The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools

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Creating a school list is a vitally important step in the college application process, but it can also be one of the trickiest. When making your list, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big – in fact, we encourage it! However, it’s easy to make the mistake of neglecting security because you’re so focused on realizing your ambitions. Creating a balanced school list that includes safety, target, and reach schools is key to a successful college application season. But what exactly defines a target school, or a reach school? And what’s the optimal balance of them on a college list?


In this blog post, we’ll clear up some of student’s biggest questions about selecting schools for your college list.


Defining Reach, Safety, and Target Schools

You’ve probably heard the terms “reach”, “safety”, and “target” before in the context of college applications, but it’s we’ll start by defining exactly how we’ll be using these terms in this blog post.


We’ll start by talking about safety schools. A safety school can generally be described as a school to which you have an 80% or above chance of admission. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily mean schools that have above an 80% or above acceptance rate. Rather, it means schools for which your test scores, GPA, and extracurricular accomplishments exceed those of the typical applicant by a significant amount. For example, for a student with a 4.3 GPA and a 32 on their ACT, a school at which the average GPA of admits is 3.5 is probably a safety school, even if said school has a 40% acceptance rate.


A target school is a school at which you have between a 20% and 80% chance of admission, or in other words, a school where your profile is generally similar to that of the typical admit. Again, a “20% to 80% chance of admission” is relative – a target school will be very different for a student with a 4.0 and a student with a 2.0.


Finally, we’ll discuss the most infamous of the three: the reach school. Any school at which you have less than a 20% chance at acceptance should be considered a reach school. In most cases, this could be defined as schools where the profile of the average admit exceeds yours to some extent.


However, in some cases, even if your profile is equal to or even greater than that of the average admit, you should still consider the school a reach. This is true primarily for extremely competitive schools, such as the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, MIT, etc.: these schools receive so many qualified applicants that even those who meet the standards get turned away. Consequently, even the most competitive applicants should consider any school with an acceptance rate less than 15% or so a reach school.

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Why is Having a Balanced School List Important?

It’s no secret that college apps take a lot – and we mean a lot – of time and work. Assuming you don’t wait till that last minute (and we strongly recommend that you don’t), the process of writing supplementary essays and filling out questionnaire can and should be time-consuming. Accordingly, applying to too many schools is an unwise choice that probably won’t allow you to give each application the time and attention it deserves.


However, no one wants to apply separately to 20+ schools; therefore, the issue usually doesn’t stem from a school list being too long, but rather too unbalanced. Imagine a student, understanding that they cannot feasibly apply to more than 15 schools or so, chooses to apply only to their top choices to cut down their list. The obvious pitfall of this course of action is that if the student is not accepted to any of their top choice schools, which is a serious possibility if said schools are all extremely competitive or the student has not selected their college list wisely, they are left with few options.


However, if you craft your college list carefully and ensure an appropriate balance of safety, target, and reach schools, you can maximize your chances at admission to at least one school while still allowing yourself time to perfect your application for your dream school. How you choose to structure your school list is up to you, but a smart balance to shoot for is 25% safety schools, 40% target schools, and 35% reach schools.


You shouldn’t think of safeties as a worst-case scenario that will never come to fruition, but rather as a practical and viable alternative in case your other options don’t pan out. Accordingly, conduct research on potential safeties to find a school that you would actually be content with attending. Additionally, keep in mind when making your list that your applications for reach schools will likely take the longest. More competitive schools typically have more complex applications, and you’ll probably want to take some extra time to ensure your applications for these schools are as complete and well-written as possible.


It can be easy to fixate on reach schools in the admissions process; for many students, applying to a certain school can be a first step towards realizing a long-lasting dream, and it’s only natural to want to spend your time on the most exciting applications. Ultimately, though, your best bet is to go the pragmatic route and devote some time and attention to safety and target applications too.


Sure, applying to a safety school you’re almost certain to be admitted to may not be as glamorous as perfecting the application you’ve been dreaming about for years, but it’s a smart, practical choice that you’ll only thank yourself for later. A college list with a perfect balance of safety, target, and reach schools is the first step in a productive, successful applications season.


To learn more about what a college list is and what it entails, check out these CollegeVine posts:


Seven Tips for Creating Your College List

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List

10 Considerations For Making Your College List


Making a college list can be a daunting task and it may even feel as though you have no idea where to begin. Using the tips contained here, you should be able to start a comprehensive and personalized college list that will steer your ultimate college selection in the right direction.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Short bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.