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Finding the Right College

Finding the Right CollegeParents: Please note that this column is meant to be shared with your teenager.

Okay, you made it through that dreaded junior year, the supposedly make-or-break year that colleges will be very influenced by in making their decisions. Now you are starting the rising-senior summer when most students and parents begin to seriously look at what colleges to apply to. This has become a time-consuming, highly stressful process that doesn’t end until next spring when the desired acceptance letter does — or does not — arrive. Why is there so much anxiety about getting into the “right” school, which often leads to many students applying to more than a dozen schools? The process has gotten out of control, largely due to misconceptions about what is really important about the college experience.

The myth is that if you go to the best rated college possible it increases the likelihood of a more successful career or a better life. But that assumption is simply not true. Based on the data I’ve seen, there is no significant relationship between the college one attends and the career or life success one achieves.

Typically there is too much focus on career success. But what do we mean by career success – amount of money earned – happiness with what one does – prizes won – public recognition…? The list goes on. If it’s money you’re after, which college you choose means the least? If it’s a Nobel Prize, then college choice may be more of a factor. If it’s just finding a career you really love, well, forget “which college.” Most students change majors and still leave college with little certainty about career choice.

The typical post-graduation vision of a career changes, sometimes often, over the next several years. More and more, adult lives are being characterized by at least two careers, often unrelated. If you look at that kind of big picture before you start the process of selecting a college, you should be able to reduce the stress as well as use a very different set of criteria for your selection process.

Choosing a Place to Live

I believe that college should be viewed as a life experience. The academic piece is simply one part, and, frequently, not the most important part. For many, here is the one time in your life that you can actually choose where you would like to live. What part of the country or world; an urban, suburban or rural place; a small, medium, large or huge campus; the makeup of the student body?

These are the key questions for most. There is the exception for a select few that truly have a calling that is likely to sustain itself and if it’s a narrow one, you will need to pick a school that offers the coursework you need. But even that can be questioned. For virtually every profession or career, any solid liberal arts background can be ideal — even if it means, later on, taking an advanced degree, or picking up some extra courses to enable you to enter a particular career.

So where do you want to live? For most teens, whose geographic exposure is limited, that alone can be a daunting question. Sure, UMiami or one of the southern California coast colleges sounds dreamy. The skiers may want to head for the mountains. The adventurous may be off to a big city or across a border. But this is the first question to address and explore.

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Finding the Right College

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Finding the Right College. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 10, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.