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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

The Initial College List: Breaking Through the Overwhelm

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Determining the college list, aka, the list of schools to which a student will apply and choose, is an important step in the college search process. In our coaching program, we encourage students to create their initial list (with our help) in early spring semester of their junior year and finalize that list by August of their senior year. The amount of schools on that list starts out rather large and through exploration and discovery (more on this in a minute), the student ends up with 5-7 colleges to which they will apply (students considering extreme reach schools will often apply to more, but you get the idea).

A lot of the high school juniors we work with report feeling a bit overwhelmed when asked to come up with that initial list. They simply do not know where to begin.

You can’t blame them. The sheer amount of 1) college options available and 2) information surrounding those options is intimidating, even to me and I’ve been working in the higher education space for 25 years. As we have discussed before on this blog, the college marketing machine will make a mess of your mailbox if you let it. That, combined with all the messages about how the college search is a make-or-break decision and cognitive overload is almost assured.

Information overload happens when we have a breakdown in the mental processes that a) filter information that comes in, and b) ignore information that is not relevant to us. When we try to consider it all and take in too much information (through endless Google searches for example) and when we are not willing to let go of non-helpful information (out of an abundance of caution because “you never know, I may need to know this one day”) we get overwhelmed.

That’s why so many students will apply to the same four or five colleges in a given region. Is it because those schools offer an ideal collegiate setting for those students? Possibly. More likely is that the feeling of being overwhelmed triggers a mental shortcut (what psychologists would call a heuristic) that encourages them to value colleges they have heard the most about. This is actually called the availability heuristic - in which we give preference to information that is easier to bring to mind because it is more readily available in our environment.

So what’s a better way to kick off the college search and create an initial list of colleges? Here’s some conversational stepping stones that can help your student discover colleges that may be worth exploring in the future.

Questions to ask your student about colleges they might consider

What colleges have you seen in person?

First-person experience matters the most when it comes to the college search. There is nothing like being within the community of a college to get a feel for the environment. It doesn’t matter what kind of visit it is, whether it is an official campus tour, being on campus for an academic, performing arts, or athletic competition, or simply driving through; it all helps construct a “going to college movie” that plays in your student‘s head that will help them sift through the mass of information.

Visiting campuses, even if those campuses are not in consideration (think, local colleges that perhaps the student has little interest in attending) will help them become better consumers of college campuses.

Start with no-go items.

Often times, it is easier to start with things you don’t want than it is the list of things you must have. Start with regions of the world or the U.S. that are not in consideration. From there, think about religious affiliation or no, big vs. small, rural vs. urban vs. suburban, major NCAA sports or not, and then finish with how far is too far, how close is too close.

The power of this exercise is found in cutting the list down - in adopting a position of selective ignorance. It is choosing to ignore some options so that we may focus on what remains in the pool of consideration.

What is a part of your life right now that you would like to continue to enjoy in college?

Is your student into urban photography? Surfing? Loves old bookstores with unique collections? Kayaking? Attending art shows? Loves a delicious bowl of pho every now and then? These are the building blocks of a profile of the ideal college and will help narrow the list of suitable locations.

Note that I said “ideal” college above, not perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect college. Like a lot of things in life, all colleges have trade-offs that must be considered. Perfectionism can drive someone crazy in life, and in the college search.

What does the student want to learn to do?

We have discussed previously the challenge of picking a major in a labor market that is so fluid. How can you utilize the academic interests of the student to inform the college search when more than 73% of college graduates are working outside of their major within 5 years of receiving their degree? By focusing on aspects of your student’s personal growth journey that excites them the most.

What do they want to learn in the next couple of years? Enjoy a full dinner’s worth of conversation in French with native speakers? How about learning to launch and grow a business? Conduct world-class engineering research? Learn how to analyze World War II primary documents to learn more about the D-Day invasion? Well, the answer to these questions will undoubtedly lead you to campus communities that are most conducive to learning these things.

Ultimately, our jobs as parents is to teach our young people the fuzzy art of adult decision-making and the college search is a great opportunity for the next chapter in these lessons. Helping them identify what matters most to them, how to filter out information that is irrelevant, and how to draw out the information we need to make a decision that helps us grow and move forward - this is the work of the mindful parent of the college searching teen.

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

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