Have I ever told you the story of the student who let her mailman choose her college? This is a good one, and I promise it’s a true story. Forgive me if you’ve heard it before.
I was attending a counselor program at a well-known liberal arts college here in the Southeast. As is often the case at these types of events, the admission office had assembled a panel of students for the counselors to hear from in a Q&A session. One of the counselors asked the student panel to explain why they had chosen their college, and a freshman on the panel related this story:
This student was from New England and had narrowed her choices to two very similar colleges, one close to her home in New England and the other in the Southeast. She debated back and forth for weeks and her parents ultimately told her the decision was completely hers. It came to be May 1 and she had to submit an enrollment deposit at one of the colleges. Her parents left for work that day with two checks written and prepared to be mailed, one envelope for each of the two colleges, and told her to mail whichever one she chose. She continued to debate. She knew the mailman would be coming soon, so she relocated her debate to the mailbox and stood there waiting for him to arrive. Sure enough, he eventually pulled up and asked her why she was standing at the mailbox. She explained her dilemma and he said, “Oh, that’s easy! Move south!” So she handed him that envelope and the rest was history!
When I tell this story to seniors who are in the midst of their own debate, they laugh and seem to feel relieved. Torn as they may be, at least they haven’t relegated the decision to the mailman yet! (And I say that with all due respect to the postal carriers of the world. They have an important job, but making major life decisions for the people on their route isn’t part of the job description.) This story lightens the atmosphere and also seems to embolden seniors to make their own college choice. It leads me to ask them a few questions that can point them toward a decision of their own:
What do your parents think? In an ideal situation, the entire family should be in agreement about the student’s college choice. The student will be living there for four years and should feel at home, but the parents will likely be paying the bill. If there’s disagreement among them, we need to take some time to understand why.
How many colleges are you debating between? If this list contains three or more colleges, my first task is to help the student get it down to two choices. We take a minute to consider which college (or colleges) can be removed from the list.
How does the cost compare between these colleges? Sometimes students tell me that the cost is essentially equal, meaning this will not be a variable that influences the decision. But when the cost is not equal, I ask the student to explain to me what the more expensive college offers that makes it worth that additional amount of money. Sometimes they have a good answer for that question, but often they do not. When there’s nothing substantial to justify spending more for one particular college, I usually support the more financially prudent choice.
How will these colleges shape your adulthood? This is a big question, but I am essentially asking the students to imagine what life will be like after four years on each campus. Are there internship opportunities or study abroad programs or campus ministries that will shape you in a certain way? And how does that match the adult you would like to become? This is a question that requires thought, time and prayer to answer well. It also might require another visit to the college campuses to ask new and different questions.
Which campus will feel more like home on an average Tuesday? There are lots of things that students like about a college – the football team, the academic reputation, the state-of-the-art facilities – that won’t matter a hill of beans on the average Tuesday when the student just wants to feel at home. I want the student to choose a college that will feel like a good fit every day of the week, so this question gets them thinking about what makes a college feel like home. The answer? Supportive relationships with people who are seeking to grow in the same direction that you are. Will one college offer more opportunities for those types of relationships than another? Do some research on campus ministries and other programs that will lead to opportunities to build those types of supportive relationships.
I’ll end with another story for you. I once attended a keynote address at a college counseling conference in which the speaker asked his audience (which consisted of high school counselors and college admission officers) to raise their hands if they enjoyed their college experience. The whole room of about a thousand people raised their hands. The speaker then asked which people thought they could have enjoyed their college experience had they attended another institution. Almost all of those same people raised their hands again. This is an important decision, yes, but be reminded that you are likely debating between colleges that are all good options. You can’t make a bad decision. Try not to put too much pressure on this choice. Try to relax a bit and focus on choosing a college that will provide an education that leads to a career, allows you to be a good steward of your financial resources and provides opportunities for spiritual growth. It’s as simple as that.