The True Value of “Safety Schools”

Josh Stephens
8 min readOct 7, 2023

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Better safe than sorry…

This past application season, I presented a student with a preliminary list of colleges and explained, as I always do, that the list is just preliminary and purely for research. I intend for plenty of discussion, soul-searching, and decision-making to follow. And, like most counselors, I try to present students with “balanced” lists, including schools of varying levels of selectivity.

Students usually take these lists and are eager to get to work. This student, though, was crestfallen.

She thought that the presence of less-selective colleges — call them “safety schools,” “second choices,” or whatever — indicated that I “didn’t believe in her.”

We made our way through the application process, and everything is fine now. But her initial response has stuck with me. I was taken aback, in part because her assumption could not have been further from the truth and in part because of her assumptions about “safety schools.”

To me, it’s just as important to think about, and embrace,“safety schools” as it is to think about “reach schools.” With the right mindset, all schools can help students clarify their college choices and become even stronger applicants than they’d otherwise be.

or students who might look askance or, worse, take offense at safety schools, here are a few reasons to reconsider them…

Fun! Treat the college research process the same way you would when you open the cover of a new book, spin a globe and put a finger down, or play a random CD from your parents’ music collection. Even if a school has no chance of making it on to your list, seize the opportunity to discover factoids and insights into a school and a place that you might otherwise never have heard of.

Knowledge is power. Whether you’re reading a menu at a restaurant, a stat sheet for a football game, a contract for a job, or a list of colleges to which you may or may not apply, I cannot fathom a reason not to gain information from it. There’s nothing wrong with knowing about a college even if you ultimately don’t apply there.

Dislikes and Likes. Everything needs a foil. You might know exactly which colleges you love. That’s fine. But can you explain why? Can you justify your affection? Sometimes, getting to know something you dislike helps you solidify, refine, justify, and explain what you like. (Hint: This will become useful when you write “why essays.”)

Specialty programs. A relatively unknown college might offer a world-class program in a specialized subject. If that subject corresponds with your interests, then East Twissleburg State College might as well be Oxford. If you never look at ETSC’s website, you’ll never know.

Liberation from rankings and prestige. “Rankings” are the worst thing ever to happen to college admissions. Yes, many highly ranked schools are exceptional, special places. We don’t need a magazine to know that. Ambitious students can and should strive to attend highly ranked colleges, if they so choose. But rankings actually obscure all the attributes that make those schools special — and, likewise, they mask many of those schools’ flaws. Applicants should have the chance to judge all schools, selective and otherwise, as objectively as possible.

Stuff happens. If it’s junior year and you have a great GPA and are sailing toward all sorts of accomplishments, you might feel good about your chances at Fancy College or Flagship State U. That’s awesome. But, you might fall ill. You might bomb a final exam. Your family’s finances might dry up. It never hurts to have a backup plan.

Humility. This may seem like a paradox, but it’s true: Highly selective colleges don’t want to admit students who only respect highly selective colleges. The Princeyalestanvard Institute of Technology doesn’t want to admit students who think they will succeed only at Princeyalestanvard — quite the opposite. They want students who are resourceful, optimistic, ambitious, collaborative, and humble enough to succeed anywhere.

Other people will attend colleges to which you don’t apply. Some of those people might be among your current friends and high school classmates. Some of those people might be among future friends and grad school classmates. You might encounter them many years from now, at parties, on the golf course, in bars, or at your office. Many years from now, one of those people might turn out to be your spouse, your boss, or even one of your children. It’s healthy to maintain respect for all colleges and all people who attend them, regardless of whether you yourself apply.

Life is too short, and the college process is too important, to get hung up on something as superficial as college selectivity.

Life is long. By the time a student has been out of college for 5–10 years, or even 5–10 days, the imprimatur of that college hardly matters. Knowledge, ability, ambition, relationships, awareness, and a billion other personal virtues and circumstances matter more than attendance of a particular college does.

Hazy Perceptions, Shifting Reputations. Even if we care about reputation, it’s important to moderate your perceptions. Colleges that a snobby high school student might look down on are likely to be stronger and more highly regarded than they think. Likewise, colleges with sterling reputations are likely to be weaker than they think, and mature adults are far less likely to be dazzled by them than high school kids are. Moreover, pretty much any college you can imagine is more selective and more rigorous LINK than it was even five or ten years ago.

Control your emotions. I understand that certain colleges can inspire a sense of attachment. But, it’s important to consider how, and whether, an adverse reaction serves you. Sometimes in life, it’s worthwhile to let an emotion be big and difficult. Is the idea of applying to a school that seems “beneath you” one of those occasions? Are you really better off for having denigrated a college? Do you gain from directing feelings of disgust or disdain at a certain college? Unless you can come up with a compelling reason why the answer is “yes,” you should let those feelings go.

Certainty. Let’s be honest: the college application process is a cauldron of anxiety. Why not get yourself excited about at least one school that you know is a sure thing? A less anxious applicant is likely to be a stronger applicant.

Do The Work. It’s easy to get excited about selective, prestigious schools. It’s often harder to do the research and the soul-searching to envision how to be happy, successful, and proud at a safety school. But, if you put in the work, you’ll discover all the reasons why your safety school is awesome. And, if you can envision success at a safety, you’re that much more likely to find success no matter where you go.

You might discover someplace you love. There’s an amazing thing about the human mind: it changes. A school you’re tempted to dismiss at the onset of your college process might turn out to be enchanting by the end of it.

Stronger Applications. Students who can envision success at “safety” schools have a much better chance of getting into a “reach” school. Why? Because they are most likely focusing on the substance that colleges want them to focus on and not on superficial notions like rankings and “prestige.”

Other People’s Opinions. If you’re abiding by peer pressure, you’re undermining your applications in the first place. Who cares what other people think about a given college? Ignore them.

Prudence. Let’s be blunt: you need to be smart to get into highly selective schools. Hedging your bets is something that smart people do, especially when the costs of doing so are minimal. That means applying to some schools that are very likely to admit you. If you ask a whole department’s worth of economics professors at your first-choice college, every single one of them will tell you that.

Karma. In my experience, in the aggregate, students get into and attend schools for which they are well suited. But, students have no control over the admissions process. And colleges reject well qualified students all the time — often arbitrarily. That means that applicants might actually end up enrolling at their safety schools. You don’t want to bad-mouth a school you might actually attend. And you don’t want to make your disdain for that school a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you enroll in a school that you prejudged to be a subpar school that turns out subpar graduates — well, you’ll just have to prove yourself wrong.

Merit aid. If some of my other reasons above are too squishy for you, let’s talk about cold, hard cash. Merit aid is exceedingly rare. Among all the colleges to which you might apply, the less selective colleges are vastly more likely to offer you merit aid than the more selective colleges are. That random college might look a lot better if it keeps $200,000 in your or your parents’ pocket.

Conclusion

A college list cannot tell the future. It does not determine where you are capable of getting in. The list won’t tell you whether you overreached or aimed too “low.” That’s what applications are for.

Really, though, applying isn’t the end of the college choice process. It’s closer to the beginning. The meaningful sequence is not “research, apply, enroll…and you’re done.” It’s more like:

Identify, research, meditate, research more, apply, identify more, research more, meditate more, apply more, get results, get more results, research more, visit, decide, enroll, attend, struggle, learn, love, graduate, keep in touch, reminisce and go back for reunions every few years.

As for whether I “believed in” that student: I believe in my students in more ways than I can count. I believe in my students’ intelligence, accomplishments, effort, and, most of all, their potential. All good teachers and counselors do. We could not do our jobs otherwise. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily believe that all students can gain admission to every school to which they apply. That’s not how the system works. I don’t believe in idle enthusiasm or false hope in the face of societal, economic, and institutional factors over which applicants have zero influence.

Ultimately, colleges are going to decide whatever they decide. Only one belief matters: students’ belief in themselves — their belief that they can, and will, be happy and successful whether they attend a “safety school,” a “dream school,” or anywhere in between.

Postscript
“Safety schools” are useful for students who are determined to attend a four-year college. Let’s keep in mind that there are many alternatives to four-year college. Students can attend community college (and transfer) or trade school; they can get entry-level jobs and apprenticeships; they can teach themselves marketable skills (e.g. computer coding); they can take gap years or postpone college entirely; they can join the military or a service organization — among many other fantastic options that can lead to gainful employment and life satisfaction.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2021 and 2022 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, Cornell University, Dartmouth University, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Yale University, and all campuses of the University of California.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

Image courtesy of Anders Bornholm via Flickr.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.