• Dr. Thom

Finding the Best Fit College: The power of “must/can’t”

Updated: Aug 15


Have you ever had to decide where to eat with a large group of friends? It’s unmitigated chaos. First, your friend Chad just starts blurting out restaurant names like a human yelp. No one really likes Chad.


Then, there’s this complex dance of “I just ate there,” “they have good burgers, but their salads suck,” and “my other friend Tyler once got food poisoning from the fish at that place” and all the while, Chad is now scrolling and reading off reviews at lightning speed from the actual yelp. Noses get upturned, friendships are tested, bellies stay empty.


The problem here, besides Chad, is that there are too many seemingly equal options, and not a well defined process to sort through them, and of course, the introduction of human beings with their emotions and quirks. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the paradox of choice, when an increase in options (particularly in situations where all choices seem indistinguishable from each other) can lead to increased stress in the chooser, and less satisfaction with the choice after the fact.


Think about it. The above scenario wouldn’t happen if there is only one restaurant in town. If that place stunk, well that was the universe’s fault for only featuring one restaurant nearby. Insert a dearth of options, well now if you choose incorrectly, you are suddenly on the emotional hook for the outcomes. If you choose a restaurant with positive ratings from yelp and Chad, you could still get food poisoning. You weren’t enjoying Chad to begin with and now this outcome reaffirms the schism.


College options are like this too and choosing which colleges to investigate, apply to, and ultimately enroll in can produce similar bouts of anxiety in students. Every college looks the same with their glossy brochures with outdoor classes, students hanging out in a highly spirited residence hall room, and of course, frisbees. Always with the frisbees. It’s a wall of information with very few ways to determine a fit.


Reduce and Categorize


In these situations, psychologists recommend having a simple, easy to remember structure that can help you reduce and categorize the options. Reduction of choices is key so that your mental field of vision begins to see some separation, and categorization introduces order to your choice set. That’s why the very first step we have students and parents take in developing their college search list is an exercise we call “must/can’t.” That is, make two lists of criteria that you will use to reduce and categorize potential colleges, one for “must have” and another for “can’t have,” in reference to the features a college must have and can’t have.


Notice I didn’t say, “nice to have/not have” because we don’t want to start with the grey area in the middle. There will be time for that later. Right now, we are eliminating from the poles, from the outsides of the consideration set.


Here’s some ideas to consider sorting into your must/can’t lists:


  • What region of the world (U.S. only?)

  • What region of the U.S.?

  • Prominent feature of the landscape (near mountains, oceans, national park, etc)

  • Distance from home and/or ease of getting there (3 hour drive, less than 1 plane ride, a town that Southwest services)

  • Proximity to favorite activities (surfing, skiing, art museums, etc)

  • Availability of places to get food types, your hair done, and other aspects of your life that are culturally important to you

  • Prominent industries in the town?

  • Size of campus

  • How will you get around the campus/town? Are you taking the subway? Riding a bike?

  • Climate and how that relates to your favorite clothing? Are you trying to wear flip flops 9 months out of the year?

  • Sports and spirit: are you rooting for your school’s team?

  • Religious school or not?

  • Coed or single gender?

And so on . . .


We are all taught from an early age to “keep our options open” and there has been a lot written about our intense fear of ruling out options. It goes something like this:


Source: New Yorker Magazine, 2001

Somewhere along the way, encouraging young people to dream big devolved into fear of missing out and it has become a driving force in many of our life choices. It is also becoming clearer that the outcomes of this approach seem to be taking its toll on our emotional well being. The world may be your oyster, but what if you hate oysters? I bet Chad likes oysters. Cutting down the list of options is definitely counter-intuitive, but it is exactly what we need to do to lower the anxiety and make real progress in finding the best college fit.


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.


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