Reasonable expectations

Richard Thaler is a professor of behavioral economics who won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for his work to prove that people are predictably irrational and make choices counter to economic sense. On the latest episode of the Freakonomics podcast, he spoke about whether winning the Nobel has made him noticeably happier.

“… I absolutely don’t want to sound like a sore winner or an ungrateful winner. I’m saying that most of the people who win were already pretty successful people with pretty good lives. And there’s what psychologists call a ceiling effect. So I had a pretty happy life, as you know, I have a nice wife and I have kids I love. And yes, this made me happy. And it was very gratifying. But you have this image that you’re going to be on cloud nine. And then there is life, you still get flat tires even if you have a Nobel Prize. You still have leaks at home that nobody seems to be able to fix. So they need to fix that and say that if you get a Nobel Prize, nothing can leak in your house.”

Does the Nobel Prize change your life? Sure. But your life is still your life, and the Nobel isn’t going to make it perfect.

I think that’s analogous to the process of attending highly selective colleges.

Too many applicants think that if they can just get into Georgetown or Stanford or Penn their lives will be complete and that each day will be better than the one before it. College can absolutely be a life-changing experience at the right school, selective or not. But no college is perfect just as no life is perfect.

Even if you are lucky and deserving enough to get accepted to your dream school, you’ll have good days and bad days, successes and failures. There will be periods when you feel you’ve found home and periods when you may wish you could return to what used to be home. You’ll make friends that will be in your life forever and friends who let you down. You’ll go on good dates and bad dates, take classes you can’t wait to attend each day and others you can’t wait to end. College is representative of life that way. Ups and downs, highs and lows. The right college just stacks the deck a bit to give you what should be a lot more good days than bad.

So don’t put so much pressure on yourself or on whatever you believe is your dream college. Instead, work hard and commit to things you enjoy. Find colleges that appreciate you for exactly who you are. And if you believe some highly selective colleges fit you, put your very best application foot forward and take your shot. But keep your expectations of the outcomes—of both applying and potentially attending—reasonable.