It’s is a bizarre time of year as a college counselor as I find myself at both the beginning and end of this process. Sophomores and juniors are excitedly and idealistically starting to consider what will be important to them in a school. At the same time, while only separated by a year or two, my seniors have all committed within the past month to a school and have spent the past several weeks weighing the practical implications of this choice. These families are living in two different universes, separated by the gauntlet of applying and being accepted to colleges. Witnessing both simultaneously has made me realize how much they could each stand to benefit from the point of view of the other.
Underclassmen and their families are often very student-centered. When considering what colleges are worth visiting they are often working from a very specific list of wants. Is the school competitive enough? Is it in the right environment? The right size? Does it offer exactly the right program? Oftentimes the financial realities of paying for college have yet to enter the equation. So too are some of the more day-to-day concerns of college life: what will the living situation be like for freshman? What are the career outcomes? What will the trip from home to campus be like?
They are also not considering how colleges will perceive them. Their “fit” is currently determined entirely on their own terms, instead of imagining how a college will interpret the student’s compatibility with campus culture.
On the other end of the spectrum are seniors during this spring season. They are watching those decisions roll in and starting to see college as a tangible eventuality instead of the somewhat fuzzy conclusion of a five-year plan. There may be some tears mixed in as a denial or two rock the plans they envisioned for themselves. The conversation at the dining room table is now often dominated by price tags. Who offered the most scholarship? The most financial aid? Are they loans or grants?
Students are also thinking about whether they can stomach living in a triple to go to their #1 choice and what the walk from the dorm to the dining hall will be like every day. Is a shuttle ride such a bad thing if it means living in an exciting city? Will being isolated on a campus in the middle of nowhere be an issue?
For those just starting out, start weighing some of these more tangible aspects of attending college now. Unless budget is truly unlimited, cost should absolutely be part of the search early on. Allowing a student to fall in love with a school that is not a financial reality will only lead to heartbreak. Students also need to look at colleges as if they were looking for a job and an apartment and not just a school. Will you really be comfortable living there? What sort of professions will be open to you with this degree? Do you really want to be that far from (or close to!) home?
And conversely those poor, stressed out seniors and their overwhelmed parents could use a reminder about how excited they were to begin this search. Try to remember the joy the first time you all fell in love with a school. Will you be proud to talk about the college you’re attending? Is it an alumni community you’ll want to stay connected with? Choosing a school is like falling in love and that final choice shouldn’t be out of obligation alone. Hopefully if your research was done properly in the beginning it won’t have to be!
I wish I could infuse the juniors with some of the level-headedness and the seniors with some of the optimism. Aside from the wonderful resources of your college counselors talking with families who have recently finished the application process can be invaluable as you’re starting out. What lessons have they learned? What would they do differently if given the opportunity? This isn’t about trading application secrets or recommending specific schools but more about figuring out where those stumbling blocks were and how they could be avoided. Unfortunately there’s no way to eliminate the stress entirely but the right mixture of excitement, thoughtfulness, and FUN can help get you to the finish line feeling confident and optimistic for the fall!