Avoiding potential admissions regret

There are two categories of college-planning decisions families need to make throughout high school–those that are likely to impact the admissions outcomes, and those that will not. The families who have the most success with—and enjoyment during—the process are very good at distinguishing between the two.

Which standardized tests will you take? Will you enroll in AP English? How will you address your struggles in your biology class? These decisions are likely to impact your admissibility to particular colleges. That doesn’t mean the answers are necessarily obvious—it just means that it’s worth investing the energy to find the right answer. Visit the websites of the colleges that interest you. Talk to your counselor. Ask a rep at a college fair. Go to the sources, ask questions, and find the information you need to make an informed choice.

But will you play tennis or join the jazz band? Will you spend your summer visiting your relatives or working a part-time job? Will you write your essay about your experience getting your black belt in karate or about your math club’s adventures in problem sets?

Yes, those decisions are important because they involve you. You want to enjoy your activities, have a good summer, and write a college essay you’re proud of. But none of those queries in isolation are likely to change the outcome. Get involved in the activity you think you’ll enjoy the most. Try to spend your summer in a way that makes you happy and productive. Write your college essay about what you want to write, not about what you think the colleges want to hear from you. The chosen path will not be the factor that pushes you towards the yes or the no pile.

Families who agonize over every decision usually do it because they have good intentions and they’re afraid of potential future regret. They don’t want to make a college-planning decision in 10th grade and find out two years later their student is inadmissible to her dream college because of it. But I honestly cannot recall a single instance where a family I’ve met had good intentions and still managed to make one college-planning decision that was legitimately regrettable in perpetuity.

The information you need to distinguish between decisions that will impact the admissions outcome and those that will not is readily available. Do the colleges’ websites mention a requirement or strong preference? Does your high school counselor have a clear recommendation? If yes, then it’s important, and you should treat it as such.

But if a college doesn’t express a preference for your choice, and if your high school counselor advises that there’s no right answer and that you should worry less about making a mistake, take that as a trusted sign that whatever decision you’re facing is not the kind that carries potential admissions regret.