Senior Margaret Whitney, who moved to Houston, Texas, in summer 2012, blogs for the Online Octagon as the paper’s only “foreign correspondent.”

I hear it in the halls, at the hair salon and in the line at Starbucks. A friend’s mom sizing me up from the front seat; visiting relatives, looking for the latest scoop; my parents’ colleagues, filling the gap between introductions and hors d’oeuvres.

It’s that fail-safe question, the perfect filler: “Oh, you’re a senior? So, where are you going to college?”

It’s an easy toss-away that hits with all the delicacy of hail on glass, unwittingly inviting anxiety and the nervous twinges of expectation into formerly benign conversations.

You develop a rhythm after a while, learn to artfully steer the conversation, to keep it at arms length by explaining that it’s barely the second quarter, that most people haven’t even finished all their applications, let alone sent them in.

“But where are you applying?”

There’s no avoiding such a direct request. I grit my teeth.

“Well, I’d really like to go to a small liberal arts college. Probably on the East Coast.” And almost in defiance of their look of skeptical surprise, I give them the laundry list of schools they’ve never heard of.

“Bowdoin—Oh, it’s in Maine. Yes, it is pretty cold up there.

“Amherst. No, not U Mass, just Amherst. They are in the same town, though.

“And Williams College—not William and Mary or Roger Williams. Just Williams.”

I hate feeling defensive about my college aspirations, but in a state where the question for many students is less where do you want to go than whether it should be UT Austin or A and M, I constantly find myself prefacing my dreams with “You probably haven’t heard of it…”

It’s giving me a bit of an inferiority complex, to be honest. When so many here think only of the Ivies when they hear “East Coast,” the looks of confusion—even disappointment—add up.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the Ivy League. One of them, Dartmouth, is on my list of potential schools; it’s just not my first choice.

But I find myself frustrated by the blank looks and tepid reactions, interpreting them as judgements on my ability, or rather inability, to make it at more prestigious schools.

I try to tell myself that the name doesn’t matter—that I am going to college for an education, not a sweatshirt—but not all of me always fully believes it.

This college search has forced me to confront a small, but annoyingly vocal part of myself that I guess we all like to think we’ve outgrown by this time, an overly competitive and insecure aspect of my personality.

This insecurity has made me doubt myself at times and wonder if my classmates, parents’ colleagues, and that guy in Starbucks are right to be skeptical. Am I selling myself short by not putting more prestigious schools at the top of my list?

It’s at times like this, when doubt creeps into my mind, that I have to step back and remember who exactly is applying to college here. I’m choosing my home for the next four years of my life, the institution that will hopefully challenge and push me. I’m picking a school, and I can’t let all the backseat drivers talk me off the road I want to take.

Standing in the crisp, early-autumn breezes of the Berkshires and the salt-touched Maine coastal air, I remember why I want a small, liberal arts college. Sitting in on classes, visiting dorms, and talking with coaches, I get that elusive “gut feel.” I feel I’m in a place where I would be happy.

I now plan on applying Early Decision to one of those small, liberal arts colleges, and I continue to field confused looks and lukewarm reactions whenever I mention it. No one seems to have heard of the school I would like to go to. But I have, and at the end of the day I’m the one writing the application.

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