What is a Safety School in College Admissions?

Learn to Identify Safety Schools or Back-Up Schools When Applying to College

Students in auditorium audience watching professor on stage
Safety schools. Hero Images / Getty Images

A safety school (sometimes called a "back-up school") is a college that you will almost certainly get into because your standardized test scores, class rank and high school grades are well above the average for admitted students. Also, safety schools will always have relatively high acceptance rates.

Key Takeaways: Safety Schools

  • A safety school is one that is almost certain to admit you because your qualifications are much stronger than most applicants.
  • Don't apply to a safety school if you can't see yourself going there.
  • Since admission is nearly guaranteed, you need just one or two safety schools on your college list.
  • Ivy League and highly selective colleges are never safety schools even if you have stellar grades and standardized test scores.

How Do You Know If a School Qualifies as a "Safety"?

Some students make the mistake of over-estimating their chances at colleges by considering schools safeties that should have been match schools. In most cases, this is fine and the applicants get into one of their match schools, but once in a while, students find themselves in the unenviable position of being rejected by every college to which they applied. To avoid finding yourself in this situation, it's important to identify properly your safety schools. Here are some tips:

  • Explore the college profiles on this site and find schools for which your SAT and/or ACT scores are at or above the 75% numbers. This places you in the top 25% of applicants for this measure, so assuming your grades, application essay (if applicable) and other measures are in line, you should have a very good chance of being admitted.
  • If a college has open admissions and you have met the minimum requirements for admission, you can obviously consider that school a safety school.
  • Similarly, community colleges can be considered safety schools—they almost always have open admissions and simply require a high school diploma or GED to enroll. Just keep in mind that spaces can be limited for some programs, so you'll want to apply and register as early as possible.

Don't Apply to Colleges You Don't Want to Attend

Far too often students apply to so-called safety schools rather thoughtlessly with no plans of ever attending. If you can't see yourself being happy at your safety schools, you haven't chosen the colleges on your short list carefully. If you've done your research well, your safety schools should be colleges and universities that have a campus culture and academic programs that are a good match for your personality, interests, and professional goals. Many outstanding institutions have high acceptance rates and can fall into the category of a "safety" school. Don't simply default to the local community college or regional university if you really can't picture yourself there. 

Think of a safety school as a college you like that is likely to admit you. Don't think of it in terms of settling for a lesser college you have no interest in attending. If you will be filled with regret if you have to attend one of your safety schools, you need to spend more time identifying the right colleges.

To How Many Safety Schools Should You Apply?

With reach schools, applying to quite a few institutions can make sense since your chances of being admitted are slim. The more times you play the lottery, the more likely you are to win. With safety schools, on the other hand, one or two schools will suffice. Assuming you have identified your safety schools properly, you will almost certainly be admitted, so you don't need to apply to more than one or two favorites.

Some Schools Are Never Safeties

Even if you're a valedictorian with perfect SAT scores, you should never consider the top U.S. colleges and top universities to be safety schools. The admissions standards at these schools are so high that no one is guaranteed acceptance. Indeed, any college that has highly selective admissions should be considered a match school at best, even if you are a remarkably strong student.

Those straight "A"s and 800s on the SAT certainly make it likely that you will get in, but they don't guarantee admission. The country's most selective schools all have holistic admissions, and it's always possible that other strong candidates will be chosen instead of you. As an example, the rejection data for Brown University reveals that a significant number of applicants with 4.0 unweighted GPAs and near perfect SAT and ACT scores were rejected.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "What is a Safety School in College Admissions?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-safety-school-788443. Grove, Allen. (2021, January 31). What is a Safety School in College Admissions? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-safety-school-788443 Grove, Allen. "What is a Safety School in College Admissions?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-safety-school-788443 (accessed March 20, 2023).

Watch Now: Difference Between Early Decision and Early Action