Safety Schools – Don’t Do It

Let me be blunt: Do Not Have a Safety School for Grad School.


Why? Because you might get in. Do you want to get in to the lower echelon of your field? In almost all cases the answer is ‘No.’ In fact, I’d argue that in almost every case it would be better to take another year, get applied/work/research experience and apply the next year. Hit the ground running when you apply to grad school… In undergrad there was a reason to go to school right after high school … you did not want to lose the momentum that is so crucial when you were 18 and just leaving high school. In addition, there were likely minimal differences between many of the universities you were applying to … you might even switch schools, or start at a community college first. Grad school is a different beast.

“But what if I apply to the top grad schools and a couple of safety schools and then, if I only get in to the safety schools, I can decide then.”

I think that is a great plan … except for the safety school part. Definitely apply to the top schools, and deal with it if you don’t get in … but the safety school part … Ugh. See, the issue is cognitive dissonance. Right now, you have not applied to that school that is mediocre, and you are seeing it for what it is: mediocre. However, after several months of applying, paying for application fees, telling everyone you are applying to grad school, maybe going on interviews and visits, meeting with faculty and students, waiting (the waiting!) … you are going to be activating cognitive dissonance. Powerfully. Your behavior is going to change how you feel about that school: ‘It’s not that bad! I met some good people there. Sure it’s not the best, but, hey, what is?!’

I’ll tell you: the top grad schools that you wanted before you applied to the safety school! Seriously, this is cognitive dissonance talking and it ain’t doing you any favors.

Here’s the deal: don’t settle. Do your homework (career options, jobs/pay at the end of the program, cost of the school and cost of living), decide on what you want and deserve in your career, and what makes the most sense for your career and situation … and then don’t settle. Choose the programs that you know are excellent and that you know will train you well, with real jobs afterwards. For many this means taking at least a year off between undergrad and grad school.

“But I really don’t want to wait another year.”

Also, totally understandable. So why not apply to the best schools now (even if it is only your top one or two schools), knowing that your application may not be perfect, but then not applying to any safety schools? Then, if you get in, great! If not, you’ve had this year to get it together for the run up to the next application process.

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2 Responses

  1. Phoenicia Herring says:

    This post has made my morning. I am in the process of applying to grad school, and I keep second guessing myself on which schools to apply to. I only want to apply to one school, but I keep second guessing myself because I am taking other people’s advice more into consideration than my own. This post has made me realize that I have to put myself out there and go for it.

    • David Gard says:

      So glad it was helpful. I think it is understandable that people give advice to apply to a lot of schools (even mediocre schools). But I think it makes a lot more sense to remember that this is your career. You are the one who has to live with the school you attend. Apply to the top school(s) and then strengthen your application if you are not accepted. Good luck!