“Which college would you pick for him?” the parents of a junior asked as we wrapped up a parent conference the last week of April.  I gave my standard response, which is that it is not my job to tell a student where they should go but rather to help them figure out what is right for them.

Within a couple of days I was forced to rethink both the sanctity and the strength of that core belief when May 1 arrived with four of my seniors unable to decide where they would deposit.  That’s more than I ever remember, although it is possible I have repressed previous years in order to maintain my sanity.

I’m not sure why more students struggled this year to make a final decision.  Did the weeks I missed this spring after surgery prevent me from having the kinds of post-decision conversations I normally have?  Have we not given this generation the tools and practice in decision-making?  Or is the answer the same found in so many SAT multiple-choice questions, “None of the above”?

The four situations had little in common.  One student had a choice between an Ivy and a full scholarship at one of the nation’s best liberal-arts colleges.  A second was trying to parse the differences between the business programs at comparable institutions.  A third was trying to resolve the conflict between what his gut was telling him and what his family and friends were telling him.  And the last was mourning the reality of the choices available to him, a reality that shouldn’t have surprised him but nevertheless did.

Making the final choice is the hardest part of the college process for many students.  Up to that point it is all about possibilities and options, but on May 1 choosing one door means closing others permanently.

One of the major factors contributing to difficulty in choosing is the myth (I prefer the term “Suburban Legend”) that says a student will have that moment when they fall in love with a particular school.  That myth can be paralyzing for students who haven’t had that experience, and I am quick to point out that the “fall in love” moment is far from universal and that those blinded by love may actually make worse college decisions.

One of the negative consequences of the growth of college admissions as an industry is that we have lost focus on the college search and admissions processes as essential developmental steps in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  Choosing where to go to college is not an end in itself, but part of a student’s journey of self-discovery.  As such how one chooses is ultimately more important than where one chooses.  College selection should be transformational in the same way that a college education should be transformational.

Deciding where to attend college might qualify as the first adult decision for many young people.  Adult decisions are important rather than trivial, and they have significant long-term consequences.  They also don’t have easy, obvious answers.  There is no perfect or obvious choice, so you make the best choice you can, weighing and balancing the pros and cons of each option.

Several years ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the intriguing title, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?”  What indeed?  The article argues that there is a widening gap between the onset of adolescence and the onset of adulthood, resulting in “teenage weirdness.”  The causes are complex (or else I’m not smart enough to understand them).  There are two different neural systems that interact in the development into adults, and they don’t work as well in sync as they once did.  One system has to do with emotion and motivation, and the other with judgment and control.  The first is tied to the changes that occur at puberty, while the second is tied to the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that inhibits impulses and allows long-term thinking and planning.  The key ingredient in the development of sound decision-making is experience.  It is only by practice in making decisions that one learns how to make decisions.

At one time in history children prepared for adulthood through formal and informal apprenticeships, practicing the skills they would need as adults with supervision.  Today in our zeal to protect our children, we don’t give them the opportunity to practice making decisions.  I would like to see us have a discussion about how the college search and application processes might function as preparation for the major life decisions students will make the rest of their lives.

That probably marks me as clueless—I prefer the descriptor “idealist.”  Certainly the college admissions process as currently practiced would have to change, and it is not clear that colleges see anything wrong with the current process.

That’s the meta-issue.  But how do you help a student decide when it’s May 1, a deposit is due by the end of the day, and you’ve made clear that double-depositing is not an option?

I try to focus on being an asker of questions rather than a provider of answers.  Why would you pick college A over university B?  What would prevent you from choosing it?  Is there any information that might help you make the choice?  When those fail, my default question is, Which one will you regret not choosing?  That question helped two of my four identify their leanings. 

I also use the counseling technique of reflecting back to them what I am hearing them say, either validating or challenging their perceptions.  In doing so I have to be careful not to let my own personal agenda get in the way, i.e. what is the impact on the college list (a topic I hope to address in my next post).  I tell students that there is not a bad choice to be made, but rather a choice between good and good, and sometimes even point to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Travelled,” which makes the point that the act of choice itself makes a decision right or good.

All four of my students made a choice by the end of the day, but within a week two of them had other options, one getting off a Wait List and the other successfully appealing a denial at a school which uses the appeal process like a Wait List.

Why is it that I end the college admissions year feeling like a reality-show contestant, relieved not to have been voted off the island for another episode?  Why indeed?


P.S.  The previous post was also selected by insidehighered.com as one of two daily selections for its Around the Web feature, the fifth time that’s happened.