May 1st is the day that graduating high school seniors who have been accepted to college and who have a choice to make are supposed to commit to a school. For those students who think their life depends on the choice they make, here is some advice from a college admission counselor who has worked for years helping students apply to and choose colleges. He is Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades 6-12 in Manchester, N.H.
By Brennan Barnard
We’ve all been there — love at first sight; eyes locking from across the room, that familiar rush of warmth and dizziness, the skies that suddenly seem that much brighter. It is tricky enough when our infatuation leads to unrealistic ideals of perfection in a partner, but it’s downright dangerous when we fall in love with a college this way. For high school students this idealism is quite common as they develop romanticized expectations of the perfect school.
In my job as a high school college counselor, I see this same dynamic play out every year. Students have spent considerable energy and emotion on pinning, planning and applying to college. For some it has been years of allowing college admission to dictate choices and rule the day. They have gone to great lengths to master tests, stretch themselves academically and exhaust themselves with extracurricular involvement with the goal of impressing admission committees.
After all of this effort, there is an expectation of perfection that simply does not exist.
Choosing a college in not dissimilar to choosing a life partner, and just as no marriage is flawless, the perfect college is but a myth. Last spring, author Alain de Botton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” He argued that, “It’s one of the things we are most afraid might happen to us. We go to great lengths to avoid it. And yet we do it all the same: We marry the wrong person.”
This will be my message to high school seniors this year: No college is perfect and if they start with that premise, they will be less likely to face disappointment.
Botton writes: “The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day.”
I see this increasingly every year from students who are either paralyzed by college choice or who just months in are having buyer’s remorse. Instead, students must embrace the complexities of college life and opportunity and accept the imperfections.
So what if a student does pick the wrong college? In some ways, it is inevitable, because no school is perfect. Botton contends that in marriage, picking the wrong partner doesn’t mean we need to extricate ourselves. Instead he suggests that we abandon “the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.”
Likewise, though it may be “the best four years of your life,” any single college will not meet every need and desire that one has for an education. This is why internships, study abroad, graduate school and other opportunities exist — to provide outlets for one’s yearning. For other disillusioned college students who are so unhappy, they are transferring — alot. A 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that more than a third of college students transfer and that nearly half of those do it more than once.
Perhaps a college has most of what a student is looking for academically or socially but the location or food or athletic spirit do not meet expectations. Instead of embracing the positive and engaging the complexities, however, students focus on the flaws and envision a more perfect ideal that exists only in their mind’s eye.
The college application process mistakenly sends the message that students should demonstrate perfection in high school achievement and in turn admitted applicants erroneously seek this same flawlessness in a college. This is an unhealthy start to a partnership.
Instead, seniors faced with the good fortune of college choice should not assume perfection but rather consider each school’s quirks and weaknesses, and ask whether they can accept these over time. If they practice this now with college, perhaps they will learn important lessons about romanticizing life and relationships.
(Correction: Decision day is May 1st, not April 1st as an earlier version of this said.)