• Dr. Thom

The Art of Choosing a College After All the Decisions Are In


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There is an art to choosing well. You might be choosing simple everyday things such as what to wear today or what to eat at a restaurant. Or you might be like our current group of high school seniors, choosing between several different college options.


But the art of choosing well is the same, as is the process psychologically. It looks like this:


Step 1: Choose to choose


Decisiveness is a habit you craft over time, not a trait with which you are born. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we must choose one option over another in the context of a world that wants us to know just how many thousands of options we have at our fingertips. This is mostly a tactic to get us to buy things, which explains why there are 105 different kinds of olive oils at the grocery store. But counter intuitively, the path to happiness often involves choosing one option and letting the other options go according to Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. When we cling to options not chosen, we become stuck in a loop of imagining what might have been, and we become less committed to the choice we’ve made. We must acknowledge that we are human, that we must make a choice, and that the nature of choosing means we accept that. As Paulo Coelho wrote: "Choosing a path means having to miss out on others."


Step 2: What are the rules of choice?


We don’t start from zero with our choices, we start with some simple questions and answers that guide that choice. When we open up a menu at a restaurant, we are considering our dietary needs, potential allergies, whether we are saving room for dessert, some knowledge of what is the restaurant’s specialty, and generally how much we wish to spend on the meal. These rules (if you will) become guide rails for the decision.


In the college choice setting this means taking stock of your must/can’t lists, weighing what role distance from home, campus safety, as well as college costs and financial aid all must play.


Step 3: Imagining the outcome


Let’s revisit the restaurant menu: when looking over food options, we are simultaneously imagining eating that meal. The more clearly we can imagine enjoying that meal, the more likely we are to select that option. That’s why we often look around to other tables to see what other people ordered, and why restaurants feature pictures of dishes they wish to promote, because actually seeing the item makes us more likely to choose that option. In psychology, this imagining of a future outcome is called simulation.


A few years ago, I led a group of data scientists and researchers in attempting to answer a simple question: “If you could ask only one question of a prospective student as a means of gauging their interest in a particular college, what would you ask?” We surveyed thousands of students nationwide asking them about what they considered important in the college search, in addition to analyzing close to 200 different factors from geographic location, academic achievement, parental background, to many demographic variables like gender and ethnicity. In the end, there was one question that stood out:


“Can you see yourself at this university?”


The answer to this question is so important. In fact, students who strongly agree with this statement were four times more likely to enroll at that college than students who did not.


When choosing a college, encourage your students to play a movie in their head about their college options, and to mentally take stock of their sense of excitement or worry. The clearer that mental image, the more likely it is that the student will make the best choice.


Step 4: Evaluate and improve for the future


In a restaurant experience, we acknowledge that a part of the process is learning about our decision making skills and habits after the fact. We tell ourselves, “Next time, I will order the salmon.” The college choice is no different. As young people grow, they learn to adjust the movie projector in their mind to portray a clearer image. They learn about false assumptions, faulty rules they were using in the decision, and most of all, they learn about themselves, their skill level, interests, and goals.


I was talking with a former student recently who had decided to change his career focus from music performance to early childhood education, which also meant that he would need to transfer from his music conservatory. Although he was brimming with excitement over his newly found clarity surrounding his potential life’s work, he was also working through a sense of failure in his original college search. I get it. We all go through this kind of personal shaming when our choices don’t turn out the way we thought they would. But the reality is that clarity he now has, that he would rather work with teaching and molding the education of young people, doesn’t come without his choice to go to the conservatory.


This is the messy art of choosing that we must accept. We choose, we learn, we move on to another choice.


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

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