The Ultimate Safety School Strategy Guide

By: Caroline Koppelman

We hope you get into your dream reach school, and we plan on giving you all the advice to make your dream come true. But the reality is that you need to have a solid backup plan just incase. In the beginning of the college application process, most of our students have the wrong attitude towards safety schools because they assume they will get into at least a few of their target and reach schools. Safety schools are never to be looked down upon. We find that students who do that end up picking their safeties at random. A safety should be a school a little below your target range that you still would love to attend. Although we’ve never had a student who hasn’t gotten into at least one of their reach schools, we want to ensure you’re prepared for that possibility.

Choosing a safety school can be hard for some students and families because they feel like they are admitting defeat before they even start. They think that by envisioning themselves at the safety school and agreeing to apply, they are taking their eyes off the prize. 

So, how do you put together the best list of safety schools? Like most of the college process, this method requires research on the back end, but ensures that you will be satisfied and happy if you end up at your safety school. 

The strategy is to find your dream school and to break it down into the qualities that you like. We suggest breaking down a school in terms of size, location, culture, and special programs. If you’ve settled on your dream school for reasons that are not concrete, you should reconsider whether it is truly your dream school or if you just want to apply early somewhere for security. 

Colleges have distinct personalities. It is best to derive your safety schools from your target and reach schools. Let’s say our student Courtney’s dream school is the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan. She loves the size (large), the location (mid-west), the school spirit, the word-hard, play-hard attitude, and the opportunity to attend an undergraduate business school, The Ross School of Business. She has a 3.7 GPA and a 1410 (720 Math, 690 English) on the new SAT, making Ross a reach school for her.

Many of these qualities are easily found in other schools, so Courtney can figure out which safety schools she should apply to from here. Remember, a safety school is a school where you are in the 75th percentile of grades and test scores. Courtney should break down what she likes in a table and see which schools fit the characteristics she likes about Michigan. 

Courtney should first narrow her search to the most unique quality about Ross—the undergraduate business program—as a way to filter schools. Below is a sample search we’ve created: 

We focused our search first to undergraduate business schools. Any school that required higher grades and test scores than Ross is out of Courtney’s range and was excluded from the list. Also, there are many smaller schools, such as Boston College, that have an undergraduate business school. But, since Courtney indicated that she wanted a big school, she should avoid looking at small colleges at first. After finding the initial list, we simply researched the size and location. It takes more extensive knowledge and research to understand the culture, but when in doubt, and if possible, visit the college and talk to any alumni you can find. 

From our list, we were able to generate a list of safety schools for Courtney. Courtney should apply to Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State (even though it is not in the Midwest), and Michigan State. 

By doing this research, she was also able to add a few more schools (UVA, UT Austin, UNC, and Wake Forrest) to her list of target schools

It is important to not go exclusively by the numbers. Yes, your grades and scores should be above the 75th percentile for a school to qualify as a safety, but many schools will fit that criteria. You should really prioritize the fit of the school. Even though you have your sights set on your dream school, your safety schools should be solid options. As more students apply to more schools and acceptance rates plummet, safety schools have become a necessity. 

Don’t view your safety as a last option, or the kind of place you only want to attend as a last resort. Think of it as a school, not dissimilar from your reaches and targets in most ways, but one that you can stress less about getting into. Having a list of safeties schools you actually like can allow you to devote more concentration to your reaches and targets, because you’ll know that if all else fails, you have a school you’re excited to attend.