The Problem With Your College-Bound Teen’s “Dream School”

With a high school senior living in my house, college applications and decisions are on my mind a lot these days. While my son and his friends don’t talk about it all that much, more and more students are applying early decision to highly competitive schools, and I’ve heard the term “dream school” mentioned several times recently. Those words cause me to wince internally every time I hear them, particularly when a parent whispers, “My kid will be devastated if they don’t get in!”

Harvard University buildings

While I’m enthusiastically for kids having dreams and goals when it comes to college, the whole idea of a dream school often sets a student up for a nightmare outcome — the extreme sadness and disappointment when acceptance to that single school just doesn’t happen.

What is the truth about “Dream Schools?”

Here’s what I’d like to tell every college-bound kid out there:

I know you may think there’s that one, perfect school for you. You may have, or you may be, working really hard to get there, and that’s commendable.

I know you may think that one school is the only place for you because of any number of reasons. I want you to know that there is no such thing as a dream school. But, there are dream students, dream effort, and dream opportunities at every college and university in America — from Tiny Town Community College to The Big State School to the Ivy League.

OK, go ahead and tell me why “that” school is your dream…

“It has a top-notch academic reputation.” 

Yes, that may be true, but reputations aren’t always based on fact, and the facts that they are based on are often biased and very subjective. Admittance rates and national rankings don’t mean a whole lot when you are out in the real world competing for a job or a promotion. If you’re persistent, resilient, and ready to work hard, you’ll always have a job.

“It’s a beautiful school” and/or “It’s in a wonderful city.”

Yes, the buildings on campus may be stunning, and that city is certainly an exciting one, but you will have the rest of your life to seek out a place to live that is beautiful and has the culture you want. You even will have summer opportunities to visit that city if you really want to. Seek out a job or volunteer position and live there for a few months to see what it’s like.

“It has the best Engineering/Theatre Arts/Journalism program in the country.”

And thousands of other schools have fantastic programs as well. More importantly, thousands of others schools have exceptional faculty members who are willing to mentor any student who is hard-working, sincere, and wants help finding an internship or assistance with job search skills.

My grandfather, Dad, and uncle all went there.”

And they will love you no matter where you go to school, and be proud of what you work hard for. Your sweatshirt doesn’t have to be the same color as theirs.

It has an awesome football/basketball/hockey team.”

So you can do the following — develop a similarly intense spirit for another school, still be a fan of that school’s teams, or stick with rooting for professional sports — there are plenty of teams for everyone.

It has an amazingly fun Greek system.

A lot of schools do if that is important to you. And anywhere you go, you can find clubs and organizations to fit any and all interests – or you can create your own.

So please remember, a school should not be your dream. Your experience at any school — that you have so much control over – can be a dream if you are willing to be open, and put in the time and effort. You can study hard, make great social and academic connections, and prepare yourself for a wonderful career, no matter where you attend college.

Don’t let the decision of one particular school affect how you envision your future success. Be the director of your dreams, and focus them on your own behaviors, not the name of a school that will have nothing to do with your accomplishments.

Photo credit: Daytripper

You Might Also Want to Read:

Why You Should Dote On Your High School Senior

College Admissions: How to Decide While Your Kid Waits 


About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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