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How to Choose a Safety School

Are you building your college list but unsure how to pick out a safety school? Read on to find out what criteria you need to consider when choosing the best-fit safety school for you.

If you’re working on building your college list now, you are probably familiar with the terms “reach,” “target,” and “safety.” These classifications help students determine their chance of admission based on statistics that the college has released about past admits, such as average GPA or the median SAT/ACT score. While there is no perfect system for predicting a student’s chances of admissions, particularly given the increasing importance of subjective factors like essays and extracurriculars, picking strong safety schools can guarantee that you’ll have great options once all of your college admissions decisions are out.

The concept of a “safety” school, more accurately known as a “likely” school, often gets a bad reputation, since there’s an assumption that students’ safety schools are a last resort if they’re not accepted to a school they’d actually like to attend. But that is not necessarily the case — with the increasing competition at top schools and acceptance rates at many private universities trending downwards, this is a great time to consider different paths to your higher education. You can still choose safety schools that offer a stellar education, often at a cheaper price than many elite colleges. However, it’s important to note every single school on a college list must be a school the student is genuinely interested in, not just a last resort.

We’re here to answer the most common questions about safety schools and how to choose them.

What is a safety school?

A safety school is a college or university where an applicant is likely to be admitted based on how their academic profile compares to that of an average admitted student. The term “safety” simply refers to the fact that it can be considered a much “safer” option since the acceptance rate is higher and the typical admit profile looks more similar than more uncertain, competitive options.

A college list should be comprised of a balance of “safety,” “target” (where a student is a good but not guaranteed fit), and “reach” (where admission rates are low and/or statistics of admitted students exceed that of the student in question) schools. Click here to learn more about how to build your college list.

How do I figure out my chances of admission to a particular school?

Most schools publish admissions statistics about their incoming class, or this data can be found in the college’s Common Data Set, which you can usually find online. You specifically want to look to the middle 50% of students’ test scores, GPAs, or any other quantitative measurements against which you can see how you stack up. This means that the majority of students admitted (the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile) scored in that given range while 25% scored below and 25% above.

For instance, at the University of Alabama, the middle 50% of students received a composite ACT score between 23 and 31. So, if you scored a 27 or higher, you’re right in the middle of what their admitted students scored. If you scored significantly higher, this is a good safety school option for you, and you will probably also qualify for scholarships.

You can also use sites like Niche and CollegeHunch to see how you stack up against previous admits. Niche and CollegeHunch will use your statistics to compare you directly to admissions data the school has released. Again, there is no guarantee that this will determine your chances of admission, but it can give you some useful context as you plan out your college admissions cycle.

Do I need safety schools on my college list?

Most students should have safety schools on their list. It’s getting increasingly hard to anticipate your chances of admission at many US colleges and universities, so choosing and applying to a handful of safety schools is always good for your peace of mind. The average college-bound American student applies to 5-15 colleges, and with that number of schools, we’d recommend that at least 2-4 of those schools could be considered safety schools with a high chance of admission.

That being said, the costs of application fees can be prohibitive for many students and families, but there are fee waivers available. However, if the cost is still too high, instead of actually applying to your safety schools at the same time as the other schools on your list, you can choose schools with later or rolling application deadlines as your safeties. That way, you only have to apply if none of your target or reach schools accept you or do not offer you the financial aid package you need. Keep in mind, however, that you will likely not qualify for scholarships or may even have to enroll in the spring with these later deadlines, but the circumstances will vary from school to school.

How many safety schools should I have on my list?

The ideal number of safety schools differs based on the length of the college list and a student’s profile, as well as the other schools on the list. We usually recommend a balance of reach, target, and safety schools that will ensure the student will have strong options in practically any outcome of the college admissions cycle.

For instance, consider an imaginary female high school senior in Texas who is in the top 5% of their class with an SAT score of 1420 and several state-level awards and extracurricular activities. They would like to eventually study medicine and have created the following college list.

Harvard University

Brown University

Cornell University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

UC Berkeley

UNC Chapel Hill

University of Michigan Ann Arbor

The student has a very strong profile, but this list is mostly full of reach schools, which is always a risky strategy. There are still subjective factors that can significantly impact the outcome of a student’s application, such as the quality of the student’s essays and family/home background, but based solely on these statistics, the closest thing they have to a safety (University of Michigan — 21.9% acceptance rate for out of state students) is actually still just a strong target school. The two other state schools, UNC Chapel Hill (10.9% acceptance rate for out-of-state students) and UC Berkeley (9.14% acceptance rate for out-of-state students), are reach schools, given that the student would be out of state. They’d be wise to add more target and safety schools with higher acceptance rates, particularly for out-of-state students.

When it comes to adding safety schools, it’d be a good idea for this student to start with schools in their local system. Luckily, they would be guaranteed admission to most Texas public universities because of their grades — see the next question for an explanation of how this works — and would likely qualify for large scholarships at some of these universities, specifically in their major of interest.

If they don’t want to stay in-state, they could look to other, less competitive state schools like the University of Washington (51% acceptance rate for out of state students) or smaller schools like Case Western Reserve University (30.3% acceptance rate) and Smith College (36.5% acceptance rate). Again, any school with an acceptance rate under 50% shouldn’t technically be considered a safety school, so those would be low targets/high safeties for this student.

Am I guaranteed admission to my safety school?

That depends on the school in question and your academic profile. Some state schools offer guaranteed admission based on quantitative factors in your application, such as your SAT/ACT score and/or GPA. Sometimes these requirements differ based on your resident status in that state since most state schools are required to admit a certain number of state residents every year. Oftentimes, students who exceed these requirements are eligible for scholarships as well, making your safety school an even more viable financial option.

This is also true at many high-ranking public universities that are popular nationwide, but it does require students to rank high academically within the context of the state. For instance, in Texas, you are guaranteed admission at most Texas public universities if you rank in the top 10 percent of your high school class, including a top-ranked school like UT Austin. In the highly competitive University of California system, you are guaranteed admission if you rank in the top 9 percent of high school students in the state based on the Statewide Index, which largely consists of your grades and GPA.

As for most private universities, especially those with acceptance rates below 50-60%, the process of admission becomes more subjective. And even at schools with higher acceptance rates, there might still be no guaranteed path to admission. But if you’ve chosen your safety schools well, you should have basically no problem getting into your safety school — otherwise, it’s not technically a safety school!

Choosing safety schools means you’re setting yourself up for success in the college admissions process, so choose wisely and make the most of your senior year.

Planning for college applications is difficult — we’re here to help. Set up a free consultation with one of our college admissions consultants today.

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