How to make the college decision

Juan Ramos, Unsplash

From now until May, PHS and MHS seniors will wrestle with their first adult decision: Where to go to college? Students can mistakenly view the college decision as life-defining and predictive of all future success, and get pulled into a dark undertow of stress and self-doubt.

Here’s how to come up for air and assert control of your decision-making process:

Think “best fit” not “perfect fit”.There is no such thing as perfection, especially when it comes to college. Look for the college that will challenge but not overwhelm you, a place where you will thrive and grow, a campus where you feel you belong. The best fit academically and socially lets you succeed and enjoy your college experience.

Get perspective. Stress prevents us from making a clear decision.  You are not tasked with saving humanity, you just need to pick a campus.  What’s the worst that can happen?  If you end up not liking your choice, you will figure it out and adjust. Nearly 40 percent of college students transfer to a different college.

Be realistic about college visits. Do your homework and eliminate colleges that don’t fit. Most students apply to a few schools they have no interest in attending and can quickly them weed out. Realistically, you’ll only have time to visit a few campuses.

What factors matter to you? Make a ratings chart, or decision matrix, in a spreadsheet. List everything that you care about, from majors to internships, from greek life to sports. Use five broad categories: Academic, Social, Campus & Town, Interests, and Location and rate them 1 to 5.

Look closely at the majors offered. It’s fine to be undeclared as a freshman, but have goals in mind. Know which areas of interest match with at least three majors; most students change their majors at least once.  This takes work, but it pays off when it’s time to start your upper division courses and you don’t have to transfer. Strengthsfinder by Tom Rath and the Strong Inventory Test are great ways to learn more about your unique strengths and what majors and careers would be a good fit.

Talk to PHS & MHS alum at the college. What do they like about it? Why is this college is special? Drawbacks and cons? Ask for examples and specifics. Use a notebook so you can refer back to it. 

Distinguish between a college’s marketing efforts and the college itself. Shiny folder and confetti in your acceptance package? Marketing.  Greeted by name at a college visit? Marketing. Helpful staff at the counseling center? The college. Happy students hanging out on the lawn? The college.

Don’t compare your options and choice to others. Be proud of your own path! Read Kelly Corrigan’s column from December

Be open to options. Gap year, second semester start, service program, city college, job shadowing, internship – don’t feel boxed in!

Listen to your gut feeling. You’ve done your research, talked to current students, and weighed your options. Listen to your gut; that inner voice is mighty.

Ulla Smit is a Piedmont resident, parent of four PHS graduates and a college counselor.

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