Going to My “Safety School” Made Me Who I Am

I’m Sara, and I’m a senior at a college I didn’t want to go to.

May 1st is College Decision Day, where high school seniors select the college they want to attend in the fall. Four years ago, I had a hard time submitting my own decision, because the college I had to choose wasn’t the one I wanted to go to. Many people every year are in the same boat, for financial, academic, or personal reasons. Today, I’m sharing my story with you; to show you that even if you don’t get to go to your “dream college,” you can still have a great and fulfilling college experience. Here’s my story.

When I was in high school, preparing for college was my entire life. I was consumed by AP exams, entrance tests like the SAT, and writing the perfect college essay. I saw college admissions as a game, and I wanted to win. In this case, winning meant getting into my “dream college.”

Throughout high school, my vision of my dream college shifted. I went back and forth between a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and a large Ivy League university not too far from home. In the end, I applied to both those schools as well as seven other colleges, which ranged in their competitiveness. But in my heart, I didn’t care for the other seven: I was set on my two dream schools. For both colleges, I imagined an amazing future after I got in, full of excitement and opportunity and adventure.

But then I didn’t get in. I was waitlisted, and that meant that I had to choose one of my back-ups.

Dream College - Sara Laughed

Choosing my back-up college was easy; the school with the most student opportunities and name recognition ended up giving me the largest scholarship. It wasn’t a choice; I would go to the school that was the most affordable, and I would make the most of it. So, with nervousness and some tears, I accepted their offer, and that fall, I went to college at a school I barely knew and had never learned to love.

I would love to say that it was a great fit from the start, but it wasn’t. My first year at college was really challenging for me; I struggled to make good friends, didn’t enjoy many of my classes, and didn’t feel at home in my dorm. When my parents came to visit me for spring break, I announced to them that I wanted to transfer. I couldn’t handle the constant pressure, the campus atmosphere, or the loneliness I felt. I didn’t think I could stick it out. But when I was offered a leadership position for the next year, I decided to stay.

Dream College - Sara LaughedMe in my first year of college – not quite as happy as I looked

My second year ended up being much better than the first. Within a few weeks, I made new friends through my leadership position, who are still some of my closest friends to this day. I started participating in on-campus organizations that were a better fit for me, like a faith group and a new dorm community. I applied and was accepted to Oxford University for my year abroad, which had been a dream of mine since high school. And as I started to get to know my campus and community better, I learned how to make a place for myself. I found hang-out spots I loved, and my friends and I invented new traditions and experiences.

Dream College - Sara LaughedA happy day in my sophomore year, when things were already looking up

Though it took a while for me to feel truly at home and happy at my college, by my senior year I am the happiest I had ever been here. I have an amazing group of wonderful friends, who all spend time together almost every day. I feel at home in my dorm, where I live next door to my best friend and one of my favorite people in the entire world. I enjoy my classes and my professors, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities that have been given to me for research, internships, and study abroad. I’m honestly, truly happy.

The future that I imagined for myself at my two “dream colleges” may never happen in the exact way I expected. There are probably wonderful people at those schools I will never meet; opportunities I will never have; experiences I will never get to try. But by going to this college, I am meeting new people, getting new opportunities, and trying new experiences that I wouldn’t have had at any other school. Those things are now a part of me. I am a different person because of the college I go to, and I love the person I’ve become because of this place, even if the place itself wasn’t always what I wanted.

Dream College - Sara LaughedStudying abroad in Jerusalem one summer – something I might not have been able to do at another college

When we look back on chances we’ve had and lost, we imagine that there’s an alternative version of us walking around the universe, living the life we were supposed to have. It may be true that there is a life you’re not living because you didn’t get into the college you dreamed of, or get the job you hoped for, or marry the person you wanted to. But you will still create an amazing life for yourself, wherever you are.

Life isn’t about the chances we’re given, it’s about what we make of those chances. So, whether you just “checked yes” for your dream school, or whether you’re learning to make the most of a runner-up, remember that your future is still in your hands. You can, and will, create a beautiful life for yourself; even if it isn’t the life you imagined. I did it. So can you.

Dream College - Sara LaughedA side-by-side photo of me in my freshman and senior year. I love that the smile looks so much more genuine in the second picture.

Author: Sara Laughed

I’m Sara, a writer, recent grad, and American abroad. I graduated from college in December and promptly moved to the Netherlands, where I live with my boyfriend and our 11 plants. Follow along as I figure out my roaring twenties: I don’t quite know what I’m doing, but that’s not stopping me from writing about it!

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  • I love this! Your story is so inspiring. I am currently going to a school that I like, but I haven’t found my place in it just yet. So I can definitely relate to some of the stuff you are saying. I hope that, in the end, I’ll love my university as much as you loved your college experience!

    Amelie | http://awanderersadventures.wordpress.com

  • Hi Sara, thank you for sharing this story with us. Isn’t it interesting to see that everything turns out for the best in the end, even if it isn’t what we had originally planned? I went through something similar when I applied to my school, but now I am very happy with where I ended up 🙂

    -Aly/ welcometoalysworld.co.nr

  • Awh Sara this was a lovely post! 😀 I’m in my final year too and reflecting upon my degree too… And I had a similar time, not quite as bad though! I couldn’t stand my first year, I just didn’t settle and I didn’t particularly warm to the people who lived in the rooms around me… But my second year and this year have been lovely! I was going to comment on your smile being more genuine in the 2nd photo, you’re smiling with your eyes in the 2nd! I’m glad you’ve loved your experience in the end!

    Katie | http://www.katielclark.co.uk

  • I love this! I, too, was rejected from my dream school, but I tend to think that that rejection was actually a blessing in disguise. I love where I go to school now, and I know that I will miss it after I graduate next year. Thank you for writing this post! I think a lot of people will benefit from reading it.