At the conclusion of our holiday break during our freshman year of college, my roommate Craig and I packed our duffel bags into his 1986 Toyota Celica and set off from our homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to return to our dorm at UC Irvine. The driving directions to do so looked something like this:
1. Take the 5 Freeway South for 500 miles.
2. Exit at Culver and turn right.
And we still managed to get lost.
About halfway to our destination, one of us suggested a possible shortcut. I don’t recall who came up with that bright idea, but I do remember us both embracing it enthusiastically. 90 minutes later, we were still so turned around on side streets that we had absolutely no idea where we were. By the time we got back to the freeway and resolved to literally and figuratively stay the course, we’d lost almost two hours of time. The illusive pursuit of a magical, undiscovered shortcut proved fruitless, which wasn’t surprising. Thousands and thousands of drivers had driven that route before us. If a better path existed, it would no longer have been a secret.
I would never tell a family to plod through the college admissions process like a laborious chore that just needs to be endured. There are both effective and ineffective ways to manage this time, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration and wasted effort by being thoughtful and seeking the right advice. When other people tell you that applying to college is stressful, difficult, demoralizing, etc., it’s likely that their approach—not the process itself—is what’s causing those problems.
But while you might hear that someone was admitted to their dream college because they applied under an obscure major, or connected with an admissions officer over email, or took some other seemingly simple but previously undiscovered shortcut to get there, like the long stretch of 5 freeway connecting Northern and Southern California, there is no universally foolproof, easier, faster way. If there were, someone would have discovered it already, plenty of others would have followed, and the secret would by now be the norm.
If you accept the reality that there is no secret passageway to the college of your dreams, you can stop the fruitless search that will only lead you to dead end side streets. Pick the right destinations for you, get good directions ahead of time, then stay the course.