I’ve talked to a lot of rising seniors already this season, and now, 23 years after I did my college applications, one buzzword is surprisingly still around: DREAM SCHOOL.
“UCLA is the dream.”
“I really want to go to Brown; it’s my dream school.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Berkeley…”
Notre Dame was my dream school. Did you notice I said was? I was raised on Notre Dame football, inspired by the movie Rudy, and visited campus three times before I even applied. There’s something romantic about that campus in South Bend, Indiana. I was compelled by its foundation of faith, its fall colors, and its spirited football season. There is the iconic golden dome, the peaceful grotto, and the endearing mascot of the Fighting Irish.
In the spring of my senior year, I got the letter in the mail (no email acceptances in those days); I was wait-listed at my dream school. Is it better to be rejected from or wait-listed at your dream school? I think that answer depends on the individual. Me? I was distraught. In an unprecedented move, my parents didn’t make me go to school day after I got the wait-list letter.
In the weeks of spring that followed, I had to figure out where to go next. I had applied to 5 schools. As a southern California kid, I had been accepted to a small school near San Francisco, accepted with honors and a scholarship to a small university in San Diego. I wanted to go out of state. Days after the Notre Dame news, I learned I was not accepted to Boston College. I was accepted to Villanova University, a school just outside of Philadelphia. (If you’re keeping score, that’s 3/5 acceptances for colleges. And zero dream schools.) I hadn’t taken a tour of Villanova yet, so I attended the accepted students events they held in April of senior year.
Walking on that campus opened my eyes to the possibility of elsewhere. This school had its own icons: gorgeous spires of St. Thomas of Villanova church and collegiate, castle-like architecture throughout the main campus. But the people were what drew me in—the way the students made the school feel like a campus and a community. I decided on Villanova after my visit.
Months later, as a freshman, I connected with staff and faculty who helped me plan classes and select a major. I majored in English, and minored in Italian and Communications. My Italian professor, Dr. Gaetano Pastore, was a guiding light all 4 of my years on campus. (My real world jobs include writer, editor, and teacher/tutor, so all of these majors panned out pretty well.) A number of my professors became iconic to me: pillars of learning and planning for the future.
I did experience some homesickness and culture shock as a freshman. I was drawn to the East Coast, but weather and social status and other weird things that befall 18-year-olds presented minor challenges. I got through them.
By sophomore year, I had connected with a roommate, friend, and person that served as a mentor and support system throughout the rest of my time as an undergraduate. This same person was the maid of honor at my wedding and the godmother to my first child.
All of this is to say: it’s not the buildings on the campus. It’s not the storied sports programs or the prestige of the academics. Those are not the things that will draw you in and envelop you into the thread of a community. The connections you make, the other humans you meet—in and out of the classroom—will help to shape you in those pivotal years as you get set to launch into careers and life outside of school.
I have just finished studying to become a college consultant. Ancora imparo— I am still learning—Michelangelo said, and it rings true. (I picked up that knowledge when I studied abroad in a program with my alma mater.) The other day in my mailbox, I got a piece of mail from Notre Dame. Because I work with students who are applying to their dream schools, I got a big poster featuring beautiful fall leaves and a shiny golden dome. It’s still someone’s dream school. But it’s not mine. My Villanova roommate reminds me (teases me) all the time: “I’m so glad you didn’t get into Notre Dame—we never would have met!”
The University of Notre Dame is a great school; it’s just not my school. My advice about dream schools: make sure that all of your eggs aren’t in one college basket. You never know what an admissions team is looking for in their pool of applicants, so while you think a school may be the right fit, you may not be the right fit. I encourage all students to go and see the schools on their lists. Walk your feet on that campus. Explore its surrounding areas. Most importantly: meet the people. They’re the most essential part of the place.