When You Realize Your “Worst Case Scenario College” is Actually Your Dream School

The summer going into my senior year of high school, I decided it was about time to apply to colleges. And by “I decided,” I mean I waited until the last possible minute and quickly scrambled together some applications. Whether I was going to college wasn’t even a question for me, but I put my most magnificent procrastination skills to work when it came to applying.

The thought of putting my best face forward for my dream schools and risking getting rejected was, frankly, terrifying. I knew I wanted to go to certain schools because of their beautiful campuses, sports teams, great reputations, but how did I know whether or not I was the right fit for them?

People tend to use acceptance rates to measure how likely you are to get into a school, but how the hell was I supposed to know if I was a 30% acceptance rate kid, a 15%, or maybe a 60%?

U Mass Amherst
University of Massachusetts, Amherst (Photo credit: Alexius Horatius)

With some help from parents, guidance counselors, and friends, I picked out six schools: two reaches, two targets, and two safeties. Using online graphs of grades and SAT scores of accepted students, I tried to imagine where I would fit in and how realistic it was to apply to those schools. I created ideas in my head about where I would be going.

College admissions: reach, targets, and safety schools

I imagined that I would be the outlying dot on those graphs with an abnormally low GPA for reach schools, but I still got in. For my targets, I saw myself blending in with the thousands of other kids whose academic statistics were on par with mine. As for my two safety schools, I pictured myself being the dot at the top of those graphs, a kid whose statistics were well above the average of the school’s admitted applicants. I thought it would be embarrassing to be one of those dots because, to me, it represented falling just short of another school’s graph.

The first school I heard back from was the University of Massachusetts Amherst, one of my two safety schools, and, honestly, the safer of the two. I had visited UMass several times because my brother, Sam, played football there, and it’s where he would be attending graduate school. Every time I visited, I was primarily focused on spending time with Sam, and I never thought to consider whether I would like to go there.

I applied because it seemed like a nice campus, my brother liked it there, and that’s about it. I knew almost nothing of the school, so it stood on my college application list like an afterthought.

They offered me a generous scholarship, which I didn’t give a second thought. I sent a text to my parents, they sent back heart eyes emojis, and I thought that would be the end of it. I expected to receive many more happy letters from colleges containing generous scholarships.

That first scholarship and acceptance letter gave me the impression that choosing colleges were like shopping at the Gap. Sure there’s a hefty sticker price, but everything is ALWAYS on sale. I’ll be the first to tell you choosing a college is nothing like picking out chambray shirts at the Gap; a deal is hard to come by.

Of the five remaining schools, I got accepted to 2 and rejected from 3. None offered me any financial aid. One of the colleges was Syracuse University, my dream school at the time. The school was also roughly $70,000 a year. Suddenly, I heard everyone talking about the weight of those elusive “student loans” felt natural. My parents sat me down and told me that I could go to any of the colleges that have accepted me, and they would support my decision, however, choosing Syracuse would mean taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans every year.

The thought of being $10,000 in debt overwhelmed me. The summer I applied to schools, I also went on a backpacking trip through Europe with my brother. I’d saved every penny for a year and a half to go on that trip, which ended up costing around $4,000. I thought about all the hours I’d spent working at coffee shops and bussing tables to earn that money.

At this point, I had to consider the three schools I’d been accepted. Syracuse, Skidmore, and UMass. I liked Skidmore but a small school didn’t feel right anymore. So there was Syracuse, the beautiful campus, town, sports teams, and an equally impressive mountain of student loans.

Why I decided to go to UMass, my safety school

And then there was UMass.

I never even officially toured UMass. I knew very little about the school. I knew the football team was a contender for the worst Division 1 football team and that it had a reputation for being a party school known as “Zoomass.”

However, I had been watching my older brother experience UMass firsthand. He made amazing friends; he loved his classes and professors and was planning to attend graduate school there, something I don’t think even Sam would have predicted his Freshman year. My view of colleges was clouded by a fog of acceptance rates and rankings, but it was clear to me through Sam’s experience that UMass was a great school.

Reluctantly, I decided to attend UMass. It seemed like the more practical option. Now that I’m looking back on my Freshman year, I realize what a blessing it was that I decided to go to UMass Amherst. This past year I’ve made terrific friends, rediscovered my love for the outdoors in the mountainous pioneer valley where UMass lies, and recognized my passion for journalism through the school newspaper. I’ve been challenged in my classes like never before and have an active social life.

This isn’t an advertisement for UMass Amherst. I love that I can bike 5 minutes to pet some cows or in the opposite direction to go downtown for coffee, but I know that’s not for everyone. I want to convey that I’ve attended my safety school for the past year, and I’ve had the time of my life. I never pictured myself going here, I used to think it was depressing to hear that people were attending their safety schools, but now I see things differently.

In the college process, we build up preconceived ideas about colleges that turn out to be mostly false. Just because a school has a high acceptance rate doesn’t mean you won’t be academically challenged there. Just because a school doesn’t have much Greek life doesn’t mean you won’t show up to your 10 AM class still hungover. The truth is that at the end of the day, college is college, no matter where you go. I stressed myself out so much over acceptance letters and SAT scores, but looking back; it just wasn’t worth the energy.

I don’t mean to say that price should steer you away from college. Education is one of the most worthwhile things to invest in. However, the drastically different prices of the two schools I was considering made me think about what I was paying for. Is one medium-sized state school worth $20,000 more than another? In some cases, probably yes, but in my case, no.

When I talk to friends who went off to school, whether an Ivy or a nearby community college, they all say the same thing, they’re making lots of friends, they’re taking classes they love, and they can’t wait to go back to school. Happiness in college has nothing to do with your school’s ranking and everything to do with what you make of the experience.

I remember talking to my friends early in the college process, saying how “worst-case scenario, I would go to UMass, my safety school.” It seems crazy I once thought of my school in this way. In just a year, my adjective of choice to describe UMass has transformed itself from “worst-case scenario” into “dream school.”

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Dear Friends and Family, Please Keep Your Snarky Opinions About My Teen’s College Choice to Yourself

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About Max Zeff

Max Zeff is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst majoring in Journalism and Sociology. When he’s not writing, he’s typically hiking, rock climbing, or making coffee. Zeff grew up in New Jersey as the youngest of three children. He writes to make sense of difficult cultural issues, both for himself and his audience. Max is an Op-Ed columnist for The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, and you can find more of his work here.

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