Definitions & Key Terms
You may have heard the terms “target,” “reach,” and “safety” to describe different colleges, and if you are like me you have no idea what these mean. That’s okay! In this article, I will define the thresholds and factors for target, reach, and safety schools. We also explain why you should have a mix of all of them in your applications and give other criteria and steps you should use to build out a good college list. It can be challenging to find perfect target, reaches, and safeties for certain majors, so if you need 1-1 help, feel free to set up a free consultation for college admissions research & counseling with Dewey Smart.
Let's start with target schools, which are your best friends during the college process. These are the schools you have a high chance of getting into because your GPA and standardized test scores are in their average range. What acceptance rate is considered a target school? Usually, these schools have an acceptance rate between 25% and 49%. Let’s imagine we have a student with a GPA of 3.6 and an ACT score of 30. A great target school for them would be Occidental College, which has an average GPA of 3.62, an ACT range of 28–33, and an acceptance rate of 41%. Dewey Smart can help you build a set of good target schools for your major, and we have college admissions counselors that are Alumni from engineering, pre-med, STEM, and engineering from top schools. If you are researching the best target colleges for you, you can find average GPAs, SAT and ACTs, and acceptance rates at this website: https://waf.collegedata.com/college-search
Reach schools are defined by their exclusivity and how you compare to their average GPA and exam score percentiles. You have a lower statistical confidence with reach schools than with target schools. These are colleges that you may not be admitted to because your GPA and standardized test scores are below the school’s averages. Usually, regardless of your stats, a school with an acceptance rate below 25% is considered a reach school. Every year there are plenty of top students that don't get in to exclusive schools even though they have a strong background. If we take our example student from before, a school like Vanderbilt University would be a reach because it has an average GPA of 3.86, an ACT range of 33–35, and a 12% acceptance rate. When we work with students on their college list, the most frequent question we get is about how to find good target schools. That's why we've come up with an exercise that we go through with students. It is OKAY to put your #1 dream school in the reach list. That doesn't mean you are keeping your eye off the target.
Lastly, safety schools are chosen based on having stats that are well within your profile as well as having higher acceptance rates. We often overlook these schools when first making a college list but they are the most important! A safety school is one where your GPA and standardized test scores are above the average, and the acceptance rate is above 50%. Unlike reach schools, safety schools can vary from person to person depending on their stats. For our example student, a school like the University of Massachusetts Boston would be a solid safety school. It has an average GPA of 3.35, an ACT range of 20–27, and a 78% acceptance rate. There are tons of reasons that you might end up choosing to enroll in one of your safety schools such as distance from home, financial aid, and if you want to try to transfer into a different school during your college career.
Just like having a mix of friends is important, so is having a mix of schools to balance secure options and challenges! If your list is only Ivy Leagues and reach schools, there is a chance you may not be admitted to any of them. On the other hand, if your list is just safety schools, you may not end up at a place that is the right academic fit for you. This is why you should fully explore schools in every category and make sure you are excited about colleges and universities of different levels of selectivity.
How long should the college list be?
It is good to aim for about eight–12 schools on your college list. Any more will take a lot of time filling out applications and have a lot of application fees. Any less may not give you many options when receiving acceptances. Of these schools, you should have about three safeties, three targets, and four reach schools. Here’s an example of a well-balanced college list for our example student:
Of course, when making a college list, you need to take your personal preferences into consideration as well. The list above isn’t the best fit for anyone who fits our example student’s criteria because we need to consider other factors like location, school size, and programs.
As mentioned above, using your GPA and standardized test scores can be used to determine if a school is a good target, reach, or safety for you. But there are some additional statistics to consider when making a college list:
Figuring out when to use these statistics can be confusing, so keep in mind that you don’t have to use all of them! When building your list, start out by thinking about targets, reaches, and safeties. Look for schools that match, are below, and are above your stats. Start out with a list of 20 schools that look exciting to you, and remember that schools will not always match up across all three metrics (GPA, standardized test scores, and acceptance rates). In this situation, it is always a safe bet to categorize based on the acceptance rate. Also, keep in mind that a safety or a target does not guarantee admission, but it means there’s a high chance. Colleges use many other factors besides your academics to decide your acceptance, so make sure to use all of these factors when finding target, reach, and safety schools.
From your list of 20, narrow down your list based on demonstrated need (if this is a priority for you) and graduation or retention rate. This may require you to look for more schools as replacements. Ideally, you should end up with eight–12 schools, as discussed above.
Your college list will constantly change as you learn about more schools and your preferences change, but using these strategies can be a great start!
Best friends are hard to find, and so are target schools. They're the "goldilocks" of your college list because they should have all the important characteristics you're looking for in a school, but still have average GPAs and test scores that are around where your GPA and test scores sit. While we don't like relying on the rankings, make sure your target schools are not in the Top 20 of the rankings, because those often indicate selectiveness.
Helpful Resources for Choosing Target Schools and Building Your College List:
To find average GPAs, SAT and ACTs, and acceptance rates: https://waf.collegedata.com/college-search
To find graduation and retention rates, financial aid information: https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/
To find 100% need-met schools: https://www.cappex.com/articles/match-fit/need-blind-admission-colleges
To read more on factors to consider when making your college list: https://deweysmart.com/2022/04/18/fit-factors/