A drawing shows a student with a dream school ignoring important things.
Illustration by Alex Suarez, Columbia College Chicago

Your ‘Dream School’ Might Actually Be a Nightmare

While some colleges can look great on paper, it’s important to consider everything when choosing where to go.

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A drawing shows a student with a dream school ignoring important things.
Illustration by Alex Suarez, Columbia College Chicago

While some colleges can look great on paper, it’s important to consider everything when choosing where to go.

Almost every young adult has had a “dream school,” the university whose merchandise decorates their wall and motivates them to work and study harder. A dream school can give you something to look forward to, allowing you to focus on your future. The idea of a dream university or a “dream school” is embedded in our culture, especially in media that involves young adults.

However, having a “dream” university can often skew expectations. In some cases, students may get tunnel vision toward one school and fail to consider many of the factors that should influence committing to a college. Whether you’re applying to an undergraduate college, graduate school or another form of higher education, there are many factors to consider beyond what a “dream school” may appear to offer.

Dream Schools in Media

Every student understands the concept of a dream university, just like the idea of a “dream job.” Writer Fletcher Peters for Paste Magazine explained in an article that teen movies often use college application-based plot twists in highly recognizable tropes. This trope has a big influence on how teen coming-of-age films are structured: In many of these films, the protagonist’s “dream school” causes conflict within their personal and romantic relationships. Alternatively, it can be the “happy ending” that ties the film together and brings success and happiness to the character. More often than not, the plot has a combination of both. One thing remains consistent in all the films and shows that have this trope, though: College is a big, life-altering decision in which there appears to be a right path and a wrong path. Real life is rarely so straightforward.

While where you choose to go to college may impact certain aspects of your life in the upcoming years, it is not the end all be all. The four years of high school did not define your life and a few years of college shouldn’t either. The large focus on “dream schools” in the media places the idea in young audiences’ minds that getting into the “perfect” university will suddenly make the experience easy and guarantee a smooth path forward. However, college is a big adjustment no matter where you go, and while no school is perfect, certain schools may simply fit your goals more than others. Additionally, the work you put in as well as what you accomplish is more important to future employers than the university name on your degree.

Financial Considerations

According to data from the Education Data Initiative, around 83.8% of students receive some form of financial aid to pay for school. The amount of aid a school may offer you, as well as sources like federal or external, vary based on myriad factors. Elements such as in-state versus out-of-state, field of study and housing arrangements can impact scholarships or grants offered. While your “dream school” may have great pulls, it could be beneficial to compare the full financial cost of each school you apply to. Some schools may give you more bang for your buck, creating less financial stress. Assuming one school will have the best deal can limit your options in the long run. There are plenty of online resources that can help determine estimated aid from a school during the application process in order to provide a baseline idea of what you can expect.

Outside Opinions

Many students form their opinion about a “dream school,” or maybe even a school they’d “never go to,” based on​ the views of friends and family. Popular or even small-group opinions of a school can fully glamorize a university. However, each individual prioritizes different experiences or amenities. For example, if you have a sibling or friend who adores their school, but they value a large sports culture and individual research opportunities, then you should keep that in mind if you value small classes and a walkable campus.

While some students may strive to live in certain states or explore different social environments, that may be very low (or high) on your priority lists. You may have certain criteria that align perfectly with your dream school. However, it is helpful to consider all the aspects of the school that may not be commonly talked about or advertised. For example, details about housing, food, accessibility, majors and environmental attitudes may not be explicitly described on a university’s main website and brochure. Additional research into your specific major or interests will also help you consider where to apply and attend.

If you are unsure about what major you’re interested in and would like to explore your options, a school that specializes in STEM without much development in other programs may not be best for you. Instead, a school with many enriching departments and a well-rounded general education program would be beneficial for you. But the opposite may be true if you know exactly what your goals are and feel confident that they will not change. In that case, specialization within your “dream school” can be an advantage. Talking to university staff and counselors might give you a greater understanding of topics you’re curious about, though it’s important to understand their bias. Ultimately, acknowledging the source of your information and gauging how that might impact the source’s view, as well as solidifying what you prioritize in a school, can help you avoid having unrealistic expectations of a college.

Having a dream school can be a healthy and motivating goal but it shouldn’t overshadow the full college-decision making process. No matter what program of study or educational institution you choose, it is crucial to remember that you are not defined by your school. Ultimately, what’s most important is the personal and educational growth made through your learning and what you make of your degree.

Writer Profile

Vanessa Rivera

James Madison University
Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication (WRTC) and a minor in Creative Writing

Vanessa is a writing, rhetoric and technical communication major and creative writing minor at James Madison University in Virginia. When she’s not reading and writing she loves baking and making long Spotify playlists.

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