The psychology of choosing gifts, and colleges

“How Psychology Can Help You Choose a Great Gift,” published by UC Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, offers four tips to better gift giving:

1. Choose practicality over expense or quality.
Usable beats fancy in the long run.

2. Go for long-term satisfaction, not initial enthusiasm.
Parents have all seen a child react with joy to a new toy they abandon by the end of the day. Choose gifts that will bring happiness over time, regardless of the initial reaction they inspire.

3. Give people what they’ve asked for.
Surprises might feel more thoughtful than just handing the receiver what they asked for. But the research shows it’s better to just honor the initial requests.

4. Pick experiences over things.
Science has shown that people are happier with gifts of experiences than with material things.

I could bend this to apply to selecting colleges, but that might be a stretch.

Here’s what’s not a stretch: “I’ll go to the most prestigious college I get into, whichever one it is” violates all of them.

Your education is a gift, no matter where you go to college. But it’s worth considering the psychology before you choose which gift of admission to accept.

Three paths

Most students are somewhere on one of three paths when they choose their colleges.

  1. I know what I want to do with my life, and college is the path that will help me get there.
  2. I have some idea of what I want to do with my life, and I’d like to use my time in college to explore that path before I commit to it.
  3. I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and I’m going to college to discover more about myself, my talents, and my future path.

Some colleges are much better suited to one path than they are another. If you’re sure you want to be an engineer, it doesn’t make sense to go to a college that doesn’t offer an engineering major. But you don’t necessarily need to attend a highly selective engineering school to start down that path. You have options.

You can pick your colleges and then try to force yourself onto the path(s) they’re best suited to offer. Or you can pick the colleges that are suited to the path you already have to offer them. The former approach requires that you change your path. The latter allows you to embrace it.

Many–if not most–teens can’t draw a line to their future career today with 100% certainty. If you can, then please do. But if you can’t, don’t force it. Whichever path you’re on, there’s a college out there that will help you discover, test, or follow it.

Identify the path you’re on today. And choose a college that will help you take the right path to your tomorrow.

Define your own “early”

A high school counselor shared a Tweet from one of his students today that addressed the “100 colleges” that had emailed her on August 1 to let her know the Common App was live. Her message to them: “I know it’s live. Please just let me be.”

I’ve definitely pounded the drum here about starting college applications early. Summer tends to be a much more relaxing time to do this work when compared to the fall when seniors are balancing classes, standardized tests, activities, etc. And our Collegewise offices are always abuzz in August with seniors getting an application leg up. In fact, many of them will enter their senior year with an acceptance (usually from a college with rolling admissions) in hand.

But there’s such a thing as too much early encouragement, especially when it just pushes the pressure earlier in the process.

For just about everything worth doing right, starting early tends to be better than starting too late. But we’re not talking about starting an Ironman triathlon here, where getting off to a slow start could doom you for the rest of the race. This isn’t urgent. Nothing bad is going to happen if you wait a little longer. Other students aren’t gaining an advantage that will be unrecoverable for you. Everything is going to be fine.

It’s still summer. There’s plenty of time left to enjoy yourself before the busy fall school season begins. Don’t treat this last month of summer like a sprint where you’re either ahead or behind of everyone else. Yes, I recommend you do some college application work before you head back to school. But what’s most important is that you don’t delay this work so long that the pressure of deadlines increases your anxiety and decreases the quality of the finished work.

So don’t let all this early encouragement leave you feeling like your house is on fire, as if every second you wait will leave you with more destruction and wreckage. College applications are important. But they are never urgent unless you procrastinate to the point where you have no choice but to hurry.

Don’t put it off. Start early. But you can define your own “early.”

Free webinar: Creating your college list

While in the throes of their efforts to improve their chances of admission to college, many students actually neglect one of the most important choices they make on that journey—deciding where to apply. While many families can readily identify at least a few colleges they’d love to see their student attend, they might be less sure about how to find other schools that fit, deciding how many schools to apply to, and making sure they have a balanced college list that maximizes their chances of admissions success. If you’d like some help, I hope you’ll join us for an upcoming free webinar:

Where Should I Apply?: Creating the Right College List for You
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

The webinar will feature Collegewise counselor Nicole Pilar who, in a company that prides itself on college knowledge, has gained internal Collegewise fame as a college research guru. Nicole can tell you which school allows students to water ski for free using the school’s boats, and the college you’ve probably never heard of that offers one of the country’s best pre-med advising programs. And her students always benefit from the intellectual and organizational rigor she lends around creating their own college lists together. You can register or get more information here.

“A place where I can…”

Ask many students what they’re looking for in a college, or many applicants why they’ve decided to apply to a particular school, and they’ll recite a list of features and benefits. A strong journalism program, small classes, located in a city, etc. But those expressions miss the importance of connecting your college wish list with your plans to make the most of those opportunities.

So here’s a subtle change that can make you think critically about what you’re looking for and how you plan to take advantage of it: Start those descriptions with, “A place where I can…”

A place where I can take my first steps towards a career as a journalist…

A place where I can interact with my professors easily and regularly…

A place where I can experience living in a city rather than just visiting one…

What you do in college will be more important than where you do it. But that will mean finding schools that pair the right opportunities with your willingness and ability to take advantage of them. Instead of focusing on just what the college will offer, focus on what you’ll do to make the most of those offerings. “A place where I can” is a good place to start.

Tips for seniors picking colleges

If you’re a senior in the enviable position of deciding between multiple college acceptances, here are a few tips to help you make the right decision for you.

1. Remember that some uncertainty is normal.
Some students are sure about their final choice and are ready to sign on the dotted line as soon as the acceptance letter arrives. But many more are not. Some degree of uncertainty is normal for big decisions. So don’t be alarmed if you don’t feel as certain about your choice as your friends do. That uncertainty typically disappears as soon as you commit.

2. Know your cost before you sign.
Make sure you’ve carefully evaluated your financial aid award so you know the amounts of scholarships, loans, and work study you qualify for. Not all financial aid is free money, and it’s important not to get preemptively swept up in the total figure listed for the award.

3. Check your assumptions.
It’s common for families to make evaluative statements about colleges based on assumptions. Some examples:

College X is better for premed than College Y.

I should choose this school because it will offer great connections when I graduate.

This college will help me get into a good law school.

Are you able to substantiate those statements with facts, rather than opinions or hearsay? If not, then you’re working with assumptions that might be flawed. And that’s not a good way to choose a college.

4. Evaluate yourself, too.
Too many families make the final college decision based on the purported features and benefits of the college without considering if the student will actually take full advantage of them. Choosing a college is a little bit like choosing a gym. The offerings are only as valuable as the frequency and vigor with which you take advantage of them.

5. Don’t look for perfection.
Much like jobs, relationships, and families, there is no such thing as a perfect college. Every college campus has characteristics that could feasibly be improved, changed, fixed, etc. But the benefit of choosing a college that fits is that you’ll be more likely to take advantage of its strengths and less likely to be affected by or to even notice its weaknesses. Comparing supposed pros and cons between your options might help you organize your thinking, but it probably won’t guide you to a clear decision. Instead, consider the purported strengths and weaknesses. Then evaluate your ability and likelihood of leaning into the former and working around the latter.

Is your college list realistic?

If you’re a junior, one of the best college planning steps you can take in the next few months is to schedule a meeting with your counselor and ask, “Are the colleges I’m considering realistic?”

Maybe you don’t have a well-researched list of schools you know you’ll apply to this fall—that’s fine. But almost every college-bound junior has ideas about where they might want to apply. Even if those ideas are loosely formed or based entirely on how lively the football stadium appears on television, take your list in whatever form it currently exists and get your counselor’s feedback on your chances of admission based on your current qualifications. Assumptions frequently work against families in this area. No matter what you’ve heard, witnessed, or gleaned from your research, this decision of what colleges to apply to is just too important to leave to chance.

When you have this meeting, there are three possible outcomes:

1. Your counselor gives her enthusiastic endorsement of these schools and believes you have a strong chance of being admitted to most or all of them. Fantastic! Yes, your list might evolve over time as you research and learn and refine what you’re looking for in a college. But you’re off to a strong, realistic, and encouraging start.

2. You get a mixed review. Some of your schools are likely to admit you, but a roughly equal number of choices are out of your reach and not likely to say yes. This can be discouraging, but now you have the opportunity to take steps to address it. Ask your counselor if there are things you could do to improve your candidacy. And get her recommendations for similar schools that are more likely to admit you. Better to find out now and make adjustments than to apply with your fingers crossed and find out later you overshot with the majority of schools on your list.

3. You get the news no college-bound student wants to hear—most or all of your schools are out of your reach. Ask your counselor if she believes you can still make yourself competitive enough to take a realistic shot. If not, it’s time to face facts and go back to the college selection drawing board.

If you find yourself in category three, it’s understandable why you’d be disappointed. Nobody likes to hear that their goals are unrealistic. But here are a few things you can do to stay engaged and to craft a list you can be excited about.

First, as difficult as it is to do, please accept the news. Don’t look for reasons your counselor must have been wrong (“So and so got in, and his grades and test scores aren’t that much better than mine!”). Don’t spend the next six months repeatedly taking standardized tests or frantically adding activities or learning an instrument because someone told you the marching band at your dream school is losing their bassoonist to graduation this year. If you still want to apply to one or two of those schools just to take your shot, that’s reasonable. But refusing to accept reality is the college search equivalent of finding 19 different ways to convince someone to go to the prom with you when they’ve already made it clear they’re just not interested. It’s fruitless, it’s demoralizing, and it cuts into your chances of finding another perfectly good match who’d happily accept the invitation.

Second, consider this question: Why were you interested in those schools?

Be honest with yourself. Did you really know much about them? Had you researched and thoughtfully decided that they were good matches based on what you were looking for in a college experience? If so, it’s unlikely that those characteristics are limited to just a short list of colleges. Tell your counselor what appealed to you about those schools, and ask for recommendations of others with similar offerings that are more likely to admit you.

But if the real answer is that you don’t know why you were interested, or that your interest was driven largely by the name and prestige, I understand that can still be disappointing. But it’s not reasonable to take it as crushing news either. The most selective schools are reaches for everybody (math dictates that). And with over 2,000 colleges to choose from, most of which admit the majority of their applicants, there’s a bountiful harvest of other options available to you no matter why your current list is deemed out of reach. The sooner you get to finding those matches, the sooner you’ll be having a very different—and more enjoyable—conversation with your counselor.

Enjoyment now vs. later

In 2001, I was invited to give the welcoming address to the new freshman class at my alma mater, UC Irvine. And during my opening comments about how much the campus had changed, I remarked that one thing likely remained the same:

“I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

And seemingly every freshman in the room laughed.

That joke wouldn’t resonate as much today as it once did because it’s no longer true for a host of reasons. But at that time—much as when I began my own freshman year—it spoke to a reality. Most students had originally wanted to be somewhere else, most commonly, about 40 miles north at the home of The Bruins.

There’s a powerful lesson in here for students just starting their college search, and for seniors who will spend the next few months waiting for news about where they’ll be spending the next four years.

Those freshmen were able to have a good laugh at their own admissions expense for two reasons:

1. They were over it. Yes, it had hurt when UCLA said no. Plenty of tears had been shed. But those students eventually did what most human beings do in the face disappointment—they licked their wounds and forged ahead. If ever you needed evidence that a “no” from your dream school is not a tragedy, just look at how quickly most teens bounce back at another college.

2. Disappointment over where they couldn’t go had turned to excitement about where they’d ended up. They were starting college that day! Everything they’d been working and waiting for during the last four years was about to pay off. Dorms, classes, new friends, new experiences—it was all there in front of them. How could they not feel excited about what was in store?

Seniors, if you don’t get the answers you’re hoping for from your top choice schools, remember that room of freshmen at UC Irvine. When UCLA sent the bad news, they were just as disappointed as you’d expect them to be. But just six months later, they were laughing about that school that said no. And even more importantly, they were thrilled to be attending the school that said yes.

And juniors, as you begin your college search, as you think and answer questions about what you’re looking for in a school, it’s only natural that you’ll develop some front-running favorites, schools that you pine for more strongly than others.

But don’t let those preferences inject negativity into your process. You’re going to get in somewhere, probably a place where you’ll one day be thrilled to sit in freshman orientation. And if you develop a reasonable college list that has your counselor’s endorsement, that outcome is almost a guarantee.

If you want to have a college admissions process without all the stress and anxiety, imagine that enjoyment you’re bound to feel later and inject some of it into your process now.

If I get in, then…

Students are too focused on the allure of prestigious colleges, often believing that if they can just get into one, everything else will just fall into place. All their work that led up to it will be validated. They’ll be happy and less stressed. They’ll be virtually guaranteed a life of success and fulfillment.

But college acceptances, even to prestigious schools, don’t work like that. Yes, an acceptance to your dream college would feel great and would definitely be worth celebrating. But any expectation that just getting in will start a domino-like chain reaction where everything else in life just goes your way is unrealistic and unhealthy. Your education, your success, and your life are all a work in progress, no matter where you go to college.

Author and Harvard professor Shaun Achor spent years not only counseling Harvard students, but also teaching a positive psychology course so popular that at one point, 1 out of every 7 Harvard students enrolled. I think his quote in this Psychology Today article has a lot of relevance for high school students (and their parents) who are putting too much hope into just how much happiness that dream college acceptance could likely bring (the bracketed portion is mine):

“When I was counseling overwrought Harvard students, one of the first things I would tell them is to stop equating a future success with happiness. Empirically, we know success does not lead to happiness. Is everyone with a job happy? Is every rich person happy? Then step one is to stop thinking that finding a job, getting a promotion [ed. note: or getting into a famous college], etc. is the only thing that can brings happiness. Success does not mean happiness. Check out any celebrity magazine to look for examples to disabuse you of thinking that being beautiful, successful or rich will make you happy.”

If you love a prestigious college, you think you would thrive there, and your counselor agrees, by all means, take your best shot! But also take some comfort in knowing that whether or not you’re happy and successful in college and in life will depend a lot more on you than it will on where your college sits in the US News rankings that year.