Finding the Right College
Parents: 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.
Within that larger context comes the type of campus. This is best answered by a series of summer visits to a range of local campuses that may help you answer that question. I put very strong weight to visiting schools. The primary litmus test should be walking around a campus, at least twice (summer and fall), and saying and feeling, “I really like it here.” We are talking about “fit.” Most of life is about “fit.” If we are making good choices, finding the right people, places, and things that fit our needs and personality at any given point in our lifespan, chances are we will end up with a life we feel good about.
There are literally thousands of colleges with more openings than there are students. Everyone can go to college, even if you have terrible grades or learning disabilities or other handicaps to deal with. The costs also vary widely and the availability of financial aid increases with your flexibility about college choice.
Where to Start
Let’s assume you are going to stay within the U.S. borders. So pick up one of those very fat Barron’s or Peterson’s, and begin to go page by page, quickly reading about hundreds of options in areas of the country that interest you. It’s actually a fun process. Between that and visiting some local campuses you will begin to develop a list of colleges that you might like to attend. It should not matter if no one has heard of some of the schools. It should not matter if you could “do better.”
Don’t waste time with so-called reach schools. What a twisted concept that has become. “Reach” has become a source of much of the stress and disappointment that students and parents experience. Apply to schools where your background fits with their criteria. That still doesn’t mean that you’ll get accepted. But the notion of a “reach school” is embedded in the myths we’ve already debunked. You don’t have to go to the highest-rated school possible.
As you narrow your list, begin to visit schools. Summer tours are great family trips. If it’s a long distance, with today’s low-priced airlines, you and at least one parent can afford to go most anywhere. Sometimes a couple of friends will travel on their own to some faraway schools, making it into a summer adventure that expands your world.
What Will Really Matter
That’s the secret that underlies the most important reason for not driving yourself crazy with worry about making the right choice. There is no way to predict how it will all play out and influence the outcome of your life. There have been some recent movies that played upon that idea – redoing a simple act such as catching or missing a subway train, and how that can alter the path of your life.
I remember a senior who was so disappointed that he had to choose his “safety school” (another concept I dislike — if you are choosing a proper list, you don’t need a “safety school,” which by definition is a place you don’t really want to attend but apply to just to make sure you have a college to attend). This senior went to his safety school and came back to see me the following summer. He loved the school. Why? He had made some great friends and that gave a quality to the experience that overshadowed everything else. In addition, he found the faculty to be very accessible and he enjoyed many of his classes more than he had expected.
The point is you have no idea whom you might meet – a lifelong best friend, your future significant other, a professor who plays a special role in helping you “find yourself,” or someone you end up starting a business with. This can happen anywhere and you never know where or when something significant like that will occur. It is accepting that there is a great deal of serendipity to life and much that we have no control over that makes the whole process of choosing a college much simpler and more relaxed.
Like I said earlier, pick a nice place you want to live for the next four years and use the time as one of life’s transitions, learning to live on your own, expanding your universe of friends and experiences, and, oh yes, taking a few courses that you might actually remember years later!
Heller, K. (2018). Finding the Right College. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/finding-the-right-college/