high school students looking at college brochure

Call them what you may – likely, foundation, strong possibility, or no problem colleges – there is no such thing as a safety school anymore. Most students consider a “safety” (a term, it should be known, that colleges themselves universally find distasteful) to be a school that nearly guarantees them admission. In other words, the students’ grades, rigor, and test scores place them so far above the typical admitted student, that gaining admission into those particular colleges seems to be a sure thing, a slam dunk. But as someone who – for the past 13 years – has diligently created lists of best fit colleges for high school seniors, I know that the days of feeling secure in a safety school are long gone.

What has changed about the competitive admissions landscape that has so drastically altered our perception of what counts as a safety? Simply put, colleges are so inundated by applications from qualified students (who regularly apply to more than 10+ colleges a piece) that they simply cannot offer every admissible student a spot in the incoming class. Last year, Tulane University received over 41,000 applications and admitted just 13%. Boston University received over 62,000 applications and admitted 18%. And New York University received nearly 77,000 applications and admitted 16%. So why do some families insist that schools like Tulane, BU, and NYU are safeties? Even for the strongest applicants, it’s impossible to confidently say that you will be a slam dunk for a school that admits such a small percentage of its applicants.

As parents are quick to remind us, it didn’t always used to be this way. Acceptance rates at some of today’s most selective institutions used to admit far greater percentages of applications back in the 1970s and 80s. But with so many students applying to college today, admission offices have the luxury of being ultra-choosy. And, thanks in large part to the powerful rankings game perpetuated by US News & World Report, colleges don’t want to “waste” an acceptance on a student who isn’t likely to enroll. That’s why you’ve likely heard stories about amazing students – valedictorians, student body presidents, basketball captains, and so forth – getting deferred or waitlisted from their perceived “safety” schools.

Simply because college admissions decisions appear as unpredictable as ever doesn’t mean that well-meaning students can’t find solace in a thoughtfully researched and realistic college list. To maximize your chances of getting into the less selective colleges on your list, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Even safety schools want to feel loved. It’s common for admissions officers to pass over highly qualified applicants who demonstrate little or no interest in favor of students who express genuine enthusiasm in attending. Take the time to show a little love to all of the schools on your final college list. This might include visiting campus, attending an open house, registering for an off-campus reception in your area, signing up for an interview, meeting with the admissions rep when they visit your high school, attending a college fair, and/or writing a fabulous “why X college” supplemental essay that proves you’ve done your research and have sincere interest in the school.
  • Some majors are more selective than others. Even at your “safety” school, certain majors may still be out of reach. For example, a student who is well qualified to be admitted to the University of Massachusetts Amherst may not get into their first choice program if they’re applying to one of the school’s most selective majors, such as nursing, business, or education. At other schools, like the University of Washington or the University of Illinois, computer science is one of the most competitive majors for first-year applicants. To make your “safety” even safer, consider applying to a less selective division at the university (assuming, of course, that you’d still be happy to start your studies in a different major; transferring internally to your preferred division after a semester or two is an option at many universities).
  • Admissions statistics can be your friends. The numbers themselves won’t tell the full picture, but looking at admitted student profiles on the College Board Big Future website, Naviance, or a college’s website itself can help you determine your relative position in a school’s applicant pool. If, for example, your ACT score is 32 and you’re hoping the University of Miami might be a safety for you, look at the middle 50% ACT range for Miami’s class of 2023: 31-34. That means a score of 32 (which is a very strong score!) is average for Miami. That, coupled with the school’s 27% acceptance rate, means I would never consider Miami a sure bet for any applicant. Having test scores that are higher than the middle 50% is one clue you are more likely to be admitted to your safety school.

Safety schools often get a bad rap. Students automatically assume that safety schools aren’t as “good” as other colleges on their lists, simply because they’re less selective. And it can be psychologically challenging to fall in love with a school that welcomes you with open arms. (As the old joke goes, “I don’t care to belong to a club that will have me as a member.”) But it’s detrimental not only to assume that your safety schools are a guaranteed sure thing, but also that safety schools shouldn’t receive your full consideration in the admissions process. Assuming you are admitted because your application is strong enough and you demonstrated clear interest in the school, there are lots of great reasons for anyone to consider attending a “safety” school.

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Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College. Visit our website to learn more about Elyse Krantz.