When a Friend Chooses a College, Be Happy or Be Quiet

By SCOTT ANDERSON

Scott Anderson is a former college counselor and the director of outreach for the Common Application. This is a blog post from The New York Times (April 29, 2013)

When two friends were expecting their first child, they were very private about the name they had chosen for the baby. “We want our daughter to be the first person to hear it,” they would tell anyone who asked. It was a beautiful, touching sentiment.

It was also a load of hooey.

The mother was far more candid with close friends. She and her husband simply didn’t want to invite anyone to have an opinion about their choice. “It’s a lot easier to hold a baby in your arms and say, ‘We want you to meet our daughter Rose’ than it is to say, ‘We’re thinking of naming our daughter Rose.’”

Their bet: People would have to be pretty oblivious to social cues to offer their two cents about an important, personal decision after that decision had already been made with great care.

And so it is with choosing a college.

The luckiest students are surrounded by supportive peers, teachers and family members. The benefit of this good fortune is that these students are the frequent recipients of well-intentioned advice. The burden is that these students are the frequent recipients of well-intentioned advice.

Just as everyone seems to have an opinion on the admission process, everyone also seems to have an opinion on specific colleges, even — and perhaps especially — on colleges they know little about. How this unsolicited advice is received depends on many factors — personalities, relationships, delivery — but none is more important than the calendar.

By April, most seniors have already slogged through the research and the visits and the applications and the waiting. Finally, they get to be the decision makers.

It’s only natural for the people who have cheered them on to grow more excited as the finish line approaches. But what these ardent supporters sometimes fail to understand is that, for students weighing admission offers, the calculus is complex and intensely personal.

Consider cost. An offer from a first-choice college isn’t really an offer if it’s not accompanied by a financial aid package that makes attendance possible. On the flip side, a generous scholarship could push a less coveted institution into serious contention (which, after all, is precisely what merit aid is designed to do).

Aside from cost, there’s fit and comfort level, prestige and the significance attributed to it — or not. These are situations and qualities that students perceive at a visceral level, and they influence choice in ways that can be difficult for others to understand.

But understanding a decision and celebrating it are two different things, a distinction that can elude even the most enthusiastic supporters.

Educators who work at schools that profess to cultivate and nurture critical thought are particularly susceptible to this error. What happens when that vital skill leads students to make choices — informed, deliberate choices — that community members can’t understand or, worse, don’t agree with?

I’ll never forget the disillusionment I experienced as a counselor when an administrator felt compelled to justify to the board of trustees the enrollment choice of a high-need senior who had been admitted to both Brown University and Carleton College. Both aid packages were generous and comparable, which freed the young woman from financial concerns and allowed her to focus on which school would offer the best fit.

She did everything right as she considered her options, only to have her ultimate, non-Ivy decision devalued with, “Well, Carleton is a good school too.”

As May 1 approaches, undecided students will probably seek advice from friends, teachers and counselors as they work toward choosing a college. If you find yourself on the receiving end of such a request, help however you can. Be supportive. Be objective. Be judicious.

But on May 2, when you see those students clad in college T-shirts, celebrating the choices that they have made, don’t be critical. Be happy. And if you can’t be happy, then just be quiet.