How does one decide safety and match schools?

First time poster , some time lurker.
Some background - our DD is a junior with excellent academics and ok ECs (very stereotypical Asian ECs) at a large public school (700+ students). Working with her GC (who has been very helpful to her) she came up with a list of reaches, safeties and matches. After discussing her list with other parents (friends and family) whose kids have recently gone to colleges (2017 fall freshmen) we are getting wildly contradictory information about our list. Some say that we should try for more Reach schools and others say we have don’t have enough match/safeties. We were cautioned that Safety and Matches are relative and are based on Major, Ethnicity, School admission policy etc. At the outset she had MIT and Princeton in her college list and her GC advised her to drop them in favor of more match/safety schools.She was disappointed at first but then took it in stride. My daughter is also not keen on LACs (we did visit 2 of them and she did not like them).

So our questions are

Is our list too lopsided one way or the other?
Are safety, match, reach determined by multiple factors listed above? If so how any suggestions on keeping/modifying college list?
FYI, we were told by some that we should drop 2 of the safety/low matches and instead try MIT and Princeton, some others advised us to drop one or more Reach/H Reach schools and add more matches!

Here are some details

Major: Comp Sci
Female Asian

GPA: 4.0W/4.6UW
APs: 8 so far and 5 more Senior year (5s in all the AP exams she took last year)
SAT: 1590 (1st attempt)
PSAT: 1520
SAT II: 800 (Math 2), 790 (Chem)
Rank:Top 1%/700+
Awards/ECs: USNCO (2x Semifinalist, 1x Honors), TSA TEAMS (Nationals), Violin (2x All-state), Principal Chair/Concert Master School Orchestra, Tennis Varsity (3 years, 2x Varsity Letters), President Interact Club and Science Olympiad

Schools she chose:

Reach/H. Reach: Cornell, CMU, UPenn
L Reach/Match: UIUC, UMich, GTech
L. Match/Safety: UPitt, Penn St, UMaryland

FA: We don’t anticipate any FA

P.S; May be we should have stuck with GCs inputs but we are now confused have asked others as well

Many potential safety schools, based on stats, do not like being used as safety schools and may deny/waitlist you. If such school indicate that showing interest is considered, do it.

It looks like a number of her schools have rolling or EA available. I’d have her get in the applications early and if she gets in by December and you can afford the school without aid, then she is set. Just be sure to first check any restrictions that may be part of a SCEA or ED option if she goes that route for a reach school – but typically applying early to rolling admission schools is fine. And IMO once these applications are in, if she decides she wants to apply to Princeton and/or MIT as a real longshot, I’d let her.

Thanks @TomSrOfBoston it’s a good advice. A school of concern would be UPitt but we did take a campus tour last summer. We will research other schools as well esp. UMD. Penn State does not care, has 51% admit rate and we are residents so hopefully they will not reject my DD.

Appreciate your feedback @happy1. I believe Pitt is rolling will check to see if we can apply really early.

First let’s define the “chance” levels. Here’s how I do it:

High reach: <5% chance
Reach: 5-15%
Low reach: 15-25%
High match: 25-40%
Match: 40-60%
Low match: 60-90%
Safety: >90%

So how do you estimate whether a school is reach, match or safety?

I think these factors can help:

  1. Admit rate of the school (and if you can get it, the rate of the round you want to apply in...). If a school has a 10% admit rate, nobody who isn't seriously hooked could call it a match.
  2. Test score ranges (25th/75th percentile) or averages of admits, and how your scores compare. If you are unhooked and your scores are in the middle, assume your chances are about the same as the admit rate of the round you're applying in (ED or SCEA, EA, RD...).
  3. Average GPA and how yours compares (unweighted...). Strong rigor helps. If you are unhooked and your GPA is average, assume you have roughly the same chances as the admit rate.
  4. M/F and state prevalence (and the need of the school for more men or women or state distribution). If you're from an underrepresented state, or if you're a guy applying at a school with mostly women, that might boost your chances a bit. You might think of these as soft hooks.
  5. Hooks -- athlete, URM, first-generation student, legacy (diminishing in importance...), and business development (someone rich who can donate a lot of money). Having a hook increases your chances of admission. Different schools weigh hooks differently, so it's hard to know exactly how much they help, but they are pluses.

Your D has excellent ‘stats’ so no harm in putting a super reach on the list.

You should take a look at your school’s Naviance data and see how past students fared at the schools on your list. That can be a very helpful exercise, if your gc can pinpoint for you which if the admits had hooks and which did not.
Perhaps that is why the gc is advising against MIT and Princeton - it could be that your school has had limited success with those schools in the past.

I agree with @wisteria100 - , princeton and MIT are lotteries, bUT those stats will at least buy her a ticket. I would not replace anything on the list, just add them.

Very good feedback everyone. @prezbucky interesting your scoring means we lack true L Match and Safety schools. @wisteria and @gardenstategal we will take a look at Naviance data. But anecdotally we have heard of kids going to MIT and Princeton before from DDs school within the last 2-3 years, but we need to find out if it was URM status or some other reason that got them in. I was hoping that process of choosing a list of colleges would be somewhat scientific but I was too optimistic I guess :-).

UPenn has a high admit rate EA, if it is on interest to you as PA state residents. Based on my DD acceptance at a HYPS and her waitlists and deferrals, I would err on the side of too many reaches. Her safeties and matches all accepted her, but the “elites” were unpredictable.

Your kids has the stats to play the lottery at any top ten school. You might get in, or you might not. Your kids has the stats to get accepted at many (but not all) of the schools ranked 11-30, and to get accepted at most schools 31-60.

So here’s the question that will drive your list. Are you willing/able to spend $280,000 cash for college?

If the answer is yes, then all you have to worry about is admissibility. So just pick a few schools from each band that seem like good fits. Maybe 2 from 0-10, 3 from 11-20, 2 from 21-30, and 2 from 31-60. You also need to figure a strategy about using early action or early decision to your advantage. Getting feedback early in the process is very helpful in determining what kind and how many schools to apply to in the regular decision round.

If you are not willing/able to pay $280,000 cash, then you are playing a totally different game. Because the concept of reach/safety is about affordability in addition to admissibility. If money is an object, then your strategy and list will be very different.

Because getting admitted to a bunch of full pay schools you cannot afford is the same as being rejected. Your kid ain’t going there.

@stwide19 wrote:


we will take a look at Naviance data.
It’s hard to get better data for your daughter than the Naviance scatter-grams.

But anecdotally we have heard of kids going to MIT and Princeton before from DDs school
within the last 2-3 years, but we need to find out if it was URM status or some other
reason that got them in.


No school will ever reveal why they admitted someone. So how do you expect to find out?
Anything you do find out will be someone’s opinion or swag.

I think her list looks very well balanced…and good.

If these are all,schools she likes, I think this list is just fine.

My suggestion…stop discussing your kid’s stats and college choices with others. This is such a personal decision. There are plenty of folks who will tell you to aim higher…or whatever. But the reality is…your kid has to want to attend those schools.

The list you have is very nicely balanced…and I think the reaches, matches and safeties look pretty spot on.

Don’t add MIT or Princeton…unless these are schools your kid wants to go there. She has nice reaches already.

@stwide19 Son was admitted to HYM, so I have some idea of what it takes. Would definitely put MIT back in the mix and would add Yale. Both like very, very high scoring, National Merit Semi or Finalist STEM women. Yale for RD round as they issue 100+ likely letters (pre-admit advisory) to top RD STEM applicants as part of their YES-W stem recruiting program.

I don’t like referring to the top schools because that implies no one did anything to deserve it and it’s pure chance. Many qualified kids get rejected and they are a reach for everyone but that doesn’t mean everyone has an equal chance. For a school with a 5% selection rate, I bet half of the 40,000 who applied had 0% chance. They paid the application fee but didn’t really have a ticket.

Your D’s stats are definitely good enough for consideration. I don’t see why Princeton and MIT should be removed. I do recommend picking three, maybe four, high reaches at best because you don’t have time for the applications. Spending considerable time on common app and school supplements is necessary to break out of the pack. I think the essay is at least as important as ECs, maybe more.

Matches are tricky because of yield protection. Pick a few where you are at 75 percentile and hope for the best. Safety should be guaranteed admission for the students stats and a school that the student isn’t going to get on CC in April and complain that he or she has no options, got rejected everywhere, or my parents are making me . . .

Good luck! It’s quite a ride. Glad I have a couple years before the next one. :slight_smile:

Your list look fine. Once you have a couple safeties and a few matches, you can have as many reaches as you want. But I would not dilute the effort too much as your D still needs to work on the essays.

@stwide19 congratulations, your D’s stats are great and I believe she would have a good chance at Cornell ED. Does she have a strong, compelling essay? I like her ECs…Varied, impressive and not too many to look like stacking. Have you visited Cornell? I recommend doing that to see if she loves it. With CS she can either go to college of arts and sciences or college of engineering. Each one has their own admission standards…CAS would be a BA and COE would be BS but degree from either one will give her same employment opportunities.

Anyway, if not Cornell, definitely recommend applying ED to her dream reach, have a compelling essay and excellent LORs. You can always apply to safety schools by the January 1st deadline.

If Cornell is NOT her top choice bar none…then don’t apply ED there.

Really ED should be for THE one schools that the student wants to attend above all others. Some kids don’t have a school like that.

In addition, some aren’t positive…and lots can change between application time ED in October, and end of senior year in HS.

I don’t have a sense for why she chose those particular reaches (except for CMU) as a potential CS major. If your school has Naviance I think you can get a better sense of what is truly a safety from it than from a bunch of people on the internet. I do know that U of MD has a reputation for rejecting some very high stat kids. My favorite safety school is the one that accepts you EA, so that would be my only real suggestion. My CS kid had WPI and RPI as safety schools - as a young woman I think she’d have very good chances at either school, but I get the sense that she’s looking at bigger schools, with better M/F ratios. Which is a perfectly reasonable choice. I think people can get too worried about trying to sort schools out. Find two safety schools you are willing to attend, and if every other school is a reach, or even a super reach - that’s fine.

@thumper1 I absolutely agree. Her D must be sure she loves it and it’s a fit all the way around.

@stwide19 I only gave Cornell a thumbs up given your Ds stats and her major. Cornell is is a great school and worth checking out for CS. For C/O 2021 overall acceptance rate was 12.5% with 47,000+ applicants, so if she loves it, her best chance would be applying ED.

This was Cornell C/O 2020 stats:
4,882 ED applicants; 1,340 admits.
40,083 RD applicants; 4,997 admits
It’s about 50/50 male to female ratio

I hope that gives a better picture of her chances. Plus selective schools like to know they are a high caliber student’s first choice.


I join others in saying she can keep Princeton and MIT on her list. Her stats are almost perfect, so she will be a competitive applicant anywhere. I think it’s a fairly well balanced list. The public schools’ admissions difficulty will depend somewhat on your home state – out-of-state admission is harder than in-state – but they are matches at worst. (Mich might be a high match)

So here’s what I think. ED or SCEA improves chances at all except for MIT --MIT’s version of restrictive EA doesn’t help much. Assuming all the state schools are OOS:

Reach: Princeton, MIT, Penn
Low reach: Cornell, CMU (if STEM; high match if not)
High match: Michigan
Match: Georgia Tech, Illinois
Low Match: PSU, Maryland, Pitt

If any of those state schools except maybe Michigan is in-state, I think you could consider it a safety. I think she is almost certain to get into (at least) a few of the state schools.

Did dhe choose her list according to fit variables like academic, environmental and social fit? If so, and she likes all the schools, the list is just fine.

If you want a true safety, and none of the state schools on the list is in-state for you, I suggest choosing one of your state schools (the flagship if you’re not in California or maybe Virginia…) or a lower-ranked private school with an admit rate of at least 40% – the higher, the safer.

And – is there a reason you have so many OOS public options? In terms of public schools, many of us usually recommend choosing your flagship if it offers what you want (in terms of majors), due to the roughly 50% savings vs. most OOS flagships. That ~$100,000 could be used for grad school, a nice house down payment, your retirement, etc.