By Andrea Domanick, 19, Wesleyan University
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*Andrea was an L.A. Youth senior writer who graduated from Harvard-Westlake School in 2006.

Even the winters are fun when you go to a college that you love, says Andrea Domanick, who attends Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She graduated from Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood last summer.

Photo by Rosa Seidelman, 18, Wesleyan University

After the grueling college application process and graduation from high school, I was left with one question: What shoes does one wear for an East Coast winter? With February bringing inches of fresh snow, my Converse and vintage flats just wouldn’t cut it. On those sub-zero treks from my dorm to my 9 a.m. Spanish class—looking like a burglar bundled in my ski mask, parka, gloves and boots—I often find myself reflecting on what made me decide to leave the glitter and bustle of my West Hollywood hometown for a small town in Connecticut.

The night I sent in my last application, I celebrated over pancakes with friends. We toasted to surviving the Harvard-Westlake “college mill,” to our future, and to Second Semester Seniordom. “Well, we can’t go wrong from here,” I said to the clinking of our Coke glasses.

Contrary to my high school’s reputation, I was not going to have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t get into an Ivy League school. From my safety schools to my highest reaches, I knew I’d be happy no matter where I ended up.

My optimism helped me get through the nail-biting months until our decisions arrived. However, when they did, I found myself in unforeseen territory: of the 16 schools I applied to, I got only one rejection. I expected to get into about half, but I ended up accepted at 11 schools and waitlisted at four. I had figured that I might as well try my luck; the worst that could happen would be that rejections would help me narrow down my choices. An embarrassment of riches? Certainly. But now things got complicated—reality kicked in, and financial aid, location and post-graduate connections tore me between what I wanted and what was supposedly better for my future.

It seemed easy enough at first. When the big envelope came from the school that had long since been my first choice, Wesleyan, I jumped around like a sugared-up 8-year-old and ran the gamut of my friends’ names in my phone book. Wesleyan was my scholarly heaven, a place where people were ambitious but not cutthroat, intelligent but sincere.

My parents were drawn to the big-name schools

My parents, however, didn’t completely join in my enthusiasm. They had never pressured me to go to any “type” of school and supported my love for Wesleyan, a “Little Ivy.” But after decisions arrived, my parents were seduced by schools with more well-known names such as UC Berkeley and Columbia (to which I was admitted and waitlisted, respectively). Unexpectedly, my family and I faced an assortment of schools oozing with internships, alumni connections and a shiny name on my résumé.

Financial aid played the first big role in narrowing my selection. Seeing as I had no interest in my parents taking out a second mortgage on our home, I immediately crossed off schools such as NYU and Reed College that expected us to pay upwards of $30,000 a year just for tuition. With that out of the way, I was left with about 10 schools—including five UCs—all within the $20,000 price range.

Location was the next factor. My family tried bribing me with a new car and even my own apartment to get me to go to UCLA, but it was just too close to home. Some students dread leaving their family and home behind, but I was ready to get out of California. It’s not that I don’t love my family—whom it was incredibly difficult to leave—or that I don’t enjoy living in West Hollywood, but I wanted to see what life is like in other parts of the country. I’ve always felt that an essential part of education is beyond what one learns from books and professors; that the people we meet and the places we go define our minds and characters as much as any freshman 101 class. So I crossed four UCs off my list, and turned my thoughts east.

About half of the East Coast schools were located in small towns. While most were not more than a two-hour train ride from a city, that would be a strange adjustment for this city girl. Some colleges, like Oberlin in Ohio and Vassar in upstate New York were just too small (about 2,500 students), too isolated and too freezing for me. My parents and I worried that, despite a highly active campus life, other small-town schools wouldn’t have the access to jobs and internships that schools in places like New York City would. Unfortunately, Wesleyan—in Middletown, Connecticut—fell into that category.

In light of this, the question of prestige again came into play. If I went to Barnard  (a small women’s college) or got off the waitlist at Columbia College, both in New York and part of the elite Columbia University, I would have better opportunities, such as United Nations internships. I also knew that many companies would be eager to hire Columbia students. In addition, I went to both public and private schools, and I’ve grown to appreciate the intimacy of the small classes and devoted professors that they would have at Barnard but not as much at Columbia or Berkeley. But if Barnard seemed so great, why couldn’t I stop thinking about Wesleyan?

Suddenly, the level-headed approach I had taken to the select-a-college process felt more like I was lost in a horror-movie fun house. My head spun. It never crossed my mind that I might have difficulty getting into grad school, or finding a great job. Call me naïve but isn’t hard work and a strong drive, in addition to attending a first-rate college, enough?

Everyone’s advice increased the pressure

My formerly firm convictions were being tossed around like a rag doll. One moment my parents’ support of Columbia’s structure made it seem like that was best; the next moment my headmaster would tell me he could really see me as a Wesleyan student. And while my teachers’ “You-can’t-go-wrong” attitudes were reassuring, all of the counseling I sought ultimately left me feeling empty, and for the first time, frightened about my future. When it got to the point where I’d be seized by headaches and a lump in my throat at the mere mention of college, my family and I decided to take drastic measures.

It is often said that you have to visit a college campus to feel in your gut if you could belong there. Well, my parents and I visited many campuses the summer after junior year, and the only feelings I got were hot, sweaty and anxious. I loved all the schools in a sort of “That seems nice. Pretty architecture. Enthusiastic tour guide,” kind of way. We made the mistake of visiting when the schools were out of session. And so the week before my senior AP exams, I gathered an overnight bag and frequent flier miles and set off alone to visit the final three contenders: Columbia, Barnard and Wesleyan.

More than seeing the campus life, the time away helped me realize what my priorities were for my education. As wonderful as Columbia is, a part of me felt like choosing it for its status and connections would be selling out, relinquishing the whole reason I applied to the schools I did: to learn for learning’s sake. While I could do that individually at Columbia, I feared I would also be sucked into a world of pre-professionalism and cutthroat competition that I resented in high school.

Visiting Wesleyan sealed the deal

Unlike the other campuses, I knew no one when I arrived at Wesleyan. I was given a map, a class schedule and a place to put my suitcase, and I walked into one of its castle-like buildings. Within a few hours I participated in several engaging class discussions and was adopted by a group of freshmen eager to show me around and tell me all about Wesleyan. This school made me excited. It made me want to push myself and to explore interests, like student government, that I had always felt too overwhelmed or too intimidated to try before. Even freshmen started thriving campus groups, such as a poetry workshop and club water polo. Because Wesleyan was smaller (2,700 students), and the students focused on competing with themselves rather than each other, I finally found the kind of nourishing environment that could fuel me to become a leader in a community.

Additionally, as untrue to myself as I felt about being concerned with connections, my parents’ input made me realize that I had to be practical. The visit quelled those concerns as I discovered Wesleyan had strong alumni connections—one music major I met got an internship with Sony BMG Music Entertainment—and an extensive job resource center. What really won me over about Wesleyan, though, was how it kept surprising me. Its students are often stereotyped as “activist hippies” or “snobby art hipsters,” but I discovered there really wasn’t a Wesleyan “type.” Just when I thought a person was the “artsy” type, she would tell me about her soccer practice in the rain; when a student seemed like a prep-school jock, he brought up his passion for developmental psychology. There was no mold; students carved out their own unique paths, and I could see myself truly growing in the company of their curiosity and ambition.

Sitting in the airport at the end of my journey, I found myself thrilled by Wesleyan but still clinging to what attracted me to the other schools. As I was about to call my mom to discuss my thoughts, I had a moment of clarity: wasn’t it up to me, no matter what school I chose, how successful I became? If success was all about name and connections, the majority of people in the world wouldn’t have the kind of jobs and enjoyable lives that they do. There was no point in getting frightened and overwhelmed—all I had to do was return to what I wanted in a school and from my future.

I chose Wesleyan because, despite its small-town location, it was what was right for me academically, socially and professionally. It seemed I knew it from that first day in April, but the soul searching I did in the following month led me to know myself, my abilities and my priorities better than I ever have before.

Now it’s late February and I’m lounging in my cozy dorm room, listening to the drip of the icicles on my porch window. It’s a spectacular day, though six months ago I couldn’t imagine considering 35 degrees so warm and lovely. Scattered around my room are a few of the little things I miss about L.A.—a tin of tea from The Coffee Bean, a bag from Amoeba Records, some Polaroids of my friends. I couldn’t bring the sunshine with me, but the crisp Connecticut air seems so far to be a fair trade. I’m still figuring out the whole dressing-for-winter thing, but my experiences with my classes, professors and peers have been just right. From my first day on campus, Wesleyan has felt like a natural part of me—and I’ve never looked back.

Andrea’s tips for selecting a college

• Don’t lose sight of what YOU want in a school—this is the next four years of your life; make sure you enjoy and make the most out of them!

• Listen to your parents—contrary to what most teens think, parents DO understand us on at least a basic level. They also have more life experience and know what may be best for you in the long run.

• … But not too much. Though my parents wanted the best for me in pressing for an Ivy League school, I knew in my heart I wasn’t going to be my happiest there. That goes for all people you turn to for advice—listen to them but don’t be pressured out of your own needs.

• Take a break. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or more confused as the decision process continues, take a few days “off” from thinking or talking about colleges. Your head will be clearer when you start again.

• Don’t overlook gut instinct! Your initial feeling about a school is often the most genuine one.

• Most colleges are reasonable with financial aid. Often, they’ll negotiate with you if a college of similar ranking has offered you a better package.

• As much as you should follow your heart in choosing a college, remember to be practical. If going to the school of your dreams means you’ll still be paying off student loans when you’re in a retirement home, maybe you should forgo that option.

• Talk with current students. Admissions offices are more than happy to put you in touch with undergrads so you can get more honest, extensive opinions on life at that school. Talking with freshmen at each school I looked at was extremely helpful and played a big role in my decision.

• Last but not least: don’t forget what a big deal it is to even be going to college! If you’re worried about not being as successful because the school you choose is not a big-name university, stop. Remember that any college is an incredible educational resource; ultimately, your life’s success is up to your ambition to make it happen.

If you liked this article check out:

College: How we got accepted. A special package on how San Fernando HS students got into four-year colleges. (Oct. 2006)

College out of state. Ambar loves going to college in Washington, D.C.
(March – April 2005)