Let go to grab hold

As college decisions pour in, those students who don’t get the yes they were looking for from their dream school face the collision of two often frustratingly contradictory lessons—do you accept that things don’t always work out as you’d hoped, or refuse to give up on your dreams?

Some students (and often parents in what feels like support for their kids) choose the latter. They’ll do a ruthless autopsy of their admissions process in search of where they supposedly went wrong. They’ll compare their accomplishments to those of students who were admitted. And in some cases, they’ll appeal the college’s decision, usually as a last-ditch effort to get what they want (before you do that, please consider the advice in this past post).

My problem with that approach is that it keeps students focused on schools that said no. Why not reallocate that time and emotional energy to making the right choice among the schools that said yes? There’s no need to stay stagnant, focusing on circumstances you have almost no power to change, when other acceptances give you a clear path forward.

You’ve probably had experiences where the refusal to give up has served you well. And it will continue to serve you well at various points during and after college. But you have to make the distinction between those things you have the power to influence, and those things that are beyond your control. When a college says no, the decision has been made. There’s no shame in accepting it. When you let go of a school that said no, you free yourself to grab hold of another that said yes.

Make a “Can’t wait for” list

It’s not uncommon for students to dream, often during moments of high school frustration, of what life in college will be like. When expressed, those sentiments often begin with, “I can’t wait for…”

I can’t wait for…

…taking classes I actually want to take
…not being in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. straight every day
…students who are less cliquey and more accepting
…football games in stadiums
…college parties
…meeting new people
…living away from home
…experiencing something new

Here’s a suggestion for students. The next time you have one of those thoughts, just write it down. Substantial or trivial, fleeting or permanent, add it to what will become your “Can’t wait for…” list.

Then use it when you search for the right colleges, when you write your “Why this college?” essays, and when you just need a reminder of how much you have to look forward to.

But most importantly, use it as proof that you don’t necessarily need to attend a famous or prestigious college to get exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

What is a successful college education?

Before he became the president of Reed College, John Kroger served in the Marine Corps (which he joined at 17), studied philosophy at Yale, was a federal prosecutor, wrote a bestselling book (Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves), and was Oregon’s attorney general. For me, that’s more than enough success to qualify him to address the question, what is a successful college education?

Whether or not a student has aspirations of attending a college like Reed, I hope parents and their students will spend five minutes reading—and a lot more time discussing—Kroger’s piece, What is a Successful College Education?

As Kroger writes:

“In the United States, we spend a massive amount of time and energy figuring out where our kids should go to college. We start worrying about it their sophomore year of high school and never really stop until we write the first tuition checks. We read guidebooks, consult counselors, pay for test prep, visit campuses, and even—in extreme cases—hire college search consultants. But after all this effort to find the perfect college, we spend virtually no time talking about what students should do once they get there. We equip them with bows and arrows but identify no targets.”

I agree with all of his assertions within the article. But even if you and your family do not, you almost certainly hope to get some kind of return on your college investment. Why not consider thoughtfully not just what you want your particular return to be, but also what the student can do to maximize it?

Cushioning the blow

Patrick O’Connor wrote this post specifically for students who receive bad admissions news from highly selective schools.  But the overarching message at the end is an important one no matter where you’ve applied to college. It does matter where you go—just not in the way you think.

And I’ll add this—the things that matter can be found at plenty of schools that don’t crack the US News Top 50 list.

Our guide to planning college visits is here

If you’re planning on visiting colleges as part of your search, Collegewise counselor Casey Near just finished The Collegewise Guide to College Visits, covering topics like:

  • Frequent planning mistakes and how to avoid them
  • Advice on how to spend your time on (and off) campus
  • Questions to ask admissions counselors and current students
  • Advice for planning summer visits

There’s even some great advice for colleges on how to improve the campus visit experience for the most important party—the student.

It’s an excellent guide that I think will help any family get more out of this important college search ritual.

You can download your free copy here.

Don’t act on headlines

I keep seeing articles referencing the most lucrative college majors, colleges with the highest average starting salaries for graduates, and other headlines focused on a purported measurement of the return on a college investment. Given the rising cost of college and the alarming levels of student debt, I think it’s wise for any family to treat it as you would any large investment. Investigate the options. Think hard about what you hope to gain from it. Don’t assume that spending more will automatically pay more back. That’s what truly savvy college shoppers do.

But as you apply rigorous research to your college process, please don’t use these headlines to drive it.

Just because you major in x or attend college at y doesn’t mean you will necessarily reap the reported benefits mentioned in a 300-word article. If it did, those colleges would be singing from their Ivy-adorned rooftops about how much happier and richer and more successful their graduates are.

No matter what your future career, your college and your major are just two items on a very long list of things you’ll need to be successful, including drive, aptitude, experience, talent, and maybe even a little luck. The college-related items are not as responsible for the outcome as their disproportionate price might make them appear.

I’m not suggesting that your college and your major aren’t important—your odds of becoming a successful engineer decrease to almost zero if you don’t (1) attend a college with an engineering program, and (2) choose that as your major.

But you likely wouldn’t risk up to $150,000 on a stock you learned about from one short online article alone. And you probably shouldn’t do so with your college, either. Headlines make for enticing news, but not always for informed choices.

The most important factor in collegiate outcomes

The Washington Post reports that the Gallup Organization is launching an initiative to certify colleges based on the well-being of their graduates, defining well-being as “being happy, comfortable, and satisfied” in five areas: “social, financial, sense of purpose, connectedness to their community, and physical health.” Gallup’s research indicates that “just 11 percent of college graduates are thriving in all five dimensions. More than one in six aren’t thriving in any.”

But the part of the article I most want to share here is the acknowledgement that students must bear some responsibility for their collegiate outcomes—or the lack thereof.

Part of the problem is that too many students are sleepwalking through college. They don’t engage enough in what researchers call “high-impact practices” — internships, undergraduate research, study abroad, writing-intensive classes, and interactions with professors. Many of these activities come outside the classroom, and as a result, are often not graded or measured as part of the formal degree program for which students are paying tuition.

One of my mantras here is that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it. Yes, I use this phrase in part to remind students (and their parents) that they don’t need a famous college to become successful.

But the far more important message within the mantra is that you are in charge of your college experience. It’s what you do in college that matters. Dedicated professors, research, internships, activities, opportunities for learning and growth—none of it will mean anything unless you take advantage of them while you are there. And that’s true whether you attend Harvard of Haverford, Princeton or Purdue, Stanford or Stonehill.

Yes, the specific offerings and their relative quality may differ from school to school. But you are a constant. You control your own effort, initiative, interest in learning, and drive. The key to a fulfilling and successful college career—and an equally thriving life afterwards—is to bring those traits with you to the right school for you, then work in tandem with your new college to make the most of the experience.

By all means, be a savvy and discerning college shopper—this is a big investment in more ways than one. But don’t forget that you will be your own most important factor in determining your collegiate outcome.

“I can always transfer…”

Many seniors rationalize their choice of which four-year college to attend with some version of, “I can always transfer.” But invoking the transfer option, especially before you ever arrive on campus, can be both helpful and harmful, and it’s important to leverage that tool in a productive way.

Note: I’m not talking about students who plan their transfer ahead of time as part of a grand collegiate plan.  I’m referring to those applicants who do not intend to transfer, but casually mention it as their intended course of action if they ultimately don’t like the college they picked.

First, yes, you should take comfort in the fact that you are not signing, literally or figuratively, a binding four-year contract with your college. Many students successfully transfer and find themselves at colleges that are better matches than were their first choices. I’ve written before that it’s not realistic for an eighteen-year-old to be completely certain about a college choice until you officially become a student on campus, and it’s nice to know that whatever you decide, you have an available escape hatch to deploy if you change your mind.

But I’ve often said that going to college is a lot like getting married. You and your college are entering into a relationship. And just as you wouldn’t rationalize the decision to get married with, “What’s the worst that can happen?—I can always get divorced,” it’s risky to use transferring as an excuse not to take this decision as seriously as you should.

Making your college relationship work will take commitment. Some days will be wonderful. Some days will be difficult. You’ll need to stay committed even when you’re in a rough patch. Expecting and preparing for that work makes it more likely that you’ll also get all the joy and rewards that can come with it. Sure, breaking up is an option, but probably best reserved for those cases where, in spite of your best efforts, it becomes clear that you’re just not right for each other.

My recommended approach? Do everything you can to get your college decision right the first time. Be thoughtful and deliberate, as if breaking up in the future were not an option. And be prepared to do your part to extract the maximum value from whichever college you attend. That sense of commitment is the foundation of eventually becoming a college graduate who raves about your undergraduate experience.

But at the same time, take comfort in the fact that in the unlikely event that you find yourself unhappy and unfulfilled, if things just aren’t working out in spite of your best efforts, you can make a different choice. You can start over. And for the rest of your life, nobody will ask where you started college—they’ll only ask where you finished.

Use the transfer option like a fire escape. Do what you can to avoid ever having to use it, but find comfort knowing that it will be there in case of an emergency.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

As much as I preach about the importance of finding the right college fit, it’s not realistic for most students to be certain of their collegiate match until they actually become a college student.

There are just too many variables when evaluating colleges to expect to be certain with your choices. Our former students who rave about their experiences point to things like particular classes or professors, new friends, activities they’ve discovered—many of which cannot be researched or planned ahead of time.

What you want out of college, the environment that feels right, your goals and interests and what you do for fun—all of those things can change between the ages of 17 and 22 (how many adults could say that they didn’t change at all during those pivotal years?).

And there’s almost no way to effectively test-drive a college. Yes, you can research and visit and even talk to current students. But you won’t really be able to experience it until you begin your life as a student and a member of that community.

So if this certainty is so elusive, why push the search for fit?

A student who really takes the time to consider what they want out of college, who ponders what interests them, what they’d like to learn and do and experience, will understand themselves better than the student whose search begins and ends with, “I want to go to an Ivy League school.”

A student who investigates and then evaluates potential colleges will be a savvier college shopper. She’ll have strong points of comparison and contrast as well as a much better sense of the available options.

A student who is engaged in the college search will take appropriate ownership of the process. They’ll refine their gut instinct about schools and do a much better job of imagining themselves on each potential campus.

And most importantly, a student who searches for the right college fit is taking appropriate ownership of what might be their first major life decision as an adult. Isn’t that better than just trusting college rankings or simply applying to schools that parents select?

Uncertainty is a normal part of big decisions. It’s hard to be completely sure until the aftermath of the choice. But much like in romance, job hunting, and just about every other major decision that affects our lives, the more thoughtful and deliberate we are, the more confidence we have in ourselves and optimism we have that things will work out somehow, the more likely those thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies.