How to Choose Your Safety, Target, and Reach Schools

Choosing the right college starts with the simple act of making a list. But what schools should you include on your list? How many colleges should you apply to? And how can you select the right range of schools for ensuring admission while also shooting for the stars?

How to Choose Your Safety, Target, and Reach Schools

The key to choosing the right college is to make a list identifying your Safety Schools, Target Schools, and Reach Schools. Read on for tips on making this list, and for a link to our College Strategist Tool, which gives you all the information you need to get started.

You’re making a list.
Checking it twice.
But which schools to include?
Take our advice.

Sorry. I know that was terrible. But we’re getting into the spirit of the season around here. What season, you ask?

Why, college admissions season, of course! Preparing your applications is a long process that generally begins with the creation of a list. Before you start writing essays and visiting campuses, you need to identify a batch of colleges and universities where you can see yourself spending at least the next four years.

So how many schools should you include on that list? And how can you prioritize your options? Are there some schools on your list that you’re more excited about than others? Are there schools you should include just to improve your odds of admission?

In other words, how do we get started on this all-important first step? The key is to select 10 schools divided into three categories:

  • Safety Schools
  • Target Schools; and
  • Reach Schools.

We’ll tell you exactly what this means and how to do it.

You could jump directly to our College Strategist Tool, where you can enter in factors such as your standardized test scores, intended major, and state of residence, and instantly receive a list of schools divided into Safety, Target and Reach categories.

Or you could read on to find out what factors go into identifying your Safety, Target, and Reach schools...

Choosing Safety Schools

Safety schools are colleges or universities that you feel confident about getting into. Safety schools are those at which your GPA, test scores, and general high school résumé would be considered exemplary. For a frame of reference, choose a few schools where your standardized test scores, GPA, and class rank are generally above the 75th percentile among admitted students.

These are schools where you should be a shoe-in for admission. You may not necessarily be as excited about these schools, but they meet all of your basic needs and you know you’ll be accepted to a few of them.

This is important. These are your fallback options in case nothing else quite clicks. The point of applying to your safety schools is so that you have just a few guaranteed landing spots that live up to your standards and expectations.

And of course, like all the schools on your list, you’ll want to visit the schools you’ve included here, and you should put as much effort into these applications as you would applications for the top schools on your list. Whatever your expectations, you should take seriously the possibility that one of your safety schools could be your home for the next several years.

Not only that, but you should allow yourself the opportunity to truly love this school. You may even find, after visiting campus, that a school on your safety list is, in fact, the best fit for your social, geographical, financial, and even academic needs. Remain open-minded!

Try to include two to three Safety Schools on your list.

Identifying Target Schools

Your Target Schools, or your “Match Schools” are those colleges and universities which are at once an excellent fit for you, and where you believe you have a strong chance of gaining admission. Your academic performance metrics should align closely with those of other admitted students. Target Schools are those at which your standardized test scores, GPA, and class rank fall between the 50th and 75th percentile of admitted students. This puts you in the sweet spot for academic compatibility.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll be guaranteed admission. You may have the perfect test scores, class rank, and extracurricular activities for a school, but the reasons behind admission decisions are sometimes hazy and mysterious. That’s exactly why you started your list with a batch of safety schools. But in most cases, your Target Schools will include one or two schools that you consider your likeliest possible destinations. In an ideal world, you’ll ultimately be narrowing your choices down to one or two from this list.

So be sure that in addition to identifying schools where you would be a good academic fit, you’ve included the schools that you consider most desirable. Look to include schools where the size, diversity, faculty, subject offerings, location, and culture most appeal to you. Again, being an ideal candidate does not guarantee acceptance. However, if you select these schools intuitively, the odds are good that you’ll get into one or two of them.

Try to include between three and five Target Schools on your list.

[Check out our conversation with admissions expert Jeff Selingo to learn more about the sometimes nebulous process of college admissions.]

Picking Reach Schools

Reach Schools are those colleges and universities where your chances of admission may be somewhat lower, but where your academic credentials meet the basic thresholds for admission. In this case, you should select a few colleges or universities where your test scores, GPA, and class rank fall at or below the 25th percentile of admitted students.

Maybe your standardized tests are a little on the low side for the elite schools on your list, but you have a sterling GPA and great essay-writing skills. Maybe you fell short of expectations in a few classes but you nearly aced your SATs and you have awesome extracurriculars. You may not fit the exact profile of the ideal student for some of the top schools, but that doesn’t mean you don’t fit in at all.

Choose a few schools that might be just outside of your range. Then, prepare to do everything in your power—from letters of recommendation and an amazing personal statement to an interview request—to prove that you belong.

At the end of the day, if you fall short of your Reach School, no harm done. You should have plenty of options from among your Safety and Target Schools. Worst case scenario—you spend a few extra dollars applying to some long-shot universities. Best case scenario—you surprise yourself by gaining admission into one of the top colleges in the world.

But remember, you’re not just choosing prestigious schools with amazing reputations. You should be looking for the best school for you. So before you shoot out your applications to a bunch of Ivy League Deans of Admission, make sure that even your Reach Schools are a good social, cultural, and academic fit. The top schools on your list should be noted for the disciplines that most interest you; should offer a campus experience where you’ll feel comfortable; should be compatible with your financial situation, etc.

In other words, don’t select your Reach schools based on an imagined standard of excellence. Choose excellent schools that actually match your needs and interests. And hey, when it comes to getting into your dream school, you’ll never know unless you try!

Try to include between two and three Reach Schools on your list.

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If you’re still seeking out the school with the very best fit for your needs, you can start by checking out our List of the Most Influential Schools by discipline.

You can also select schools based on the campus and class experience you desire with the help of our Concentrated Influence metric.

And once again, if you just want us to help you get the ball rolling on your list, check out our College Strategist Tool, where you can enter in factors such as your standardized test scores, intended major, and state of residence, and instantly receive a list of schools divided into Safety, Target and Reach categories.