When you start the college application process, it’s easy to have dreams of attending an elite school or seeing yourself at a specific campus.

But once acceptance and award letters are delivered, reality can set in. Whether you didn’t get into your dream school or financial considerations got in the way, enrolling in your safety school can seem like a major disappointment. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Going to your safety school can actually turn into a really great experience. Here, real students share their experiences of ending up at schools that were far from their first choice but they absolutely love it. 

College is competitive and students don’t always get accepted to their top choices. “I ended up applying to only reach schools, largely because I didn’t know what I was doing,” recalls Kelly Burch. “My dream school was one of the small liberal arts colleges in rural New England, and I ended up waitlisted at many of them but never got in.” Fortunately, Burch’s high school was affiliated with Boston University (BU). If students maintained a certain GPA, they were guaranteed admission to BU, automatically making it the safety school for her. “It was a big school in a big city, basically everything I didn’t want,” she says. But she went and is so thankful she did because she credits BU with putting her on a successful career path. 

“I wish I had realized that sooner, stopped moping and gone in with a more positive attitude off the bat.”

– Kelly Burch

Because she had been looking for a small school, she switched from an English major to journalism to get into the smaller College of Communications within BU. “That decision honestly changed my trajectory and started me on a career I love,” Burch says. Now a successful writer and journalist, Burch says that had she studied English at one of the elite schools as she’d been hoping to, she wouldn’t have been as prepared to hit the ground running. Plus, she was able to graduate in three years since they accepted so many of her high school credits, so she came out on top financially as well. “A large university offered what I needed to get started on my career, which is really the point anyway. I wish I had realized that sooner, stopped moping and gone in with a more positive attitude off the bat.”

Money is often another major factor when it comes to settling on a college choice. Kaity Bryant was accepted to all six of her reach schools but when her parents crunched the numbers, they told her it just wasn’t feasible. “Even though I was given scholarships and grants, each was still more expensive than the only in-state school I applied to, University of North Carolina Wilmington,” she says. With pressure from her parents, she attended even though it was her very last choice. “I hated it for weeks and was determined to hate it,” says Bryant. “I thought I was better than a state school, which is hilarious looking back on it.”

Because of her negative mindset, Bryant resisted getting involved and even started a transfer application, which she never ended up submitting. “I realized that I didn’t want to leave and, to my surprise, had fallen completely in love with the school, the atmosphere, people, faculty and city,” she says. Bryant can’t point to a single moment when things changed, but she does recall a night in her dorm when everyone was gathered together and she realized that she had gone from hating to loving the school and her peers. 

Diana Schulberg, reluctantly went to Virginia Tech (VT) sight unseen. “I didn’t know a lot about VT other than it was a football school with lots of engineering and science, [neither] of which I really wanted to study,” she says. She warmed up to the school fairly quickly thanks to the welcoming community, and advises students to try to keep an open mind. “When you get down to it, you will never really know how it will work out until you actually go and start classes there,” she says. “Worse comes to worst, you can always transfer, but give a college a chance before you write it off.”

Bryant couldn’t agree more. “Make the most of whatever college you choose to go to, whether it be your first-choice dream school or your backup’s backup college. The experience is what you make of it.”

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017.