How to Identify Safety Schools in College Admissions

College admissions is a process often fraught with uncertainty. And while there are no guarantees, there is a common practice of applying to multiple colleges, including those that a student expects to be safe bets. Typically known as safety schools, these are colleges where admission is more likely because of a student’s academic profile.

“A safety school is one that a student is almost certain to get into,” Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of Florida-based International College Counselors, wrote in an email.

Rachel York, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based college admissions counseling firm, wrote in an email that a safety “or ‘likely’ school is one where your numbers fall toward the top or even above the middle 50% of admitted students. Additionally, the selectivity of a school is an important factor. If it has a high acceptance rate (60%) and your numbers are above average, this would be a solid likely school.”

How to Find Safety Schools

Experts say prospective students should look at how they stack up against a college’s prior classes to estimate their odds of admission — both at safety schools and other colleges to which they plan to apply.

From there, applicants should make a list of reach, target and safety schools. Reach schools are typically those where an applicant is a long shot while target schools are those where a prospective student may have a better chance of being admitted.

[See: 18 A-Plus National Universities for B Students.]

“A student can judge whether a school is a safety school for them by comparing their grades and test scores to the school’s admissions statistics for the average first-year student. If a prospective student’s academic credentials are well above this range, then they can consider the school a safety school,” Adler says.

“The safety school for one kid, obviously, is not a safety school for another,” says Michele Hernandez, co-founder and co-president of Top Tier Admissions, an admissions counseling firm in New England.

Admissions counselors encourage applicants to seek out data typically available on college websites, such as statistics about the last admitted class. If there is no profile of the last class available, much of this information can be found in the college’s Common Data Set, which is usually available online.

If a student has high school grades and standardized test scores above the middle 50% of students admitted in the last class, and the college or university doesn’t have low acceptance rates, then admission is likely, experts say. And students who don’t plan to take the ACT or SAT as colleges increasingly go test-optional should consider how their grades, class standing and extracurricular activities factor in.

If an applicant falls short of the performance of prior classes, that college probably isn’t a safety school unless the applicant has some kind of advantage, such as legacy student status or being a recruited athlete.

Other factors that colleges consider include strength of high school curriculum, the admissions essay or writing sample, and demonstrated interest in attending a particular school, according to a 2019 survey of college officials conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Students should also understand that institutional priorities for who is admitted may vary.

“Just because the admit rate for a school is 30% does not mean it is 30% for every applicant. For instance, some public schools admit in-state students at higher rates than out-of-state applicants, so what might be a likely school for an in-state applicant might not be a likely school for an out-of-state applicant,” Victoria Dimock, another premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email.

Admissions counselors generally recommend applying to 10 to 12 colleges, with two or three of those as safety school options and the others falling into the target or reach categories.

Why Students Should Consider Safety Schools

“Students should consider safety/likely schools on their lists because by definition, a reach school is not easy to get into for that student,” Dimock says.

“So having likely schools and target schools (some people call them possible or 50/50 schools) on their list is a good idea so that a student has a few solid choices at the end of their application process, especially should those reach schools not come through,” she says.

Other considerations for safety schools, Dimock adds, include the possibility of earning merit scholarships, which typically go to top students. That may mean more financial aid and an easier path to paying for a college education.

[See: 12 Things to Know About Merit Aid Scholarships.]

Another perk may be acceptance to an honors program at a safety school that may be unavailable at target or reach schools, where a student would be competing with other applicants with strong academic profiles.

When to Apply to Safety Schools

“I typically like to have students begin forming their college lists with the reach/dream schools during Junior year and as it becomes clearer what type of school a student likes we start to expand that list to include similar schools that are in their target and likely range,” Katie Burns, a master college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email.

Hernandez advises prospective students to apply during both early and regular decision deadlines. “The best advice is to leverage the early round if you can, by combining early decision and early action,” she says.

[Read: What to Know About Early Action, Early Decision in College Admissions.]

If a student can lock in acceptance to a safety school via nonbinding early action — which means that he or she is not committed to attending that college if accepted — the student may have the peace of mind of an acceptance somewhere while still pursuing admission at target and reach schools.

Taking Safety Schools Seriously

Just because admission is likely at a particular school doesn’t mean a student shouldn’t take it seriously. Admissions pros encourage putting the same effort in a safety school application as with others.

“The admissions process for safety schools is the same as it is for reach and target schools,” Adler says. “Make getting in your priority with any school you apply to. You don’t want to be denied for a lack of effort, poor grammar or missing deadlines. Any school on a student’s list should be tackled head on and with complete effort.”

Students also need to be willing to attend a safety school if they are accepted. The most important question to ask, says Hernandez, is: “Would you be happy going there?” If not, it simply doesn’t make sense to apply to that college, she says.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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