Oberlin Blogs

All Roads (Eventually) Lead to Oberlin

April 3, 2018

Sam Schuman ’21

Oberlin Class of 2022, you have it easy. Last year, admissions decisions didn’t come out until March 24th, not the 23rd like this year. You may think I’m being pedantic here, but a year ago I definitely could have used the extra day before the May 1st enrollment deadline. You see, I’m what many people might charitably call an “overthinker” or what some may uncharitably call a “procrastinator”—I enrolled at about 10PM on the day of the enrollment deadline. 

There are a lot of students here who knew they were Obies from the moment they stepped on campus, and committed as soon as they got their acceptance letter. I am not one of those students; my path to Oberlin was less a straight line and more a maze. Retrospectively, however, I’m glad that I had to go through that maze. It forced me to think critically about what was most important to me in a college, and what I really wanted out of the “college experience.” 

I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of that maze in a moment, but the main takeaway is this: There are a lot of colleges out there, many of them excellent. What’s most important isn’t perceived “prestige” or “brand,” and it definitely isn’t some inscrutable numerical ranking. What matters most is where you feel most comfortable, and where campus programs and culture will best support you and your goals. If you can find that in a college, everything else is secondary.

Of course, this being Oberlin’s admissions blog, I’m a bit biased. Oberlin was my “best fit”—and it could be yours too! The following personal narrative is essentially my long-winded, occasionally verbose way of sharing with you the specific experiences I had as a “prospie” that convinced me to spend four years in rural Ohio, despite its lack of verticality or quality bagels.

Part 1: Don’t Get Ober-Excited

“Dear Sam,

An update has been posted to your application. You can view the updated information online on your application status page.”

Between March and April of my senior year, those twenty-two words struck greater fear into me than pretty much anything else. And since I had applied to 15 colleges in the Fall, I had the distinct pleasure of having fifteen near-heart attacks as these emails rolled in. 

I remember the moment I received my Oberlin decision very clearly: March 24, 2017 was a Friday afternoon, and I had gone straight from high school to the music school I attended, and where I worked as an instructor for younger kids. As soon as the class I was teaching began, my phone buzzed: an email from Oberlin College and Conservatory with the subject line “Oberlin Application Update.” I knew I should wait until the class was over before checking my email, but my curiosity got the better of me. I excused myself and logged into the application portal, where I was greeted by an animation proclaiming “Congrats! You’re In!” along with a hand-drawn group of students holding a “Welcome!” banner.

Oberlin wasn’t the first admissions decision I had received, but it was the one I was most excited about so far (finding out I had received a merit scholarship certainly didn’t hurt). As happy as I was to have an Oberlin offer of admission in my back pocket, however, I still wasn’t positive that it was where I wanted to spend the next four years. After all, I still had half a dozen schools to hear back from.

Part 2: Attack of The Clones Ivies

March 30, 2017: “Ivy Day,” or the day when the Ivy League and many other schools release their admissions decisions—and the day I received the last of my all-important “application status update” emails. That afternoon was certainly a roller-coaster, as a mix of acceptance and rejection letters lit up my inbox. I have to say, the difficulty of logging into an application portal while my heart was beating twice as fast as normal and my fingers were twitching like they had just mainlined Red Bull made me long for those simpler days when it was possible to tell the outcome of an admissions decision simply from the size of the envelope in the mail.

Anyway, when the digital dust had settled I found myself with the difficult-but-exciting task of choosing from nine schools where I had been accepted. I wasn’t quite sure what kind of school I wanted to attend when I applied to schools back in the Fall, so my choice included a mix of mid-sized and large universities, a few liberal arts colleges similar to Oberlin, and one music school, where I had been accepted for contemporary guitar. After months of waiting, the proverbial college-selection ball was finally in my court.

Part 3: Decisions, Decisions

All things considered, April 2017 wasn’t a particularly busy month for me. Senior Spring was in that wonderful phase between college acceptances and AP testing (note to current seniors: Take AP tests before you graduate! You can find out what AP scores Oberlin accepts for credit here) where work isn't done particularly diligently, nor is it expected to be. I had no upcoming performances or auditions. In fact, if not for my looming college enrollment deadline, April would’ve been the most peaceful month I’d had in a long time.

Of course, the fact was that I did have to pick a school to commit to. Some decisions were easy. After re-touring a big university close to my hometown, I realized that I needed a small campus environment where I would be able to interact with peers and professors in small groups, and where I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in one place. I also decided I wanted a broad liberal arts education, which meant that music school was off the table. 

Some decisions were a bit harder, particularly when it came to choosing between various liberal arts colleges. I had been admitted to several of Oberlin’s “peer institutions”—colleges with similar class sizes, extracurricular programs, and academic reputations. In the end, Oberlin came out as my first choice among those schools, mainly because of its unique programs like Winter Term, the Experimental College, and all of the programs and concerts provided by the Conservatory.

After eliminating all of the schools that didn’t fit my new criteria, my final choice came down to Oberlin and a mid-sized urban university, which for the purposes of this blog I will refer to as “Joey.”

Part 4: All Roads (Eventually) Lead to Oberlin

Having narrowed my decision to two schools, I embarked on the be-all, end-all of college admissions events: accepted students days. First on my list was Joey’s accepted student day in Boston. Maybe it was the rainy day, but for whatever reason I just didn’t connect with Joey, as much as I wanted to like it. The campus, although only slightly larger than Oberlin’s, was confusing and intimidating (it was also entirely on a hill, making it significantly harder to traverse than sensationally flat Ohio). Part of the day included attending faculty lectures that were specifically tailored to prospective students. These were everything I wanted in a college: engaging, interesting, and taught by professors with a clear passion for their subject matter.

It wasn’t the academics that left me doubting my (hypothetical) place at Joey; it was everything else. Through every student panel and club fair, I felt less and less enthusiastic. It wasn’t that anything was bad. Rather, it was just different from what I had expected. Student admissions ambassadors were excited to be attending Joey, but many of the reasons they cited—living with their friends, interesting classes, etc.—seemed like they could apply to any college, not just Joey. They seemed more enamored of Joey’s prestige and low acceptance rate than of anything else. I left Joey that day knowing that I would enjoy what I was learning there, but not so sure if I would enjoy much else.

Just a week later, I made the 8-hour drive from New Jersey to Ohio for my third and final visit to Oberlin. “All Roads Lead to Oberlin,” as the event is known, wasn’t quite as elaborate as Joey’s event was: there were no lectures tailored specifically for touring prospies, and my nametag was the classic “my name is…” sticker rather than a fancy laminated badge. But rather than making me feel like an afterthought (trust me, anyone who works anywhere close to the admissions office can tell you All Roads is a lot more than an afterthought) it felt like I was getting a more authentic look at Oberlin.

Right off the bat, All Roads made clear that Oberlin was a unique place. Rather than being held in a gym, the opening welcome address was held in Warner Concert Hall in the Conservatory building. Instead of eating lunch in a dining hall, I had a sandwich in the ‘Sco while a bluegrass band of Conservatory and College students played a set. In lieu of watching a movie in the evening (the criminally underrated Boss Baby was playing at the Apollo at the time), I attended a performance of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. And whereas at home I would’ve spent my night watching Netflix, at All Roads I hung out with my student host in the Conservatory’s TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) lab. While I watched him working on his computer (creating a multi-tap delay in MaxMSP, in case anyone is interested) I noticed that a student working next to him was putting wires into a plant. A few moments later, they connected the succulent to a speaker and pinched one of its leaves—the plant emitted a digital scream. This was the music, art and brilliant weirdness that I had in my head when I thought of college.

Of course, all the great things I saw and did at All Roads were a result of the most important asset Oberlin has: its students. During my visit to Joey students seemed reluctant to engage with prospective students, but at Oberlin everyone I met was friendly, and more importantly able to give directions to a prospie who at times found himself very lost on campus. During panels, students didn’t talk about Oberlin’s acceptance rate or ranking. Instead, they talked about the things they loved that make Oberlin, well, Oberlin: its historic commitment to social justice, unique Winter Term Programs, Experimental College courses, and, of course, its Conservatory. When student life came up, students didn’t talk about parties (don’t get me wrong, we love to party as much as the next college, we just love to do a lot of other things, too) as much as about all the extracurriculars they participated in, from Taiko drumming to a cappella to rock bands to journalism to radio to sports. 

At Oberlin, the idea of being part of such a vibrant campus community excited me. I bonded with other prospies without meaning to; walking to the dining hall with two then-strangers named Jane and Will turned into a spirited conversation about Plato and Socrates, and a year later Jane and Will are still my friends and classmates.

All Roads left me feeling excited. Oberlin seemed to be a place where I could learn and do just as much outside of the classroom as in it. More than that, it was a place where I felt comfortable—where Joey had left me feeling intimidated, Oberlin gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Despite my fairly dichotomous final college visits, I still faced a tough choice: going to urban and well-known Joey, or smaller and more isolated Oberlin. With two weeks to go until May first, the pressure was on.

Part 5: The Final Countdown

There’s not too much suspense to be had here, unfortunately. After all, if I didn’t choose Oberlin in the end I wouldn’t be writing this nearly a year later. Nevertheless, many pro/con lists were made in April 2017. Even though my final visit to Oberlin had cemented it in my mind as the right school for me, I agonized over the decision for the rest of the month. As ambivalent as my visit to Joey had left me, it was hard to give up the idea of having the Joey “brand” on my resume. I began to rationalize the choice. Maybe I had just visited Joey on a bad day, and gone to the wrong student panels. Maybe I would’ve enjoyed myself if it hadn’t been caught out in the rain. Maybe those sample lectures I enjoyed were all the proof I needed that Joey was where I really belonged.

In the end, however, the decision came down to this: attend the college where I “should” go based on the notion drilled into me by my type-A classmates that I had to go to the school with the most “prestige” (whatever that may signify), or attend the college that I knew I would enjoy attending (it’s worth mentioning for those of you concerned with prestige—and you really shouldn’t be—that Oberlin certainly has its fair share). I can’t remember if I closed my eyes as I clicked “submit” on my Oberlin enrollment form, but I wasn’t 100% that I had made the right choice, even as August rolled around. 

A year later, I’m convinced it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because what the nice shiny admissions brochures say about Oberlin is true. Academic and musical excellence intersect here like at no other institution, and Oberlin is home to a campus culture that’s unique and engaging, with events to match—I didn’t know what a Jellyfish Parade might look like at Oberlin, but I sure do now. Oberlin was my “fit” and I wouldn’t trade being an Obie for anything.

Responses to this Entry

This was super helpful, thank you so much for writing this! I'm in a very similar situation now, deciding between Oberlin and a school with a high ranking and a low acceptance rate. I know Oberlin is the fit for me, but I can't help getting swept up in all of the prestige sometimes, so hearing your story was really reassuring. I just committed to Oberlin today, and I can't wait to go!

Posted by: Isabel on April 30, 2021 1:57 PM

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