When Safety Schools Aren’t Safety Schools

Vincent Nicandro
Vincent Nicandro

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Though often one of the most overlooked parts of the college search, safety schools are actually a very critical component to ensure you have options after the admissions season is over. Everyone applying to colleges should have a safeguard. But as the college admissions field becomes all the more competitive across the board, at what point can we no longer consider mainstay safety schools as near-guaranteed acceptances? 

And for you personally, how can you avoid that rejection letter?

Safety Schools (and Whether They’re a Good Fit for You or Not)

A safety school, otherwise known as a back-up school, is a college in which you will almost certainly get into as a result of your standardized test scores, GPA, and grades exceeding the median for that of admitted students. Your test scores should be in the 75th percentile for the school you are considering, and your GPA, essays, and extracurriculars should all up to snuff as well—or better.

A safety isn’t just any institution with a high acceptance rate—and in fact, safety schools should be critically examined across a variety of factors in order to determine its fit with a student. Generally, whether a college is a good safety school for you or not is dependent on four key points:

  • likelihood of admission
  • affordability
  • specialization
  • and attachment.

In terms of likelihood, a safety school should be a near-given acceptance, based on the college’s trends in admission from previous years. As a result of their selectivity and relative unpredictability, this criterion usually rules out elite colleges as safeties for any applicant. Consider community colleges or schools with open admission to boost this factor.


Safety schools should also be relatively affordable, too, with an estimated cost that is within the price range of what you and your parents are willing and able to pay. Be sure to use estimated financial aid calculators offered on the school’s website to at least get an initial impression of whether or not you’ll be able to afford a school.


With specialization, a good safety is one where the school has a strong program that aligns closely with your intended major. Research plays a major role in this aspect, and you should devote a good chunk of time ensuring your safety schools have great resources to support you in your studies should you go to it. It should have programs you are interested in exploring, so the admissions officers understand your interest.


And of course, a safety school should be a school that you have some kind of attachment to, or a desire to attend. Do you see yourself enjoying your time at this college and making meaningful connections? You should be able to visualize yourself going to a safety school and succeeding? Otherwise, there’s no point applying to a college that is an automatic rejection on your part. Avoid the additional fees and stress if you’re actually set against attending.

Rest in Peace, the Safety School?

But what happens when the school you think is a shoe-in unexpectedly rejects you? This seems to be the case more and more, as the concept of a safety school is slowly diminishing into a relic of the past for some candidates (particularly overqualified ones). With an overall increase in competition within the applicant pool, students with stats that were once essentially a guarantee of admission are now being waitlisted or even rejected.

Moreover, the ever-rising importance of college rankings by the likes of U.S. News may also be to blame. Colleges pursue higher standings on these rankings in an effort to increase their desirability. As a result, they are looking for new ways to lower their acceptance rate while simultaneously increasing their yield.

As a result, admissions offices across the country are now relying on algorithms. These algorithms measure the likelihood of a student accepting their offer of admission. The unfortunate byproduct of this is that overqualified students are now being rejected from what they thought were safeties; this in turn, leading to greater anxiety over the months that college decisions start rolling in.

What You Can Do to Avoid College Rejection

With these things in mind, it’s important to be in touch with who you are as a student. Reflect on your position as an applicant during the college admissions season. Make sure your safeties are indeed safeties by taking the time to look into the admissions profile of students. More importantly, devote a good amount of attention and time to your safeties. If you don’t, you might end up in the worst-case position of being rejected everywhere.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is this: don’t treat safety schools like safety schools. Demonstrate interest to your safeties just as much as you would to your reaches by: visiting the campus; filling out information cards at college fairs; and taking the time to craft good “Why College X?” essays. Moreover, apply to multiple safeties if you can. Expand your college list to include a solid group of safeties and matches, so that you can comfortably apply to reaches with peace of mind. If you need help curating a solid list of colleges, check out this post for more tips.

To Review

Safety schools may no longer be surefire acceptances for some. However, through research and demonstrating interest, you can improve your chances of coming out on top. For more analysis, read our post on the college admission trends to be aware of in 2019. And if you need more help, schedule a free consultation today! We would love to show how we can guide you through the college applications process with ease.

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