During spring break, my junior year of high school, I took a road trip to California to visit a bunch of colleges. We visited all sorts of different schools – big, small, urban, rural, public private, etc… I started to notice I would perk up when colleges mentioned certain topics, like involvement, student/faculty interactions, and opportunities outside the classroom. Being on a college campus, comparing totally different schools, and getting a better feel for what I was looking for was so valuable in helping me narrow my focus.
I realized I wanted to move away from my suburban Portland home and experience somewhere new. I also wasn’t opposed to warmer weather (I COULD NOT handle the idea of scraping ice from my car windshield even one more time.) In high school, I loved being involved and being challenged by my classes. So for college, I saw myself having a similar experience and being surrounded by people who were just as driven, passionate, and curious as I was.
One of the schools we visited was USC and, as cliché as it sounds, I fell in love the second I stepped on campus. Every minute of my visit, I could picture myself in the classrooms and labs, kicking the flag pole on my way to football games, biking to class on a pink pastel beach cruiser, and shouting “Fight On” to friends I passed on campus. I was hooked immediately. But when we got home, I did the same thing I now see students do every day. I let myself get discouraged by the low admission rate at USC. Although I was a strong student, super involved, and very passionate, the numbers really took a toll on my excitement. I made myself look at other schools and actually got excited about some really cool options. I convinced myself that I loved some other “more reasonable” schools, all the while knowing that USC was my top choice.
As senior year rolled around, I started making a list of the schools I was interested in and any pertinent information (due dates, deadlines, application fees, scholarship opportunities, etc…) that I needed in the application process. When all was said and done, I had applied to 12 colleges, (although now that I’m trying to list them, I can only think of 11.) There’s really very little that they all had in common. Half were on the West Coast, half on the East. Mostly big schools, but some tiny liberal arts colleges. One was a religious school. One previously was an all-women’s college. Some public, some private. Big sports all the way to no sports. Ivy League to regional institutions. If I were to do it all over again, there are at least two schools that I now know would not be a good fit for me, and a few more that I didn’t even consider that would be great.
I applied regular decision to all the schools on my list and completed most of my applications before winter break. Generally my major was “undecided” or “undeclared” as I had a lot of fields and subjects that interested me, but wanted to explore for my first semester or year before nailing down a major.
For some reason, we tell students that junior year of high school is the hardest, but for me, it was senior year. It was emotional, in kind of a cheesy way, because you know each event is the last – the last homecoming, last rivalry game, last dance competition – but then you feel silly because you’re so looking forward to the “first’s” and “next’s” to come. On top of that, you add tough classes, college applications, and the impending doom of being an adult. I got so tired of people asking where I was going, and what my plans were. As someone who always has a plan and a goal in mind, I hated the uncertainty during this waiting period and tried to avoid telling people that I didn’t know yet, or that I was still waiting to hear, or what my top choice was (I didn’t want to jinx it.) So, I started responding by saying that I was going to a Nanny/Au Pair training program I had heard about in the next town over. I thought it was hilarious, my mom did not.
Then one late January afternoon, I got a text from my dad asking me to come see him when I got home. Now, I was not in trouble very often in high school, but somehow, I convinced myself this was it. I had done something horrible and he was grounding me forever. So I dragged my feet, dawdled as long as I could, and headed home dreading the trouble I was going to be in. When I got home, my mom escorted me to my dad, who was waiting upstairs. From between the mattress and box spring, my dad pulled out a thin box that had arrived in the mail that day. At this point I was super confused and wasn’t sure what this box had to do with me. As he handed it to me, I read my name on the mailing label and “University of Southern California” as the return address.
I opened it slowly, sure it was another brochure and that my parents were overreacting. But then, I saw it. THE packet. “CONGRATULATIONS!” written across the top. My name on the letter! I was so shocked, I just stared at it, then up at my parents, and back at the letter. I think they wanted a bigger reaction, but my brain couldn’t quite catch up to what had just happened.
My decision was easy. I had loved USC since my first visit and hadn’t found any other colleges that held a candle to my experience there. A few weeks later, my parents and I went to campus so that I could interview for a merit scholarship. We got to meet lots of my future classmates, sit in on a class, and hear from professors. That trip and being awarded a half-tuition scholarship really sealed the deal for my family.
I constantly think about how lucky I was that my “top choice” was a good fit for me, that I was admitted, and that it worked out financially. I know this isn’t always the case for many of the students I work with. That being said, I believe that if students did a little more research and self-reflection, this might work out for more of us. Having now worked with thousands of applicants, learned about tons more schools, and heard from many, many students about their college admission process, I know that every one of you can find a place at a college or university that you love. This about colleges that are great fits for you, and for the person you want to become. Don’t worry so much about a brand name, or acceptance rate, or reputation. What matters is that you attend a college or university that suits your needs, your goals, and your interests. That may be at a big school like USC, or that might be at an amazing small school in the Midwest with a really niche set of majors and opportunities, or somewhere in between. At the end of the day, what matters is that you find a school that provides you with a community to connect with, courses that interest, and classmates and professors who help you grow!