College counselors often say students should apply to safety schools, fit schools, and reach schools. But what does that mean?
Determining whether a college is a safety school, fit school, or reach school depends on three things:
How selective the college is.
The simplest measure of selectivity is a college’s acceptance rate, or the percentage of applicants who are admitted. For example, Stanford University’s acceptance rate in 2016 was 4.8%, among the lowest in the country.
The qualifications of admitted students.
Many colleges publish the average, middle 50%, and/or top 25% SAT/ACT scores of recently admitted students. Fewer colleges publish GPA information for admitted students, but college counselors can advise on this statistic. Usually, the more selective a college, the higher these numbers will be.
Your child’s qualifications.
To gain admission to a college, your child’s GPA and SAT/ACT scores almost always need to be in line with those of recently accepted students.
What Are Safety Schools?
A good rule of thumb: no college list should be homogenous. In other words, your child shouldn’t apply to a bunch of schools that are almost exactly the same. Most students should include three types of colleges on their list.
Safety schools are schools your child has a very good chance of getting into. Their grades and scores should be well above the college’s average/middle 50%, and these shouldn’t be highly selective colleges. In general, a college with an acceptance rate below 25% isn’t a “safety school” for anyone.
What Are Fit Schools?
As the name implies, fit schools these are schools that fit your child’s qualifications and interests. The most important feature of a fit school: your child’s grades and SAT/ACT scores are at or slightly above the average/middle 50% reported by the college. A student should apply to more fit colleges than safety schools or reach schools, contributing to about half of their total list.
Aside from grades and scores, your child should also be enthusiastic about the fit schools on his or her list. If a college is truly right for your child, they should ideally have visited the campus and liked what they saw. Location, campus culture, extracurricular opportunities, and housing options can have a huge impact on your child’s college experience.
What Are Reach Schools?
Reaches are the schools your child most likely won’t get into, but they wish to apply to
Some college admissions experts advise students to never apply to a college if their grades and scores are below the school’s average. If your child’s qualifications are far under the average reported by a college, it probably doesn’t make sense to apply. But if a student’s grades and scores are perfect, near-perfect, or they’re at the top of their class, why not?
Admissions offices evaluate each candidate holistically. In many cases, they would rather admit a student with a unique hobby or life story, than a 4.0 student with no outside interests. After all, colleges want to create a diverse class, filled with individuals who can each contribute something different.
What Are Some Examples of Safety Schools, Fit Schools, and Reach Schools?
The answer to this question entirely depends on your child’s qualifications. To get a sense of what colleges are in the ballpark, compare your child’s GPA and SAT or ACT scores to those of their target schools.
For example, the average GPA for students accepted at Bowdoin College is 3.8. For a student with a 3.60 GPA, Bowdoin is a reach school, while it’s a fit school for a student with a 3.85 GPA.
The only exception to this rule: a college with an acceptance rate below 25% is a reach school for anyone. Because class sizes are limited, even highly qualified students are rejected from these colleges.
Putting it All Together: A Sample College List
To illustrate how your child should build a college list, let’s use Sally Student as an example:
Sally’s unweighted GPA is a 3.70. (Here’s more on how GPA works and the difference between weighted and unweighted.)
Her SAT score is 1350 (680 reading/writing, 680 math).
She has excellent recommendations from her teachers, and the essays she submits with her college applications are strong. Sally is interested in majoring in English, and wants to attend a small college on the East Coast. Where should she apply?
So Sally uses a college search tool to find ten colleges that match her preferences. She categorizes the ten colleges into safeties, fits, and reaches based on GPA, SAT score, and acceptance rate.
Sally Student’s College List
||CR 530-640, M 520-630
||CR 590-680, M 600-690
||CR 640-720, M 640-710
||CR 610-710, M 620-720
||CR 630-710, M 620 -700
||CR 600-680, M 610-680
||CR 650-730, M 660-740
|College of the Holy Cross
||CR 610-690, M 620-690
||CR 680-780, M 680-770
||CY 670-780, M 680-770
(Average GPA data is approximated from unofficial sources and cannot be confirmed.)
What Do Acceptance Rates Mean?
In recent years, college admissions has become increasingly competitive, and families are understandably anxious. News sources cover the ever-dwindling acceptance rates of Ivy Leagues and other popular colleges. Even the most accomplished students worry if they’re “good enough” to attend these schools.
A common misconception among students and parents is that most colleges accept under 25% percent of applicants, or expect perfect grades and scores. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Acceptance rates vary widely between colleges, ranging from from 5% to 100%. In fact, the majority of U.S. colleges accept over 50% of applicants. While a low acceptance rate sometimes reflects a school’s academic rigor, many excellent colleges aren’t so selective.
Some students make the mistake of applying to only the most competitive colleges. While it’s important for students to be excited about the schools on their list, practicality is also important. With the exception of some state schools, no student is guaranteed admission at any college, even those with perfect grades and scores. A college is much more than its acceptance rate. Building a college list should be about finding schools that are the right fit for your child. Applying to a few highly competitive schools is fine, but you must also include less selective options such as safety schools.
Where Can I Find Acceptance Rates and Selectivity Information?
Many high schools provide parents access to Naviance, a resource to help discover college fit. If you have access to Naviance, this is a great place to start.
U.S. News & World Report also provides credible college data, including average GPA, test scores, and more broad information like college size and course makeup.
The annually published Fiske Guide to Colleges includes in-depth information in hundreds of colleges. In addition to acceptance rates, the book includes insights on academics, campus culture, cost, and other important considerations.
Loren Pope’s Colleges that Change Lives profiles unique schools that are not highly selective, but offer exceptional opportunities to students.
College Confidential features a “Find a College” tool, where students can enter their qualifications and preferences to get a list of “best fit” schools.
What Are My Child's Chances of Getting into a Particular College?
It’s impossible to predict whether your child will be admitted to a particular college. Admissions offices are striving to be more transparent, but mystery will always surround the decision process. The most important thing for students and parents to know: grades and SAT/ACT scores have the biggest impact on admissions outcomes.
Of course, your child is more than the sum of these numbers. When making admissions decisions, schools also consider a student’s essays, recommendations, interviews, extracurricular activities, and other criteria. But colleges have found grades and scores to be the best predictors of success in undergraduate classes.
While you can’t foresee admissions outcomes, you should consider how your child compares to other applicants. To be a strong applicant to any college, your child’s grades and scores should be in line with those of recently admitted students. Many colleges list these statistics on their websites, under the Admissions tab. Googling “[College name] SAT/ACT scores” or “[College name] average GPA” can also retrieve these numbers.
If your child’s SAT or ACT score is within or above the middle 50% range reported by a college, they have a solid chance at acceptance. You can consider a school a "safety school" if both your GPA and your SAT score or ACT score are above the 75th percentile number reported by the school. Students with the best chance of admission usually have GPA’s that are above the average reported by a college.
How Many Schools Should I Apply To?
While every situation is different, most college admissions experts recommend students apply to at least ten schools. Applying to more than twenty colleges can be overwhelming. Remember, most colleges require students to submit an essay unique to that school, in addition to the Common Application. A good place to start is picking three safety schools, three fit schools, and three reach schools. You can add more target schools from there, but that's a good base.
There are many factors your family should consider when evaluating a college. Some of these include size, location, affordability, academic programs, campus culture and selectivity. Colleges are excellent at marketing themselves, and your student may be convinced those 15 schools on her list are all perfect for them. But it’s unrealistic to research 15 colleges before applying, and less likely they will all be good fits.
The bottom line: before applying to any college, do your homework! You want to avoid a situation where your child isn’t accepted anywhere, or is stuck attending a college they dislike. Good fitting safety schools are a great way to protect against these tough outcomes.