Image courtesy of Christine Mao / North by Northwestern.

At the beginning of tenth grade, I decided that I was going to be a Northwestern student, however insane it sounds. For the next three years, it consumed my thoughts.

I spent my free time obsessing over Tik Tok and YouTube videos dissecting “Do You Have What It Takes To Get Into Northwestern? Stats, GPA, and More!” I planned out my class schedule before I had even applied. After I submitted my early decision application and the decision date hovered over me, my thoughts of NU contributed not only to my mental instability, but also my album of crying photos. Northwestern loomed constantly in the background, distracting me from my current school, social outings and so much more. I cried at the thought of being rejected, and convinced myself that if I was, I had no other place to go to school.

Now that I’m here, having nearly completed my first quarter, I’ve had some time to look back on what having a dream school really entailed for me. While it ultimately brought me to NU, I had too much of an obsession and it nurtured a completely toxic outlook: I tethered my future and expectations for life entirely on this single, seemingly perfect college (that I had only set foot in twice). I could not envision my college experience without NU being a part of it.

Marisa Guerra Echeverra, a high school senior from Lafayette, California, had joined a FaceTime call with me to discuss the concept of "dream schools." This topic crossed her mind frequently.

For her, a dream school is an institution where students can picture themselves building a community. Yet despite this, she has tried to avoid thinking about what her dream school could be.

“I don’t want to pin all of my hopes on one school and be torn apart when the decision comes back,” Guerra Echeverra said.

Although Guerra Echeverra prefers not to label Northwestern as her dream school, she can identify with the concept of having the ideal school. She views NU as a great place to continue her journalism studies and ultimately decided on submitting an early application after attending Medill’s Cherubs program virtually this past summer.

Guerra Echeverra is one of thousands of individuals who have applied ED to Northwestern. For the Class of 2024, the university received 4,500 ED applicants. And although not every ED student applies with their heart set on NU, this number is a good starting place to determine how many students perceive NU as their “dream school.”

Weinberg fourth-year Akash Rathi submitted his ED application to Northwestern in 2018. His older brother was a second-year at NU when he applied; Rathi saw the next few years as not only a way to continue his studies in a seemingly perfect academic environment, but also as an opportunity to be close to his brother. For him, Northwestern fit the bill to be his "dream school."

He received a rejection letter in March after having been deferred in mid-December. Reading his letter, Rathi described going into a "depressive state" when he realized he wasn't going to his dream school – at least, not right away.

“That was a bit of a reality check. You can work this hard and it just won’t work out,” Rathi said.

He ultimately enrolled in New York University for his first-year, fully intending to transfer. And one year later, he started as a second-year at NU.

For Rathi, me and so many others, we are forced to wonder: we've entered our dream schools… Now what?

In high school, I felt as though everything I was doing was to prepare me for college. I put in effort to get good grades, joined extracurriculars that I was interested in but also built up my resume and made connections with teachers who eventually wrote my recommendations. Now in college, the drive is not quite the same.

As an individual who had devoted so much time and energy to a dream school acceptance, comparatively, there is less of a sense of direction in college. Of course, for those pursuing graduate degrees or going to medical or law school, there is still an incentive to work hard. But I have no idea what my post-graduation path will be. What plagues my mind now is this sense of what is all of this effort and preparation in college building up to?

As of now, I don’t have an answer to that question. It's not the end of the world to have no idea what comes next. But after a high school career spent working toward a dream school acceptance, having less direction is definitely a new experience. I am left with the unfamiliar task of figuring out my next step – especially when there is no longer a "dream school" to fight for.