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Applying to Safety, Target, and Reach Schools

Wednesday | February 28, 2018 | by Emily Toffelmire

reach school

Harvard. Yale. Stanford. MIT. These are all universities you have probably heard of, and for good reason: They are among the most highly ranked, prestigious universities in the U.S. That also means they are very, very hard to get into. With schools this elite, a perfect SAT or ACT score and a flawless transcript are not enough to guarantee you admission.

Highly selective schools expect these impressive academic achievements, but they also expect you to be exceedingly accomplished outside of the classroom, and to present an application that stands out for its excellent writing and enthusiastic recommendations from your teachers. These universities review you not just for academic and extracurricular accomplishments, but also for personal characteristics that signify you are a match for their campus culture and, possibly, your prospective major.

That is a lot to expect from an applicant, right? This is exactly why it is so important for you to apply to a variety of universities and colleges, not just ones that are extremely selective. Although it is always admirable to aim high, you also want to be realistic. I give this advice to not only international students but to everyone.

Let us say you have decided to apply to seven schools in the U.S. It is smart to choose a balanced ratio of schools that fall into different categories of selectivity. For example:

  • Two “no problem” schools: Also referred to as safety schools, these are campuses where you have a very strong chance of being admitted because you are far above average compared to the typical admitted student. Because of this, these are also the campuses most likely to offer you merit scholarships.
  • Three “just right” schools: Also referred to as target schools, these are campuses where you fit the average admitted student profile.
  • Two “challenging” schools: Also referred to as reach schools, these are campuses where you are either below the average admitted student’s profile, or campuses that have such low admission rates (often less than 15 percent) that it is a challenge for anyone to get in. (The four universities I mentioned at the beginning of this article? Yes, they would all fit in the challenging category, regardless of how amazing of a student you are.)

To figure out if you are a strong candidate for a school, visit the admission office’s website for each university, where you can usually find the most recent year’s admitted student profile. This will tell you the average test scores and GPA for admitted students, as well as demographic information, like where the students are from and what ethnicities they represent.

You might still be asking yourself, “Why bother applying to schools that are not top-ranked and very hard to get into? What is the point of going anywhere else?” There are a couple of reasons:

  • Rankings are not everything. Just because a school is number one according to a magazine, that does not mean it is the best place for you. In fact, that school may not even have the major you want. Remember to research fit, not just rank.
  • The university experience is what you make it. You can take interesting classes, learn from experienced professors, join clubs, have internships, and prepare for graduate school or a career on literally any college campus. These opportunities are not reserved for students at the top 20 schools in the country.
  • You will want some guaranteed good news! If you apply only to schools that admit 15 percent or fewer of their applicants, there is a strong chance you will receive nothing but unhappy news in March, the month when most admission decisions are sent to applicants. Do not let your dreams of studying in the U.S. disappear just because you were overly confident and unrealistic.

Final Tips

The U.S. admission process can be frustrating and mystifying, especially when you have done all the things you thought you were supposed to do, like get great test scores and grades. But there are over 3,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. with admission rates ranging from four percent to 100 percent. It may be a confusing system, but it is one that has a place for everyone, regardless of your country of origin. Open yourself up to a variety of schools, not just the ones everyone seems to be obsessed with, apply to a mix of safety, target, and reach schools, and you will find a world of new possibilities.

Related Reading

U.S. Colleges and Universities

Common College Terms Explained

Match, Reach, and Safety Schools Defined

Emily Toffelmire photo

Emily Toffelmire is a Senior Manager of Educational Consulting at Bright Horizons College Coach.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).