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How to Choose Colleges That Are Right For You

- 17 February 2014, 03:02
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“I want to go to UCSD!”

“That sounds good,” I said. “Have you thought about anywhere else?”

“Nowhere else,” Johan said, almost indignantly. “Just UCSD.”

His mother rolled her eyes.

“Have you visited UCSD?” I inquired.

“No,” he said, “but I know UCSD is where I want to go.”

At the moment, there was no persuading him.

“Oh, I see,” I said. “That sounds good.”

We were at that very delicate tipping point at which he was trying to show me what he was made of and I was trying to gain his trust.

“Maybe you should visit?” I offered. “That’s a great way to get a feel for what it’s like.”

A few weeks later, Johan was back.

“There’s one school I definitely to not want to go to,” he said. “And which one is that?”

“UCSD!” he said. If it weren’t so funny, I would have laughed.

“And why is that?” I asked.

“The buildings are cold.”

No offense to UCSD, btw. Different strokes for different folks!

The point of the story is you may have an idea about a place that turns out to be inaccurate when you actually go there. And the point is to go there, if you can. Maybe not before you apply, though that’s always best, but certainly after, when you are deciding what eggs to put in your basket and where you want to spend the next four years.

Thirty years ago when I applied to college – both my parents were educators; my mother was even the chair of our high school English department – I had NO IDEA what I was doing.

Mrs Gruber’s daughter – Mrs Gruber was my English teacher in eleventh grade and a friend of my Mom’s – went to this small, liberal arts college in Northwestern Pennsylvania called Allegheny College. She loved it, Mrs Gruber said.

I thought, “Why not? That sounds good.” I didn’t visit. I didn’t really know anything about it. I actually think I was so anxious that I preferred to stay in the semi-darkness for as long as possible.

I applied. I got in. I went.

For a year.

My year at Allegheny College was one of the most formative and difficult years of my life. I convinced a girl not to jump from our second story dorm window; I picked up my only friend from the local jail (she had OD’d and was found in a snow drift); I got straight A’s as a premed English major; I cooked my own meals on a bunsen burner I hocked from the Chem lab; and after a season being undefeated as a walk-on first singles player on Allegheny’s Division III tennis team, I gained twenty pounds.

It snowed from October 4th- May 25th. I know because October 4th is my birthday and May 25th was graduation.

In a moment of desperation in the guidance office of my high school during Spring Break, I opened a beautiful, glossy course catalogue for The University of California, Santa Cruz, saw a major in History of Consciousness, and thought, “That’s where I want to go.”

I had been to California once, the year before. My mother had taken just me, leaving my brothers behind, to see Krishnamurti. She was contemplating leaving my stepdad (Thank god she didn’t) and finding a teaching job at the Oak Grove School in Ojai.

But I digress – kind of.

That trip, off the beaten track of my life, changed the course of it.

The next year, buried in snow drifts ten feet high, depressed beyond words, when I saw the California coast winding before my eyes, suddenly the world and all its possibilities opened up.

It was a good thing I was a straight A student at Allegheny because that year, 1978, it was hard to get in as a transfer to UC Santa Cruz. Just to be on the safe side, I applied to Berkeley and Stanford too. I got into all three, but chose Santa Cruz because that’s where my dream had started – and I was determined to study Hist Con, as they called it.

As it turned out, Hist Con was a PhD program, which I conveniently failed to recognize from my perch in the snow. No matter. I talked my way into Norman O. Brown’s class and, well, the rest is history, as they say.

What’s so interesting about this story, however, is that Allegheny College is now listed as one of the “Colleges That Change Lives.”

I guess you could say it changed mine. Certainly, it changed the course of my life not least because my aversion to it catapulted me clear across the country to study the evolution of consciousness under the warm California sun.

Don’t get me wrong. I might still find the snow hard to take.

I recently put Meadville, PA, where Allegheny is located, on my iPhone weather app. Every day I show it to my sons. “What’s the weather in Meadville?” I ask them. “Snow,” they dutifully reply). But now, knowing what I know, I might actually have found my way there, had I stuck it out.

You need to do research to find out what you’re looking for.

You need to look at the web site, find out specifics (Big Futures on College Board.org is a good resource), ask people, read about it (Check out Unigo.com for students reviews) – and if you can, go visit.

You have to remember they take pictures for their web site on the sunniest of sunny days; the reviews they post are only the best; and your English teacher’s daughter may have loved it, but it may not be the place for you.

How do you decide which college IS right for you?

Make sure it has what you’re looking for. And figure that out ahead of time. Big or small? Urban or rural? Good in your possible major? How about social life? Location? What do people say?

At the end of the day, however, there is no substitute for seeing something with your own eyes. Once you have established that you can get the education you’re looking for at the particular schools you have chosen, go visit them. Then how will you know? The decision is made in your solar plexus.

That’s right. You have to “feel”it. It has to “feel” right to you, no matter how it looks on paper. And you’re the only one who knows.

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