• Dr. Thom

The Going-to-College Movie in Your Head


Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

You have a movie playing in your head about what college will be like.


This movie is a mental projection of all the imagery, stories, and first-hand experiences you have gathered throughout your life about college life. You have stitched together a film reel from your parents, actual movies you’ve seen about college life, and your own experiences on college campuses, even if those were not “official” college tours.


Psychologically, this kind of movie-making is our brain’s way of saving cognitive energy while you are engaged in the mentally taxing effort of imagining some future event - particularly if you have never experienced that kind of event before. For most high school students, college is a foreign concept as they have never actually enrolled before.


This is called a mental heuristic, which is just a fancy psychological term for a cognitive shortcut. Making decisions on future events, especially if they are new experiences for us, can quickly overwhelm us. The simulation heuristic, as it is called, is a way for our brain to imagine that future event in reasonable detail so that your quick twitch emotions can have a reaction - one functional area of the brain asking another, “how do you feel about this?”


This is likely why many of the seniors with whom we work will report having a rapid affinity for one of their college options. This quick assessment can sometimes grow cloudy once their slower, more rational “pro vs con” thinking kicks in. For many people, this shift is triggered by social pressure to make the “right” decision, which a lot of young people interpret to be the most logical option. So the brain looks for logical rationalizations entirely after the fact in what is known as “reconstructed logic.” It is estimated that as many as 90% of decisions are made based on “gut feel” for the chosen option, but that we very often use logic to explain and justify that decision.


You may be experiencing this with your senior, as despite all of the pro/cons list-making, they still like one school for “some” reason. We would suggest this is because it more closely resembles the mental movie that has been playing in their mind.


For students, their job is to sort out if that movie is fantasy science fiction or a documentary. Check your assumptions and get better answers about your ideal college setting.


For parents, their job is to get an advanced screening of the movie. Check your assumptions and ask better questions about your student’s ideal college setting.


Get your popcorn ready.


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