How to Pick a Safety School


How to Pick a Safety School

If you have started researching colleges, you may have heard that it’s important to keep one or two safety schools on your list. While the prospect of attending an Ivy League or similarly prestigious school might be alluring, you are far from guaranteed admission at top schools due to the increasingly tough competition. 

If you only apply to reach schools, you risk the chance of not getting accepted to any college! That’s the last thing you want after years of working hard in high school. To avoid this situation, you should familiarize yourself with how to pick a safety school

What is a Safety School?

What exactly is a safety school? 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. Without further ado, let’s talk about how to know when a school is a safety option and how to pick a safety school.

How Do I Determine a Safety School?

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” - like this - 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 how to pick a safety school, 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!). 

Lastly, the college’s admission rate will tell you how selective it is at a macro level. To be conservative, make sure a school has an acceptance rate at or above 50% to consider it a true safety school. Note that schools with admission rates below 20% are highly selective and should not be considered safety schools for anyone regardless of how impressive your GPA and standardized test scores may be. Highly selective schools will reject students with perfect grades and test scores because they have limited spots, so be careful! 

How Should I Organize My School List?

To stay organized and remember all this data on how to pick a safety school, 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.

Where Should I Look to Find Safety Schools?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for how to pick a safety school 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! 

How Many Safety Schools Should I Apply to?

As I’ve said, 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. When I say balanced, I mean a mix of reach, target, and safety schools. 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

While you shouldn’t only apply to reach schools, don’t fill your entire list with safety schools! In addition to likely schools, be sure to add in target colleges (i.e. your GPA and standardized test scores are within the average range) and a few reach schools (i.e. your GPA and standardized test scores are below the average range, but within reason). Creating a balanced list allows you to aim high while maintaining a realistic understanding of your chances. At the same time, make sure to you apply to schools that aren’t out of the question for you.

What Else Should I Consider?

When thinking about how to pick a safety school, don’t add a college to your list just because it’s less competitive. Make sure you do thorough research and know that you 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. 

At the end of the day, the college admissions process is subjective, and there are no absolute certainties when it comes to the selection process. While creating a school list can be an extremely daunting and overwhelming task, it will pay off if you are diligent with your research, strategic with your decisions, and thoughtful with the overall process of how to pick a safety school. As you do research and determine your preferences, make sure you double check the list to ensure you are being strategic about the types of schools you apply to. Keep it balanced with reach, target, and safety schools so you can feel confident about your list and – most importantly – happy with your results. Good luck!

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