College decisions have been particularly brutal this year. This was the first admissions season after the onset of the pandemic, and the decisions being released have left countless students feeling utterly blindsided by rejections they didn’t expect. If you’re one of these students - and especially if you’re also surrounded by friends who seem to have had “perfect” outcomes, who are bursting with excitement as they prepare to attend their school of choice - this blog post is for you. I know exactly how you’re feeling right now because I went through the same thing.
All my life, I had prided myself on being an excellent student; even as I felt insecure in other areas, I knew I was exceptionally good at school. I had spent years toiling in accelerated courses and APs, worked through long hours and late nights doing extra work for my high school’s performing arts programs, and I was absolutely confident that my efforts would get me into my “dream school.”
Though I’m able to look more critically at the idea of a “dream school” today, during high school, that vision of the future meant everything to me. TV and film told me the best schools - the schools I belonged in - were old (over a century at least), beautiful (think ancient oaks, sprawling lawns, perhaps even an ocean view), and at least reasonably prestigious (so private schools were ideal). Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew there were other ways to do college, but the environment I’d grown up in had all but convinced me that those ways were for other people - people who didn’t work as hard as I did or maybe just didn’t care as much.
So when I applied to a slate of prestigious private schools and high-powered UCs, my family had to convince me to tack on a safety school at the end of the list. This school was relatively new (at least in my terms), in an urban setting (not a single grove of trees!), and less selective than the others (they don’t call it a “safety” for nothing).
Long story short, if not for that last school, I would not have attended a four-year university right out of high school at all. I was rejected by virtually every other college I had applied to.
The dream had been shattered. I fell into a deep depression. I lost my self-confidence and my motivation. Watching friends celebrate their victories made things even worse. What had I done wrong? I felt shame when I explained my situation to eager loved ones. Later that summer, I cut my campus tour short because I had cried most of the day, distraught, unwilling to accept my new future. It just didn’t add up. That wasn’t where I was meant to be. Why couldn’t anybody else see that?
The first semester wasn’t easy. I spent much of my time pursuing transfers at the colleges that had rejected me the first time. I was still living in denial, and the only thing that motivated me to pass my classes was the desire to “set things right” - to get off that campus and onto one that really suited me, that would show the world I was still a good student and could still be successful.
By the end of that school year, I was granted a transfer to one of my “dream schools.” I didn’t take it. You may be thinking, “Hold up! The person who’s been moping for most of this story would take it right away. It seems like there’s nothing more important to her.” So let me explain why.
First of all, even after financial aid, tuition at this other school would have been at least three times what I was paying at my current one. Yikes! Also, though, by the time I met the one-year anniversary of all my rejections, I had grown up. I lived on my own away from home for the first time in a new place. I managed my own money. In spite of my struggles with depression and a long-term illness, I earned a solid GPA. After some time away from high school and the intense pressures of in my hometown, I finally had some perspective.
In the years that followed, my understanding of the situation became more and more unclouded by the expectations that blinded me at 17. I learned that the whole idea of a “dream school” is manufactured and perpetuated by those who profit off of K-12 students who simply want to pursue a good life - one in which they can do something they enjoy for work and make the money they need to live securely and pursue other goals while they’re at it. Not only do these people peddle the idea that the more prestigious the college, the better life one is able to live; they’re somehow able to convince students that their self-worth is directly proportional to the reputation of the college they attend.
I had fallen into every trap the college-industrial complex laid for me, and all the pain I went through when I experienced those rejections was simply the product of decades of deception that convinced me my self-worth was derived largely from my performance as a student and my performance as a student could only be validated by admission to what I imagined as a “dream school.”
In the end, it turned out that my safety school was my dream school. Underneath all the fantastic visions of reading Virgil in the shadow of centuries-old Greek-revival architecture, my real dream was simply to be able to study something I was interested in and have experiences that would prepare me for a career I found meaningful. I was able to do just that.
Three-and-a-half years later, I defied every expectation of my senior-year-of-high-school self and asked that school if they would accept me into a graduate program. I was admitted, I completed it with pleasure (and a number of all-nighters), and here I am today, living the life I dreamed of. My path didn’t look at all like I thought it would, but it turns out that - and this might sound crazy, so bear with me - I just didn’t know all that much about life when I was 17.
TL;DR: The idea of a “dream school” is dumb and fake. I went to my safety school and now have the makings of a successful career. I’m also in way less debt than I would have been if I had gone to one of the schools I thought was the be-all and end-all.
In conclusion, I know how you feel right now - probably like absolute garbage. I understand. But I also need you to understand that life gets much better from here on out. You’ll be able to look back like I can and feel sorry for the kid who was so caught up in their own expectations that this one bump in the road felt like the end of the road. The truth is that college is really what you make it. Keep up the good work, and you’ll end up just where you want to be. For now, focus on just finishing senior year and spending the summer being an idiot with your friends. Fortunately, when this all seems like a distant memory, the good times are the ones you’ll remember best.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
With offices located in beautiful Orange County, ThinquePrep specializes in the personalized mentorship of students and their families through the entire college preparation process and beyond. With many recent changes to college admissions - standardized tests, financial aid, varied admissions processes - the educational landscape has never been more competitive or confusing. We’re here from the first summer program to the last college acceptance letter. It’s never too early to start thinking about your student’s future, so schedule your complimentary consultation today!