Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Right about now you are probably in the throes of trying to decide which college to attend. You might be feeling as though you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Perhaps you feel the pressure to make the “right” decision. Maybe you are even worried that your future, your success, and your value as a person all depend up on this one decision. This is normal. Throughout my entire career I have supported students as they have navigated these decisons on their journey. There are a couple of things to keep in mind as you work your way to a final decision. First, let’s acknowledge that it feels hard because it is. You are asked to weigh considerable amounts of information and emotion in order to make a decision. Second, it feels stressful because it is. You are hearing from just about everyone you know who is trying to offer well meaning advice. This may even evolve into feeling the pressure to make a decision that’s not about you but about them. Finally, you are trying to manage your own excitement and anxiety. Rest assured with a slight change in your mindset, you can begin to regain control of this situation and make a decision that feels right to you.
The college search and selection process is an interesting back-n-forth dance. In the fall colleges and universities are courting you to apply. They are inundating you with print and digital media, they visit you at your school, you see them at college fairs, they may have even hosted you on their campus. Then, once you have selected the schools you feel are a good fit, you apply. In this part of the dance you are trying to sell yourself to the college. You are trying to show that you ARE the right fit for them. Last, you receive your admission decisions. The schools who admitted you are once again trying to woo you to accept their acceptance. They, again, are sending you considerable amounts of print and digital media, inviting you to special events, and even campus community members are sending you personal correspondences.
While this dance has been going on for as along as I have been in college admission (and well before that), there is one thing that is very real. At this stage it is normal to feel enormous pressure to make the “right” decision. To feel that whichever choice you make will ultimately determine your future success or failure. The truth of the matter is that most of these influences are falsehoods. It’s the result of societal and media messages that say college is the end-all-be-all. That choosing the “right” school means success and choosing the “wrong” school means failure. There is a fundamental flaw in the premise of this thinking. It assumes that because you are focused on a “right” decision, that there is a “wrong” decision. If you have invested the appropriate amount of time and energy researching and applying to schools that are a good fit, then any decision you make at this point WILL be the right decision. Once you remove the right vs. wrong premise to this thinking, an enormous load will be lifted off of your shoulders. You will begin to put your needs, goals, and aspirations at the center of the decision, not some superficial understanding of how higher education shapes your future.
Choosing which school to attend is a very personal choice. Why? Well, because at the end of the day YOU are the only one attending the school. You are the one who has to live there, eat there, learn there, and grow there. Not me, not your family, not your teachers, and not your mentors. These well intended folks are offering advice because they love and care about you. They want the best for you. Sometimes this can turn into feeling like you are forced to make a decision that makes them happy and not you. I have worked with countless students who were relieved when they were reminded that the decision is theirs to make. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly feel there is great value in hearing other’s perspectives. I feel this allows you to see a fuller picture by considering possibilities you may not have experienced yet or be aware of. At the end of the day you are the one surrounded by all the information and facts. At the end of the day you are the one who will need to live and learn at the school.
When you make a choice that is for someone else, there is a strong possibility you will eventually feel great unhappiness and resentment. You will continually wonder about the alternate possibilities had you chosen the school you wanted. Plenty of research supports the value of being involved in your college community. You will miss out on this wonderful part of the experience because you are so focused on things that could have been. This may lead to unhappiness because the school doesn’t seem like it’s a good place to be. This in turn may lead to feelings of resentment for whoever you were trying to appease. The reality is that when you make a decision about yourself for yourself, you are going to be more invested in the experience. You will take full advantage of all the opportunities available to you. You are going to want to squeeze every ounce out of every moment you are there. You have likely heard that college is what you make of it. Well, the more you are invested in the final decision the more you are going to make of it. The more you make of it, the more likely you will experience the success and joy you seek.
Another way to think about it is by comparing your college experience to a buffet dinner. Just as at a buffet you can walk past chafer after chafer and choose what you want to eat, schools simple lay out a myriad of opportunities for you to choose from. If you are fully invested in the final decision, then you are going to be excited about those opportunities. You are going to seek them out, engage them fully, and grow as a result. If you make a decision that appeases someone else, you won’t feel as excited. Sure, maybe eventually you get to the point where you are invested in the experience, but often times that takes a long time. No one likes to feel forced to do something, especially when involves something personal like one’s education. Investing in the decision now, will mean a successful and fruitful college experience later.
Sometimes a real-life example is helpful, so here you go. A few years ago I was advising a student who had been accepted to Appalachian State University (App State) and Cornell University. She wanted to attend Appalachian State but was petrified about committing. Based on her career goals and academic interests it was clear that App State was the better fit. It offered the major she wanted, it’s geographic location was perfect for her, and it even had a professor who focused 100% on her niche interest. App State was the school that was going to set her up for success and joy. Cornell had none of the elements she was looking for. So why was she struggling to choose App State over Cornell? Well, because… it’s Cornell! How could one possibly choose a state school over an Ivy League institution? Her thinking was being influenced by extrinsic forces that didn’t care about her future. She was distracted by the whole “what is the best school” logic rather than keeping focused on what was the best school for her. Through our discussions she began to see how SHE was central to the decision. With that realization in place her commitment to Appalachian State became the clear and obvious choice. Off she went to App State to pursue her passion of studying and researching salamanders!
I imagine that for some of you reading this, this may feel impossible. Perhaps you feel trapped into making a decision to make someone else happy. Maybe your circumstances prevent you from making the decision that you want. I can and do appreciate those realities. If this is the case for you, I strongly urge you to go back to reconnecting with your why. Remind yourself of what your long-term goals are. This can help you to see through your current situation. It can be the bedrock by which you stand upon to make the most of your college experience. While you cannot make the final decision you want to make, as I encourage here, you can make smaller decisions that allow you to experience the success and joy you desire.
As I mention at the outset of this article you likely have a lot of people helping you make this decision. That can make the decision harder, but it’s important to remember you are surrounded by awesome people. Meaning, you have support. While ultimately, in my opinion, this decision is yours to make, you do not have to make it alone. Rely on the support you have around you. If you are feeling like it’s time to access some more expert insight or advice, then that’s what Read’s Corner is here for. Reach out to me and let’s have a conversation!