Perfect on paper, not in practice

One of the most common collegiate sentiments I hear from adults I speak with, including our own counselors at Collegewise, is that they didn’t put nearly as much thought into their college selection as it merited. They didn’t pore over research and tour every campus and create lists of pros and cons. They just applied to schools that seemed appealing, affordable, or both, and chose one that accepted them.

College counselors, and many parents, want our students to make more informed choices. Guidebooks, websites, meetings with counselors, research, tours—college is an investment of time and money, and we want to give our kids the tools and support to invest wisely.

But it’s worth occasionally reminding ourselves and our kids that: (1) there is no such thing as a perfect college, and (2) some uncertainty is normal.

If we’re not careful, the message we can send our kids is that there is one perfect college out there, and that the perfection will be uninterrupted for four years.

Many students do find schools that check every box on the collegiate wish list. But perfect? No way. College absolutely can and should be four years of learning, growth, opportunities and fun. But it won’t be four years of uninterrupted bliss. It will not be free of frustration, failure, or disappointment. Life doesn’t work that way. The best jobs, new cities, friendships, even marriages—all of them have their good days and bad days. What’s perfect on paper is rarely perfect in practice.

Kids should look for the right schools. They should give careful consideration to the type of environment where they could be happy and successful. They should spend the time it takes to find schools that fit their goals, personality, and budget. The fact that there might be no such thing as a perfect marriage doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the decision carefully and thoughtfully. And college selection works the same way.

But it’s entirely possible that a student could do all the research necessary to find the collegiate version of a soulmate and still not be convinced she’s found the one. That’s normal.

Students who head off to college convinced that it’s the perfect match will eventually find or face something that doesn’t seem so perfect. That’s normal, too.

A thoughtful college search process is supposed to make students and parents feel more confident. It should reveal just how many schools there are and give families some sense of security that they didn’t pick based on name, rumor, or pretty architecture alone. It should not provoke more anxiety just because the perfect school has yet to appear. And it should never be mistaken as an immunization against the occasional bad day, week, or month in college.

Look for colleges that are perfect on paper, but don’t expect that they’ll always be perfect in practice.