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Selecting Colleges: Reach, Match and Safety Schools

Junior year is the right time to begin researching schools of potential interest and to compile an initial list.  Given today’s competitive admissions climate, experts suggest 10 to 20 “right fit” colleges (25% – reach, 50% – match, 25% – safety) based on your academic achievements and other factors.

Reach Match Safety

Selecting colleges and universities that appeal to you in all three categories is a sound combination strategy to manage your risk and maintain your upside. Reach schools are usually your top choice colleges, and those most difficult to get into. Match (or target) schools are those where you have a reasonable (typically better than 50-50) chance of admission. Safety schools are those where you typically are somewhat overqualified, where you will almost certainly gain admission.

When categorizing your list of colleges, it’s important to look candidly at your admissions profile and the selectivity of the college. If the school’s admissions rate is under 30%, it’s probably not a true safety school for many applicants — even those with well above average scores and other strong factors. A number of the most selective schools turn down more students with perfect SAT scores than they admit.


Some students, especially those seeking admission to the most selective colleges, should consider adding additional gradations: high reach, low reach, likely, high safety, etc. A high reach might be a school where the candidate is in the 25th SAT and GPA percentiles and doesn’t have any really special activities or “hook”. If your qualifications put you in the “average pile”, maybe it’s prudent to consider the college as more of a semi-reach. In today’s competitive environment, to keep your expectations realistic, some counselors suggest you don’t use the term safety – since admissions is hardly ever a sure thing — but name the category “probable” instead.


Insiders advise you to beware of the “super stretch” – it’s important to know the difference between a legitimate reach school that is a bit of a stretch, and a school where it is just about impossible for you to get in. They also advise you to make sure you like your safety (or probable) and match schools. Select them carefully as you may end up there. A final bit of advice is to try to manage your emotions vis-à-vis the reach colleges. You may have your heart set on attending but the admissions officers may decide otherwise – make sure you have good back up options. At the same time, don’t be afraid to reach for the top and don’t be shy about applying to a few additional schools – just in case.

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