I did not plan on attending UCLA. I had no interest in living in a large city, surrounded by pollution and crime, lost in a sea of people and traffic. My parents insisted on taking me to the campus before driving up the coast to check out my chosen school: UC Santa Barbara. I told them they were wasting their time and while I had friends who had not been accepted to UCLA and couldn’t believe that I was passing up the chance to live in “the city of angels”, I knew that it was not the college for me.
But then we pulled off the freeway and headed into Westwood. This was not the Los Angeles that I knew from T.V. car chases and blockbuster action movies. This Los Angeles had trees...and people riding bikes...and the quad looked like the Ivy League Colleges my cousins attended on the East Coast. We took a campus tour, led by a current English Literature undergrad, and I was hooked. We never drove up the coast to UC Santa Barbara because I had fallen in love with UCLA.
Every year I have students who blindly apply to dozens of schools based on everything from location, to majors offered, to the mascot. And every year I have former students who contact me for an updated letter of recommendation because they are transferring to a new school because they hate their current college. It’s not what the expected. It’s too big. Too small. It just isn’t the right “fit”. But before I’ll agree to write them a new letter of rec, I ask them if they’ve gone and visited their chosen transfer school.
Too often students complain that they either don’t have enough time or it’s too expensive to visit college campuses. So I encourage students to start to explore colleges during their junior year, before they have been accepted, so that they have the time to visit schools that may be close by. I advise students to organize trips where they can visit multiple campuses and oftentimes families will travel together, sharing expenses as they travel around the state.
It is unreasonable to expect a student to travel to multiple out of state colleges, but if I have a student who gets accepted to Princeton and they are convinced that Princeton is their first choice, I would argue that it would be well worth the investment to fly out to New Jersey and spend at least a day on campus. According to collegecalc.org the annual total cost in 2014/2015 for a freshman at Princeton was $56,490. The potential investment of over $200,000 and four years of a student’s life is huge, but I have had students choose to go to schools at a similar price point only to find within the first week that they are miserable.
Of course a single day will never reveal all the facets of your chosen school and you may still transfer or change majors as you discover what interests you. And that is part of growing and learning. It’s part of the college experience and while it is terrifying, it is also exhilarating. We make thousands of choices a day but over the course of your life, how many decisions have you made that will potentially affect you for the next four years? I’m sure UCSB would have been a good fit too, but I wouldn’t trade my four years at UCLA for anything. If I’d never set foot on the UCLA campus, who knows where my education, and my life, would have led.
Bryan Starchman teaches personal statement writing for THE College Prep Camp. He is also an English and Drama teacher at Mariposa County High School and a published playwright.