High school students are often advised to apply to three different categories of colleges: ‘stretch’ schools, ‘good fit’ schools, and ‘safety’ schools.

A stretch school is one you had a shot at getting into. A good fit school is one you were almost certain to be accepted to. A safety school is one you could be one hundred per cent certain of attending even if everyone else turned you down.

Do those categories still hold true in these days of record high application volume and record low acceptance rates? Does such a thing as a ‘safety school’ still exist?

A small number of high-achievers can be reasonably confident of winning admission to all but the most selective colleges and universities. However, even they should not take admission to a particular college or university for granted.

State universities have always been a popular pick for safety schools because they typically guaranteed admission to state residents who met certain academic criteria. In recent years, however, many public universities have switched to a holistic admissions process that puts less emphasis on GPAs and standardized test scores and gives more consideration to high school activities and life experience. Even a straight-A student has no iron-clad guarantee of being admitted.

One of the sadder stories we’ve ever heard about college admissions concerns a high-flying Florida senior who submitted applications to universities in that state a few years ago. She had stellar grades and strong extracurricular activities, and she thought that those things were enough to get her into state universities. She didn’t even bother to finish her applications. She wrote “N/A,” for “not applicable,” in every part of an application form that asked for additional information.

Every school she applied to rejected her.

The technical reason why all those universities turned this applicant down was that she submitted incomplete applications. But even if she had provided minimal answers to every question on the application, we think the schools would have been reluctant to admit her. Her real problem was that she communicated all too clearly her lack of enthusiasm for attending any of these schools.

Schools don’t want students who don’t want to be there. In these days when almost any school has more qualified applicants than it has seats to fill, they don’t have to accept unmotivated applicants.

The real problem with the notion of safety schools is that it can be interpreted as encouraging students to apply to schools they don’t want to go to. That’s terrible advice. If you know you’re going to be unhappy at a particular college or university, don’t apply in the first place.

You should be able to give at least one sincere reason for wanting to attend every school you submit an application to – even if the reason is only that the school is a useful stepping stone to where you really want to be. A college is more likely to want you as a student if you can say why you want that same thing.

Today’s college applicants are sellers in a buyer’s market. Even the largest state universities may have more qualified applicants than they could accommodate as students. Under those circumstances, even strong applicants are well advised to put sincere thought and effort into every college application they submit. As application volume rises and acceptance rates decline, it becomes increasingly risky to assume that any institution can be treated as a safety school.

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