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Safety, Reach, and Match Schools: Everything You Need to Know

By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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and Cece Gilmore

Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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Reviewed by Bill Jack

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: November 29th, 2023
Safety, Reach, and Match Schools: Everything You Need to Know

As you apply for college, it’s a good idea to apply to a wide variety of schools in order to keep your options open. In order to have a wide spread of options, you should apply to several safety, reach, and match schools. Wondering what those terms mean? In this article, we’ll get into the definition of each term and explain how to use it to your advantage.

Read on to learn what safety, reach and match schools are, and why you should apply to some of each. Then, we’ll explain how to find the right ones for you, and how many of each to apply to. 

Safety schools

What they are

Safety schools are schools that you are confident you will gain admission to. These tend to be large and sometimes public universities. To get an idea of whether you have a good chance of being admitted, you can compare your GPA and test scores to those of admitted students. Find the average GPA and test scores of admitted students, and make sure you are at least in the 75th percentile. If you are, you can count this as a safety school.

Read more: Finding a financial safety school

Why you should apply

Safety schools may seem like the least attractive option in your application. It’s natural that you’ll have a desire to go to the best school you get into. But it’s crucial not to forget safety schools. There are a few reasons for this. The first is, you want to be sure that you have college options when your applications are done. Chances are, you’ll at least get into somewhere, but if all your match schools deny you, you’ll want to have a safety option.

Another reason to apply to safety schools is for financial aid. Since you should be easily qualified for a safety school, they will be especially keen to have you enroll. This might mean they’ll offer you better financial aid than other schools. If something happens in your financial situation between application and college choice time, this could be crucial. Having an affordable option could be your ticket to going to school.

You should also remember that you can’t know what a school is like until you’ve been there! Let’s say you get offered a full ride at a safety school that you’re not entirely excited about. In that case, it could be worth a visit to see if it’s a good fit for you. If you like the school, you may have just saved yourself thousands in student loan debt!

How many to apply to

We recommend applying to at least two safety schools, and maybe three to be on the safe side. It’s a good idea to have some backup options up your sleeve. If your match and reach schools don’t work out as planned, you’ll want a few safety schools to choose from.

Related: Missed a college deadline? Here are your options

Match schools

What they are

Match schools are schools that seem appropriately matched to your GPA and test scores. They are not a “sure thing” but also don’t seem to be too much of a stretch. Oftentimes, students end up attending one of their match schools. You can consider match schools any school where you’re between the 25th and 75th percentile in grades and test scores.

Why you should apply

Match schools are the schools that you think you have a good shot of getting into, but aren’t entirely sure. Oftentimes, the match schools that you apply to will be a close match with your application in terms of competitiveness. If you are looking to attend a school that pushes the limits of the grades and scores you’ve earned but isn’t too far out, it’ll usually be a match school.

How many to apply to

We recommend applying to at least four or five match schools. Assuming that you get into about half of your match schools, this gives you two or three schools that are right up your alley to choose from. Schools may vary in terms of the financial aid they offer; match schools will probably be on the border of offering merit-based aid. So, it’s a good idea to apply to a higher number of match schools. The application costs will easily be equaled out if one of your schools offers a several thousand dollar merit aid package.

Reach schools

What they are

Reach schools are schools that don’t seem especially likely to admit you. They are schools that have requirements significantly beyond your GPA and test scores and/or have very low acceptance rates. These often include elite schools such as Ivy Leagues, or UC Berkeley, or elite liberal arts schools like Williams.

Why you should apply

These schools may seem like a far cry, but all it takes is the right admissions officer reading your essay to swing things in your favor. If there are schools that you are interested in but don’t think you can get into, they are worth a shot. Especially if you can afford the application or qualify for a waiver, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

How many to apply to

The number of reach schools may vary by student; some might not be interested in attending a more prestigious university. You might be satisfied with your match and safety schools. But if you’ve had your eye on one specific school, it’s worth applying. Trying for one to three reach schools is usually a good idea.

Next steps

To get a better idea of your admissions chances at schools, you can try using Naviance’s Scattergrams admissions tool. We also have a guide to help you use the tool to its maximum utility.

After you’ve decided what schools to apply to, it’s time to work on your applications! You can check out our guides to help bolster your college application, and to respond to common essay prompts. And once you finally get those acceptances back, you’ll want to learn how to read your financial aid award letter. Finally, you’ll want to learn how to choose a college and turn down the ones you don’t accept. Good luck!

Frequently asked questions about safety, match, and reach schools

How can I increase my chances of getting into a reach school?

In order to increase your reach school chances, you should work on improving your academic record, standardized test scores, and engage in meaningful extracurricular activities.

What should I do if I am rejected from all my reach schools?

Remain positive! Then, focus on the schools you have been accepted to and remember that your success depends on your dedication at a school, not just the name of the institution! 

Why do I need to apply to safety, reach, and match schools?

Applying to a mix of schools increases your chances of acceptance and provides options when it comes to choosing a college that best fits your needs and goals. Additionally, having a wide range of financial packages from different institutions may help mitigate any student loans you may have to take.

Can a safety school also be a match or reach school for someone else?

Yes, the classification of safety, match, or reach schools can vary depending on an individual’s academic profile and qualifications. What’s a safety school for one person might be a match or even reach school for another!

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