(Forbes) By Willard Dix–
One of the great things about American higher education is the number of choices students have when considering college. Whether it is California, New York, or Pennsylvania colleges the choices are endless. Unfortunately, that’s also one of the awful things about it. Confronted with a sea of options as well as a relentless barrage of information (viewbooks, emails, websites, and on and on), students and parents often descend into a purgatory of uncertainty and confusion. Just the prospect of creating a manageable college application list can cause sweaty palms and shallow breathing. Add to that hopes, expectations, fears and promises coming from every direction, and you have a diabolical confluence of forces that can lead to a miserable time for everyone involved.
In the process, one question often remains unasked, although it’s often evident in every other question: “What if I pick the wrong school?” The practical considerations like location, majors offered, special programs and career advising can easily be viewed and compared. But for students and families, the fear of making the wrong decision, the opportunity cost, if you will, plays a much larger role than is usually acknowledged. For most families, that’s the real dilemma. In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz puts the issue succinctly:
The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist–alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do exist. And to the extent that we engage our imaginations in this way, we will be even less satisfied with the alternative we end up choosing. So…a greater variety of choices actually makes us feel worse.
It’s like a low rumbling hum that exists just below our consciousness but makes us anxious all the same. (Listen for it next time you’re at a horror movie.)
It’s hard enough choosing among so many colleges and universities; how can families minimize the anxiety during the process? I’ve adapted the following tips from advice in Schwartz’s book, which is worth a read all on its own. One of its main premises is that “most of the time, it is not the objective results of decisions, but the subjective results” that make us unhappy. “And much of the time, better objective results and worse subjective results are exactly what our overabundance of options provides.” Leaving aside the complexities of financing a college education, here are some tips that may help you and your kids bring the anxiety level down a few notches:
- Acknowledge that no one institution will fill all requirements. Many people tend to search only for schools that will have everything on a student’s wish list. Holding out for the “perfect” school is an exercise in futility. Allowing yourself to accept the schools that are “good enough” can eliminate a significant amount of nervousness. Searching for “perfect” will only frustrate you–that concept continually recedes as you pursue it. Schwartz advises us to “Spend less time looking for the perfect thing…,so that you won’t have huge search costs to be ‘amortized’ against the satisfaction you derive from what you actually choose.”
- Realize that colleges and universities to a large extent are really very similar. When you get right down to it, within certain bands of quality among institutions, differences are more cosmetic than deep-seated. Of course each one has its own claims to fame, curriculum, faculty, and so on, but each produces basically the same “product.” (If you’ve been on as many counselors college tours as I have, you’ll realize what I mean.) Their peculiarities can be very attractive or deal-breaking, but their essentials are the same.
- Realize that trying to cast a wide net can lead to paralysis. I’ve had students become immobilized by trying to consider every possible angle and institution. Is looking at twenty schools twenty times more satisfying than looking at ten? I once had a student whose father wanted him to apply to 34 colleges and universities, ostensibly to “improve his odds” of being accepted. Aside from that’s not being how college applications work, it also paralyzed his son when trying to think about what he wanted from a college. This is the very definition of “tyranny of choice.” At times, viewing “limits on the possibilities we face” can be “liberating not constraining.”
- Once you have a college list, stick to it. There’s always the temptation to add a few more schools as application season moves along, but once the list is formed with a good set of institutions (usually 6-8 when well-advised), let the others go. Concentrate on the great possibilities available at each of your choices and remember that you’re the one who will make things happen. A compelling new one may come up, but don’t let it derail your other choices.
- Don’t over-research. Trying to squeeze every ounce of information from each college’s website or college advice book will only give you a massive headache. Once you’ve covered the major elements of the institution such as admission stats, offerings, special programs, and other characteristics, the rest is gravy. You can explore in more depth once you’re accepted; that’s the time to visit campus (again, perhaps) and ask more detailed questions.
- Consider the balance between the agony of going for “perfect” and the happiness of being satisfied with your decision. It’s been shown that for many people, the happiness of achieving a desired result is often severely tempered by the difficulty of getting there. The more you agonize over your decision, the less likely you’ll be satisfied no matter which school you choose. The psychic damage will actually lessen your ability to enjoy the choice you make.
- Once acceptances are in hand, make a decision and once you’ve made it, don’t look back. Many students spend almost the entire month of April worrying about which college to attend (if they’re fortunate enough to have several offers of admission). Finally at midnight on April 30th, they email their acceptance of an offer. In truth, though, very little will have changed over that month. A visit to campus may make some difference–meeting potential future classmates can be instructive–but in the larger scheme of things, you’ll be fine wherever you choose. Free yourself from constant worry by deciding to choose consciously and moving on.
- Focus on the reasons you chose your school, not on the possible mistakes you made by doing so. In other words, take pleasure in your choice instead of regretting what might have been. Living with regret only makes things worse. “Choosers are people who are able to reflect on what makes a decision important, on whether, perhaps, none of the options should be chosen, on whether a new option should be created, and on what a particular choice says about the chooser as an individual.”
- Don’t compare your choice with others’. You may opt for a school that’s not so glittery or well-known for whatever reason. Maybe you applied to a famous school and didn’t get in. So what? Your choice will soon be your school and it will provide you with incredible opportunities even if you have to remind people where it’s located. Others will choose for their own reasons and that’s fine. We are always tempted to put ourselves on a comparison scale; by refusing to participate, you can free yourself from the nagging sense that you’ve somehow failed. “Focus on what makes you happy and what gives meaning to your life.”
- Actively celebrate your choice and your future. Schwartz calls this practicing an “attitude of gratitude.” The college you choose has also chosen you. That means a great deal. They’re betting that you’ll come to campus, succeed, and be a credit to the institution. To be chosen is an honor and it’s now up to you to be worthy of it. Say thanks to the admission committee and your recommenders, buy the sweatshirt, find out who your roommate(s) will be, check out the course catalogue and consider the clubs and teams you’d like to be on. See where alumni have gone. Let go of all the craziness that’s plagued you for the last 18 months.
Schwartz writes, “We can vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful more often for what is good about a choice or an experience, and to be disappointed less by what is bad about it.” My happiest students have always been the ones who start the college process by saying, “I know I’ll be happy wherever I end up.” Almost inevitably, they’re right. With all the nonsense that surrounds the college process these days, following these tips will be tough. But considering them ahead of time and preparing for the agony of choice can steel you against the worst of it.