While enjoying a Thursday night out in Virginia with my friends on Easter Break, I got a text that transported me back to that horrible time last year, “So it turns out I won’t have to decide which college I want to attend. I don’t have a choice.”
April is college decision month. One of my best friends back home didn’t get into her dream school, and she didn’t get any financial aid from the other three universities she had hoped to attend. The only option left for her is to stay in-state and go to her back-up school.
The idea of a “back-up” school is a funny one, because it seems like good prior planning in case something goes wrong in the college process. You hope for the best, you scope out the middle and you tie up the loose ends with the back-up plan. But does anything ever work out the way we plan?
I think it’s safe to say I don’t have any concrete personal experience with how the college process is actually supposed to work. I had two older siblings go through it before me, so I thought I knew what was what when I started looking into it myself. Wrong. I had always known where I wanted to go to college; the point of the matter was decided and all I had to do was fill in the rest of the standard outline. One of my teachers told my class to apply to five schools: one “reach,” one “back-up,” and three “reasonable options.” I always thought that advice was terribly simplistic. My friend just followed that model precisely, and look how it turned out for her.
Maybe my experience with this is completely contrary to the norm, but I’m going to share it anyway. Most people I know applied to three schools — all in-state. The rest either only hoped to go to the local community-college-converted-into-a-state-school (for all intents and social purposes, still considered a community college), or applied to those same three state schools plus one hopelessly unrealistic dream school. Meanwhile, I was considered crazy for applying to fourteen places that I separated into four categories: elite schools (none of which I considered a “reach” — it’s that kind of terminology that keeps so many of my capable and intelligent friends stuck back home), middle-tier schools, desperate schools that wanted me and waived parts of my applications and my singular back-up state school.
I barely put any planning into this. I chose seven schools that I believed myself worthy enough to attend, and just kind of winged the rest. My middle-tier back-ups were simply places that sent me mail with the best graphic designs (and actually not “middle-tier” at all, just places without the big sale brand name). I never sat down and discussed my future with my guidance counselor. In fact, I ran into him on graduation day and he couldn’t even remember where I had applied, let alone where I had chosen to attend (I guess I can’t blame him — my high school was poorly managed and he was in charge of at least 300 students, 60 of which were seniors). No one explained what tests I needed to take, what materials needed to be sent, or even what the CommonApp was (though there was no use — all the state schools had their applications on their websites! And of course, I couldn’t possibly have been considering another option).
Looking back, it’s a miracle that I came even remotely close to being here at Georgetown. And it’s painfully easy to forget how stacked the odds were against me when getting swept up by the day-to-day upper-class hustle and bustle of Georgetown life. Many people I know here graduated from classes of thirty or less students (not 400+) and received all the individual help and attention they wanted from both their parents and their high school faculty. I don’t mean to diminish this experience: it’s the one I wish every student, no matter how capable, could have. It’s the one I wish I could have had.
But nope. My lucky stars aligned for the first time in my life, and somehow, I only chose schools that gave me aid (something I didn’t realize not all schools did. Get it together higher education, we’ve got minds to educate that are more important than your financial assets), and I didn’t have to think about that back-up plan. But what if I did? The whole point of creating a back-up plan is to set up a life that you can live with in case things don’t go the way you want them to, but I don’t think I ever could have lived with staying in my home state and going to a state school like most of my classmates. I had always held bigger dreams for myself — I could have never survived settling when I had given everything in pursuit of the future that I wanted. It’s even worse for my friend because all of her fellow classmates got into the schools they wanted to and can afford to attend them. What’s she to do now?
I have a friend here at Georgetown who has experienced something similar. After not receiving financial aid, she still chose to make the sacrifice and accept the extra burden to attend, and I have never asked her why. I know why, or at least I think I do. Georgetown was, and still is, her dream school. But the question for my friend back home is not what she would give up for her dream, but for second best. Is second best even worth it? What is she willing to live with if she settles for the back-up plan? I don’t have an answer. I hope she does.
Cyrena Touros is a freshman in the College. The Superscript appears every other Sunday at thehoya.com.