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college choice

Choosing a College: 4 TRUTHS, 4 MYTHS

Choosing a collegeIt's that time of year: admissions decisions are being finalized, scholarship applications are due, and students are trying to decide where they’ll attend college in the fall. They get lots of advice: sound counsel that really does help and trivial platitudes that don’t do anyone any good.

Here are a few of the most common statements I've heard.

  1. Truth: Waiting until the last possible minute might be good. As other students turn down scholarships, money is made available to holdouts. In the last week of April 2014, my son’s scholarship awards went up daily. DAILY! So take your time. It might just pay off.
  2. Truth: Visiting campuses also pays off. Sometimes, when you are on the actual campus, you just get a feeling. Trust that feeling. You want to be in a place where you feel comfortable, at home. I’d argue that the feeling is more important than the quality of the major. (Students change majors all the time. The feeling is a lot more reliable.)
  3. Truth: You might not get that feeling right away. It might have to grow on you; trust yourself. Some people fall in love more slowly and more systematically. It’s the same with choosing a college.
  4. Truth: Talking to other people helps. Talk to teachers, mentors, and adults who care about you. Talk to friends, current students, and alumni. You’ll gain new information and insight that will make it easier to make your choice.

Unfortunately, students also hear things that are more myth than truth and are neither exceptionally helpful nor entirely true. Here are just a few of those.

1. HOPEFULLY FALSE: “This will be the best four years of your life.”

Really? It wasn’t the best four years of my life and I had a great collegiate experience. But best years of my life? Not even close. Frankly, there’s not much that compares to my childhood summers: homemade ice cream under the carport; watermelon seed spitting contests; roller skating, bike riding, playing in my playhouse. Those were some great years. But then, the last four years have been good too. And the four before that. Life is full of great years, so at the very least, you’re overstating.

But there’s a bigger problem with this statement. Expectation. Expectation can just flat slaughter reality. See, no matter how good college is for you, I promise you it won’t be perfect. You’ll have some life-changing experiences, but some of those you would just as soon have lived without. College can be wonderful. It can be difficult. It can be wonderfully difficult and difficultly wonderful. But don’t set students up to approach the next four years as the highlight of life. That’s just not true. And if it is, that’s sad.

2. SOMEWHAT FALSE: “You’ll meet the best friends of your life while you’re in college.”

For me, this is somewhat true, but I’ve also developed friends since graduating college who are more like family than friends to me. Before Facebook, I’d kept in touch with three or four of my closest friends from college. Now I’ve reconnected with many I’d lost contact with and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also in touch with childhood friends and friends I’ve made since the late 80’s. You can make friends whenever and wherever you are. My brother-in-law’s closest friends are high school buddies. My sister’s besties are co-teachers. So yes, hopefully college students will meet and keep new friends. But I for one am grateful that I didn’t stop making friends when I left college.

3. POSSIBLY FALSE: "You’ll be fine."

This may be one of the most dangerous things we say to students. Here’s the deal: way too many college students are anything but fine. Depression and anxiety spike during these stressful years. Suicide on the college campus is consistently on the rise. If students go into college thinking everyone else is fine and they are the only one struggling, they can feel isolated and resist mental health resources because of the fear of being different from the masses. A lot of college students find these years difficult and confusing and lonely. So adults, instead of “You’ll be fine,” how about we say, “I’ll always be here for you,” and mean it. And students: it’s okay if you aren’t okay. I promise you are not the only one. Reach out to people you trust and look into collegiate mental health services. Sometimes, we all need a little help to be "fine."

4. FALSE: “It doesn’t matter where you go.”

First of all, this is flippant and dismissive. If you are trying to make a decision that affects your future, it is not helpful for someone to say the equivalent of “Stop whining and get on with it! Your concerns are invalid.”

Secondly, it does matter, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. It’s not because of the college's reputation or status; the quality of the school and its majors are important, but the truth is you can find quality at just about in college or university. There are exceptions, but mostly academic experience is shaped by personal investment.

But it does matter where you go to college. It matters because of the connections you will make both personally and professionally. How many people do you know who are married to someone they met in college? A lot, right? And that best friend thing—most college graduates have made dear friends along the way, friends who have shaped their lives in profound ways.

That’s not all though. During the next four years and beyond, your professors and advisors will share more than academic knowledge with you. They will also pass along information about job openings and career opportunities; they will be your references for graduate school or employment. It matters that you choose a college where the faculty appeals to you.

Indeed, it doesn’t necessarily matter where you go in terms of national ranking; but it totally matters that you choose a college that feels right to you.

So good luck students! And no matter what other advice you get, remember this:

Choosing a college matters; YOU matter more.

This post was first published March 9, 2016. 

You > College Admissions Results

College Admissions ResultsWhen it comes to college admissions, the question has never been “Will Tracie* be admitted to the college of her choice?” It was only, “Who will pay her the most to go to their school?”

After all, Tracie is less than 200 points shy of a perfect 2400 on her SAT; she’s made the highest possible score on all five AP Exams she’s taken; she has a solid GPA; she has studied abroad; and she’s even started her own small business. No one thought Tracie would be denied admission anywhere.

Yet, she’s heard from all four schools to which she applied. She was admitted to one: her last choice, her safety school. She’s wait-listed at one and denied—flat-out rejected—by the other two. Crazy.

Caveat: All along, I’ve thought Tracie should choose the state school closer to her home. It is an excellent university and I think she will thrive there.  And anyway, I never have cared for those exclusive schools with the skinny little admission rates.

Still, I cannot believe she did not get into the schools she dreamt of attending. It makes no sense. But then, the fact is the admissions process is not fair. It’s just not. You can do everything nearly perfectly, as Tracie did, and still not make the cut. (You can also do very little right and get admitted, but that’s another blog post.) At many schools, when it comes to the final decision, it is almost random selection.

So students (and parents) dealing with college admissions disappointments, listen up. I have something to say (I do go on). You may feel free to read these aloud. Preferably while looking in a mirror.

  1. You are more than the sum of your rejection letters.
  2. There was nothing else you could have done to increase your chances of admittance. Rejection happens for so many reasons unrelated to you. Stop obsessing about what you should have or could have or might have. You gave it your best. You have no reason to be ashamed or regretful.
  3. Maybe you could have done something to get into your dream school. Maybe if you had played a sport or practiced your music more or started a nonprofit to benefit poor orphans in a third world country . . . maybe then . . . . But you know what? Perfection is a lie. It doesn’t exist. So, seriously, make like Elsa and “Let it Go.”
  4. It isn’t fair. Lots of things aren’t though. It’s not fair that some kids have loving parents and some don’t. It’s not fair that health care is available to some and not to others. Lots of things aren’t fair and this is most definitely one of them. It is totally not fair. It stinks.
  5. It’s okay to be disappointed and even sad. You’ve lost something of value. Grief is the natural reaction, so allow yourself to feel the depth of it. Once you touch the bottom, though, push off of it and start swimming for the surface. Just look for the light and keep reaching up.
  6. Do not let this one experience limit who you believe yourself to be. You see, as good as your application was, it didn’t begin to say how awesome you are. Did your application show how easily you laugh? How deeply you appreciate quality music? How enthralled you are by really great writing? Do those admissions officers understand that the way you love your sibling defies all modern logic? That your heart has a greater capacity than most? That you never give up on your friends and that you intentionally form friendships that cross the boundaries of race, religion, and politics? No. They don’t know any of those things. You are beautiful and imperfect, whole and broken, complete and unfinished. You are a multifaceted marvel.
  7. Now allow yourself to hope again. Great things grow out of deep loss. Believe it. Expect it. Your future really is waiting. And you really are enough.

*Name changed for privacy.