Difference Between Safety, Reach, and Target Schools

By: Caroline Koppelman

Let’s say you have a dream school. A school you’ve been dying to attend since you were a little kid. You’ve imagined yourself walking around, attending lectures with its most esteemed professors, and cheering on its teams. Your mind is set.  

The most important thing in the college application process however is to not forget reality when applying to schools. Sadly, just because a school is your dream school doesn’t mean you’ll get in. You should have a healthy assortment of safeties, targets, and reaches to ensure that when your admittance letters finally arrive you’ve given yourself the best possible options.

The distinctions between safety, target, and reach refer to a student’s credentials--grades and SAT scores--as opposed to their interests. When figuring out which schools are the best fit, students should take the size, location, culture, and potential majors and classes into account.

In order to examine the process of selecting a mix of safety, target, and reach schools, we are going to use Jamie as an example. Jamie is a senior in high school who has a 3.8 GPA and got a 700 on the Math section, a 720 on the Critical Reading section, and a 700 on the writing section of the SAT (2120 total). Her dream school is Brown.

A safety school is a school where the student’s grades and scores exceed the school’s indicated range. Although there are no guarantees in this process, this is the accepted definition of a safety school. Coincidentally, a safety school may be more inclined to give the student merit based financial aid. For Jamie, Skidmore and Bard are good safety schools because her scores exceed the school’s range. Both are similar in size, geographic location, and culture to Brown. When selecting safety schools, it is important to not blindly apply to schools--make sure the schools you select are places you would actually attend, because you don’t want to create extra work for yourself.  

After choosing a few safety schools, you should move on to target schools. A target school is one where the student’s scores and grades fall within the school’s indicated range. There are no guarantees, however, so many people do not gain admission to their target schools. For Jamie, Tufts and Wesleyan would be great target schools. Not only does Jamie fall within the indicated range for these schools, they also possess many similar traits to Brown.

A reach school is a school where the student falls towards the low end of the indicated range, but is still within the range. If a student’s scores are 100 points below the lower end of the range, it is not a reach, it is an impossibility. While there is a certain degree of randomness in this process, you are probably not the exception to the rule. In fact, many admissions committees screen candidates first through a computer and get rid of student whose scores fall well below the indicated minimum. For Jamie, Brown is a perfect reach school. Her scores fall within the range, so it is not unfathomable that she could get in.

None of this should dissuade you from your dream school. But it is extremely important to think strategically. If you find yourself well-outside (either above or below) the indicated range for your dream school it’s probably time to start identifying other similar schools you are qualified for. Creating a comprehensive list of your safety, target, and reach schools is an integral part of the process, and can help you find the place you will be the most excited to spend your next four years.