How to Strategize the Application Process Most Effectively Using Target, Safety, and Reach Schools

August 24, 2022
College Admissions

If you are applying to college, you likely have heard the terms “safety, target, and reach schools.” These terms mean different things depending on a student’s unique profile and goals. Whether a school is designated as a safety, target, or reach relates more to the student than the school. That is why before curating your college list, your advisor will work closely with you to evaluate your academic credentials and discuss other important factors essential to making sure your college list is as balanced and strategic as it can be. Having an effective college list from the start goes a long way towards minimizing the stress of the college admissions process and making you feel more in control of your educational path.

Safety School

A safety school is one where a student can almost be certain that they will gain admittance. There are no guarantees when it comes to college admissions, but based on acceptance rates, academic credentials (median standardized test scores and GPA), and geographic location, we can assess which schools are “safe” bets for students. Any school that has an acceptance rate of above 50% is generally considered a safety school. However, the question is whether it is a safety school for you. If, for instance, your test scores and GPA fall above the 75th percentile of the median for that school, we would consider that a safety school for you. Geographic location is also key, as state schools will be safer options for state residents than for out-of-state students.

Target School

Target schools are those that most perfectly align with a student’s profile. They are, as the name implies, schools to be targeted because they are more desirable to a student than those they have designated as “safeties.” Target schools should be similar to your reach schools in terms of overall fit, resources, and programs, though with a little less prestige and higher overall acceptance rates. As an initial point of reference, your test scores and GPA should fall between the 25th and 75th percentiles of a given school’s median to be seriously considered a target.

We suggest students put serious thought into their choice of target schools by comparing not only your GPA and exam scores to a given school’s median, but also factoring in the most updated acceptance rates. These are important to consider together because even with a well-aligned median GPA and exam scores, schools with acceptance rates below 20% can seldom be viewed as targets. As such, your target list should consist primarily of universities with acceptance rates in the range of 20% to 40%. And while it can be challenging to best identify target schools due to the need for a much more accurate understanding of your own background in relation to the selection criteria at a given university, utilizing a school’s median GPA and test scores, along with recent acceptance rates, can help ensure you remain focused on crafting the most effective target list possible.

Reach School

A reach school can also be considered a “dream school.” These schools tend to have acceptance rates below 20% and include Ivy League colleges and other prestigious research institutions. A reach school can also be one where a student’s own test scores and GPA fall below the 25th percentile of a school’s average. If this is the case for you, you must ensure other aspects of your application (extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, essays, etc.) are truly stellar to even be considered. Students typically can identify their reach schools early in the application process.

That said, some schools that used to be targets for top students have now become reaches due to year-over-year increases in the number of college applications, particularly at selective schools. Thus, it is important to remember that the terms “safety, target, and reach,” as they apply to you, are not necessarily fixed. So, to the extent possible, be sure to stay on top of the most up-to-date information on each school you are considering.

Application Strategy

We advise students to apply to between eight and twenty schools. Of this group, at least two should be safety and at least three should be target; three or more should be reach. At AtomicMind, our experts have decades of experience helping each student create the most strategic list for them, one that best reflects their unique profile and goals.