications. As you are researching, you may come across some unfamiliar terms — one of them being “safety school”. And this term in particular brings up an interesting question on the minds of many prospective students: do I even need to apply to a safety school?

Wait, what even is a safety school?

When you are building your college list, you will be distributing the schools into roughly 3 categories: safety, target, and reach. A safety school is a school you feel very confident about getting admission to (it’s basically a shoo-in) and it’s financially convenient; your academic profile ranks higher than the average theirs… A target school is a school where you have to work a little bit harder, but will likely get in because your academic profile ranks at level (or slightly higher) with the average of theirs; the student qualifications align with yours. A reach school is one that is much harder to get into — like a dream school. You are less likely to get in because your academic profile ranks lower than the average of theirs, and you may not check all the boxes the admissions boards are looking for.

Now when you are building your list, it’s very important to maintain a balance. Balance is a common theme throughout this whole admissions process. As much as you may not want to accept it, a student cannot apply to more than 15 colleges (at least not adequately). It’s just not possible. As you start adding colleges to your list, you will find that those <15 slots filled very quickly, so you need to be mindful of your selections. You need to strategize. And that might mean you have to take some colleges off; that is OK. The colleges on your list should be divided into the 3 buckets we learned about above, and no one category should be drastically more concentrated; you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.

Which comes to my point on safety schools: bottom line, you need them- even you over-achievers. I don’t care if you have perfect grades, perfect test scores, crazy extracurriculars- nothing is guaranteed. Nothing. You need to have a back-up plan. And yes, when you are researching safety schools, you’re going to feel like they are too easy; you’re going to feel like your academic standard is higher than what you are looking at; you’re going to feel like you don’t need them. Do NOT fall into this trap. If you only apply to target and reach schools, there is a risk that you will get rejected by all of them; even if you match all the qualifications for your target schools, there is still no guarantee (or, near-guarantee, I should say; I’ll explain why this is important down the line).

And no one wants to be in this position.

Ok, I get it. I need them. So how do I choose them?

Even when you are choosing your safety schools, again, it’s all about that balance; you don’t want to overestimate and choose a school that is WAY below your caliber, but you also don’t want to underestimate a school and treat it as safety when it’s actually a target for you. They also still need to be schools that maybe aren’t your top choice per se, but you would still be content with attending. You’re not being pessimistic, you’re being smart. Think of it less as a “worst-case scenario”, and more of a safety net.1–3 safeties should provide enough netting beneath you, but definitely more than one- just so you still have options. A good way to determine if a school is a safety is to physically gauge your academic profile: your GPA should be heads above the school’s average and your test scores should be above the 75th percentile of theirs (in other words, a good 80%+ chance of admission).

If safety schools are just a back-up, do I really need to take them seriously?

Yes. Yes, yes, 1000% yes. Previously, I briefly mentioned that there is no guarantee for target and reach schools, but then I corrected myself and said “near guarantee”. Well, that’s because there is no guarantee — even for safety schools. However, a safety school admittance is as close to a guarantee as you can get. Yet, just because it’s not a top choice, and just because you are most likely to get into these schools, does NOT mean you should leave them on the back burner. It does not mean you can neglect them. It does not mean you get to take them lightly. Highly accoladed students have been rejected by their safety schools because they simply just disregarded them. You still need to put in the effort to actually show your leading academic profile to the admissions boards.

At the end of the day, just make sure you are being strategic in your choices, do your research, maintain that balance we talked about, and have faith in yourself!

The Next Steps

Need some guidance on the college application process? Check out other Admit Guru blog posts to help you set up for success and stay informed from start to finish:

— Nisha Shastry, Program Management Intern

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