Image from Hopkins Interactive

This past Friday, my school released admissions decisions for the class of 2019. I still can’t believe that one entire year has already passed since I was in that situation, surreptitiously checking my portal in class and trying to hide my excitement. One year ago, I wrote an article about the most difficult decision of my life: choosing between my dream school that I had been dead-set on attending for ages and the school that snuck into my heart late in the game. Spoiler alert: I didn’t choose my dream school, I ended up choosing the one that I connected with on a deeper level. (Yes, it sounds like a bad romantic comedy, but the college admissions process certainly has its parallels with the genre.) Ever since I made that choice and started school, my friends, my family, my high school teachers, and underclassmen have asked me, “Did you make the right choice? Are you happy?”

The answer I always give them is the same: more than I could have ever hoped for. But I always have difficulty articulating exactly why. And it’s not because I’m lying to them, but it’s because the reasons why can’t be fit into a box. Last year when I was going through the process of justifying my choice, I rationalized it by citing qualities like “a student body I could feel comfortable in” or “a campus that makes me feel like I’m home.” And while these were absolutely true, now that it’s been a year since I’ve been here, the reality of my experiences can’t be contained in brochure-like phases anymore. It’s contained more in the intangible experiences and memories I’ve formed.

I’m still struck by the overwhelming sense of comfort I feel when I see the beautiful brick and marble pathways as the sun sets and casts a warm glow over them. Or the belonging I feel when I attend my Global Security Politics class and listen to a lecture by a distinguished professor who loves what he talks about so much he just can’t seem to contain it and goes over class time 10 minutes every day, yet none of us even think to complain because we all geek out just as much as him. Or how humbled I am by the understated beauty of my new city that gets a bad rep for having “dangerous neighborhoods and unsafe activities” but whose people have never been anything but proud of their city. Most of all, I’m most struck by how much my school has brought out the best in me. I always claimed to be passionate about learning, but I didn’t realize how much I had been motivated by the invisible admissions rep over my shoulder in high school until I finished my first official college paper and didn’t care what grade I received on it because the moment I turned it in, I knew I learned so much. These are all aspects of my experience that have been central to my happiness here, but I never anticipated when making my decision.

So for those who are in the torturous stages of deliberation, when you say you like a school for “small class sizes” and a “nice surrounding neighborhood,” ask yourself what it means to you. Sometimes, the quaint admissions office phrases make it easy to gloss over the simple, everyday things that frame your college experience just as much as these generalized concepts. And even more importantly, just because the surrounding city is considered beautiful, doesn’t mean it’ll be one you’ll vibe with. Just because the colleges boasts amazing facilities and buildings, doesn’t mean you’ll be using them all the time. What’s important is how you’ll fit in and find yourself in the smaller aspects or the things that are never fully advertised in brochures.

I recently revisited my former first-choice school while touring it with a friend of mine who is applying this year. What was so hard for me to see clearly last year became evident as I stepped on the campus. While it’s still a fantastic school in my eyes, the campus, the area, and the student body just didn’t have the same magnetic pull. I’m so grateful that I didn’t allow my fantasized conceptions of it and others’ opinions play a role in my decision a year ago. Ultimately, “dream schools” don’t really matter in the long run; trust me, this isn’t coming from someone who’s 50 years old giving vague inspirational advice. When the flashy bells and whistles fade, you don’t want to be left with a shell of false fantasies and disappointed expectations. The school I chose was grounded more in the realities of what I needed to be happy, and I’m glad I chose with my gut.

In a few weeks, I’ll be volunteering at my school’s spring admitted students event. To me, it’s a wonderful and incredibly humbling responsibility to have. I’ll have dinner with prospective students, answer their questions, and make sure that they get an accurate sense of what my school has to offer. I think the one piece of advice I want to give them will be this: the person who knows you better than anyone else is yourself, so trust that as long as you’re honest about why you want to go to a school, the decision can never really go wrong. Last year, I ended my article accepting that my decision could be the biggest “what if” of my life. It turns out, I was wrong. It isn’t the biggest or even a “what if” that crosses my mind now, it was just one small decision among all the countless others that I’ve made that brought me to where I am today.

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the author

Jilliann Pak hails from the suburbs of SoCal but is currently attending school across the coast at Johns Hopkins University. When she’s not complaining about the cold weather or sleeping in the library, she’s probably eating, cuddled up into a blanket burrito, or watching Parks and Recreation, preferably all at once.

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