What is a safety school? As your time in high school comes to an end, you may feel like you’re about to go skydiving. You’re both nervous and excited as you prepare to jump out of a perfectly good plane—your school, your home, your friends—into a wide world of possibilities. College will be the parachute that carries you down to the ”real world”, and during the next four (or more) years, you will get your first taste of freedom and independence, not to mention the education you will need to specialize in a field that will likely someday be paying your bills.
You’ve probably already had a few thoughts about where you’d like to spend these exciting years ahead. Some have Ivy League dreams. For others, like my past angsty teenage self, the goal was to be as geographically far away from home as possible. And still others may have no clue where they want to end up. Regardless of where you are in your thought process, it’s clear that this decision is both an important and a personal one: you want to find a parachute that is perfectly suited to your needs and will give you the smoothest ride down to the ground below.
But here’s the thing about skydiving—having just one parachute in your backpack is not enough. When stakes are high, it’s crucial to take proper precautions to minimize risk. Today, I’m going to talk to you about one of the most important protective measures you can take during the college application process—choosing a safety school.
What exactly is a safety school?
As its name suggests, a safety school is a college that presents the least possible risk in terms of acceptance (and, in some cases, affordability—more on that later). As evidenced by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, life can be unpredictable. Your plans, your situation, and your priorities can all change unexpectedly, so it’s important to always have a contingency plan in place for any major decision in life, including your college applications.
Speaking from the experience of a safety school alum, I am here to preach the value of giving yourself options. A safety school can be more than just a fallback when you’ve been rejected. In some cases, it can open doors that would not have been possible at your first-choice school. Most importantly, having multiple acceptance letters gives you the freedom to really weigh your options and choose the school that will be the best possible fit for you.
So how do you choose a safety school?
There are three main factors that you will want to consider when identifying a safety school: likelihood of acceptance, affordability, and compatibility.
- Likelihood of Acceptance: First of all, a safety school should be a school that you feel certain will accept you (there’s no point in having a backup parachute that you’re not sure will open).
But how can you know if you’re sure to be accepted?
Consider a variety of factors as you research. Every college website has an admissions page where you can find statistical information about accepted students, including but not limited to average GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Many universities provide this information in the form of median ranges, which represent the middle 50% of incoming students (i.e. the 25th to the 75th percentiles). This helps to paint a more accurate picture of the average accepted student and, accordingly, your odds of gaining admission.
As an example, let’s look at Pennsylvania State University, which has a somewhat competitive acceptance rate of approximately 49%. Based on the provided statistics for incoming freshmen, the middle 50% of SAT and ACT scores range from 1250-1430 and 28-32, respectively. The middle 50% high school GPA ranges from 3.55 to 3.97 (out of 4.0). In order for Penn State to be your safety school, your stats should ideally fall into the top of (or above) each of these ranges.
Note: Public, state universities are often easier to gauge your odds of acceptance due to the fact that these universities generally process high volumes of applications and thus focus more on numbers (i.e. GPA, test scores, and class rank) than your personal accomplishments or defining characteristics. Due to their size, many state universities are also often less competitive in terms of admission.
Depending on your state, you may be eligible for guaranteed admission if you apply with a certain GPA and SAT/ACT score. Public universities in California and Texas, among other states, offer guaranteed admission to top-ranking, high-performing students who reside in-state. To see if guaranteed admission could apply to you, make sure to visit the admissions page of each college to which you plan to apply.
- Affordability: College is a major financial commitment, and years of tuition, textbooks, housing, and meal plans can quickly add up. Financial aid and scholarships may help to ease the burden, but when it comes down to it, your mind can be a little more at ease knowing that you have an option that won’t break the bank or leave you saddled with debt.
In terms of affordability, public schools can often be very tempting options for in-state applicants, providing a quality education at a fraction of the cost of private universities. In conjunction with their generally higher acceptance rates, public schools are definitely worth considering.
Personally, affordability was the deciding factor in my case. After filing my FAFSA, comparing scholarship offers, and calculating potential debt, I ultimately chose a university that would allow me to achieve my academic goals without breaking the bank. After my graduation four years later, I was free to focus on future opportunities (in my case, travel and grad school).
- Compatibility: Let’s clear up one thing about safety schools. They are not colleges you have zero interest in attending and already know won’t be a fit. Neither does attending a safety school mean you will have to receive a lower quality of education.
When selecting a safety school, you should keep your academic and personal goals in mind. You may already know what you wish to study, in which case you should focus on universities with relevant programs. Maybe you’re sure that you’ll feel more at home in a setting with a smaller student to professor ratio. Keep an open mind as you research and allow for some flexibility—but don’t compromise on the things that are most important to you.
Now that we’ve discussed these important safety school criteria, take a look at the colleges to which you’re planning to apply. Does that list include a school you feel certain will accept you? Do you see a school you know you can afford? If you can’t answer yes to both of these questions, take some time to identify a few other realistic and compatible options.
How many safety schools should you apply to?
Much like the question of how many colleges to apply to in total, this decision is a personal one. Given that there are a variety of factors to consider in choosing a safety school, you may wish to have more than one college on your safety list. It never hurts to have an acceptance letter to an affordable, in-state university in your back pocket, but you may also identify one or two other schools that seem to be safe bets and check off a few additional boxes on your college wishlist.
So while you can apply to more than one safety school, try to limit yourself to colleges you are legitimately considering. Applying to a bunch of schools you know you would never attend is like buying way too much toilet paper during a pandemic—not cool, bro.
Still not loving the idea of a safety school?
Sure, I get it. In some ways, a safety school may seem like a step down. After all, these schools will be the least selective on your list and may not evoke the same sense of prestige and glamour as your dream school. However, you should keep in mind that there are many potential perks to attending a safety school.
- Since you will academically outrank many of your classmates, you may be eligible for more high-quality opportunities such as selective honors programs or academic scholarships.
- If you picked an affordable safety school, you may be more financially free to take advantage of opportunities such as Greek life, study abroad, and more!
- This may not be the last stop in your academic journey—more and more students are electing to pursue a graduate degree. Maybe that dream school is where you’ll get your master’s or PhD one day, and your safety school is the stepping stone that will help you get where you want to go.
We’re living in uncertain times. Whether you’re applying to college or navigating a global pandemic, it’s impossible to be certain of what tomorrow will hold. I encourage you to stay positive, practical, and prepared as you begin your college application journey. Do your research, have contingency plans in place, and get ready to be creative and flexible as you embark on the journey to college and beyond.
Need help with SAT or ACT test prep? Contact a Student Success Advisor today.