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Articles / Preparing for College / Safety Schools: How to Choose Wisely

Safety Schools: How to Choose Wisely

Joy Bullen
Written by Joy Bullen | Aug. 30, 2022
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Admissions Professionals Share What to Look for When Choosing Likely Schools

The concept is simple: apply to a college that you're almost positive you can get into so that you have at least one good option when admissions decisions come back. But as college admissions outcomes have become harder to predict, choosing schools that you feel confident will admit you (and that you would be happy to attend) isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.

College Confidential connected with admissions professionals to share their tips on what to consider when choosing safety schools for your college list.

Don’t think of safety schools as a backup plan

“Safety school'' may be the most commonly-used term to describe schools that are likely to admit a student, but most admissions professionals prefer other terms–terms that don't imply that a school is not one of a students’ top choices. Some people prefer the phrases “likely schools,” “best bets,” “foundation schools,” or just “schools with a high probability of admissions.” Whatever you choose to call them, every well-rounded college list has at least one school that a student is a shoe-in for. But just because a student has a good shot at admission doesn’t mean these schools have to be a last resort.

“The term 'safety' school implies that it is on the student’s college list as a safety net in case the student is not admitted to their other schools,” says Natalie Gipson from Gipson College Consulting. “In fact, these foundation schools (my preferred term) provide very attractive options for the student as they often come with merit aid packages making them much more affordable than the student’s other options.”

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, President of One-Stop College Consulting, agrees that likely schools can be the best option for students, even if they are offered a spot at more selective schools. “Sometimes it feels good to ‘love the school that loves you back.' There are plenty of students who choose to attend one of their likely schools and take advantage of the many perks that might be offered (free study abroad, guaranteed, paid research internships, honors dorms, first shot at class registration, etc.)”

Apply to more than one likely school

Unless you’re applying to a guaranteed admission school and you're very confident that you will meet the criteria for admissions, you should apply to more than one school with a high likelihood of admission.

Cardinal Education CEO Allen Koh advises students to choose 14 target schools to apply to. “Out of this list, three or four should be ‘safety schools,’” Koh says. “In our experience, this number provides students more security with their college applications. ”

The number of likely schools to include on your lists depends on the type of program that you're applying to.

“I recommend students have 1-3 'safety' schools, depending on [a student’s] academic profile and major of choice. If students are applying to computer science or engineering programs (programs that admit directly by major at most schools) they may need more safety schools,” says Rachel Coleman, an Independent Education Consultant (IEC) and co-founder of College Essay Editor. “Another reason to add more safety schools is if students are being admitted by portfolio (Art BFA / Film BFA / Architecture etc.) For my students who are essentially applying based on their portfolio, which can be very subjective, I recommend that these students have many more schools on their list.”

Study the admitted student profiles from the previous year

There are few key admissions stats to look at when evaluating if a school is likely to admit you. Each year, colleges release the academic profile of the students admitted during the prior admissions cycle. Reviewing the stats of recently admitted students can give you a good framework for understanding how likely you are to get accepted.

1. Test Scores and GPA

Look for schools where your GPA and test scores fall at or above the 75 percentile for admitted students. If your scores are stronger than three out of every four admitted students, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be a strong candidate, as long as your essays, recommendations and extracurriculars are solid too.

2. Overall Acceptance Rate

For selective colleges, having scores above the 75th percentile isn’t enough to make admissions likely. Admission to highly-selective colleges is more of an art than a science, so even top students shouldn’t consider schools with acceptance rates in the teens or twenties “likely.” Students should always look at schools’ most recently-reported acceptance rate. Many schools that may once have been considered safety schools are now reporting record low acceptance rates. For example, Northeastern University, which admitted 32 percent of applicants in 2015, only accepted 18 percent of applicants in 2021 and reportedly admitted only of 7 percent of applicants in 2022.

A true “likely” school is a college that accepts well over half of all applicants. Students with average grades should look for safety schools that admit over 70 percent of applicants, and students with below-average grades should consider including one open-admission college on their list.

3. Acceptance Rate by Major

If the college reports acceptance rates by major, students should also look at those statistics when choosing likely schools. Sometimes popular majors have an acceptance rate that is well below the overall rate for the school.

“Ideally, students should look up the percent of students accepted to their specific major," Rachel Coleman says. “For example, at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, students have a 62 percent chance to be accepted to the school overall, but only a 15 percent chance of being accepted into the Computer Science program. So if a student was applying to UIUC for anthropology, I might call that a "likely" school, but if they are applying to CS, I would not. Not all schools report acceptance rates by major, unfortunately, but students should make educated guesses when the official number is not reported.”

4. Acceptance Rates for In-state and Out-of-State Students

If applying to a state school, students should also consider the acceptance rate for in-state vs. out-of-state students, says Jess Chermak, an independent counselor with Virtual College Counselors. “A high achieving student from Georgia, North Carolina, or Wisconsin (for example) will have a higher chance of admission to their in-state public institutions than out-of state students,” Chermak says. “The same can't necessarily be said for CA public universities!”

Don’t confuse acceptance rate with quality

Remember, a school’s acceptance rate doesn’t always indicate how “good” a school is. Nikki Bruno with Princeton College Consulting explains, “Just because a school has a high admit rate doesn't mean it's a bad school. They might have received a boatload of funding from the state or a private donor and are looking to expand the size of their classes so they are accepting many students to make that happen. And schools with low admit rates might just have good sports programs or 'brand names' so everyone's heard of them and they therefore have tons of unqualified students applying who would never get in but cause the admit rate to go down anyway.”

Choose at least one financial safety

In addition to looking at admissions statistics, it’s important to consider your finances when choosing a safety school. “A 'safety school' must have a clear potential to hit the student budget,” says Brady Norvall, founder of the education life coaching company FindaBetterU. “Budget is the first question I always discuss with families. Just because a student can get into a school, doesn't mean they can go there. The point of a 'safety school' is to have a real option, not just an admission option.”

Once you've calculated your family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC), compare that to the overall cost of attendance. The total cost of a financial safety should not cost more than your EFC plus the amount loans that you're willing or able to take out for your education. It's possible you will receive additional grants or scholarships in your offer, but it's wise to include at least one more affordable option (like an in-state public school) in case you don't.

Consider the other factors that are important to you

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying: a safety school is only a good option if you're willing to go there. Go beyond the admissions stats and consider other factors that make a school attractive to you, like location, campus life, and the majors and activities offered. A school’s retention rate can also provide some insight into how happy and supported students feel.

Even if a school is less selective than the other college’s on your list, it should be similar to the other schools on your list in other ways. College admissions consultant Kate Sonnenberg calls this “vertical integrity.” “A ‘good’ ‘high probability of admission’ college is where the student experience meets the student's ‘must have’ criteria,” Sonnenberg says. “The experience should be similar at all of the colleges on the list regardless of whether there is a 5 percent, 15 percent or 50 percent admit rate.”

Unfortunately, it’s common for students to apply to schools that they can get into but that they don’t really want to attend. This is partly because many students want the prestige of attending more-selective schools, but it may be because students have focused more time on dreaming about reach schools than researching more likely options.

Nikki Bruno says, “Every year in the spring I get a phone call from at least one desperate parent whose child didn't get into any school except their safety, and they need my help to appeal. For one, it's almost impossible to appeal an admissions decision unless it's not a highly selective school and you have a compelling line of reasoning. For two, if you don't want to go to a school, then don't even apply.”

The good news is–there are thousands of colleges and universities out there, and with a little research you can find the ones that are the best fit for you.

Still not sure where to apply?

Tap into the power of the College Confidiential community

Share your stats and what you're looking for in a school and get personalized recommendations on where you should apply from people who have been through it before.

Written by

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen is College Confidential's Senior Editor and Head of Content. She is a graduate of Kenyon College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. She also earned a master’s in Psychology from The New School for Social Research in NYC.

Before becoming a full-time writer and editor, Joy coached thousands of prospective and enrolled college students on admissions and academic and career success. She also managed a team of academic and career coaches and consulted with universities on how to create programs that have better outcomes for students.

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