The Case for Safeties

It seems one of the most frequent hurdles I have to overcome with my students (especially those of a higher caliber with strong ACT and SAT scores, high GPAs and tons of AP courses on their transcript) is making the case for safety schools.

Before we go any further, let me tell you what a safety school is. A safety school is a school where you have a strong chance of being admitted based upon the admission rate and the way your academic profile compares with that of the average student admitted to that college or university. For example, if a school has a 75% admission rate, and an average ACT score of 24 and you have a 3.7 GPA and a 28 ACT, that school would be considered a safety for you.

Now let me tell you what a safety school is not. A safety school is not a ‘last resort.’ A safety school is not a bad school. A safety school is not the end of the world.

Adding safeties to your list means adding options, opportunities, and choices.


There are many benefits to applying to and perhaps eventually attending your safety school. In most cases, safety schools are the most likely to be generous with financial aid awards. If a safety school by definition is a school where your test scores and grades are higher than most other applicants, then once can assume you are most likely to be awarded scholarships and merit-based aid (a financial award that a college-bound student may receive based on high school success) at that same school.

Or, think of it this way. You could attend Harvard and pay 70k a year, graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt and a 2.9 GPA. OR you could graduate from a safety school with close to no student loan debt and the ability to list ‘graduated with honors’ on your resume when applying to college. Believe it or not, most jobs ask for your college GPA when applying. GPA matters. Sure it’s impressive to graduate from a big-name university, but less so if your GPA was a 2.0.

Be a big fish in a little sea

If you want to get really black and white here, you have two options. You could go to an extremely competitive and selective college or university and struggle to stay afloat and keep up with all of the other top students floating around with you, or you could go to a safety school where YOU are the top dog on campus. This could also mean some great opportunities, like access to top internships or more interaction with professors. (Of, course I realize there are more than just these two options, but bear with me as I try to make a point.)

Honors College

A great way to make a safety school feel more competitive or selective is to apply to be a part of the Honors College or Honors Program at that school. Honors programs often come with great benefits, like access to signing up for classes early, mentorships, and special housing where you know you’ll be surrounded by other scholars and students who take their studies seriously. This is a popular route for students who wish to attend large universities but still want that ‘small school feel.’

Of course, in the end the best college list is one that is balanced and that includes safety, target and reach options. But I find the hardest part for most students is finding enough safeties.

The key is to find a safety that you actually like- one that doesn’t feel like a last resort, one that you would be happy attending.

Whenever I think about safety schools, one particular student comes to mind. This young man had excellent test scores, a strong GPA and a transcript loaded with AP courses. He applied to many wonderful and reputable ‘big name schools’ but he also submitted an application to the University of Nebraska as a backup.

He didn’t have any real intentions of attending and never looked into the school too seriously (actually, I have a pretty good feeling that he threw that school on his list only to appease me). Well, this student ended up being offered a spot in a very unique, very competitive honors college that included a scholarship that covered the entire cost of tuition.

Essentially, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. This student is now one year from graduation and has an incredible experience. Not only was he matched with an amazing internship through this unique program, but he’s also been guaranteed a job after graduation.

So. That’s it. My case for safeties. I beg you students and parents, please give them a fair shot.

– Rachel Wassink, PES Student Services Consultant

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