“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” – Wallace Stevens.
It has been a tough spring for high school seniors. After many months of waiting, the ball has finally gone into their court. Time for them to take an action, for which many have not been quite prepared: to actually decide where to go to college.
The decision is particularly complicated for students waitlisted at their first choice school, requiring them to commit to another institution before the universal enrollment deadline of May 1. It is also difficult for those offered admission without sufficient funds (need or merit) to attend their dream school. Or for applicants not truly pleased with their choices, deciding while vaguely considering the possibility of future transfer. Ironically, I have observed that students with minimal constraints on their choices can be the most overwhelmed when they need to choose between excellent options that, nevertheless, present vastly different propositions that possibly lead to quite different futures.
As a college consultant, I have been privy to the decision-making process of many adolescents at this pivotal juncture in their young lives. I have observed anguish in young adults as they wrestle with their choices; I am impressed with their courage as they tackle the task of choosing their lives’ first big adventure.
I never feel sorry for young people because they have to make decisions, even tough ones. It is true that adolescents do not yet have a mature frontal lobe for executive function, planning and decision-making. But they have to start someplace, with wise and gentle parental guidance. Making decisions is a cornerstone of growing up. It is an invitation to adulthood. I have a framed quote by J.K. Rowling in my office: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This “last step” in the college process is the most important, where rubber meets the road. Our choices are a Rorschach, an inkblot test onto which we project our goals, passions, ideals, even our rebellions. College choice is the quintessential ipsative exercise for young people, a forced-choice situation where they must commit.
That is why the May first enrollment deposit deadline is ominous for many high school seniors. It is a student’s public, tangible declaration of who one is. This is one of the first crossroads where such a declaration is so dramatically required. Students will face such crossroads many times again in their lives (e.g., graduate school, career choice, jobs, moves, marriage, children). Each decision offers a platform of experience for the next, giving the decision-maker more confidence because he or she is equipped with more tools and perspectives, and the themes become more familiar.
What advice do I give students and families?
When I studied marketing years ago, I was fascinated with decision-making models that clarified how consumers choose products. I remember formulas that incorporate all the attributes a consumer believes a product has, modified by how important the attribute is to that consumer. The dynamics inherent in those formulas apply to all decisions, although it is difficult to accurately quantify the importance of complex, intangible factors. Here is an example of how you might apply a decision-making model to college choice.
Let’s say a prospective college has a winning football team. So it rates high on the sports attribute. But maybe you could care less about spectator sports. No matter how great the football team is, that is not a compelling reason for YOU to enroll there. It is not enough to identify a college’s strengths; you must isolate the factors you consider crucial to YOUR individual college experience. WHAT MATTERS MOST TO YOU? Choosing a college is more like a marriage than winning a prize. When forced to choose, the student clarifies his or her own priorities and values in graphic relief.
Choosing a college, like any complex, multidisciplinary decision, involves both thinking and feeling, balancing the role of head and heart. In Myers-Briggs language: “Those who prefer thinking tend to decide things from a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent and matching a given set of rules. Those who prefer feeling tend to come to decisions by associating or empathizing with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside’ and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit.”
A student who prefers thinking-based decision-making may need help recognizing that feelings are data too. Highly analytical individuals sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees; they need help getting in touch with their inner desires. I may ask that student, “If you chose College A, abandoning College B, how would you feel tomorrow morning?” Conversely, a student whose temperament leans more toward feeling-based choice may need help considering factual aspects: “I know you like the feeling that College A is in Boston and it has a certain caché among your peers, but does it offer programs to fit your interests?”
I am intrigued with the emerging field of the neuroscientific basis of decision-making. Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, offers tremendous insights, as summarized in Eric Nehrlich‘s excellent review:
“The rational conscious mind is limited in power…Its strengths are that it can logically process new situations, override our knee jerk impulses that may not be appropriate to the situation, and come up with responses that have not been tried before. Also, decisions made using the rational path are easy to explain, as they are based in logic. Its weaknesses are that it is slow and has limited capacity and therefore works best on well-defined problems with only a few dimensions to consider. The unconscious brain is in many ways the opposite of the rational brain. It is a parallel processor with enormous capacity that can optimize decisions among many conflicting dimensions…complex multivariable problems can not be answered by pure reason…In fact, if we try to attack such problems with the rational brain, we make poorer choices because we seize on variables that are easy to explain rationally rather than considering all of the possible benefits…
“Lehrer suggests that the best strategy when confronting a complex decision with many variables is to study it carefully to load all of the information into our unconscious brain, and then go do something else (take a walk, go for a drive) while the unconscious brain processes that information. This idea is reflected in the standard trope that…the best ideas come in the shower.” The poet Wallace Stevens perhaps said it most eloquently: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”