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Building Your College List

Long before I could find San Francisco on a map, I wanted to be a Cal Bear.

Looking back, I have no idea where this obsession originated. Neither of my parents were alums. I knew next to nothing about the university. And yet, well before I even understood what “college” really meant, I’d handpicked UC Berkeley as my future alma mater. I would consider no other school. There would be no runner-up.

This love affair lasted through middle school and much of high school. As a member of Santa Barbara High School’s girls’ water polo team, I dreamed of playing for Cal one day. Forget UCLA. Forget Stanford. Look outside California? No. Not a chance.

At some point in the middle of my junior year, reality set in, and I realized that it would be foolish to gamble on any single college—especially a highly selective “reach” school like Cal. Like it or not, I was going to have to force myself to consider other colleges as well.

But which colleges? For the first time, I asked myself what sort of college experience I wanted. I knew I wanted water polo, of course, so I added UCLA and UC Davis to my list.

Then, as college application season got closer and closer, I began to realize at long last that my college experience could be—and should be—about more than water polo. My water polo skills had opened many doors so far. What other doors might they open?

With this in mind, and the clock ticking, I cast a reluctant eye toward the East Coast and discovered two wonderful schools that should have been on my list from the beginning, since both had water polo teams: Umass Amherst and Princeton. Princeton was a long shot, I knew. But what if I applied anyway, on the outside chance I would be accepted?

I did apply, and I was accepted to both. Suddenly my future seemed wide open.

I began to imagine everything differently. What if, instead of a Cal Bear, I became a Princeton Tiger? What if I were to move all the way across the country? What would my day-to-day life be like, particularly outside the pool? Could I keep up with my classmates in a place like that? Could I survive the harshness of the seemingly interminable East Coast winters? Could I handle being so far from home? What sort of a person might I become?

Now, as a private college counselor, I ask my students these sorts of questions all the time. Conversations about various colleges constitute a significant portion of our time together, and I am constantly delighted at how differently my students come to view their options as our conversations progress, and as they become increasingly aware of what they really want in their college experience.

A lot of them are like I once was, of course: dead-set on a particular school, and decidedly cool on the idea of considering any alternatives. But the students who are most successful during the college admissions process—if we define “successful” as ultimately being admitted to a range of schools that align closely with their interests, abilities, and goals—are the students who are able to get past their preconceptions about their dream school and focus on what they should really care about: not the college’s name, or its mascot, or its image, but the overall experience attending the school will offer them.

As romantic as that “dream school” might seem, focusing on it to the exclusion of other schools usually causes students to overlook important options, and often creates undue anxiety during college admissions season. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Nor do the schools you "discover" have to be as high-profile as a school like Princeton. In the United States alone, with over 2,000 four-year colleges and universities, every college applicant should be able to come up with a list of six to ten colleges that they find extraordinarily exciting. It just takes work, patience, and an open mind.

When I spoke at a junior high school a few years back, I stood in front of a particularly bright, attentive group of 7th and 8th graders, and told them exactly this. “Take your time,” I urged. “Be open to changing your mind, and be honest about your needs and expectations.” I spent an hour driving this point home, showing them images of college campuses across the country and talking about how diverse and rewarding college life can be.

Would I have listened when I was their age? No way. I would have told you, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to be a Cal Bear. And I know for a fact that at least one of my audience members, a boy, was as resolute as I had ever been. As I walked around the room during the presentation, I glanced down at the note sheet where he was supposed to have jotted down some of the schools that interested him. The only thing he’d written, after an hour of exploring the wide range of college choices available to him? UCLA, in large, ornate letters.

I smiled, wondering if, like me, he would change course when the time came. He might even end up a Trojan. But opening his mind to such a possibility would require effort on his part, as it did on mine, and a willingness to understand one key point: that it’s much better to focus on the perfect college list than on the perfect college.