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How Do You Know If It's the One?

December 15, 2009

Marsha Lynn Bragg

I am not much of a shopper. Have never have liked it. Too many stores. Too many people. Too many choices. Overwhelming.

I put off shopping for as long as possible, and only shop when I need to replace something because it is worn out (like the heels of my boots), too small (the material can only take so many washings), or for an occasion (birthdays do matter).

I admire people who take pleasure in this necessary task, especially those who bargain shop, who can negotiate a deal, or can find a designer brand for almost nothing.

Shopping must be an innate skill, and I don't have the "shopping gene" or the ability to sniff out a steal. I remain unfazed by neon signs, shopping passes, mailers, catalogs, radio ads, e-mail blasts, and promises of a decadent chocolate treat if "I just come along."

Unfortunately, I have the same attitude about settling on a college for my oldest daughter, who is a high school senior this year. In preparation for this important and exciting time in our lives, we've done most everything guidance counselors advise: First we decided on the type of school--public, private, liberal arts, university, HBCU, two year, or four year. Then we thought about affordability and distance. We have attended college fairs, visited schools, taken virtual tours, and talked to students. We have connected with admissions counselors and attended financial aid fairs.

And we have been inundated with colorful postcards, and brochures. We have received invitations to campus overnights and events. We have gotten T-shirts, engraved pencils, and hand-written cards from admissions officers, students, faculty, and alumni. Some of these mailings are targeted specifically to my daughter with her name and information about her particular interests. No one can convince me that the Web has replaced print.

Talk about overwhelming. Maybe shopping isn't so bad after all.

I have concluded that there is no easy way to manage the college-search process. You just have to go through it. Advice, tips, and checklists help but don't get to the core of the issue. Friends with children who are already in college tell me the first college search is the hardest. Information is plentiful, even incessant. The challenge is sorting through all of it. The college-search process could be someone's full time job.

I took a random poll of Oberlin students and asked them why they chose Oberlin. Almost all of them paused first, then said that Oberlin "felt right." Some admitted to not getting that secure feeling until a few semesters here, but once here they knew they had made the right decision. Oberlin is where they were meant to be. They love it here.

Just what does that mean, "felt right"? Like putting on a cushy fleece robe or a well-worn pair of jeans? With so many great schools to choose from, how do you know that a school is right before experiencing it? Do you apply the same technique as when shopping for something to wear: the item looks good but is not faddish? The material feels great against your skin, is flattering, and fits well? Maybe it's not on sale, but you can afford it?

My own college search, if you want to call it that, was to choose a school my parents could afford, not too far from home, with the major I wanted. We visited after I was accepted. I received a Pell Grant, a work-study assignment, and graduated debt free. But during my four years there, I don't believe I had the thought that the school "felt right" or even that the school was right for me. I just made it work for me.

Though foreign to me, I've passed along this "feel right" concept to my daughter, as we narrow our search. She's applied to several schools but THE ONE has not yet emerged.

Maybe I am over-thinking this whole procedure. Maybe we shouldn't wait for that magic moment, that blinding light, and that thundering voice to declare THIS IS THE SCHOOL FOR YOU. Is there really such a thing? Can you truly know a school is right for you beforehand?

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