Reach vs. Target vs. Safety Schools: Applying to the Right Colleges

WeAdmit Master Guides
August 22, 2019
You’ve Made It.

After years of late night caffeine-fueled cram sessions, sports practices, and lunchtime club meetings; you’re this much closer to the next chapter of your life—college.

But with nearly 5,000 colleges across the country to choose from, it can be an extremely overwhelming task to decide where you will spend the next few impactful years of your life.

Fortunately, we’re here to guide you through this daunting challenge.

This article will distinguish between reach, target, and safety schools as well as provide insight into the factors you should consider as you begin to navigate which colleges you will apply to in the next several months.

What You’ll Find In This Article:

  1. What are Reach, Target and Safety Schools?
  2. Why You Need to Apply to the Right Colleges
  3. A Sea of Schools: 4 Ways to Find the Right Fit
  4. How to Choose Reach, Target, and Safety Schools
  5. 3 Ways to Get Accepted into Your Reach Schools
  6. The Value of Choosing the Right Colleges

What Are Reach, Target, And Safety Schools?

Nowadays, young students are growing increasingly anxious at the mere thought of college applications—whether the stress stems from your parents, teachers, or even fellow peers; you may feel confined and lost when facing your seemingly limited options.

  • “It’s got to be Harvard, Princeton, Yale!”
  • “Hey, what’s your GPA? It has to be 4.0 and above to even be considered, you know.”

But, just as you aren't a straightforward list of your grades and scores, your college list should be just as varied and purposeful as you are. On the way to curating that list, let’s first take a step back to define the differences between these ‘tiers’ of schools and how they uniquely apply to you.


Otherwise known as “dream schools,” these are the colleges that seem just a bit out of your reach.

Perhaps your scores lie on the lower end when compared to those of the most recently accepted freshman class, or maybe the tuition just does not seem feasible—whatever the circumstances may be, you feel a bit doubtful when contemplating applying to this college.

However, exercising as much ambition as you do realism can take you far.

While you may be lacking, for example, in your SAT scores you have the opportunity to express why you belong at these schools through strong and distinctive personal statements. Though you may fall a bit short academically, don’t discount your other qualities. In fact, it can be reassuring to know that many of the most prestigious reach schools are generally difficult for any student to be admitted to.

What allows you to stand out is your ability to express what you’re passionate about in a compelling and authentic way (but more on that later!).


Aside from selecting your reach school(s), it is imperative to decide on a few target schools as well. Whereas your chances of being accepted into your dream schools are slimmer, you have about a 40-60% chance of being accepted by your target schools.

Overall, your academic performance should align more closely with your target schools versus your reach schools.

For example, if you received a 1420 on your SAT, a possible target school option could be UC Irvine (with the 75th percentile of the freshman class having received a 1410), while a possible reach school option could be Columbia University (with the middle 50% of admitted students having received between a 1460-1550). You’re well within range for the higher end of scores for your target school while falling just a bit short on the lower end for your reach school.

Note: While your high school course grades and standardized exam scores are very important for the admissions process, don’t assume that those numbers alone will guarantee your acceptance or rejection from these schools. Again, we are creating a balanced list that will increase your chances of getting into a great school versus taking a gamble at only a few select ones.


Now, we’ve finally made it to the last tier in your college application list!

Safety schools are exactly what they sound like—they should be the colleges in which your admission is nearly guaranteed. Here, your chances should climb to about 80%, significantly higher than both your reach and target schools.

When identifying potential safety schools, keep these factors in mind:

Your grades and scores should surpass the averages of students admitted in the most recent freshman class. Following our previous example, your 1420 SAT score is well above the average for, say, Cal State Fullerton’s average SAT score of 1022. Choose safety schools that fit your specific circumstances.

Additionally, look for schools with higher admit rates. A sweet spot would be 30% and above, depending on your academic record. Even if you are confident with your scores and achievements, colleges with low admit rates do not belong in your selection of safety schools (they may fit better in your choice of reach or target schools).

Why You Need To Apply To The Right Colleges

While the college admissions process seems reliant on whether or not a school ‘likes’ you, it is just as important, if not more, that you truly like them back. This isn’t to say that you should only apply to your reach schools—we are encouraging you to be honest with yourself and assess what matters to you beyond the pressures of reputation or ranking.

Whether a school falls within your reach, target, or safety category; it should be a place you feel you could belong.  But how can you assess this? Here are some helpful tips that can be applied to all three tiers when selecting your colleges.

A Sea Of Schools: 4 Ways To Find The Right Fit

As we mentioned earlier, there are over 5,000 colleges in the U.S. alone. However, not all colleges are created equally and can offer vastly different environments, cultures, and opportunities. Before we assess these differences though, we must first assess ourselves.


Visualize yourself on a piece of paper and begin to freely write down or even sketch out your interests, dreams, and goals. Creating a personalized ‘map’ of yourself that highlights what you value will help you narrow down and select the schools that best suit those components.

Here are some questions that can guide you in this process:

  • What do you like to surround yourself with?

By analyzing the things that you gravitate towards—whether that be other people, books, tools, technology, etc—you will have a better idea of potential career paths or endeavors that you can utilize when searching for the right colleges.

  • What do you enjoy doing?

Similarly, take a look at your passions as well as your hobbies. Do you have an affinity towards science and experimentation? Do you spend your days tangled in novels and penning short stories? Hone in on what excites you and use that to select potential schools that will foster and fuel that enthusiasm.

  • Do you like working in more intimate spaces or do you prefer the company of big groups?

Let’s step away from what you want to learn, and think about how you want to approach doing so. Are you the most creative in smaller, tranquil settings or do you crave the spontaneity of a big, bustling city? Do you seek more individualized interaction with your professors and peers, or do you like the idea of the anonymous camaraderie of a large lecture hall?

  • What are your strengths?

Are you a great critical thinker, perhaps? Or maybe you’re a deeply empathetic and understanding listener! Wherever your strengths may lie, it is important to identify these aspects of yourself to get a glimpse into which campuses will support you in developing these traits into strong abilities and tools for your future.

  • What experiences have impacted you most in life?

What are the memories that have made you who you are today? What sticks with you? How do these experiences play into your passions or pursuits? What difficulties have you overcome, and how have they impacted how you view and act towards the world? It is imperative that we face both the positive and negative moments that have contributed to what we hold dear to us today in order to seek potential schools that are perceptive and even active in those realms.

  • What are your weaknesses and what motivates you to acknowledge and change them?

College is a new stepping ground where you can consistently push yourself out of your comfort zone and acquire skills and abilities you may have previously thought were impossible. Whether these challenges be academic, social, or a mix of both; coming to terms with them can allow you to seek the schools that will push you to grow the most.

Note: After you answer a few of these questions, begin to list your course grades, SAT/ACT scores, as well as your extracurricular activities. With your personal ‘map’ in mind, begin to piece together how your achievements best express your authenticity and progression as a promising young student.

Now that we have a more honest and comprehensive portrait of ourselves, we can begin moving into our college search.


Though the web offers many options, a great college search tool is provided by CollegeBoard itself. You can toggle through the various settings and menus in order to narrow down your selection process and determine which schools belong in your reach, target, and safety categories.

Here is a preview of a few of the major determining settings:

  • Test Scores and Selectivity

This filter is extremely important and useful as it allows you to enter your SAT/ACT scores and pick the ‘Selectivity’ of the school in relation to those scores (these levels range from Open Admission/all or most admitted, to Somewhat Selective/50-75% admitted, to Very Selective/25-50%, and more).

  • Location

In this menu, you can search for schools closer or further from home, schools in specific regions and states you are interested in, and even schools outside the U.S.

  • Majors and Learning Environment

This setting allows you to select from several fields of study—ranging from Arts and Humanities to Business to Social Sciences and beyond—and even enter specific majors as well. If you already have an interest in double-majoring or honors programs, there are more similarly specialized options included at the bottom.

  • Tuition

Tuition is an important and often understated factor when fine-tuning a list of colleges to apply to. While money alone—just as any other factor we’ve previously discussed—should not be the single factor in your college selection process, it is beneficial to understand how much you will be expected to pay each year. Keep in mind that financial aid and scholarships are viable, though not guaranteed, possibilities. In this setting, you can adjust the tuition fees (ranging from $5,000-$60,000), and even see if work study programs or application fee waivers are available.

Note: If you are applying for an out-of-state college, you will have to pay a higher tuition compared to an in-state resident student.
  • Additional Support Programs

This option allows students to browse through resources that are important to them, for example: services for low-income students, tutoring, disability services, and more.

  • Diversity

If you are interested in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and/or Tribal Colleges and Universities; you can click on these options in the ‘Diversity’ menu to view the available options. For many students, diversity has grown to be an increasingly major factor in considering where they will spend their college years.

Tip: There are many more filters and options to choose from, so take your time in adjusting the different settings. Each time you click ‘Save’, a list of colleges will appear and you will be able to click on their logos to receive more information on specific programs, tuition, application processes, and more.


After you’ve accumulated a list of colleges from these search websites, conduct further in-depth research on your own by consulting the schools’ official websites as well as other ranking sites that compare schools based on your preferred major or field of study.While these college search tool websites provide great insights into schools, you can also go beyond what they provide.

Make time to look through student profiles and testimonials, campus life newsletters, faculty research subjects, specialized major programs, and more.

By looking through more nuanced and firsthand content, you can better gauge whether or not these schools fit your strengths, passions, needs, and academic background. You will also be able to acquire a deeper understanding of what these colleges are looking for as you begin to prepare your applications and write your personal statements.

Act as a sponge and try to absorb as much knowledge as you can about these colleges in order to narrow down which ones belong in your reach, target, and safety schools list.


As you browse through these college websites, you’ll notice that many offer the option to receive email updates that provide information on applications, campus tours, current students, and even alumni achievements among many things.

Express your interest as much as you can by attending events aimed towards recruiting and informing students in your position, so you can assess the setting yourself and even connect with admissions officers, faculty, counselors, and students.

Now, with this master list of colleges and information, let’s move on to picking and categorizing the ones that fit our circumstances and needs best!

How To Choose Reach, Target, And Safety Schools

What we want to do now is to utilize our research to narrow down our list into about 2-3 reach schools, 2-5 target schools, and 3-5 safety schools.

You can adjust the exact number, but keep the proportions relatively the same—a couple of dream/reach schools that you will strive towards, a good handful of target schools you are competitive for, and another good handful of safety schools you are secure for.


From your master list, select a couple of schools that are your ideal colleges. The criteria for these are as follows:  

  • They have very strong programs for your desired major/field of study.
  • Based on your academic record, your chances of being admitted into these schools are 20% or lower.
  • While you may feel less confident applying to these schools, they should still fit most of your values and needs in terms of location, resources, learning environment, and more.
  • You have a chance; after honest reflection, you should aim for a school that is still near your academic performance. If not, you must rely on striking achievements and personal statements, though these are not considered with the same weight when compared with your grades and SAT/ACT scores.


Again, select a handful from your master list that follow these guidelines:

  • Your scores are within range (leaning towards the higher end) of those most recently admitted to this school.
  • Based on your academic achievements, your chances of being admitted are about 40-70%.
  • This school is similar to your reach list in values, resources, and programs, though perhaps not quite in prestige.


When selecting your safety list, don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of being accepted to a school. Each student is different and you should compile a list of colleges that you are very confident in being admitted to and would still feel comfortable attending.

  • Your scores should be well above the average of those in the most recent class of admitted freshmen.
  • This school still provides a good program for your major/field of study as well as resources and opportunities you are interested in.
  • A few potential options for safety schools should be in-state colleges.


Because you will have completed such extensive research for these schools, they should all share similar values, perspectives, programs, and resources that will advance your knowledge and experience within the field of study that most interests and excites you.

While some of the safety schools on your list may not be as prestigious or celebrated as those in your target or reach choices, they should not lack in quality of education, campus life, or culture.

Please don’t spend your time anxiously calculating and comparing the ranks or awards of these colleges—instead, find out what they have done for their students and how you may in turn grow from those efforts.

Even if you ultimately decide to attend one of your safety schools, you will do so knowing that your decision was well-informed and carefully made.

3 Ways To Get Accepted Into Your Reach Schools

We’ve talked about making realistic decisions around your college choices, but let’s also discuss ways to improve your application and chances into getting accepted to your dream schools!

“But my chances are slim!”

However slim they may be, this school spoke to you and you are fully capable of making the best of your background and experiences to communicate back in a compelling way. Here are some key pieces of wisdom to maximize yourself and get into your reach schools:


This runs contrary to what most high school students are taught; that you have to be good in many aspects.

But for a reach school, good is not good enough.

The masters we look up to—like the innovator of a multi-billion dollar tech company, the prolific horror novel author, or the shape shifting veteran actor—are masters because they have thrown themselves completely into their craft.

Likewise, prestigious schools seek students who display the most potential to innovate and change their fields—and perhaps the world—because of their steadfast and even obsessive conviction to the passion that drives them to create, improve, and discover.

Reach schools select the students they believe will have the greatest impact on those around them. So, analyze yourself for that one quality, talent, or skill that you believe is great and elaborate on that when filling out your application and in your personal statements.


What we mean by this is: how have you shown a meaningful and genuine progression throughout your life so far? How have you applied yourself to the things that bring you joy?

A weak link for many students applying for their reach colleges is that their achievements and personal statements read like a plain white board with a few nice things listed on it. As competition rises each year, more and more students present themselves in this manner: handing their pretty but bland accomplishments to their admissions officers, who then unceremoniously chuck them into a pile of similarly dull and broken boards.

In the same way we discussed having your one talent, focus on telling a compelling story focused on one strong theme.

For example, if you love to write, how have you poured yourself into that passion? What specific event or thought inspired you to begin? Why haven’t you stopped? What are you trying to communicate to the world? Ponder specific questions like these that will allow you to deeply analyze something that is impactful to you versus writing about a bunch of random subjects that you think are impressive.

Focus in and narrow it down—often, the most captivating and convincing messages lie in contemplation of the most minute details.


Another common mistake college applicants in your position make is braving through the process alone.

With little to no experience in how to best research colleges, write excellent personal statements, or select the best fields of study to explore, you can find yourself lost and wading in a deep pool that seems terrifying and endless.

One of the most invaluable things you can do is reach out for guidance and support.

Speak to college students, career counselors, college tour guides, admissions specialists, and more! If you don’t have an immediate support system, you can reach out to professional college counselors like us. WeAdmit is dedicated to providing you with information and statistics, as well as the academic and social support you need for each step of your application process.

The Value Of Choosing The Right Colleges

Hopefully, this article provided you a greater understanding of how to select your ideal reach, target, and safety schools as you begin to contemplate your future in college.

To reiterate a few important concepts: be mindful and intentional with your research.

Just as you are not just a smattering of grades and scores, a college is not simply its prestige or rank. Look deeply into their values, their strongest programs, their resources and other aspects like their location and diversity to see what fits best for you.

Safety schools may not be your ideal colleges, but they are necessary in your selection process and provide great alternatives in case you cannot attend your reach or target schools.

Challenge yourself to step out and communicate with professionals and those with more experience in order to personally attain a greater feel for the schools you are applying for. Websites and online statistics provide useful overviews, but the unique and lived experiences of those closest to the process can allow you to have a more intimate and concrete understanding.

Above All, Be Honest With Yourself And Strive For What Your Best-Fit College!



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