One Parent Breaks Down the Myth of The Dream College

It’s mid-December, a season of gift-giving and good cheer. For a subset of parents with high school seniors who are applying to college, however, it is also the time when early admission decisions are being released. This phenomenon doesn’t impact every high school senior: many wait until early Spring to hear from the colleges to which they’ve applied. But for those parents whose children are in the midst of hearing from schools, or are surrounded by other kids who are, it can be a fraught, intense few weeks leading up to winter break.

I’ve been observing it all from my vantage point as the parent of a senior, and I’ve been struck by a phrase I’ve seen repeated on social media and other communications swirling around my daughter and her peers: “dream school.” For the lucky few who are admitted, their friends are congratulating them on gaining admission to their “dream school.” If ever there was a loaded phrase, this one is it.

Dream colleges don't exist.
The truth is, there’s no such thing as a “dream college.”

The process of exploring colleges is long and if your child has only a vague idea of the type of school and program he or she prefers, you might spend a good deal of time taking tours and listening to information sessions with remarkably similar themes and catch phrases. There are only so many ways to describe a “holistic approach” to admissions. You may, for lack of a better phrase, kiss many frogs before landing on your child’s college prince (or princess).

If you and your child are really paying attention – observing the students, engaging with the professors, soaking in the atmosphere – you might discover a college that seems like a good fit. You may indeed find several, with a few standing out as top choices. The truth that most adults understand, and that teenagers with college logos flashing in their eyes have difficulty comprehending, is that there many schools – certainly more than one – where they would be happy, have fun, make friends, and get a fantastic education. The notion of a “dream school”, one that checks every box in every possible way, is the unicorn of the college search process.

Those of us who have lived a little longer than 18 years understand and have long since debunked the myth of the “dream” anything. There is no perfectly smooth first date, no “dream” home that meets all our criteria and needs no work, no ideally suited mate with whom we get along every minute, no perfect job without some occasional frustration. You can certainly have romantic first dates, beautiful homes, a compatible spouse and fulfilling, well-compensated work, but all of those things will disappoint you sometimes.  All of them, without fail. And just because they do, it doesn’t mean they weren’t great to begin with, or that you love and enjoy them any less.

My daughter fell in love with her “dream” school early on. It was the school by which she compared all others, and unfortunately, she didn’t give some colleges a fair shake because she had already made up her mind.  My husband and I begged her to stay open to the possibilities, to look at the merits of the many other fine schools that had similar programs, great spirit, wonderful amenities.  We didn’t want her to get her heart set on this one school, admission rates being what they are.  We were the realists shouting for the dreamer to wake up. We kept our feet on the ground, something that is not at all easy to do in these frenetic final days of high school, while she kept her head somewhat in the clouds.

Eventually, over long months of visiting other great campuses, and hours of talking, reasoning, weighing options and statistical probabilities, we came to a different conclusion than the one where we started.  My daughter applied early to a school other than her original “dream school”, one which offered a compelling program that aligned with her specific strengths and interests.  She also cast a wide net of applications to a variety of different schools with excellent programs for her, of different sizes, public and private.  A few weeks ago, she firmly stated that she would be perfectly happy at ANY of the schools to which she applied, if she’s lucky enough to be accepted.

Every parent has heard the story – perhaps they’ve lived it themselves – of a child who had her heart set on a particular school and for whatever reason, it just didn’t work out.  Fast forward a few months or years and the child is thriving at college.  That child reports that everything worked out for the best, that she can’t imagine her college experience turning out any other way, that this was the school she was meant to attend – her actual, true “dream school.”  And every adult in the room says, “of course.”

Here in one story are all of the character traits we strive to instill in our kids – grit, resilience, a positive attitude, the ability to roll with the punches.  We want them to know that in the college process, as in life, you need to be able to take a less than ideal outcome and turn it into something better than a dream: something real.


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About Natalie Silverstein

Natalie Silverstein is an author, editor, volunteer and passionate advocate for family service. Her first book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back, will be published by Gryphon House on April 1, 2019. She is the New York Coordinator of Doing Good Together, a national nonprofit with the mission of helping parents raise kids who care and contribute. She is also a member of the Writer’s Rock in NYC. She lives in New York with her husband and three kids, the oldest of whom is almost grown and ready to fly. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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