In this page:

  • What's a "safety"?
  • What's a "match"?
  • What's a "reach"?

What’s a “match”? “safety”? “reach”?

What's a “safety”?

(Also called a “realistic” or some other name.)

Generally speaking, a safety is a school that your student is almost certain to get into and you can almost certainly afford (with aid).

People talk about two kinds of safeties: academic and financial.

Academic Safety

An academic safety is one where the student is well above the 75 percentile (preferably above the 90 percentile, though that data is usually inaccessible).

Financial Safety

An academic safety is one that is easily afforded either because of low tuition or because of guaranteed financial aid schemes.  

Here are several tips to help you determine your safety schools this application season:

1. Scores.
Academically, your student’s SAT/ACT scores should fall above the 75 percentile, the higher the better. Check the Common Data Set (CDS) for any school your child is interested in. Not all schools use the CDS, but most do. (Google “common data set <school name>.”) In the CDS there will be a section on scores that the entering freshman class received. As an example, see the stats on Rice’s incoming class (scroll down to section C). 

2. Finances.
Can you afford it? Look at the sticker price.(Google “cost of attendance <school name>.”) You’ll see the cost of tuition, room and board, and other expenses. See, for example, Hofstra’s cost of attendance.

Keep in mind that most people don’t pay the sticker price at their safety. A safety should really want your student, so in an ideal world, they’ll offer merit aid. See if the school offers specific scholarships that your student would be eligible for.

A school is a financial safety if you can easily afford it.

See Financial aid.

3. Major.
Don’t let your student pick a school just because he can get in. Make sure the school offers a decent department in the major he’s interested in or a large variety of majors to choose from.

4. Happiness.
This may seem like an obvious point, but it is one that can be easily ignored. A safety should be a school that your student is genuinely happy to attend. You don’t want your child to get into a school simply to transfer out a year later.

If your student has his heart set on attending a small liberal arts college in a rural setting, he should not apply to a large urban state school just because he’ll be accepted. Identify institutions that fit his criteria but are slightly less competitive than his dream school.

See What is “fit”?

What's a "match"?

Also called “fit,” “target,” “likely,” or some other name.

Basically, a match is one where the student's academic scores are between the 25 percentile and 75 percentile for the school. See the Common Data Set to determine that.

Note that any top-tier school (Ivy, MIT, Duke, Rice, Stanford, etc.—all schools with lower than a 20 percent acceptance rate) is a reach for everyone. The only exception is a student whose last name is on a building on the school’s campus or whose parent’s job title is “Commander in Chief.”

What's a "reach"?

Also called a “dream,” “stretch,” “50-50,” or some other name.

A reach is one where the student is around 25 percentile or a little lower (a lot lower makes it a "fantasy" school).

The tough part is differentiating between a match and a reach, because non-academic qualities can make the distinction. Factors like gender, choice of major, ability to pay, rigor of curriculum, and extracurricular distinction play a role in sifting kids at a certain kind of school.

If the schools where a student fits are all super-selective schools, then it may be necessary to apply to a lot of them, as even students who are a very good fit have a low probability of being accepted.  It is not enough to be a top student for the super-selectives—even being at the 90 percentile of their students and a legacy student is no guarantee of admission. Admission at those schools depends on factors known only to those who sit in on the admissions meetings.  

For example, think of two kids who are both applying to RPI or Carnegie Mellon. Both have numbers that put them around the 50 percentile of the admitted student pool. One is a male who wants to major in computer science and needs significant scholarship aid. Another is a female who wants to major in materials science and whose family is able to pay without scholarships. I would be inclined to call the female in this example a "match" and the male a "reach" despite the same academic credentials, because a full-pay, engineering female is a lot less common in the applicant pool.

Students are best off going to a school where they will be noticed by the faculty. In that sense, reach schools academically can be a bad idea—students will stand out, but at the low end, which can be rather dispiriting.  Students might give up rather than stretch themselves.