When creating your college list, you’re aiming to find a range of schools you’d be excited to attend—including at least one reach school.

A reach school isn’t necessarily a prestigious school, but it should be a stretch for you to get into since it’s at the upper limits of your academic abilities. That being said, admittance to a reach school should still be within the scope of possibility, meaning there’s a real chance you could get in. If that were to happen, what would attending a reach school be like? A dream come true? A constant struggle to keep up? Here, students share their experiences—both the good and the bad—attending the schools at the very top of their college lists.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a pattern of thinking where you doubt your accomplishments or worthiness. Lily Zella Jackson, a student at Wellesley College, her reach school, describes how she experienced imposter syndrome as soon as she accepted her admittance. “I joined our graduating class’ Facebook page, and immediately my future classmates were posting about all of the amazing things they had accomplished and it made me feel so small,” she says.

Daniel Camponovo, a graduate of his reach school, Northwestern University, recalls similar feelings when he compared himself to his peers. “People in my dorm were Fulbright scholars. Chemical engineers. One woman, I remember very well, was a quadruple major. Even eating lunch together in the dining hall and having a conversation would make me feel like I wasn’t smart enough to be there.”

Over time, however, the “I’m not worthy” feeling tends to fade. “Getting into the courses, working with other students, and meeting with teachers made me realize not only can I get by, but I can thrive,” Jackson says. She finally came to the conclusion, “I got in for a reason.” And that fact holds true for every admitted student. Admissions officers work diligently to ensure that applicants who get in are all capable of both contributing to and benefitting from campus culture. So remember: When a reach school sends you an offer of admission, it’s because you deserve it as much as any other student there.

Social Hurdles

Walking around convinced you’re an imposter can have social implications, too. “I wasted the better part of my freshman year by feeling inadequate and thinking everybody was smarter than me,” Camponovo laments. “It took me almost all of freshman year until I felt comfortable meeting other people.” Because he enjoys writing, he eventually worked up the courage to join the student-run magazine—and that changed everything. Camponovo says he was able to find “his people” as soon as he stopped comparing himself to others and started doing what he liked with people who shared his interests. Joining clubs and student groups are a great way to get past social hurdles at a reach school because you’ll meet a relatable community of people who reinforce that this is where you are supposed to be.

Access to Experts and Alumni

Any school will have scholars and professors who are experts in their field, but your reach school may have someone on staff whom you particularly admire. Katelyn Horstman, a student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has been able to work with a leading professor in her field, a benefit she credits to attending her reach school. This access has been influential in her education. “I had the opportunity to take an introductory astronomy course my first quarter at UCLA. The professor teaching the course was a remarkable woman who really helped me feel like I have a future in the field.” Today Horstman is majoring in astrophysics, in part because of her positive experience with this professor.

While all schools will have alumni you can reach out to, going to your reach school means you’ll have access to your reach-level alumni network. Horstman is already reaping the benefits of this. “I actually work with an alum right now,” she says. Horstman reports that the access to a scientometrics expert—something she may not have had at another school—has enriched her undergraduate studies, not to mention the benefits of connecting with someone she admires so much.

Of course you don’t have to attend your reach school to experience these benefits—or to face these challenges. Whichever college you ultimately decide to accept, there is much to be gained by pushing yourself academically and socially. When asked what advice he would extend to high school seniors, Camponovo responds: “Reach even higher than [you] think [you] should.” For his part, Camponovo says that he “applied to maybe five schools that I considered reaches, and I ended up getting accepted into four of them. So don’t sell yourself short, just put yourself out there and see what happens.”

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