As college application deadlines loom and students make their final decisions about where to apply, the conventional wisdom is clear: Because it’s never been harder to get into your dream school, apply to multiple safety schools.

The conventional wisdom is mistaken, however. There’s a significant downside to enrolling in a school that a student isn’t excited about attending, so students shouldn’t apply to a bunch of safety schools just because they think that’s what they are supposed to do.

Start with the statistics

If the goal is to get into college, the odds are great.

Fewer than 100 colleges are highly selective, which means they accept less than 25% of applicants. Nearly 500 four-year colleges accept more than 75% of applicants. There are also open-admissions colleges that accept nearly everyone who graduates high school.

Despite the meteoric rise in applications to selective colleges and universities, collectively speaking, it’s statistically easier to get into one of the top 50 schools today than it was a generation ago. A big reason that any single top college has become so selective is that so many applicants have taken advantage of the Common Application and adopted the mantra that applying to more colleges is better.

Given that students will get into schools if they just apply to enough of them, it suggests that students shouldn’t be left without any options having applied only to their dream schools.

But students shouldn’t just add safety schools that they wouldn’t be excited to attend.

Here’s why

My fellow researchers and I collected and analyzed more than 200 personal stories and conducted surveys of more than 1,000 students who have chosen different paths for higher education. The research, which we wrote about in Choosing College, revealed that there are five primary reasons that students choose the school they attend. They enroll to get into their best school, do what’s expected of them, get away, step it up, or extend themselves.

For the students who are seeking to get into their best school, if that sounds recursive, it’s because it is. These students are looking to take the next logical step in their lives by having the classic “college experience.” They are focused on getting into school, less on what they will do after they get in.

This emphasis on getting into the “best school” does have a strong track record of success—83% of the students reported being satisfied.

It also leaves students prone to a pitfall, however: attending a school that isn’t right for them.

That happens all too often when students don’t get into their dream schools, are unexcited by their remaining options, and still feel the need to enroll.

Rather than seeking to get into their best school, they attend to do what others—like their parents, friends, guidance counselor, teachers, and mentors—expect of them.

Students who go to school to do what’s expected of them have a very different experience from the first cluster of students.

Fifty-four percent were dissatisfied with their schooling experience. A whopping 74% transferred or dropped out.

One student we talked to, Kolby (the terms of our research protocol required that we use pseudonyms), had his heart set on going to a highly selective school tucked away in a remote part of the country. Its study abroad and language-learning programs were unparalleled.

In case he didn’t get in, Kolby applied to seven other schools.

His dream school, along with his second choice and two other colleges, rejected him.

Of the four safety schools where he was accepted, none excited him.

His mom forced him to enroll in his state’s flagship university, a top-ranked school, rather than take a year off or join the military.

But it was the wrong fit. It was in a city. The university didn’t have the language and study-abroad programs he wanted. And Kolby despised the experience.

The takeaway?

Students should not apply to schools they wouldn’t be excited to attend or just because someone else thinks it’s a “great school.”

But what if they don’t get into any of the schools that excite them?

Students should broaden their options for what’s next. They don’t have to enroll in college right away, for example.

There are other pathways, such as taking a gap year during which they can learn more about themselves and then reapply to colleges. Data show that students who take a gap year do better when they ultimately enroll in college than those who go straight to college.

That’s a much better outcome than falling into the safety school trap.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.