I still remember the way I felt the first time I walked onto the University of Virginia campus more than 20 years ago. Golden with sunshine, history, and tradition, the school felt like the only place I could possibly be happy spending my undergraduate years. In 7th and 8th grades, I had prominently displayed my Duke paraphernalia all over my room, and then after a family trip to Boston in 9th grade, I never stopped wearing my Harvard hat. But headed into 12th grade…I had a dream, and that dream was the University of Virginia.
When it comes to dream schools, I say – GO FOR IT. Out there in the world of admissions, there are a lot of reasons to feel like you aren’t going to get into the most prestigious schools, whether that is your state flagship institution or a highly selective private school. It’s true, you very well may not get into those schools. However, I would argue that chance of admission doesn’t matter when it comes to a school you love. First, when you are striving hard for a goal you want, you will work harder, feel more excited, and experience more motivation to get top grades or write that amazing essay. That hard work will pay off in your applications overall. Also, when you enroll finally in whatever college you choose, you should feel no regrets. Nobody wants to chart a path toward more “what if?” scenarios. You want to be able to step forward into your future feeling like you did your best, got the results of your best efforts, and made a great choice from those available.
While I believe in having a dream school to keep you motivated, the dream school thing can also get a little out of control. If you know you are a long shot to the Ivy League, and yet insist on applying to eight Ivy League schools, you are going to set yourself up for having few or no choices. That is not smart. If you spend all of your energy on unrealistic applications, you won’t generate several reasonable choices for yourself. Also, if you focus too much on one school, you could fail to thoroughly research and vet your more reasonable choices or even scholarship programs. That closed-mindedness could keep you from considering other great options that may be even better than the one you’ve identified, or cause you to dismiss schools you’d be more likely to attend. Keeping an open mind is an important factor in landing happily with a great college choice.
Just as I remember well that day I visited UVA, I also still remember clearly the day I sat at my kitchen table and read my rejection letter from them. The good news is that while I had my sights fixed on one school at the age of 18, I had also applied for a variety of other options. Though the rejection was tough, my aspiration to a dream school helped me craft a stronger application, and that motivation paid off in my other choices. And here’s the best part of the story: landing at Vanderbilt was financially and academically a better match for me. My eventual college home became the source of my career, my acapella group, my friends, and even my sports allegiance. When I took a campus tour of Vanderbilt for the first time on April 23 of my senior year, I liked it even more than UVA and was almost grateful for the denial that had kept that door open.
Do you have a dream school like I did? I would encourage you to keep your dream alive and work towards being the best applicant you can be to that school, no matter how long the odds against admission. However, don’t let your dream overtake the process. Keep it in its place, and be sure that practical, reasonable criteria are guiding the rest of your list. Don’t totally close your mind to alternate pathways just because you have a first choice school. Then, no matter what, your adventure begins! You will either attain what you wanted all along, or you will move forward into a different, but still exciting future ahead.
Nicole has dedicated the entirety of her 20 year career to encouraging higher education opportunities. After graduating from Vanderbilt, she worked in her alma mater’s admissions office. The, she completed her PhD in Counseling so she could bring that expertise into college counseling. Nicole partnered with her former Vanderbilt colleague, Fitz Totten, to form Find The Right College and support their mission to make trustworthy advising more accessible.