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Round Holes (Schools) and Square Pegs (Students):  Beware the Sirens’ songs of “prestige” and “selectivity” - Part I

Last Updated: Mar 27, 2018 10:29:52 AM

Part I: The Round Holes

I thought the ‘best’ college for me was the most selective - I was wrong

is the title of a article that you can find here.

The article relates the story of a student, Sophia Zupanc, who last year was a freshman at a prestigious eastern college, and it reads, in part,

I am one of the lucky students who won the admissions lottery. I attend one of the most selective colleges in the country. My classes are small, my professors are engaging, and my classmates are impressive. My parents’ car proudly sports the bumper sticker; I wear the sweatshirt. I’m on my way to a “good” life.

"I should be happy, but I’m not."

Sophia clearly messed up in her college choice – though, given the circumstances, who could blame her – but our purpose isn’t to rag on her; it’s to help you learn from her mistake so you’ll be less likely to make it yourself.

Lesson #1:

You are lousy at predicting the future. We know that you’re lousy at it because we’re really bright people and we’re lousy at predicting the future.When Sophia got admitted to Prestigious University, she thought that she had it made and that her future was assured, but after attending for almost a full year, she realized that something critically important was missing – that she should have been happy, but she wasn’t.

Lesson #2:

“So, how do I pick the right college?” Well, you could start by googling “how to pick the right college” and begin wading through approximately 140 million “hits” you’ll get in about two-thirds of a second.You’ll be inundated with advice, including criteria such as those provided by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) in an article titled Determining the Right College Fit:

  • Location of the college
  • Size of the college
  • Cost of the college
  • Whether the college has your major
  • The retention and graduation rates for your demographic
  • The employment rates for graduates like you
  • Career services available to you
  • Average debt upon graduation
  • Safety
  • Internship opportunities
  • Academic services
  • Retention efforts/student advising
  • Most popular student events(to help determine the climate of a college’s campus)

You’ll also find links to multiple on-line quizzes to help you narrow your choices. While all of the advice and quizzes are good, aimed at finding colleges that “fit,” close to none of them address “being happy” – and we suspect that that’s because “being happy” is too “touchy-feely” to quantify and too personal to capture with generalizations.

Does that mean that predicting happiness at your college choice is impossible – and you might as well give up trying?No, and that brings us to…

Lesson #3:

Which deals with using the tools that are available, and there are some.

First, read our two-part blog post from earlier this year entitled What’s Really Important About The College You Attend and internalize what truly made a difference in how students viewed their overall well-being after graduation. These things – four positive and one negative – made essentially ALL of the difference, while “prestige” and “selectivity” made essentially none:

  • while in college, they developed a relationship with a mentor
  • while in college, they participated in or did a project that lasted a semester or more
  • while in college, they had a job or internship that was directly connected to their chosen field
  • while in college, they deeply involved themselves in a campus organization or activity (many students involved in more than one of them)
  • after graduation, they had a heavy debt load.

And while these data were collected after graduation, it’s impossible to miss how those positive, “in college” occurrences contributed greatly to students’ happiness while they were undergraduates. So look for schools that offer those first four opportunities and – by all means – make them happen while you’re there.

But that’s not all: Take the quizzes and look into everything that NACAC suggests. Caution: don’t fool yourself that you’re done at that point, because after you’ve narrowed your choices, it’s important that you get out of your head and into your gut. That’s what we’ll look at in Part II: Square Pegs.

Topics: College Application College Planning Educational-Consulting


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