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I'm not in love

One of my students has a dilemma most high school seniors would give their facebook friends to have: she can't decide whether to attend Stanford or Yale. After all the hours of essay writing, traipsing across college campuses on guided tours, and conversations with current students, admission directors, and professors at both schools, she allowed herself to say somewhat quietly, "I'm not in love." She said this as though it were a secret she was embarrassed to disclose, an admission that she worried made her appear ungrateful. Two of the most desirable suitors in the U.S. wooed her with "early letters" that stated the extent of their ardor. Yale flew her to campus at their expense in February for a special program aimed at recruiting students who intend to major in science. Yet she does not feel the reciprocal passion she expected to feel after an entire 72 hours (or so) dating her prospective "spouses."

Culturally, we place so much emphasis on how to get into colleges that we do little to prepare students to choose from among the schools that admit them. What makes criteria for choosing a college good or bad? Should you trust your gut feelings? And what if you don't have strong feelings?

Although it may be better than waiting to hear from colleges, the month or so during which students compare their choices is often quite stressful. Students want to make the "right" choice and often fear making the "wrong" one. But what would a "wrong" choice look like?

"I would end up being unhappy, not clicking with the other students, not knowing my professors, wishing I had gone to another college," one student confided. I took a moment to consider what she said. Tammy knew herself well enough to know that she wanted a small liberal arts college with approximately 1000-2500 students. She wanted undergraduate education to be the primary focus and purpose of the school, easy access to faculty, and a strong sense of community. She had several choices that fit the bill and had narrowed them to two — Whitman College and Connecticut College — but she was stumped because she liked aspects of both schools, and she felt the advantages of one over the other were not obvious. They often aren't.

"What if you would be equally happy at either school?" I asked. The horror! There was supposed to be a right answer.

"Then how do I choose?" she asked.

"Any time you make a choice, you open one set of possibilities and foreclose another. What we give up fades in importance as we reap the benefits of what we choose."

"Either way I lose," Tammy said.

"And either way you win," I asserted.

"I always pictured myself going to college on the East Coast," said the Carmel High School senior, smiling slightly.

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