Choosing between two different schools

Here's a problem I see almost every spring, and I think it would be a good idea to start thinking about it now before you've even sent out your applications: a student who must choose between two different schools.

Say, for example, you apply to 10 universities and get accepted to five. After thinking about it, talking about it, and looking at the financial aid packages, you narrow it down to two. But the two are nothing alike, so it's hard to compare them. As my former student Claire says (more from her in just a moment): "I think the Big Blockbuster school vs Cozy Liberal Arts school is a decision a lot of people are stuck with."

First, let me point something out before it happens and you're stressed out about it: this is a wonderful problem to have. Accepted to, and able to afford, more than one college you'd really like to attend is kind of the dream for a lot of high school students. That doesn't make the decision any easier, but the only wrong decision is to be Buridan's Ass and choose neither.

In lieu of general advice from me, I'd like you to hear from two of my former students who talked to me about their own experiences with this heart-warming and gut-wrenching dilemma. I emailed them the questions, and here are their responses (with only minimal grammatical editing).

First is Elizabeth, a first-year student at St. John's College in Maryland.

* Tell me about the two schools you were choosing between. What did you like about each one? How are they different? What made the decision difficult?

I had to decide between the University of Chicago and St. John’s College, and it was not pretty. I narrowed it down to these two schools by February and spent the next two and a half months trying to choose. I loved how new and exciting UChicago was. From its reputation, it seemed like a big adventure in a faraway place. Take for instance its unofficial motto, “Where Fun Goes to Die”; most kids would run as fast as they could in the other direction, but I like a good challenge so I was undaunted. St. John’s on the other hand felt like coming home. My dad and sister both attended this school so I’ve grown up hearing about Great Books and Johnnie life. Practically every dinner in my house turns into a seminar thanks to my dad, and everyone I know who has graduated from this school is so wonderfully eloquent and discerning that I wanted to learn how to be like that too.

* If I remember correctly, you had an epiphany and suddenly knew your choice pretty quick. Tell me about that epiphany?

So I actually had a shower epiphany, of all the clichés in the world. It was a week after I visited both schools for their Accepted Students’ Days. I decided on St. John’s because I was thinking back to my visits at each school, as I had been since the moment I left St. John’s the week before. Both visits were wonderful. The students, admissions, and teachers were all incredibly helpful and interesting. The buildings were beautiful, the cafeterias weren’t terrible and activities were super fun. My epiphany, however, was that I had not remembered the academics when making my decision. I somehow forgot to take into account what I would be learning for the next four years as both schools had a somewhat to fully-set curriculum for at least the first two years. Essentially, I thought about my high school and realized how similar it is to UChicago. It’s a prestigious school with a reputation for difficulty and high-achievers, whereas St. John’s is a completely alien and nontraditional way of learning. So while the campus made me feel at home, I would not be doing anything I had ever done before at St. John’s. This whole time, I had thought that UChicago was my perfect challenge, but in reality it ended up being St. John’s.

* Before the epiphany, though, what ways did you try to figure out which school to accept? Did you have any tests or tricks you tried? Who all did you talk to?

For those original two and a half months I feel like I tried everything. I envisioned myself at each school at every time of the year. How would I handle the cold? What would I do if I went there and only saw the sun for a few hours a day? What would I do at a school with less people than my high school? What happens if I decide I want to go into a specialized field and I only have one major to choose from? Questions like these and the cute little gifts or cards the schools sent would sway my opinion from week to week, but none ever helped me permanently. I talked to my family, but they mostly just listened because my mom had threatened them under the pain of death if they pressured me into a decision I did not truly want. I talked to my friends who either wanted whatever I wanted or for me to go to UChicago with them (I have two friends there). I talked to teachers and strangers and my dad’s college friend who went to St. Johns for undergrad and UChicago for grad school. I talked to people I met at both visits, including my current roommate and her family, who reminded me of the incredible and unmatched parts of St. John’s. At the end of the day though, it’s got to be you.

* To what degree, if any, did you doubt your decision once you made it? Do you still wonder "What if I went to Chicago instead?"

At the end of the summer, I did have some niggling doubts I was afraid to say out loud for fear of making them true. I worried about the size of St. John’s and that there would be less opportunity there. I got frustrated every time I had to explain St. John’s to a person who thought it was a school in New York with a great basketball team, especially when I could have just said UChicago and basked in congratulatory remarks. Which admittedly is very vain, but it is the little things that will get you. However, from the moment my parents left after I moved into my dorm (the same exact room as my sister’s freshman dorm by the way), I have not regretted my decision at all. Every day I am so glad that I chose St. John’s because it does feel like home, but classes are relevant and interesting and new. Instead of feeling limited, I have so many opportunities that I don’t have enough hours in the day to experience everything I want to. I made the right decision for me, and while UChicago will always have a special place in my heart, I can’t imagine calling it my school the way I find myself already slipping and calling St. John’s my home.

* Based on your experience, what advice do you have for other high school students in a similar predicament?

I would recommend really thinking about every factor of your education. Yes, the weather is important and the cafeteria food, but you are only going to school to get the most out of your education that you can, bottom line. Don’t let yourself be distracted by pretty packages, but also go with your gut. If you can, visit the school or do a fly-in. Walk around campus, talk to the students, ask them questions. See if the school feels warm and inviting or just lukewarm. And as much as you probably want a second opinion, try not to let any persuade you. Let them listen to you and give you factors to consider, but at the end of the day, you’re the one spending the next four years of your life at this place.

* Anything else you'd like to add?

Never be afraid to ask a school for more money. Money should not be an issue, and when a school really wants you, they will do whatever they can to match other scholarships you have received to make their offer more enticing. Email your admissions counselor with any questions, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. This is their job and it is much better for you to know the person who is reviewing your application than just be another name in a pool of applicants. Other than that, I’d just say take your time and go with what feels right.


And here are the responses I got from Claire, a sophomore at the University of Toronto.

* Tell me about the two schools you were choosing between. What did you like about each one? How are they different? What made the decision difficult?

I applied to a handful of schools, but my toughest choice was between Mount Allison University and the University of Toronto. These were my top two because they each seemed like the best option at opposite ends of the spectrum. Mt. A is a tiny little place located in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, and is kind of the quintessential "Liberal Arts School." Enrollment caps at about 2500, but it historically draws high-performing students and world-class faculty. Classes are small, and it doesn't take long to befriend everyone in your year. It has a strong alumni network--people who go to Mt. A love Mt. A. The University keeps the Sackville economy alive, and the town has a vibrant local music and artisan scene. 

The University of Toronto is pretty much the opposite. It has 30,000 students on its downtown campus, and the biggest lecture hall houses 1800 kids. UofT is right in the heart of downtown Toronto, so the campus has an interesting combination of centuries-old architecture mingled with a very urban environment. UofT is also at the forefront of research in almost every field, and there are over 700 different degree programs available.  

* How did you make your final decision? Was it more rational and deliberate, or more of an emotional epiphany?

I struggled a lot making this decision. Fortunately, because both schools are in Canada, they have about the same tuition rates, so money wasn’t really a factor. I had to decide whether I wanted the familiar, cozy experience of knowing everyone in my classes and being comfortable talking to my profs, or whether I could handle being “just a number.” I asked for the advice of pretty much everyone I knew, but they all mostly told me the same thing: both were excellent schools, and I couldn’t go wrong. I hemmed and hawed over my choice for most of senior year. One day I realized that UofT was the way more exciting option for me, and the only reason I was considering smaller schools was because I was scared. But I had always been far more excited about being accepted to UToronto, had spent more time thinking about the classes I could take and the sites I could see in the city. I was just clinging onto the idea of a small school because I was terrified of not finding my way at such a huge institution. 

* To what degree, if any, did you doubt your decision once you made it? Do you still wonder "What if I went to Mt. Allison instead?"

I couldn’t be happier with my time at UofT so far. I have made amazing friends, and am doing well academically. I have learned an incredible amount about the world of science, and I love feeling like I’m in the center of the action, so to speak. Throughout the beginning of first year, the idea that I would have made friends more quickly or made good marks more easily at Mt. A did cross my mind a few times, but I haven’t thought about it in a while.

* Based on your experience, what advice do you have for other high school students in a similar predicament?

The college decision seems so huge because it’s like there’s only one school out there for everyone, and if you choose wrong, you’ll certainly be unhappy. I want to stress that that is not true at all. I am happy at UofT, but I truly believe I would also have been happy at Mt. A, or the other schools I considered as well.