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5 Reasons Not to Have a “Top” or “Dream” School on Your College List

It happens to almost every family. They know they need to begin the college search process and, whether almost instantly or further along in the journey, the “top,” “target,” “dream” school emerges. The college or university that all the others are compared to, and the one that becomes the student’s focal point for where they hope to gain admission.

It’s completely natural, too, for the “top school” mindset to take over. It’s simpler and more exciting to focus on one instead of many.

There are five important reasons to avoid having a top school on your college list, however.

1. It can prevent you from fully engaging in the process.

There are thousands of colleges and universities to choose from in the United States. Focusing on one school can blind you to the many opportunities that exist at other colleges and universities. It’s important to keep your eyes open, and to have some fun in the search process.

The other side to this: it can also have an impact on your applications, as much as you may try not to let it. There is only so much time available for you to work on your applications. If you invest most of your time and energy in the application for one college, it can come at the expense of your other applications. Allow yourself to entertain multiple options so that you position yourself in your best light for all the schools you are applying
to.

2. It is very possible that you will change your mind!

This usually seems like it would apply to other students, but not to you, when in fact it can be quite common. The reasons why are simple. Most students, through no fault of their own, do not have ample time to build their college list, so their knowledge about colleges grows over the course of their senior year, rather remaining static as soon as November 1 deadlines fall. Students’ preferences about college criteria are also dynamic – not just as they gain this knowledge but also as they grow as young adults.

Let’s face it – there is something about making a final decision on where to attend college that can suddenly shift a student’s perspectives. Being far away from home can suddenly seem less exciting and more intimidating; realizing that a specific program is the only thing drawing you to a campus can seem less pragmatic and more concerning.

3. It can distort your goals.

Why is your dream college truly your dream college? It’s important to think about this question very carefully. Start with your ultimate goal in going to college: what is your next destination after you complete your education? What is your career goal? How will this dream college help you get there? Would other schools not be able to get you there?

Sometimes families will focus more on the “where” than the “why,” and this can make final decisions especially difficult. If you are admitted under a second-choice major, for instance, which will take priority for you? The “where” of the campus of your dream college, or the “why” of another strong program in your chosen field?

4. It places too much emphasis on “getting in.”

This is another way in which having a target college on your list can distort your goals. With a “top college” on your list, the application process can quickly become a competition and way of seeing whether you will “make the cut.”

Admission to a college is not a prize – it is a step forward in your education and an investment in your career and future financial health. The application process is a type of mutual matchmaking process. Is it the right fit for the student? Is it the right fit for the college? The ultimate mutual goal is for you to be able to contribute positively to the campus so that you can thrive, intellectually, personally and, ultimately, financially. The goal of the application process is for you to receive multiple acceptances, hopefully with some generous scholarships attached.

5. It can cloud your decision making.

The most concerning implication of having a dream college on your college list is that it can overinflate the value of that college when it comes time to make a final decision (if you don’t apply Early Decision, that is). Ideally, your college list included a combination of academic, social/cultural, career preparation, and financial fit factors. Ideally, come decision time, you have multiple acceptances in hand with scholarships for each college. Ideally, when you are making your decision, you are comparing multiple factors, including financial feasibility. When you have a top college in mind already, the excitement over that acceptance can quickly topple the other factors being considered, far too often making any comparison to other colleges seem useless and leaving fantastic choices or more affordable choices ignored.

It’s easier said than done to avoid having a “top” or “dream college” in your college list, and it takes ongoing practice to do so. Just remember: every campus has tradeoffs, even your top college. You are an adaptable person at your core. You can be successful in many environments, not just one.

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