Three Reasons Why You Were Rejected by a “Safety School” and What You Can Do About It

Throughout the months of March and April, students across the country are repeatedly clicking “refresh” on college admissions websites, anxiously awaiting the outcome of three and a half years of hard work in high school.

While most will be preoccupied with whether or not they’ll get into their dream school, many will be shocked to receive something completely unexpected: a rejection from a safety school — a school assumed to be easy to get into.

Over the past few weeks, I've noticed parents in online forums sharing how upset their kids are about these rejections and seeking reasons why this could possibly happen.

Once a student gets rejected by a safety school, they may feel completely devastated. Here are three reasons that might help explain what may have gone wrong:

  1. Underestimating the competition: While grades and test scores aren’t everything, they make up two of the most important parts of a college application. A student's stats should be at least better than the top 50-75% of the previously admitted class before considering a school to be a safety. Many aren’t aware that a lot of helpful data about the previously accepted class at colleges across the country is publicly available information.
  2. Not paying attention to admission rates: Schools with admission rates under 20% should never be considered safety schools. While it may seem counterintuitive, the volume of applications that might be submitted to a safety school can make it even more competitive to get in.
  3. Not tailoring each application essay to a specific school:  Students sometimes take the shortcut of copying and pasting one application essay into another application without customizing the essay. It’s easy to assume that if a student puts in their best effort into producing a solid essay for one of their reach school applications, it would be good enough for a safety school application. This isn’t the case. All schools are looking for students who would be a good fit and if an application essay is too generic, a student may sound like any other applicant. 

If a student gets rejected by a safety school, the number one question racing through their mind is: “If I didn’t get into my safety school, does that mean I’m not getting in anywhere I applied?!”

Not necessarily.

Unless a school offers a guaranteed admission path, there’s no way to predict with 100% certainty whether or not a student will get into a certain college, especially if it is a competitive one. However, if a student is truly worried about not getting in anywhere, here are some concrete next steps to consider:

  1. Send an appeal. If something noteworthy has happened since submitting an application such as winning a major award, inventing something, or starting a new program at school, it may be worth a shot to send an appeal. Appeals are rarely successful, but worth a try if a student is 100% convinced that the new accomplishments are pretty remarkable. Students can contact the admissions office to learn more about their appeal process, but will need to make sure to follow up quickly.
  2. Apply to more colleges: After reflecting on their college list, if a student feels like they totally miscalibrated their likelihood of getting into any of the schools they applied to, it's time to look for other colleges that offer rolling admissions or later application deadlines and submit a few more applications.
  3. Consider going to community college: An option that is becoming more and more attractive to students is taking general education credits at a community college and transferring to a four year university during their junior year. Not only will this give a student another chance of graduating with a degree from a school they want to go to, it’ll save them a ton of money. And, that diploma at the end will have no indication on it that the student attended a community college.
  4. Consider a gap year: If a student is not interested in going down the community college route and finds themselves with no college offers, a gap year might be an attractive option. While this is not a highly common approach, more and more students are exploring it. A gap year full of meaningful experiences can inform what gets written in application essays and how a student presents themselves when going through the application process again. 
  5. Don’t lose hope: Sometimes students get accepted into schools that seem more competitive yet get rejected by schools that would be classified as a “safety school.”

Awaiting college application decisions is an emotional roller coaster. While it can feel deflating to receive a rejection, don’t panic. A student may need some space and time to recover (e.g. talk it out with the family, go out for a jog, listen to a favorite music playlist — whatever it takes to clear their head), and then start considering the alternatives. As a student rejected from a safety school awaits decisions from other schools they applied to, it's a good time to start to consider a back up plan just in case. There are still many different options to get a great education.

For families of students in grades 9th - 11th who want to learn more about how a student can stand out on college applications, enroll in my next live workshop here.

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