The Danger of A “Dream” School: The Alarming Way Our Higher Education System Failed Us

During my last semester of high school, I had the opportunity to work with a few underclassmen on a gender equality initiative with a New York-based nonprofit. On one train ride home, a conversation with a sophomore friend got me thinking about the way the kids in our generation and beyond are primed to think about the college application process. And this was after I had already been through the process myself, having learned an incredible amount about both myself and our country’s higher education system. This friend–I will refer to her as Anna–was telling me about how her dream was to pursue a career in entrepreneurship, and I was not surprised to hear that her dream school to earn her business degree was Harvard Business School. Now, I clarified whether she also wanted to attend Harvard for her undergraduate studies seeing as though her MBA would be earned at a graduate program. Indeed, she aspired to attend Harvard for both her undergraduate and graduate studies.

By the time we were having this conversation, I had known this friend for about a year, and I knew that she was incredibly ambitious, intelligent, and hardworking. I had seen her present in front of thousands of people, I had seen her speak her mind on the topics she was passionate about, and so I knew that she would succeed wherever she ended up going to college. But when I was speaking to her on this train ride, I couldn’t help but feel like she was incredibly attached to the idea of Harvard and was operating on the mindset that it was Harvard or nothing, as if getting a business degree or education anywhere else would make her less successful and accomplished. And these thoughts were coming from my post-college-application self because my pre-college-application self operated on this similar mindset that my friend was. 

I entered my senior year of high school with the next four years planned out. I naively thought that I would get into my dream school early and that the rest of the year would be a breeze, as if getting into this school would make all my accomplishments up till that point worth it, as if any other outcome would undermine those accomplishments. Looking back, I realize now how unhealthy of a mindset that was, but there are thousands upon thousands of students out there who are operating on this same mindset. It makes you wonder where they are being primed for this type of thinking, and the answer lies in the way our society has taught us the value of brand name schools and higher institutions. It lies in the way a number grade has defined most of us our whole lives. It lies in the way our immigrant parents have raised us to value these high standards and strive to be the best of the best, or at least what they’ve deemed as best. 

There’s a reason why my own immigrant parents can easily recognize the name Harvard but tell them about a school like Swarthmore or Pomona and they’ll be scratching their heads in confusion, trying to place these names. I didn’t even learn about small liberal arts colleges until it came time for me to apply; prior to this, I grew up only hearing of these “amazing” ivy league schools. These circumstances primed me into thinking that if I didn’t get into the best ivy league school, my accomplishments wouldn’t matter. The work I would do at the school I would end up at wouldn’t matter. I’d have trouble finding a good job without that brand name school attached to my resume. All of these thoughts got into my head my senior year of high school and led me to fall in love with my so-called “dream” school. But now that I am on the other side, I can honestly, truthfully say that it REALLY DOES NOT MATTER. It doesn’t matter where we go for our higher education.

The fact that we even have the option to apply is an immense privilege because there are so many systemic issues that inherently prevent students from even thinking about the possibility of attending university. As a UFLI student, I admittedly had big “dreams” because despite my UFLI status, I had a certain amount of privilege to think about applying to these schools. And I can say that having a dream school really didn’t leave me with anything other than disappointment in myself. Even if my original plans that I had prematurely laid out for myself had come to fruition, it would be a moment of instant gratification, followed by the same cycle of hard work I would do at any university I chose to attend. I chose to drive my mental health into the ground just for that one moment of gratification, that one moment where I could say my hard work paid off. But, just the fact that I am at a higher institution right now is proof that my hard work paid off. Neither I nor any of my peers need a school name to define our success. It matters what we accomplish at our schools rather than where we go because at the end of the day, your success is only what you make of it, it is only the product of how you choose to use the resources given to you. 

So in response to my friend telling me about her “dream” school on that train ride home, I told her about my own experience and tried to encourage her to broaden her horizons and learn about all the opportunities out there. We can’t tie our self-worth and our idea of success to one university, one name, one title. 

I urge anyone reading this to reevaluate why their “dream” school is indeed their “dream” school. I urge you to have multiple dream schools. I urge you to look beyond the name and find the school that is a fit for you. And if what fits you is one of the brand name schools, then that is amazing and I congratulate you on your achievement. But, if you do not end up at your first choice, please do not be discouraged or take that as a reflection of your character and your achievements. At the end of the day, our higher education system is incredibly flawed, and we cannot let society and its idea of success tear down our incredible achievements. Every college acceptance is a reason to celebrate because you did it! Welcome to the next chapter, make what you will of it. 

Good luck everyone. 

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