For most students, making the decision to commit to a college is not easy. As you support your student through the college search process, naturally, you want your child’s final decision to be based on factors that truly matter.
Below is an article I wrote for the Austin American Statesman on how the right college experience matters the most. Also on this page is a quick video of my presentation at the 2014 South by Southwest conference for educators. I spoke to students about my top three tips for selecting their best college.
I hope my advice will help you guide your student in making the right decision.
Dean of Admission
Special Contributor to Austin American Statesman
It’s the last week of April — the week when many high school seniors make their college choice. For most, the decision is fraught with anxiety, hand-wringing, household arguments, dramatic social media posts and, finally, relief that the whole college admission process has come to an end. Did you make the right choice?
To be sure, there are some very practical implications for students and their parents as they make this all-important decision. How will I pay rising tuition costs? Will an education at School A make me more employable than one at School B? Will this choice enliven or squash my child’s dream of becoming a neonatal endocrinologist?
So how do you decide on the right school? When you think about a fulfilling college experience — ideally, as the cliché goes, “the best four years of your life” — certain things come to mind. It’s about gaining emotional independence, a sense of confidence and a comfort in your own skin. Hopefully, it will include influential faculty mentors who help shape a career path, enliven academic passion and reveal hidden talents. It’s about acquiring knowledge that leads to a successful, fulfilling career. And it’s a time for establishing lifelong friendships, people with whom you’ll share magical, life-changing moments. (For those of you who played tortilla Frisbee with me in the middle of the night, more than 20 years ago, this one’s for you).
As the dean of admissions for St. Edward’s University, I approach the last week of April with one part childlike anticipation and one part dread. By the end of the week, it’s my hope that the right-fit students — those who will be actively engaged citizens and thriving scholars at my university — will decide to attend. But it’s hard to ignore the weight of these individual decisions and the strain they places on families. Are they basing their decision on the right set of information?
Research suggests that the sum of a fulfilling college experience — particularly the preparation for a meaningful career and the lifelong friendships part — holds the key to longevity and happiness. This should be the focus because, after all, this is what we want for our children, for future generations. This is not to say we shouldn’t emphasize outcomes — a college’s medical school acceptance rate or its percent of graduates who gain a seat in Congress might be important statistics, depending on your life’s goal. But often, it’s the intangibles that matter. It’s the way a certain community brings about the best in a young person, how it can make them feel smart and strong and capable. How it gives them the tools to figure out what they care about and ushers them into a life that reflects those passions and values. In the end, a school’s national ranking or SAT average or winning football team matter little to the way a school makes you feel about yourself and your future place in the world. These ideas might seem somewhat fuzzy or nebulous, but they are the foundation upon which a valuable college experience can be gained.
It’s a lot of pressure to make a decision that will inform “the best four years of your life.” Who wants to squander an opportunity like that with one misguided choice? The truth is, college should not be the best four years of your life. The experience should help you live your life most fully for all the years that follow. Think of college as an incubator for the things in life that really matter. So spend less time poring over facts, and listen to your gut. Choose the school that aligns well with your interests and values, a place where you can make lifelong friends and pursue your passions. And pick the place that will give you the confidence and the skills to make the most of your opportunities after college. If you choose such a place, it will be worth the investment.