It’s almost time for freshman year of college, and your friends are buzzing about orientation, new roommates and matching duvets. But you’re not excited—in fact, you’re kissing your college daydreams a teary farewell. After throwing yourself into application essays, SATs and extracurricular activities, your dream school still turned you down, and now you’re stuck with Boring U. I know the feeling, because it happened to me, too.
I started browsing College Board my freshman year of high school. I mix-and-matched the housing, admission rate and SAT score filters, clicked through dozens of search results, and read entire admissions websites. I even took the PSAT website personality test. (Yes, I was that kid.) After my rural liberal arts school phase (when Kenyon won my heart with a glossy 60-page catalog), my urban art nerd phase (when I weighed my hatred of smog against the lure of a publishing major offered by Emerson), and my sparklingly-successful-ex-homeschooler phase (when I told everyone I knew that I was Amherst or bust), I drew up a list of six schools: two reaches, two ballparks and two safeties.
At the last minute, I swapped out UNC-Chapel Hill for the University of Maryland, my state’s flagship, because UNC’s website was not intuitive and I had trouble finding the application. I also realized my parents might appreciate it if I included a financial safety school. But that was only the first thing that didn’t go as planned. I only got into three of the six schools I applied to: Washington University in St. Louis, Elon University, and the University of Maryland. After a brief and unhelpful bartering session with Wash U’s financial aid department, my parents gently informed me that a $50k/year English degree was not their idea of savvy higher education.
Elon, with a lower price tag and better scholarship options, remained a possibility. I visited for a round of interviews and information sessions, fell in love with all the brick, ivy and shady oak trees, and decided it was just as amazing as the website had promised. More importantly, it was far smaller than the University of Maryland and fairly rural, which fit my dream school profile to a T. But the scholarship I needed didn’t come through. Then I was sitting on the floor of my dad’s office in April with offer letters and brochures fanned out on the carpet, trying to justify the tuition discrepancy between my two remaining choices. It couldn’t be done. My parents, knowing Maryland is a well-respected university, were deaf to any protests about “everyone going there.” I enrolled at Maryland the next morning and mourned the decision until my August move-in.
I don’t regret my dreaming or planning. I only wish I hadn’t wasted time wishing I were going anywhere but Maryland. Now that I’ve been at college for three years, I can tell you that great diner food, top-ten nightlife rankings and faculty-student ratios are not what make a university your dream school. I definitely won’t discount the value of good diner food—I’ve eaten too much suspicious fish in the last few years to be so naive. But the people you meet are going to make a more lasting impression than any of those school perks you read about in the brochures. And every single school has people you can connect with, no matter what kind of student it’s “known for.” Maryland, for example, takes pride in its STEM programs and sports, neither of which are particularly relevant to my life. Regardless, by the end of my first semester, I’d settled in with a huge group of friends who could whip my tail at Scrabble. It’s hard to put that many young people in one place and not end up with a kaleidoscope of interests and personalities, many of which will match yours.
New experiences are scary—and they’re even scarier when they’re not what you were hoping for. I could give you cheesy motivational-poster advice, like “Everything happens for a reason,” but I hated that when I was in your shoes. What I will say is: try it. Strike out for your future alma mater with an open mind, because every year happy people graduate from every college in this country. Chances are that you weren’t completely right about what makes a “dream school” when you did your research, and the place you’re headed in a few months is going to have great surprises for you. Who knows—if you give the place a chance, maybe it’ll even become your dream school, like Maryland has become for me. It’s too early to despair. That much I can promise you.