Building Your College List: “Dream,” “Ambition,” and “Comfort”

Three summers ago, I drove down to southern Virginia with my family and toured my dream school.  After the third quarter ended, I traveled to Pennsylvania to tour my “ambition” school. Over spring break, I met my “comfort” school. Allow me to explain.

The College Board recommends that students apply to five to eight schools, with several “reach” schools, “probable” schools, and safety schools. However, I like to call these categories “dream,” “ambition,” and “comfort.”

Your dream school should be the one you commit the most time and energy to. My dream school has an excellent English department, which was ideal when I thought I wanted to work in publishing. But it also has a highly regarded law school and rigorous academic programs for government majors (political science is what I’m currently interested in studying). Your dream school will be the one you worry most about; the one you want to experience most before applying. I visited my dream school again during spring break, and this time I was very fortunate to have a Robinson alumna host me overnight. This allowed me to assess whether or not I could truly see myself fitting in on campus. I was particularly concerned about large classes, so I observed one of her larger lecture classes to prove to myself that I could handle them.

The “ambition” school is a little different. It’s not a school that initially piqued your interest, but rather a good option if your dream school rejects you. In essence, it’s equivalent to the College Board’s classification of a “probable” school. For me, that meant a school that was smaller than my dream school, further away, and private, so tuition there is four times more expensive than the tuition at my dream school. So instead of losing sleep over whether or not I’ll get in, I’m going to lose sleep over securing a full scholarship. For you, your ambition school could have a wide variety of academic courses, but it could be a little too close to home. Or you might love the student clubs the school offers, but prefer larger classes where you can blend in.

Finally, the “comfort” school. Over spring break, the day before the overnight at my dream school, I visited a smaller school closer to D.C., and I honestly fell in love with it. I loved the peaceful, almost intimate academic buildings; the small class sizes; the fact that I can walk from one end of campus to the other in a straight line. And it has a high acceptance rate! I recommend for you, my fellow students, to find a “safety” that is a soft place to fall. If your dream schools and ambition schools decide you’re not worthy of their student bodies, make sure to have a school that doesn’t feel like a safety at all. When I think of the word “safety,” I think of a flimsy net that won’t do much to protect you if you collapse backwards off the ladder to success. You want to find a backup school that will actually make you happy, because if it makes you happy, it won’t feel like you’re settling for less if going to your dream school doesn’t work out.

And honestly? At the end of the day, like many other high-school students around the country, I’m still confused as heck. I used to be the girl vigorously researching universities and set on getting into that elusive dream school. But now I’m not so sure what I want anymore. And that’s okay.

Luckily, Robinson students have their strategies. “Take in all the options and lay out the pros and cons of each school, based on [what you want] and [what] the school provides,” advises Walker Clark, a senior. So to any uncertain college-bound students out there, don’t worry – take the time to consider what you want and need. And don’t forget to keep working hard, like true Rams do, because if you do your best, you will be able to achieve anything you want.