The Insider's Guide to Safety Schools

April 10, 2023
College Admissions

“Safety schools” are colleges to which you have a very high probability of being admitted (although there are no guarantees). Maybe your grades or scores place you well above the average range for that specific school; maybe the soccer coach or the conductor of the orchestra is dying to have you join. Applying to a couple of safety schools is always a smart idea; it’s like having a spare tire in the trunk. Imagine applying exclusively to your target and reach schools and then finding yourself in the midst of a very competitive admissions landscape with zero back up. Not fun!

So how do you figure out what might be a safety school for you? As a rule of thumb, a school with an acceptance rate of 40 percent or higher can be considered a relatively safe school (emphasis on the word relatively for reasons that will become apparent soon). By contrast, any institution with an acceptance rate of around 20 percent or less is relatively selective.

Your grades and your SAT or ACT scores also play a crucial role in whether a school can be marked safe or not. Your grades and scores should be above the 75th percentile for that college within your peer group (i.e., your high school). For highly competitive schools, by contrast, even with exceptional scores, there is no way for anyone to be a shoo-in. Your scores might be amazing, your grades may be second to none, and you might have an enviable roster of extracurricular activities and still have a slim chance of being admitted to a reach school. Admissions at the very top universities have become so competitive that you should never underestimate your competition or overestimate your candidacy.

The concept of safety schools is relative and dynamic. What can be a safe school for one student may not be for another. There are too many variables at play. As with any good investment—of time, money, or energy—you should have a diverse selection of schools. You should apply to your reach schools, target schools (at which you are well within range, neither overshooting nor undershooting), and a couple of safety schools that you wouldn’t mind attending if push comes to shove. Ultimately, though, applying to any schools—safety, reach or target—where you can’t see yourself going is a waste of your time and effort.