Choosing Target and Safety Schools: Balancing Your List

Padya Paramita

Choosing Target and Safety Schools: Balancing Your List

It’s almost crunch time for high school seniors applying to college this year. Hopefully, you have an early decision/restrictive early action school in mind, your dream college, where you hope you can be admitted. However, applying only to a college ranked as high as Princeton or Harvard cannot be the only route you take. Filling up your school list with Ivies shouldn’t be a smart call either, especially given how competitive the admissions landscape is right now. Therefore, you need to work on choosing target and safety schools in order to balance your list. 

What Are Target and Safety Schools?

Because the college admissions process is so unpredictable, you cannot guarantee acceptance at any school. As a result, instead of only applying to Ivy Leagues or top 10 colleges, your list should be tiered. 

Colleges on your list will fit into one of three tiers: reach, target, and safety. Reach schools are schools that might be difficult for you to get into because they are extremely selective or because you fall below the average range for enrolled freshmen. These colleges often are what many applicants consider “dream schools,” and are the most competitive. 

Target schools are those that meet your numbers—this list of schools is entirely subjective, depending on your GPA and SAT score. Target schools don’t guarantee admission either, as a lot of factors are considered beyond your grades. Choosing target and safety schools should be a well-thought-out process—you cannot take them for granted. 

A safety school, also called a “likely” school, is one where you feel pretty confident that you will be admitted. In other words, the odds are in your favor. Typically, safety schools are ones in which your academic credentials are above the average range for admitted first-year students. Safety schools have higher and thus more attainable acceptance rates than reach or target schools.

Organizing Your List

To stay organized and remember all this data on choosing target and safety schools, I recommend creating a master college research spreadsheet. As you conduct research, add data to the columns you’ve created—GPA, 25th-75th percentile for SAT, admission rate—and add other columns about the pros and cons of the school to help you decide where to apply. As you analyze the data, you can add a column to categorize schools as reach, fit, or safety to make sure that your list is balanced as well.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Target School

Remember That A Target School Doesn’t Just Mean Numbers

Exactly what entails reach and safety schools is often fairly easy to understand, based on rankings, prestige, and acceptance rate. While researching the more competitive options when choosing target and safety schools, however, you have to dig a little deeper than the surface level. Generally speaking, your SAT score and GPA should fall right within the median numbers of your target schools. However, it doesn’t stop there. You might have a 1540 SAT, and Harvard’s median SAT score is 1520. This by no means indicates that Harvard should be a target school for you. There are so many other factors that go into consideration for admission to a college like Harvard such as truly stepping out of your comfort zone and succeeding in your field in extracurricular leadership, etc. 

If you have strong numbers and leadership, you should definitely apply to top schools, but for your target schools, you might consider colleges ranked below the Top 20, that still are wonderful colleges, such as University of Michigan, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon College, etc. 

Target Schools Depend on the Student

As I mentioned before, target schools can be entirely subjective. While it’s easy to determine your reaches and safeties, remember that what is a target school for you might actually not be considered a target school for everyone else. And this works both for students with strong GPAs and SAT scores and students who may not feel as confident academically. In the first case, if you do have really good numbers and highly impressive extracurriculars, you know you’re in a good place and you’ll probably consider colleges in ranked in the mid-20s such as University of Virginia and University of Southern California—or even top 10 liberal arts colleges such as Wellesley and Middlebury as your target school.

However, if your GPA isn’t quite as high as you’d like it to be and you’re not as confident about your admissions chances, the colleges mentioned above might actually be considered reaches for you because they are still very selective. In this case, you might look towards the lower 20s to upper 30s for the target options when it comes to choosing target and safety schools, and consider colleges such as Boston College, New York University, and Tufts University your target schools instead. Again, given how competitive colleges are in the post-pandemic rounds (NYU’s 2021 acceptance rate is only 12.8%), many of these might actually end up being reaches.

The point is, conduct thorough research. You’ll gain confidence if you get into your target schools, so you need to apply to places where you have a strong chance.

Where Wouldn’t You Apply Early Decision?

My final tip for the target side of choosing target and safety schools is asking yourself whether you would apply somewhere early decision or restricted early action or not. And, yes, sometimes students do apply early decision to their target schools. However, most of the time, students shoot for reaches such as Harvard and Columbia for their early applications since the binding agreement showcases commitment—and they’re competing against a smaller pool. So, if you’re considering applying early decision somewhere, that college is probably not your target school. 

One exception to this rule is a case where your target school offers early action, which is nonbinding. Many students, alongside applying early decision or restricted early action to a top tier school, also apply early action to target schools such as University of Michigan, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and University of Virginia. This is absolutely something you can consider!

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Safety School

Figure Out If A Particular Institution Counts as a Safety School in the First Place

Let’s face it—admission is never guaranteed. First, you need to do some research on three key points: GPA, standardized test scores, and admission rates. School websites will typically publish data about all of these factors. You can also simply Google “[College Name] admitted student profile” to find this data pretty easily. Make sure you are looking at the most recently admitted class profile (last year’s students), as this data may change over time.

When figuring out the latter among choosing target and safety schools, make sure your GPA is well above the average and that your standardized test scores are above the 75th percentile. This means that, among all other applicants, (based on academics alone) you fall in the top 25% of the pool. (Note: other factors, such as extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, essays, etc. will all be important factors in admission as well!).

Know Where to Look

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for the safety side of choosing target and safety schools that’s absolutely perfect for you. For many students, in-state, public schools are a great place to start because they typically offer higher acceptance rates and lower tuition costs. You can also look for colleges or universities with relatively high overall admissions rates but strong specialized programs. For instance, a school may have a 60% acceptance rate overall, but be top-ranked for your preferred academic program. You can also consider schools similar to your dream school. For example, look at schools that are in the same geographic region, same size, or have the same academic strengths as your number one choice. 

If your high school uses Naviance, then analyzing the scatterplot is a great way to see their acceptance trends, which gives you contextually specific data. Naviance shows a graph for each college, with students’ high school GPAs on the y-axis and their SAT scores on the x-axis. You can see data from students at your high school who were previously accepted and rejected from any particular college. Look at the scatterplot to find students with a “similar profile” as you to make predictions about results. If the majority of students from your school with your GPA and standardized test scores were accepted by a particular school, you will also have a pretty good chance. Again, nothing is for certain, and Naviance data still doesn’t show the whole picture! 

Think About How Many Safeties to Apply To

We cannot emphasize enough that nothing is absolutely guaranteed when it comes to the college admissions process. Thus, it is essential that you build a balanced college list to prepare for all possibilities. Students choose to structure their lists differently, but a recommended balance is 30-35% reach schools, 40-45% target schools, and 20-25% safety schools. 

Consider Acceptance Rates and Your Own Interests

When thinking about choosing safety schools, don’t add a college to your list just because it’s less competitive. Make sure you conduct research and would actually be happy attending this school! Far too often, students pick safety schools that they don’t actually picture themselves attending. Don’t just think of your safety school as the worst-case scenario, but rather consider it an attractive option with a higher likelihood of acceptance. 

Like all schools on your list, your safety schools should still have academic programs, extracurricular activities, and a campus culture that are a good match for you and your future goals. Moreover, be sure to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm in your supplemental essays. Admissions officers won’t accept you if they think you’re only applying because you believe you have a better shot there than at Harvard. 

The process of choosing target and safety schools shouldn’t be taken lightly. A lot of students stay hyperfocused on the reaches and disregard other ranges of colleges. Don’t be that person! Create a balanced list full of schools you’d be happy attending no matter what.

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