If you’re a college senior, that looming date May 1 is not so far off in the distance anymore. Soon, when people ask you the dreaded college question, you will have a one word answer instead of a complicated list of maybes and thinking about that gets exhausting to repeat. But if you’re one of those people who doesn’t have an answer yet (and I was one of them), the two weeks left before decision day are probably pretty daunting.
My goal in this post is not to repeat the same stressful advice that everyone tells you as a college senior in a well-meaning attempt to help appease anxiety. I promise this post will contain no go with your gut or try to get a sense of student life on campus. Instead, I want to give the advice I wish someone had told me when I was agonizing over my own college decision.
But first, some background on my own path to Oberlin. I went to a public high school that was competitive in everything—academics, sports, music, arts, you name it. And I could not be more grateful for my experience there and the incredible education I received. That being said, by my senior year it started to feel a little toxic. Everyone in my IB program had the mentality of “Ivy League or Bust.” I remember sitting in classes during which people would literally yell across the room about which Ivy League schools they’d been accepted into and the prestigious scholarships they were winning.
For a long time, I was right there in the mix with everyone. I played the cutthroat academics game, did every extracurricular I could pack into my schedule, was a varsity athlete, applied to Ivy League Schools. I took way better care of my GPA than I did of myself. And what happened? I got rejected from every “top-tier” school I applied to. I wasn’t sleeping. I felt burned out and miserable most days at school. And I wanted out. When I didn’t get into those prestigious schools, I was crushed. Touring and applying to colleges allows you to imagine a new life for yourself at each one. And giving up those potential lives I had constructed for myself wasn’t easy. But now I can honestly say that getting rejected from those schools was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Why? Because if I had gotten in, I would have gone, no questions asked. Now, three years into my college career, I still have so much respect for the schools I got rejected from and the people who go to them, but I can also tell you that they would have been a terrible fit for me. When I applied to those schools, I ignored every warning sign that they weren’t for me because I was so focused on the name. I remember talking to an admissions officer from one school at a college fair. When I asked about student publications and opportunities for creative writing, I remember him scoffing and saying something along the lines of most of our students are too focused on serious academic study to engage in those hobbies. That’s not what I wanted out of my time in college! But when everyone is telling you you should strive for something, it’s hard not to believe them.
Which leads me to my first piece of advice: Don’t go to a school just for the name. Last year, my sister got into her two dream schools—one “prestigious” top-ranked university and one respected, small liberal arts college. She picked the liberal arts school because it allowed her to be part of an awesome scholarship program and offers programs in her exact area of interest.
For a different scenario, maybe everyone in your family went to the same school and you’ve always been expected to go there. It’s difficult to make a decision when everyone is already expecting a certain outcome. But I will tell you that four years of wondering if you could have been happier somewhere else is not worth choosing a school only because you’re expected to.
That last point being made, I want to highlight something that I don’t think gets enough attention in the college admissions process: your decision does not have to be permanent. I know numerous people who transferred after their first year of college. There is no shame in starting somewhere and deciding it’s not for you for any number of reasons. College is a time of so much flux and change and movement that you won’t miss out on anything if you decide to switch schools or go a different direction at some point down the line.
This brings me to the main point I want to make. Ready? Despite all the lingo we have in the college admissions process, despite what any college counselor will try to pitch, despite what every one of the ridiculous number of college brochures I’m sure you’ve received claims, there is no perfect college for you. That doesn’t mean some schools aren’t better fits than others or that you’ll have the same experience at all of them. But every single college out there has its own problems. No matter how many schools you’ve narrowed down to, there are going to be so many things you love and probably a few you hate about each one. The “perfect fit” is a myth.
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but when I finally did it was liberating. Because it means that you can’t pick wrong. A school can have every program and club under the sun, but ultimately that elusive “college experience” is what you make of it.
In other words, don’t freak out about choosing the absolutely perfect college because the truth is you can’t. It doesn’t exist. Like I mentioned earlier, giving up fantasies of what your life would look like at different schools is agonizing. But as hard as it is to realize, where you go doesn’t determine what your life will look like. You will determine what your life will look like in college.
I love Oberlin. The reason I’m writing this post today is because I committed to go here exactly three years ago. It’s crazy to think that was so long ago, because I have built a whole life for myself here, and while it is far from perfect, I couldn’t be happier. At various points in my time here, I have been a student, a swimmer, a captain of swim team, a poet, a reporter, a food pantry volunteer, a blogger, a Writing Associate, a Speaking Associate, an oral history intern, an audience member of countless concerts, an exchange student in Chile, a Stamps Scholar, and more.
Every day, I go to classes I care about to study subjects that are important not just to me, but to understanding the world and making it a better place. I have friends and professors who want to talk with me about our shared passions. I feel fulfilled and whole in a way that I didn’t in high school.
This video sums up so much of my pride and gratitude for the community I've found at Oberlin.
When I got rejected from what I thought were my dream schools, I looked at the ones that did accept me and realized they were actually much better options. It took me longer than it should have to understand I didn’t want to go to a college that would lock me into one role, one path of study. So I chose one that would encourage me to try as many things as I can.
I can’t give you an easy answer for how to pick a school. I can’t tell you you should 100 percent definitely go to Oberlin, because that’s not true for everyone. But as much as I wanted an easy answer when I was picking a college three years ago, I’m so glad there isn’t one because starting to figure out who you are through the process of deciding is the fun part. OK, maybe fun isn’t the right word. It’s important and exciting and difficult. And it’s totally worth the struggle.
There are so many questions people tell you to ask yourself when picking a school, and I’m sure by this point you’ve heard them all. But I will give you the three that I think really count after you’ve thought through all the logistical and practical aspects over and over.
What matters to you? Who do you want to be? Which school will get you there?
From someone who didn’t believe it during the process—no matter what decision you make, you are going to be just fine. I promise.