How to Pick Your Match, Safety, and Reach Colleges

You may have heard of reach, match, and safety schools, but what do they mean and how do you find them? Here's what you need to know to build your college list.

Match, safety, and reach colleges: you may already be familiar with this trifecta of terms. But you may not realize how important it is to seek out a good mix of safety, reach, and match schools in your college search. Spoiler alert: it's a big deal. 

There’s also a magical secret to picking these schools—and it's the closest thing you're gonna get to a guaranteed win in your college search! But more on that in a second. First, let's get down to basics. What makes a college a safety, reach/dream, or match school, anyway?

Defining match, safety, and reach schools

In basic terms, a match school (also sometimes referred to as “target” or “50/50”) is one where you feel reasonably certain you’d be admitted because your GPA and test scores are similar to the average admitted student.

safety school is one where you're almost positive you would be admitted based on your academic profile. Your GPA and test scores will be notably higher than the average admitted student.

A reach school (or dream school) is one where your academic profile puts you at the lower end of the admitted student spectrum—or perhaps even below. It's less likely that you'll be admitted. However, a reach school should still be within the realm of possibility. If your academic profile is lightyears away from the average admitted student, it’s generally not worth your time or money to apply. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t stretch yourself in your college search and application process—you definitely should. You just don’t want to put all your eggs in one Ivy-lined basket, if you know what I mean.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match

How to know what school is a match, safety, or reach

Picking your match, safety, and reach schools is all about comparing your academic profile to that of the average admitted student. The averaged admitted student profile is typically just a short list of admission statistics for the current freshman class, with things like average SAT/ACT scores and GPA. You may find other student stats like geographic diversity or class rank too. Make sure you find the school’s overall acceptance rate as well.

You should be able to find this info on virtually any college or university’s website. A simple Google search for "[college name] admitted student profile" usually does the trick. You can also find these statistics on college search sites (including CollegeXpress—check out our college profiles here!). Always look for the most recent admitted class profile.

If you’re unsure whether a college is a match, safety, or reach school for you, ask around. Your high school counselor can probably help. You can also ask people who know you well (such as family, friends, or mentors) for their opinion. But do not ask admission representatives if they think you’ll be admitted. They don’t like that, and they really can’t tell you on the fly anyway.

Remember, the more research you put into your college search, the better you’ll know your schools and how your academic background fits in with their student population. (Pro tip: with all these figures floating around, this is a great opportunity to make a college search spreadsheet.)

Related: College Search Spreadsheet Template

The secret to picking your colleges

Choosing your schools isn’t just about comparing numbers to determine your chances of being admitted—it’s about making sure all those schools are places you’d actually be happy to attend. That means every school—from your #1 choice to the backup to your backup plan—should fit your needs. Plenty of students think “safety school” and imagine any old school that admits 99% of its students. But that’s not how it should be, and it doesn’t have to be if you do your college search right.

As you track down colleges that have the academics, location, and extracurricular activities you want, ask yourself if the school is a match, safety, or reach option for you. Then when it comes time to apply, make sure you have a good mix of choices. For the record, you probably shouldn’t be applying to more than 10 schools; five to seven is usually sufficient, with one or two safeties, one to three reaches, and three to five match. (If you follow this advice and conduct a thorough college search, you won't need to apply to more!)

Even if your top college choice is squarely in your “match” column, you should still explore and apply to a variety of schools. You might surprise yourself by falling in love with another college, and you never know what will happen after you get your acceptance letters—and financial aid award letters. Your #2 choice can seem pretty attractive if they offer you a bigger financial aid package than college #1.

Some students and their families might also use price as a reason to call a school a reach (or match or safety). But try to remember that this is about your overall fit as a student. Besides, if you really match the criteria for a school's average admitted student, you’ll likely get their average financial aid package too. That can knock the sticker price way down at many schools.

Speaking of college costs: a cool offshoot of picking safety schools like this—that is, picking safeties that make you truly happy—is that you could be offered more institutional aid to attend a school you really like, since you’ll be among their top applicants.

Related: Finalize Your College List With These 7 Expert Tips 

Exceptions to the rules

With all this being said, it’s important to remember college admission decisions are based on much more than your GPA and test scores. So choosing your safety, match, and reach schools is far from an exact science.

At the end of the day, you might get a full-fledged acceptance to a reach school while getting rejected by a safety school. But the idea is to give yourself lots of options (and safety nets) by putting in the work to find plenty of schools that really, truly fit you.

Also keep in mind that admission to the reachiest of reach schools is especially difficult to predict. Practically every applicant has a perfect GPA, perfect test scores, and a glowing extracurricular résumé. In those cases, it’s factors beyond academics—like the clean water nonprofit they run or IT company they founded or youth orchestra they conduct—that shoot applicants into admitted student territory. If your dream schools include the nation’s most selective colleges, remember admission is all about how you stack up to your fellow applicants—plus pure luck.

College is what you make of it

Before you start worrying about the new layer of complexity this adds to your college search, remember: there are over 4,700 degree-granting institutions in the United States, and almost 3,000 of them are four-year colleges. These schools come in every size, shape, specialty, and selectivity you can imagine. In fact, the vast majority of colleges accept more students than they reject (the national average seems to be around 65%). So your chances of finding a complete set of match, safety, and reach schools you love is actually very good, especially if you open your college search to the entire country.

And the magical thing about college is that you get to decide how it goes. The school you choose is, arguably, less important than your attitude and the effort you put in while you’re there. You can learn a ton, love your classmates, and get super involved on practically any campus. At the end of the day, college is what you make of it. Think about it this way: by putting in the time and effort to find your match, safety, and reach schools, you’ll be empowering yourself to have an amazing college experience no matter what. 

Ready to start building your college search? Find unique options using our Lists & Rankings, or search by location, major, and more using our College Search tool. 

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