A safety school, as its name implies, is supposed to be a sure-fire bet, your backup plan. In short, no one really expects to be attending their safety school. It is there just in case something else does not work out. This is why some students put little thought into their safety school and just assume it will all work out
This thinking is very dangerous.
In this time of both economic uncertainty and record application numbers, you need to find a safety that you would be happy to attend. Things do not always go the way you think they well and it is prudent to well prepared.
But how do you pick a great safety? This is a very fair point, as we are groomed to shoot for the stars. Oftentimes for high achieving students, failure was not an option and second place was just the first loser. This is why a great safety is the toughest school to pick, but also the most important school on your list. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, your list of schools is only as strong as your safety.
The three most important factors to consider when picking a great safety are:
Geographically you need to think: where would you be happy to attend? The best thing to do is to think about where your ideal (e.g.: match and reach schools) schools are located both in terms of region and urban/rural/suburban location. If your ideal school is New York University, you may want to consider urban schools in major cities in the northeast. If your ideal school is Amherst, think about other schools in New England.
Remember, you are not only choosing a school, you are choosing a home for the next four years.
Your parents are right: college is about your education. In this, you will want the most rigorous and challenging education possible to prepare you for the wider world. A safety school does not need to equate to an easy time in college. Nor does it imply that your time or education is any less valuable. Despite this, finding challenge does require some forethought and research. Attending a safety school does not mean a student has to sacrifice opportunities.
The two academic opportunities within a potential safety school are entrance into an honors programs and specific, high caliber programs.
Honors programs within colleges and universities are specialized programs that often includes smaller classes, priority registration, mentoring, and research opportunities with professors. Honors students are encouraged to study abroad and typically live within their own housing block. An honors program is able to give students a more intimate academic experience and access to more opportunities.
Students typically are able to gain entrance to an honors college through an extra application when they apply. SATs and GPA are considered when evaluating candidates. Some schools also require extra essays and interviews about how an honors college would benefit a student. However, these factors depend on that school, so it is suggested you contact the college you are interested in.
While honors colleges can give a great academic experience with some of the best professors at a school, students who know exactly what they want to study should consider specific, high caliber programs.
These programs are the type of programs that a particular school is known for and are typically held in higher esteem than the sum of the school. Some great examples of this are studying marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, international relations at American University, international business at University of South Carolina, meteorology at Florida State University, and engineering at Purdue University.
The faculty at these schools are going to be leaders within their fields and will help you access opportunities. Additionally, schools like American University combine a top-notch program with a top-notch location. After all, if you are interested in international relations, there are few places better to be than Washington D.C.
Ah cost. We always want to forget about the cost of higher education, because it clouts our pure academic endeavors. Unfortunately, colleges and universities have many of the same considerations as businesses and accordingly charge tuition (and other fees). So unless your family is willing and able to fit the entire bill, you’ll have to pay attention to aid packages. Tuition and other costs of college can be subsidized through a variety of avenues including need-based aid, merit aid, and outside scholarships.
A great starting point to check out cost-factors is the “Great Schools, Great Prices” section of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges guide. This section profiles the percent of students receiving need-based grants, the average cost after receiving these grants, and the total “discount” from tuition that these grants provide.
Merit aid is another beast altogether and will really depend on the school. However, some “trends” to exist when considering where to apply to get a good merit package. Generally, it is more difficult to receive merit aid when you apply to a state school as an out of state (OOS) applicant, because state schools take care of in-state kids first. Private schools are going to be less discriminatory when considering you for merit aid. Another rule of thumb is when you are an applicant who is about the 75th percentile in SATs and/or GPA for a specific school. However, none of these rules are hard-and-fast and it is best to e-mail the admissions department the school for the particulars (i.e.: some schools require a separate application for merit aid).
Outside scholarships can also help bring the cost of any school. They can generally be used for other expenses too including books and room/board.
One last bit of cost-related advice is to not forget the “other” expenses. These include cost of living and transportation. Cost is linked to transportation, because plane tickets can get expensive. If you get a good scholarship, it can be negated if you have to buy pricey round-trip tickets a few times a year. Even two trips home per year could run you upwards of $4,000. Similarly, cost of living can make a huge difference. For example, if you want to live off campus as an upperclassmen you will have to pay for an apartment or house which can cost exorbitant amounts of money. Food, mass transit, and “other” expenses are also higher in cities, so it is important to be aware of cost of living. The Sperling’s Cost of Living Comparison Calculator is a useful tool for gauging the differences between prospective locations
The Fourth Factor
You cannot discount your “gut” or your “intuition.” If you feel comfortable or good about a place, consider that. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell had a great line that summarizes this best:
“There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”
To summarize, none of these are supposed to be “rules,” rather they are things that you should consider when visiting colleges. Do not discount a college just because it lacks the “prestige” of your perfect school. A smart student prepares for any situation and a wise student is able to find a safety school that they love.Photo by Chris Amelung