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College Process Leads Students to Overinvest in the “Right” Choice

For many students and families, I think the quest for the “right” college is not simply a quest for status, interest in brand name or a pursuit of the “best” rankings. I have increasingly come to understand that the search process itself and the imperative that parents and students get on the road to the extent that they must these days causes huge investments in particular outcomes. After an extensive process often involving second visits to a number of campuses (sometimes far from home for “geographic diversity”), when a student finally identifies the college that feels “right” it is because it meets the largest number of individual criteria for that particular student. And while the quest for status is one of those criteria for some, it is not the driving force that many mistakenly think it is.

I understand that the process is intended to help students learn about themselves and to identify qualities in different college environments. But the forms it takes, including the aggressive marketing campaigns that colleges themselves conduct to attract the “right” students, contribute to the pressures students feel in the current college climate. After pounding the pavement, and sometimes being expected to act like a little marketer, when the student finally decides upon certain specific preferences and can see him or herself in a particular environment, it can be very crushing and disappointing to then be rejected. An example of the demand is a student being directed by a college she has already interviewed at to attend its high school visit – missing an AP class to do so – to further show interest.

I worry that the process itself, which directs us to go college shopping, conduct visits, and “demonstrate interest” in the multiple forms that can take and which entails so much time, energy, commitment and resources, itself yields strong investment in and/or expectations of certain outcomes and huge disappointment when they are not met.

I do not mean to suggest that 17- and 18-year-olds should always get what they want or think they want. But it is the process itself that yields strong investment and expectations of outcomes and that makes the rejection all the more crushing. And it is not always interest in brand name schools that define it as the “right” school or the environment of choice.

I think there is inherent irony in a process that treats prospectives as if they are in a buyers’ market when, in fact, for many, and maybe all, it is more like a sellers’ market. Food for thought.

Printed as a Letter to the Editor in the online newspaper, the Larchmont Gazette, June 21, 2006.

Posted by UberMusings / Posted on 21 Jun