There’s really no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to deciding how many colleges to apply to, but there is one hard and fast rule that applies to every student: Everyone should apply to more than one safety school.

What Is a safety school?

Many people think that a safety school is a “bad” school, but this isn’t true at all! Sure, safety schools are less prestigious and selective than dream schools. The truth is that there are many truly excellent colleges out there that are easier to get into.

For example, a California student might set her sights on schools like UC Berkeley or Occidental College. She wants to stay in state and has a 3.3 GPA and a fairly strong 1350 SAT score. These are both great schools. The fact is that she’s unlikely to earn admission at Berkeley and only has about a 50/50 chance of earning admission at Occidental. Clearly, this student needs a safety school.

How about San Jose State University? It’s got a great regional reputation, ranking 35 among regional west universities. Like Berkeley, it’s a large public campus in the San Francisco Bay area; and it’s got some impressive grads, including author Amy Tan and more than a dozen Olympic medalists. Its admissions stats make it easier to get into, so it’s a safety school – but also a really good school.

I have really strong grades and test scores – why do I need safety schools?

Students with excellent grades and test scores tend to target colleges with pretty low admission rates. No matter how strong a student’s academic profile might be, competition at such schools is fierce. In fact, we would consider any school with an admission rate below 20% to be a reach school for any student, no matter how good the student’s grades and test scores. At these schools, even a perfect GPA and perfect test scores are no guarantee of admission. Safety schools ensure that students have plenty of available options once admission decisions are received.

I already applied early at my top choice schools. I can wait to look at safety schools, right?

A lot of students who apply early decide to wait to identify potential safety schools until they hear back from their top choice schools – but by January or February, when these admission decisions arrive, regular admission deadlines are already starting. A safety school means your academic profile gives you a really good chance for admission, but you still can’t shrug off the application. You need to treat every college application with the same degree of care. If you don’t, you risk being left without any college options at all. Your takeaway – don’t wait until you hear back from your top choice schools to gather your application materials and write your essays for potential safety schools!

Okay, okay. I’ll apply to a safety school. But just one, right?

All students should apply to more than one safety school. First, even at a safety school, admission is never guaranteed. Second, it’s always nice to have options to compare. If you apply to two safety schools and you only get in at those two schools, you’ll still have two financial aid award letters to compare and a choice between two different campus cultures.

How can I find safety schools?

Start with a good college search tool like NCES College Navigator. Enter your search parameters and examine the search results. You’ll need to look for colleges where the 25th percentile SAT score is way below your SAT score. Once you’ve got a good sized list of colleges from this tool, you can learn more about those schools through the colleges’ websites or through tools like the College Board’s Big Future. Remember, though, that these should be schools that you would be satisfied in attending. Look beyond the numbers to learn more about the campus. Learn about the surrounding area, the school’s culture, and the faculty and course offerings. If possible, visit the campus to get a better idea of what life at this school is like.

All C2 Education students receive personalized college admissions counseling as part of their C2 programs. Our experts help students make better college choices, from how many college applications to send out to which colleges to consider applying to. If you need help on the road to college, contact your local C2 Education center today!