Choosing Your Dream College: Break the Family Mold

In Get Real and Get In, Dr. Aviva Legatt provides an insider's guide that teaches students to identify and harness their unique passions, stand out from the crowd, and achieve their dreams.

Dr. Aviva Legatt
4-minute read

Regardless of where you are in the college application process, the first thing you need to think about is YOU: Your priorities and goals. You may think the college process is all about molding yourself to whatever the college or grad program wants you to become—that elusive “perfect” applicant. But as you’ll soon see, there is no perfect applicant. In college admissions and in life, you just play to your strengths and find ways to develop yourself into the best version of yourself.

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Let's think about my client Jennifer.  As well rounded as she already was, Jennifer could have put even more pressure on herself to “build out” her weaknesses. She could have chosen to pursue AP literature and history classes so that she appeared across-the-board stellar to college admissions officers.

But Jennifer (wisely) chose to build on her strengths. She was already so well equipped in math and science: Why dilute her strengths in order to present a “perfect” façade, especially given that she didn’t plan to pursue a career in the humanities? Jennifer would have hurt her chances of getting into her dream college if she were more concerned about checking boxes than capitalizing on her strengths. So will you. Admissions officers want to know you; if you’re playing the role of “perfect applicant,” they’ll be able to tell. You’ll end up stressing out needlessly and possibly self-sabotaging.

Admissions officers want to know you; if you’re playing the role of “perfect applicant,” they’ll be able to tell.

Knowing yourself and playing to your strengths is easier said than done. For instance: What if everyone in your grade is taking AP physics, and you feel tempted to sign up for the class, too? Problem is, you don’t really want to: you already have a full and challenging class load, the class is notoriously difficult, and a solid understanding of physics isn’t needed for your future career goals.

It takes courage to go against the flow—to decide what’s best for you and to stick to your truth. In chapter three, we met Jennifer and Adam, who did just that. In this chapter, we’ll talk about the courage it takes to break the family mold: to chart your own path, believe in it, and see it through—even if the path is different than one your family has in mind.

Mary Ann Evans was a leading Victorian era writer whose work you might read in your English class under her pen name: George Eliot. Evans took on a pen name to protect her identity and overcome the stigma of being a female author in a time when women were second-class citizens. But breaking the family mold is just what she did: Eliot pursued and attained a formal education (not typical for women of the time) and eventually questioned her faith, which almost caused her family to disown her. Despite the pressures of her family and of society telling her what she should be, Eliot persisted in her writing career, becoming an author whose work has been read across centuries.

Eliot followed her own intuition in order to achieve her dreams in a time when breaking from prescribed social patterns made her an outcast. Today, for most of us, the price of taking a different path is not so steep (thank goodness). You too can access your own intuition and let it guide you in the path to your dreams. In fact, following your intuition is exactly how you can become competitive in the college application process.

The earlier you start thinking about (and more importantly, acting on) your interests, the more impressive you’ll be to college admissions officers.

Following your intuition and breaking the family mold means trying new things and even disappointing people along the way. Will there be difficulties as you chart a course separate from your loved ones? Yes. But the risk is worth it. Playing it safe and doing the same thing as your peer group or family may seem tempting, but as the saying goes: “no risk, no reward.” Going your own way will help you impress college admissions officers. More importantly, you will gain practice in honing your intuition and taking action—skills that will serve you well for the rest of your life.


1. What stigmas exist in your family? These could be career related (maybe your family looks down on certain colleges and career paths) or not (maybe your family talks negatively about people who live in a certain state). Whatever stigmas you’ve been exposed to, write them down so you can see the thoughts and evaluate your own feelings toward them.

2. What stigmas exist at your high school? Is a certain type of college seen as the only acceptable one, while others are derided? Write down the biases of your peer group and teachers so you can evaluate them.

3. Can you think of other instances of negatively biased thinking you encounter in your environment (place of worship, friend group, social media, etc.)? Write them down.

4. How do these stigmas shape your worldview? Are you surprised by anything you wrote down—for instance, did you discover you have a negative opinion that is not actually based on fact or your own experience?

It can be alarming to see all the negative beliefs and biases of other people that we are carrying around, too. Awareness is the first step toward unburdening yourself of others’ prejudices.

Going against the pattern your family has established is difficult—but plenty of others have done it. So can you. 

The better you know yourself, the easier your decisions become.