When you start the college application process, it’s easy to have dreams of attending a prestigious 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 attending schools that were far from their first choice but they absolutely love it.

Sometimes students realize, in retrospect, that their college list may not have included a safety school. “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 in the end, she credits BU with her current professional success.

The reason, says Burch, is due to assessing what was most important to her in her college experience. Size was important to her; she had been hoping to attend a small school. Because BU was large, she decided to switch 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 in retrospect that if she had studied English at one of the prestigious schools she’d applied to, she may not have had as much on-the-ground journalism training. Plus, because BU was able to accept many of her high school credits, she was able to graduate in three years, which was a positive financial decision for Burch. She adds, “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. In Kaity Bryant’s experience, she was accepted to all six of her reach schools, but when her parents crunched the numbers, her family realized that attending any of them would be a financial stretch. “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.

And sometimes, your safety school is one that you’ve never visited. For example, Diana Schulberg 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.”

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