What is a safety school? As your time in high school comes to an end, you may feel like you’re about to go skydiving. You’re both nervous and excited as you prepare to jump out of a perfectly good plane—your school, your home, your friends—into a wide world of possibilities. College will be the parachute that carries you down to the ”real world”, and during the next four (or more) years, you will get your first taste of freedom and independence, not to mention the education you will need to specialize in a field that will likely someday be paying your bills.  

You’ve probably already had a few thoughts about where you’d like to spend these exciting years ahead. Some have Ivy League dreams. For others, like my past angsty teenage self, the goal was to be as geographically far away from home as possible. And still others may have no clue where they want to end up. Regardless of where you are in your thought process, it’s clear that this decision is both an important and a personal one: you want to find a parachute that is perfectly suited to your needs and will give you the smoothest ride down to the ground below. 

Find the right parachute for you!

But here’s the thing about skydiving—having just one parachute in your backpack is not enough. When stakes are high, it’s crucial to take proper precautions to minimize risk. Today, I’m going to talk to you about one of the most important protective measures you can take during the college application process—choosing a safety school.

What exactly is a safety school? 

As its name suggests, a safety school is a college that presents the least possible risk in terms of acceptance (and, in some cases, affordability—more on that later). As evidenced by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, life can be unpredictable. Your plans, your situation, and your priorities can all change unexpectedly, so it’s important to always have a contingency plan in place for any major decision in life, including your college applications. 

Speaking from the experience of a safety school alum, I am here to preach the value of giving yourself options. A safety school can be more than just a fallback when you’ve been rejected. In some cases, it can open doors that would not have been possible at your first-choice school. Most importantly, having multiple acceptance letters gives you the freedom to really weigh your options and choose the school that will be the best possible fit for you.

So how do you choose a safety school?

There are three main factors that you will want to consider when identifying a safety school: likelihood of acceptance, affordability, and compatibility. 

  1. Likelihood of Acceptance: First of all, a safety school should be a school that you feel certain will accept you (there’s no point in having a backup parachute that you’re not sure will open). 
But how can you know if you’re sure to be accepted? 

Consider a variety of factors as you research. Every college website has an admissions page where you can find statistical information about accepted students, including but not limited to average GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Many universities provide this information in the form of median ranges, which represent the middle 50% of incoming students (i.e. the 25th to the 75th percentiles). This helps to paint a more accurate picture of the average accepted student and, accordingly, your odds of gaining admission.  

As an example, let’s look at Pennsylvania State University, which has a somewhat competitive acceptance rate of approximately 49%. Based on the provided statistics for incoming freshmen, the middle 50% of SAT and ACT sc