Choosing a College Is Information Overload

Choose a CollegeMy elder daughter is a high school senior mid-way through the process of applying to colleges. O. M. G. I thought I was a reasonably savvy mom, but the process and the cost of attendance have left me with my jaw on the floor. The plethora of choices and reams of information to sift through, and the pressure she feels to accumulate service hours, take AP/Honors classes, and participate in every school activity from National Honor Society to the Tiddlywinks Club have overwhelmed my smart, competent daughter and left her completely unwilling to engage in the process.

The Good Old Days

I don’t remember it being like this. (To be fair, there is much about my high school career that my menopausal brain can no longer access—thank goodness.) We didn’t have the internet back then, with its list of the Top Ten schools for this or that, plus acceptance rates, college websites, and analyses of value rankings, to digest. Information overload! We didn’t have the Common Application or the FAFSA to fill out. (If you don’t know those terms, wait until your kid hits high school—you’ll learn more about them that you ever wanted to.) We didn’t have high school counselors telling us that if we hadn’t invented a compound to revolutionize the plastics industry, won an Olympic gold, or raised a million bucks for charity by importing and selling textiles from an island tribe, we might as well resign ourselves to attending East Nowhere Online College and a career as a Wal-Mart greeter. I remember getting a few brochures in the mail, filling out a couple of forms with an actual pen, enclosing them with a check, and waiting for a decision.

The Essay

I don’t think I even wrote an essay, although that might be something else I’ve forgotten. If I did, it certainly wasn’t the 500 words of Pulitzer-caliber prose my daughter thinks she needs to turn out to have a chance of admission anywhere. Oh, and she needs different essays for different colleges and/or scholarship applications. You’d think there’d be some overlap of topic so she could submit an essay more than one place, but nooooo. The choice of essay topic is itself angst-inducing. If a seventeen-year-old doesn’t have accomplishments like the ones in the above paragraph, what will she write about? If he’s not lucky enough to have survived polio and rabies, or emigrated from Papua New Guinea on a raft, how will he set himself apart from the hordes of students competing for the dwindling slots at prestigious universities? It’s a conundrum.

College Visits

I suspect this will be the topic of another post, but we didn’t travel the country to see 47 schools before my daughter submitted her applications. First, it seems ludicrous to spend a semester’s tuition on travel to choose a school. I never set foot on the Trinity University campus until arriving there to start my freshman classes. Second, how much can you really tell about a school from a half-day tour and conversation with a student guide or admissions officer? Some, I’ll grant you. But I certainly know plenty of kids who started out at a college they’d visited and ended up transferring because it wasn’t a good fit for them. When my daughter gets acceptance letters, we’ll visit her top two contenders. I’ll keep you posted.

Making the Choice

I can understand why the decision is immobilizing my daughter. How do you weight factors like a school’s cost, its reputation, the region it’s in, where your friends are going, cost, employment stats of grads, admission rates, cost, campus environment and safety, the availability of majors you might-maybe-potentially be interested in? Did I mention cost? My daughter recently suggested she make the choice based on the attractiveness or cleverness of a university’s brochures and literature. She was kidding, but I’m beginning to think that’s as good a method as any.

If you’ve been through the college selection process, what pearls of wisdom or funny anecdotes do you have to share?