Many applicants who are targeting top ranked programs wonder if they should consider adding a lower-ranked school to their list as a “safety school.” Should you? And is there such a thing?
What is a safety school?
A safety school is one where you are highly competitive, that is strong in your area of interest, and where you will probably be accepted if you present your case well, but is not as competitive as higher ranked schools. The school supports your particular goals, but doesn’t have the overall brand value of some of the more competitive schools.
It’s important not to fixate on a “star” name. If a school offers the type of program you’re looking for and you are a good fit in other ways, you should genuinely think about going there. Your application to a safety school needs to be taken as seriously as one to a more competitive school. Slacking off and submitting an incomplete or sloppy application will lead to your rejection even from a school in this category.
How do you decide if a school supports your goals?
First separate out professional and educational goals by asking yourself the following questions:
1. For professional goals:
What you want to do after you receive your degree?
Are graduates hired in high numbers for the positions you would like to obtain?
Do the companies that you would like to work for recruit on campus?
Is the alumni network strong in your field?
2. For educational goals:
Does the curriculum teach you what you want to learn in the way you want to learn it?
What do you need to learn to pursue your chosen professional path?
Are professors at the school prominent in your area of interest?
What if you know you only want to go to a top ranked program?
First of all, rankings aren’t everything. But if you know that your top choice schools are the only ones for you (for any reason – academic, professional, geographical, etc), then your decision is made for you.
Are you guaranteed admission at a lower ranked school in every field?
In some disciplines and degree programs, it is hard to talk about “safety schools” at all – if you’re applying to PhD programs, your “safety” strategy might be adding a couple of master’s programs to your list, or making a plan to get additional research experience before reapplying if your first applications don’t pan out.
So what should you do?
If you conclude that no safety schools meet the above criteria, then you shouldn’t bother applying to any. If you have a top-school-or-bust attitude, then that’s fine – just know that your chances of getting in will be lower and you may need to reapply next year (and if none of the less competitive schools are for you, then this is the right move for you).
However, many of you will find programs where you are much more competitive and that do support your goals. They will be your insurance policy if you are applying with a less-than-perfect profile to programs with cut-throat competition. They may also prove to be more generous with financial aid. If you’d be thrilled to attend any of the safety schools on your list, then you should certainly apply to them. (In general, if you wouldn’t be happy to attend a program on your list, then you should immediately cross it off your list!)
Whether or not to apply to a safety school, like so much in admissions, is determined individually. There are no across-the-board rules. Use the above criteria to guide you as you decide where to apply.