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What are Safety, Reach and Match Schools?

a student reaches his hand out for a life preserver

It's easy to feel overwhelmed as you build your college list. But we suggest thinking about schools you're interested in just a little differently. After all, having a favorite school doesn’t always mean you’ll get in.

You may have heard your counselor talk about safety, reach, and match schools. But what do these terms actually mean? Just as importantly, how do you determine your reach, target, and safety schools? And does your list include enough of each? 


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To help you identify and plan out your match, reach, and safety schools, we've written this guide that covers the basics and more. So let's get started. 

What is a “safety” school?

A safety school is any college or university where you have an 80% chance or higher of being accepted. Although you can never be sure whether a school will admit you, compare your SAT or ACT scores and your GPA to their student body average.

You should be in the 75th percentile or above for a campus to be considered a safe bet. Put another way, safeties are colleges that accept the majority of applicants. They're sometimes considered backup schools. But don’t let that fool you – they’re often great schools!

Why do I need safety schools?

No matter how great you think your application is, there’s always a chance you won’t get into your dream school. Likewise, there’s a chance you won’t get into your second or third choices, either.

Beyond a simple rejection, other circumstances can arise that may make it difficult (or impossible) for you to attend your top schools, even if you are accepted. Shifting finances, family emergencies, and changes of heart can all lead to waylaid plans. For these reasons and more, safety schools are a necessity. 

There’s a reason we’re saying “safety schools” — and that’s because it’s best to have more than one. In the event that you need to go to a college that’s not one of your top choices, you want options. The goal is to get into college, and a safety school is infinitely better than no school at all.

How many safety schools should I have?

It's best to Put at least two safety schools on your list, just in case.  More than three will detract from the time you spend on other competitive applications. 

How to choose your safety schools

Now that you understand the necessity of “safety schools” or safe colleges to apply to, let’s talk about how to select the right ones for you. 

Important Clarification Point: Your safety schools are schools that you can see yourself attending IF you ONLY were accepted there (and no other schools on your list). For many applicants, these are public, in-state schools with higher acceptance rates and lower tuition costs. Small or lesser-known private campuses also qualify as safety schools. If your dream is a liberal arts college in the northeast, consider others nearby or those with similar student body sizes. 

Spend some time determining the profile of your ideal school to find safety schools. The first factor you’ll want to consider is price. You should be able to afford a safety school, even in the worst of cases.

Consult various rankings and make a note of tuition prices, as you don’t want to end up admitted to safety schools that are out of your budget.) Next up, check for admission requirements. You want to be sure that you exceed the average GPA, standardized test scores, and other metrics of current attendees at all safety colleges you’re applying to.

Finally, take some time to think about location and culture. Often, students select safety schools that are close to home. Some also diversify their portfolios by having options around the country. When it comes to culture, select a school that you can see yourself attending.

When applying to safety schools, fill out applications with as much effort as you'd spend on any other location. Admissions officers can tell when a student doesn't care about being accepted. Do your best work.


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What is a “reach” school?

A reach school is a college or university that you may have difficulty getting into due to your current high school resume or acceptance rates. Reach schools are typically more prestigious institutions with acceptance rates at or under 30 or 20 percent.

Common examples of reach schools are Ivy Leagues, like Harvard, the University of Chicago, Yale, and MIT. Reach schools admit very few students or have requirements you may not meet. That’s not to say you won’t get in – plenty of students receive acceptance letters from their first-choice reach schools.

Remember, it’s called a reach college because it’ll be a lot of hard work to create a strong application. But it can be done.

It’s important to remember that reach schools differ from applicant to applicant. With that in mind: what is a reach college for you? Generally, a college is considered a reach if your test scores fall below the 25th percentile of students enrolled at the college.

Why do I need a reach school?

While you don’t technically need a reach school, we recommend putting together an application for at least one or two. After all, “reach school” and “dream school” are synonymous for many students — and it’s always important to chase your dreams.

If you’re okay with the application fees and the time it takes to fill out each application, you can apply to as many reach schools as you want. As you’re applying, try to focus on the unique things that separate you from other applicants. Spend extra time crafting a standout essay or creating supplemental materials that show your unique personality and drive. Sometimes, these components of an application can impress an admissions office enough to balance out grades, test scores, and other conventional metrics.

How many reach schools should I have?

Ideally, you should put two or three reach schools on your list. You never know what might happen, so it's worth trying for your dream school(s).


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What is a “match” school?

Match schools are typically known as a perfect fit when it comes to applying to colleges. They’re not hard for you to get into, but you’re not absolutely guaranteed admission, either. Your GPA and test scores should match those of the current incoming freshman class.

A college is considered a good fit if your admissions test scores are between the 25th and 75th percentiles of students enrolled at the college.

Why do I need match schools?

Match schools are colleges that you can realistically get into and see yourself attending. For many, match schools are also “dream schools,” and for some, match schools are simply solid choices. Since the odds of you getting into a match school are good (but typically not a sure thing), we recommend applying to several. That way, you’ll have a handful of desirable options when it comes time to make your big choice.

How many match schools should I have?

You should keep three or four match colleges on your list. That way, you have plenty of choices, whether you’re accepted to every school or just a couple.

reach, safety and match school infographic


Where do Ivy League schools come in?

Because Ivy League schools so heavily limit their student population, many very qualified students get denied, even ones identical to other accepted students. Because of this, it’s helpful to keep Ivy League institutions entirely separate from your Likely, Target, and Reach schools college list. 

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t apply to them — do it! Submit your application! There’s a chance you could fall in that small percent accepted. On top of sending in your applications to the Ivy League, make sure to make a list of Likely, Target, and Reach schools to apply to.

Choosing the right schools for you

While admissions statistics are important when deciding whether to apply to certain schools, the most crucial factors come from you. Could you see yourself at that school? Would you like the campus and culture? What about the college's location and climate? Could you be happy there? You should ask yourself these big questions before adding them to your list. 

Granted, some schools may need to fit certain quantifiable criteria (student body size, cost, majors offered) to meet your needs — but the central point is that those needs should come first. Don’t worry about whether you’ll get in until you’ve looked into the college as a good fit for you.

“Good fit” colleges can fall into all of the three categories covered in this guide: safety schools, reach schools, and match schools. What matters is that they have the academics, extracurriculars, location, and overall campus culture that you’re looking for.

All in all, you should be applying to roughly 10 schools. This will give you a good spread of all three school types to choose from without overwhelming you with too many options. You can apply for more. Just be sure you balance your time (and budget).

Find your right fit with Appily's college finder

If you’ve finished this article, you now know the difference between safety schools, reach schools, and match schools — and why applying to each is important. Now that you know how to set up your college list, head over to your Appily profile and start looking for your safety, reach, and match schools.

At Appily, we’re here to help to make your college search and selection process as successful as possible. Use our platform to search colleges and sign up for an account to calculate your chances at schools nationwide.

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