How (Not) to Choose a College

If you have a dream school in mind, and if you’re lucky enough to gain admission to that top choice, then read no further. But if, like so many students, you’re struggling to choose a college after receiving several acceptance or wait-list letters, then read on.

In the coming weeks, prospective college students are likely to hear many pitches on where to go to school, be it from parents, siblings, or friends who have already made their decisions. But these voices, who so often provide reliable life advice, can ultimately stand in the way of making the right decision. In a recent piece for the New York Times, education writer Frank Bruni describes the struggle his niece faces as she stares down the path of college admissions:

[I]f she’s like most of my peers when I was her age, she’ll wind up picking one that gives her a sense of comfort, of safety. That’s what too many kids do. They perpetuate what they’re familiar with, gravitating to the same schools that their friends are or duplicating their parents’ paths. And there’s so much lost in that reflex, so much surrendered by that timidity.

If you’re among the lucky who can factor more than cost and proximity into where you decide to go, college is a ticket to an adventure beyond the parameters of what you’ve experienced so far. It’s a passport to the far side of what you already know. It’s a chance to be challenged, not coddled. To be provoked, not pacified.

College, in other words, should be a time of expansion and exploration, a time to make yourself anew. Many college graduates will tell you that their college experiences fundamentally shaped their adult lives. Your college decision should not simply continue along the same path as your high school life, and it should not merely satisfy the projections of those whom you already know. Your decision should, instead, project into the person you hope to become.

Bruni’s piece offers very specific advice about finding the place for your own personal exploration and self-discovery. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It’s a valuable guidebook for getting beyond the commonplace statistics and rankings that schools advertise.

Part of his article addresses the issue of “branding,” the advantages offered by the big names—the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales of the world. In a previous post (When It Comes to Colleges, the Biggest Name Doesn't Always Mean the Best Fit), I’ve addressed the problems with choosing a school based solely on its U.S. News and World Report ranking, so I won’t repeat that advice here (though I’d encourage you to read that piece, too).

Instead, I want to try to come at this question of college choice another way by considering the difficulties of a student struggling to decide on not which school to attend but which major to study.

About three years ago, one of my undergraduate students—let’s call her “Jamie”—visited my office hours to discuss her final paper. Our discussion quickly turned to her future. Jamie was a double major in journalism and history, but knew that she would soon have to choose one over the other. Her journalism major had many requirements, so she could not see a way to complete both majors in four years. Jamie asked me for advice: “Which major should I go with?”

My response was predictable: “Which do you prefer?”

Jamie’s answer to that question was easy: “History, definitely.” But her choice was not nearly so simple.

Her journalism program has an excellent reputation, with big-name faculty and countless opportunities for career placement. Her history department is also outstanding, but history majors do not have nearly so clear a path after graduation. Unlike journalism—or engineering, or accounting, or nursing—history provides no specific career path post-graduation. This is not to say that history or other liberal arts majors struggle to find jobs (far from it), but the uncertainty attached to the humanities and social sciences has led many students to shy away from majors such as history, English, and philosophy—even though we need the writing and critical thinking skills these disciplines teach now more than ever.

For Jamie, sticking with her journalism major was the pragmatic choice. But her passion lay with history. In fact, within her journalism major, she was much more interested in the history of journalism than the practice of covering and writing news. Jamie was a natural historian. She loved reading about the past. Even when she wrote about works of fiction, film, and poetry in my class, she always approached them from a historical perspective. She saw history everywhere and in everything, but she wasn’t sure how studying the past would provide for her future.

In my conversation with Jamie, I tried to help her navigate between the pulls of pragmatism and passion. My advice went something like this:

The economy is a real concern. You’re right to be thinking about your career prospects. And with the world changing so rapidly, your search for a sure thing after college makes good sense. But, most likely, you will only have one opportunity in your entire life to study what you’re passionate about. Imagine if everyone chose what felt safest. I can’t make the decision for you. No one can. But I would encourage you to think of it this way: life is short. If history is what inspires you, it would be a real shame not to feed that passion.

Jamie’s difficulty choosing a major offers a parallel to those struggling to choose a college. Unless you’re born into wealth or set to inherit a large company, success is going to demand that, at some point, you take a risk.

While the school your parents went to, or the school your friends are going to, or the school closest to your house growing up, or the school you think will look fanciest on a resume may very well be the best choice for you, if you’re choosing a school based on what feels safe, you’re off to a bad start.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.