Making your decision

High school seniors applying to college have, for most universities, until May 1st to choose a school and make their commitment. If you have competing offers and aid packages, then it may be difficult to decide. I can’t make the decision for you, but I can offer some advice for how to get yourself in the right frame of mind to make a wise choice.

Know how much input you want from your family, and let them know. This is your decision about your future. If your family is helping to pay for it, it’s also their decision. There’s plenty of room for conflict between you and your family over how to make the best choice. Some students really want the final say to be a communal decision, and some students really want their parents to just stay out of it and let them decide for themselves. Think about how much help you want from your family and then tell them that as clearly as possible. This may be a statement like “This is a really important decision, and I’d love to know what you think I should do and why.” Or “I know we’re all in this together, but for the next week I’d really like to think about things on my own and not talk about college with you.” Making these kinds of statements of your intentions now can make it easier in two weeks if you find yourself needing to say “I know this isn’t your top choice, but I really believe this is the best choice for me and I’d appreciate your support.” There’s of course no guarantee that your family is going to go along with what you request, but beginning with a short and concise statement about what you need is the best way to keep control over your situation.

While you’re at it, think about all your influences. You probably have people you trust, and whose opinions you value, other than your family. Ask those people their thoughts on your final choice. Explain the colleges you’re choosing between, and explain the benefits and risks of each of them. You may get good advice from them, and even if you don’t get good advice, you get the clarifying exercise of being able to articulate the benefits and risks of the contenders. Be careful, though, not to put too much stock in a single person’s opinion. Most people give advice based on their own experiences, which is great. But their experiences may not match yours, and their outlook may not be as pertinent to your situation as they believe. A person who had an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad college experience themselves may give advice that only works if your choices are also exceptional.

Your best friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend is not a good enough reason to choose a school. Of course you love them and want to be with them, and it will be difficult to be away. But college is one of your most significant life decisions, and it has to be based on your life—not just being near someone else while they pursue their own life. Would you let your friend tell you what city to live in, what job to take, who else you can be friends with? If not, then don’t let them dictate what college you go to.

Go back to your mission statement. Take a good look at your most recent College Mission Statement. Give the different schools you’re choosing from a detailed and accurate score based on what you decided you want. Do not change your College Mission Statement now just to make it favor one school over another! If one university has a higher score than the others, then that is the one that best matches what you decided you want for yourself. Don’t ignore that. If you have some sort of tie, then there are three things to think about: 1) this decision is going to be really difficult, 2) you’re not going to make a bad choice, so take comfort in that, and 3) at this point the smart thing to do is go with the one that costs less.

Think about the Wise Mind. I had a discussion one, about 20 years ago, that I never forgot. I was talking to a woman—I don’t remember her name or where we talked—who was a therapist, and she told me a rule to consider: always make decisions with the Adult Brain. The Child Brain thinks “I want.” It is impulsive, emotional, selfish, and ungrounded. It just wants what it thinks will be pleasurable. The Parent Brain thinks “I must.” It is consumed by obligation, sacrifice, and service. It defers its own needs to help someone dependent. But the Adult Brain thinks “I will.” It takes both desire and obligation into consideration, and tries to make a reasonable, productive decision. So, the therapist told me, it’s important to recognize that you have a Child Brain and a Parent Brain, but you should always make decisions—especially important decisions—with the Adult Brain.

The more up-to-date terminology for a similar idea is Wise Mind. Wise Mind doesn’t ignore rational thinking or emotion, but considers them both to make wise decisions. Here’s a short video about Wise Mind. To make your college decision using the Wise Mind is to avoid being overly influenced by pure emotion—I want to go to the college that my friend is going to; this college may not be as good a fit, but it’s well-known and people will be impressed when I tell them I go there; how can I pass up that amazing new student activity center? I can avoid an argument with my dad if I just go where he wants me to go. It will also avoid being overly influenced by pure reason—the estimated return on investment is higher at this school, so it would be stupid to pick the other one; this school has 5% more classes in my major than the other one; I’ve known about this school longer, so there must be a good reason for that. The Wise Mind will balance emotion and reason to make the most productive decision.

Practice explaining your decision. You’re going to need to tell people—friends, family, teachers, counselors—what you’ve decided. Practice saying this aloud as clearly as possible—not just where, but why. Make it into a single sentence. You don’t have to wait until you’ve chosen, either. If you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three, then practice your explanations for all of them. That may make the decision a bit easier.

Once you’ve decided, don’t look back. You can spend the rest of your life wondering what would have been had you chosen a different school. That’s not a good use of your time. Sooner or later you have to stop wondering “what if” and start living the life in front of you. So you might as well do that May 2nd.

Best of luck to all the seniors making these final decisions. Remember: if you’ve got several good options in front of you to choose from, you’ve done a number of things right along the way. Congratulations!

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