The idea of a dream college has become overwhelmingly popular among college applicants. Students starting the application process tend to set their sights on one school in particular that they believe to be the perfect fit for them—setting their expectations high. While this allows for a sense of drive and ambition in an applicant, it’s important to distance yourself from your dream college in order to have a wider set of higher education options. Although the feeling of strongly knowing where you want to spend the next chapter of your academic and personal life is comforting, it tends to prevent students from researching other colleges that would also suit their academic needs and interests. Here are a few tips to help you take a step back and appreciate other schools during your college search.
Be aware of your bias
It's important to first acknowledge that your dream school is likely idealized by your biased perception of it. It's hard to get the idea of a dream out of your head, especially when you’re working hard to achieve it. But there are many other schools with similar qualities to your dream college. Keep working hard, but remember to gain a little perspective and truly consider your options to make an informed choice. Also keep in mind that your dream school might vary from the person sitting next to you in AP Lit or your family's expectations, so consider only your personal values and desires when considering where to apply.
Ask yourself: What makes this college your dream school?
It's important to recognize what makes your dream school the most desirable option for your higher education experience. Take the time to carefully consider what about it makes this school your top pick. This could range from location, campus size, or prestige to academic rigor, professors, overall resources, and so on. Once you identify this school’s specific traits, try to find others that match those desirable traits. For instance, if your dream school is Harvard University because of its location, academic liberty, and resources, you may also consider applying to Northeastern University or Boston University.
Find schools with similar offerings and resources
Try to link the most important traits, finding similar personal matches while broadening your options. Some factors you could consider include financial support, location, overall cost, living situation, majors and concentrations, and student-faculty ratio. Remember to get into the specifics about each school dictated by your academic interests, personal opinions, and passions. After all, this is where you’ll be for the next four years, at least. In the end, knowing why you wish to attend your dream college allows you to search for schools with similar traits to have as backups.
Important tip: You should only apply to schools you truly wish to attend. Once you figure out which schools share qualities with your dream school, apply to only the schools you feel excited about attending. In the end, this will ensure you enjoy your college experience no matter which acceptance letters you receive.
Conduct your research efficiently and effectively
One of the most important tips to get a sense of what other schools have to offer is to research properly. Put as much research time into every school you strongly wish to apply as you did for your dream school. It’s likely you spent a great deal of time looking up facts and details about your dream college to come to the conclusion it was the perfect fit for you. So do the same for other schools you find that parallel your dream college. You’ll realize that other incredible schools have the same to offer academically, financially, and lifestyle wise as the school you’re stuck on.
An outline for your research
- Make a list of what you wish to do and have access to at college. This list should be your top needs in a school. Then make sure each school on your list has something similar or equal to your requirements. For example, if you prioritize financial aid and a school suited for a Drama major, you may consider a school like Yale University, Brown University, or New York University.
- Use the school’s website resources first. A great way to gain knowledge about a certain school is through their website. You can find everything from admission tips to virtual tours to the overall mission of the school. Due to COVID-19, most schools around the country now offer additional online resources to facilitate your research—for example (my personal favorite), online information sessions. These cover everything the school has to offer and may even allow you to ask questions.
- Seek out the details you find most important. These can vary from the housing system to the dining experience. Details are greatly important to your overall potential happiness at the school and may even help you when answering essay and interview questions during the admission process.
Be flexible in your academics and activities
Flexibility is important to create distance between your dream school and other options. For example, a lot of high school students tend to take on a ton of classes, responsibilities, and extracurricular activities for the sake of looking impressive to one specific school—their dream school. But you have control over your activities; don’t do something just because you want to stand out to a specific school. Try out extracurriculars and classes that speak to you as a person. In the end, you’ll have substance for your college admission essays because your four years of high school were spent full of passion, drive, and sense of self. This allows you to enjoy high school and pursue your passions while still standing out to many different schools in the process.
To summarize, make a list of what you wish for in a school, both academically and personally. Create a separate list with everything your dream school has to offer, making said institution the place you wish to spend the next few years. Then find schools that share these traits and allow for changes in your college list since you will, in the end, benefit from them. Keep working hard for your dream, even if it changes a few times along the way. We wish you luck!
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