Safety, match, and reach schools explained

college buildingBack in the day, people only needed to apply to one college because they were pretty sure they'd get in. It was pretty much guaranteed if you made the National Honors Society that you would get into the school of your choice. Nowadays it’s not unheard of that students apply to more than a dozen schools. Applying to 12 colleges is not only exhausting, it’s expensive. So is it really necessary?

One of the first steps in your application strategy is knowing which colleges or universities are safety, match, and reach schools:

Safety – Applying to safety schools is like bumper bowling. It might not be your first choice, but you’re almost certain you’ll get in.

Compare your SAT/ACT scores, GPA and class rank with the school you’re considering. Are they well above average compared to the college’s current freshman class? Is their average ACT score 21 and you got a 29? Is the average GPA a 3.0 and you have a 3.8? If so, it’s probably a safety school. If you’re having trouble finding a school you know you’ll get into, a community college could be your safety school. The point is to have a back-up plan.


>>9 reasons to choose a community college

Students sometimes blow off applying to schools they feel overqualified for.  However, if you’re one of their top applicants, there’s a good chance you’ll get some great scholarships. In addition to free money, some schools will put you in honors or accelerated programs or offer internships or research opportunities.


>>9 things you need to know about scholarships

Match – Finding a match school is like finding a shoe that fits. And you know what they say, if the shoe fits, wear it. You’ll probably find a good balance of challenging and interesting courses and activities at these colleges. You won’t be too overwhelmed, but you also won’t be bored.

If your SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and class rank fall pretty close to the average for their current freshman class, it’s probably a match. There’s still no guarantee you’ll get in, so make sure you apply to at least one safety school.

Reach – You can probably already guess what reach schools are. Your chances of getting in are slim, but maybe the admissions officers will be in a good mood the day they read your application.

If your safety school is a community college, I wouldn’t suggest applying to Harvard as your reach school. But if you fall within the bottom range of their freshman class, you may still have a chance.


If you have your heart set on getting into a top tier school, keep it on your reach list. Ivy League colleges are reach schools for everyone, even if you think they’re your matches.

Now that you know about safety, match, and reach schools, how many of each should you apply to? This will depend on your personal preferences. I applied to three safety, three match, and three reach schools. I was offered at least half scholarships to all my safety schools and got into all my matches. For my reach schools, I was waitlisted at one and rejected by the other two.

You don’t have to apply to nine schools like I did. Make sure you have at least one safety and one match. Applying to a reach school is your choice, but wouldn’t it be a nice surprise if you did get in?


>>3 things you think matter, but don't


>>4 potential deal breakers