So what’s the exciting conclusion to my college search memoir? I got into all four schools. (Turns out I had a list full of targets and likelys - I didn’t even apply to a real reach school… oops.) The three private schools turned out to be more affordable than the public school thanks to financial aid (this happens all the time! Remember this!), but there was a bit of drama: SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE #2 gave me a merit scholarship that made it cheaper than SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE.
I know. It was a tragedy! And a really good lesson in why you shouldn’t apply to schools you DON’T LIKE! Now, you probably remember affordability was important to me and my family. I received the offer of admission from SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE #2 before SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE so I spent an eternity (okay, it was three days) convinced I was going to have to go to that horrid place (all joking aside, it’s a lovely school that I would have been lucky to attend - more on that later). When the large envelope finally arrived from SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE, my hands were shaking as I read “Congratulations!” and then flipped through to find the financial aid letter that was a disappointing few thousand dollars less than SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE #2. But we crunched some numbers, and we figured out we could make it work with me scraping together all my summer earnings, hustling to get every local scholarship I could no matter how small, and increasing my loan a touch. Those small sacrifices allowed me to attend my dream school, (which, lest we forget, I had not heard of just a few months before I applied). And guess what? I loved it. I have been known to talk of SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE too often and may have once or twice referred to it as the happiest place on earth.
Do I think I could have gone to SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE #2 and learned amazing things and met wonderful people? Absolutely. Do I believe that I could have gone to any of a number of colleges and been perfectly happy and found my way into a successful future? 100%. I know that now. So I’ll borrow a piece of advice from New York Times Columnist Frank Bruni:
ERDean’s (stolen*) Piece of Advice #6: It’s not where you go to college but how you go to college. It’s the mindset you bring to your intellectual and social development in college that sets you on your path. Bruni’s book “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be” pushes back against the admission mania, that thing to be survived I mentioned earlier. Bruni hopes to restore the excitement in going to college, to remind students and parents about the purpose of higher education. Bruni is onto something important: it’s about the outlook, attitude, characteristics, habits, and curiosity you bring with you to college, even more than it is about where you’ll be dropped off next August or September. It’s about engaging in your classes with your professors and peers, it’s about learning things you’ve never learned before, it’s about experiencing things you can’t imagine now, and it’s about immersing yourself in a world differently diverse from your current community.
For me, that was about Shakespeare, and the multidisciplinary study of education as an institution. It was about giving tours in the admission office, and forming bonds with folks who came from very different places and backgrounds than I did, from Greenwich to Ghana and from daughter of inventor of sealed air (aka bubble wrap) to son of Cambodian refugees. It was about discovering that I loved statistics and data. It was about living in another country, getting my wallet stolen and having my study abroad mates cheer me up with parodies of the books we were reading for our Jane Austen seminar. It was about being part of a common learning experience through a core curriculum, which my friends and I still talk about to this day. For you, it will be something else. It may be about deep research as an undergraduate. It may be about hands-on, project-based learning. It may be about solving the world’s great challenges through engineering and science or the deep study of literature and philosophy. It may be about learning business ethics. It may be about a great many things. Approach your college search knowing that YOU -- your own passion, drive, and habits of mind -- are ultimately more important than the college or university you attend. If I had attended SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE #2 I would have had different experiences, but I would have brought the same desire to learn and to connect with people and ideas. It is that desire that put me on my path. The college I attended provided the context for my growth.
So all of this is really to say: remember that this process should, first and foremost, be one of reflection and thinking about who you are and who you want to be. College admission is NOT a prize to be won.
*and also: stealing is bad.