Choosing a College That’s Right for You

Hey, You Got Accepted to College…What’s Next?

Choosing a college is one of life’s big choices. It can be hard to know what to do. A student may have several offers and not know which one to take. Or, they may be disappointed because their dream school turned them down, which can leave even the most happy-go-lucky student reeling.

Even more challenging, many students will be in both boats: unsure of which offer to take and also discouraged that their first choice decided to send someone else an acceptance letter. Choosing a college is seriously stress-inducing.

college admissions

School Counselor to the Rescue

Luckily, we can get some great advice from Christine Loo, the Director of College Counseling at The Stony Brook School in New York. In 2019, she posted a letter to her graduating advisees in honor of National School Counseling Week. Her letter provides invaluable guidance for any family trying to make a difficult college admissions decision.

Where you go isn’t who you are or will be

Loo starts with a massively important point: while education is important, it does not determine a person’s life. Amidst the chaos of admissions season, it can be easy to forget that a college does not guarantee success—or, for that matter, failure.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick test: consider the Macarthur “Genius” grant award winners. These are some of the top scientists, artists, and community workers in the world. They’re literally entitled to call themselves “geniuses,” and they are so good at what they do that the Macarthur board has decided to simply give them more than half of a million dollars.

So, where did they go to college? All Harvard and Yale, right? Not by a long shot. If you skim through their profiles, you’re sure to see some of the Ivy old guard, but just as often you’ll see a smaller state school, an eccentric liberal arts college, or a music conservatory.

There is no one path to success. 

Also, it’s easy to forget that some of the best programs aren’t at the top schools. The Ivy League and other elites provide stellar opportunities, no doubt, but consider that the University of Iowa is world renowned for their writing programs. Rutgers has one of the best philosophy departments in the country, and the University of Washington has one of the top programs in biology and biochemistry. Those are just a few of many examples. You can have a world-class experience at any number of places. 

Finally, graduate school always provides a second chance to get a shiny name on your resume or CV. Take a look at the list of the entering class at any elite graduate or professional school, and you’ll see students coming from every type of college imaginable.

In fact, I once heard indirectly that a graduate admissions officer at an Ivy League school stated that talent could come from “anywhere,” many of their top performers had attended less celebrated schools, and it was “laughable” to judge the success of a future scholar or lawyer based on academic experiences they had when they were fifteen.

Loo is right: a college does not determine who a person is or will be.

You Always have a Choice

Your school does not determine who you are, but your choices do. This is something Loo nicely drives home when she says that while pain, such as that of not getting admitted to your first choice of school, might be inevitable, how you respond to that pain is not.

Your choices are what define you, and you always have a choice. 

One can imagine that at least some of the Macarthur fellows mentioned above might have preferred to get an acceptance letter from Stanford rather than, say, Oklahoma State their senior year. But that didn’t stop them from becoming amongst the absolute best at what they do. What made the difference is that they chose to be, as Loo says, “better rather than bitter.” 

Every school has exciting internships, challenging classes, and libraries with more books than any student could ever read. Smart, scrappy students who take advantage of those opportunities will be successful regardless of their school’s reputation.

In short, take Loo’s advice: don’t waste time sulking—or gloating. Get to work and set yourself up for a better, brighter future.

Making it Happen: Planning for Success

Ultimately everything will come down to the choices a student makes, but the right atmosphere can do a lot to set a student up for success.

This doesn’t mean picking the most prestigious place that will give you the time of day. Students aren’t machines and schools aren’t “one-size-fits-all” types of places. What works for one student might not work for another. Different schools provide different academic programs, social climates, and extracurriculars.

Focus on choosing a college that is a good fit both academically and personally. Not only will a student do better work, but they will also be happier, and that boost in their excitement and energy will set them up for a life spent flourishing. 

Importantly, a happy, well-adjusted student is more likely to graduate on time. This is essential. Not only will it save money on tuition, but it will cut down on the opportunity costs of having a student out of the workforce for an extra year or two. Lost wages, tuition, and living expenses could easily make a single additional year of schooling be an investment worth at least tens of thousands of dollars—if not more.

It’s true: a key part of choosing a school that is a good fit is choosing one that is a good financial fit. Drowning in student loan debt makes it awfully hard to flourish. Far too many graduates and families are saddled with tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after graduation.

College related debt can exact a heavy toll, with costs that run deeper than most realize; graduates who are struggling to pay down their debt have less freedom to take professional and personal chances that in the long run might make them happier and maybe even wealthier.

Starting a business, writing the great American novel, or launching the next greatest tech invention, can be a stretch if student loan companies are breathing down your neck. The ripple effects of missed opportunities can last for years. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to go that way. By planning carefully, avoiding debt, and taking advantage of every opportunity that their school affords, a student can set themselves up to enjoy increased professional opportunities, income, and independence.

Getting Started: Next Steps

What to do now? There’s a lot to consider. Take a close look at the schools that have gotten back to you. They might know things you don’t know that would make the school a better or worse fit than you first thought. Embrace the places that embrace you.  

Carefully review your financial aid packages. Financial aid is complicated and overlooking even a minor detail can be costly. If you’re wondering how to avoid making an expensive mistake, you’ll find more information here: https://collegemoneysmart.com/how-to-navigate-your-financial-aid-award-letters.

So far, we have discussed two outcomes; acceptance and rejection. But you might have found yourself in a different position: the tricky, neither-nor spot of being on a waitlist. This can be a nail-biter, but there are things you can do. Your attitude and energy matter here just as much as in the situations discussed above. Check out this great post about some of the steps you can take to help ease yourself over the finish line and land at a school you’re excited about: https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/what-to-do-if-waitlisted/.

Those are some good, concrete next steps. But perhaps the most important thing for a student to keep in mind is a message Loo repeats more than a few times: no school, no matter how celebrated or obscure, will make you more or less than you are. You are already enough.