What I Want My Teen To Know About Choosing A College

by Wendi Brandow
Artem Varnitsin/EyeEm/Getty

Late last summer, after my son’s much anticipated school trip to Germany was canceled by COVID, we also ended up cancelling a family trip to Disney World and a trip to Rehoboth Beach for a baseball tournament. Like the rest of the world, we had spent nearly six months staring at the same four walls and the same four faces. Something had to give. So we rented an RV and took advantage of this completely unscheduled block of time to start our college visits. Our son was a rising junior and we were excited at the prospect of getting a little bit of a jump start on this potentially overwhelming task.

As we drove from college to college, and listened to counselor after counselor, and tour guide after tour guide (all lovely) share endless amounts of information, I realized just how overwhelming it was. So different from when I decided where to go to college (close enough to home that I could go if I wanted to, but not so close parents could pop by for impromptu visits–check!). College admissions is big business now and the pressure for young students to make the “right” choice is palpable. But it doesn’t have to be.

So dear son (and other students and parents), this is what I want you to know about making a college decision. The first step is making sure that college is definitely what you want. A teen character on a sitcom once answered the question, “Why did you come to college?” with “Because I was done with high school and that’s what you do when you’re done with high school.” That is not a good reason. College is a big investment and a tremendous use of your time, if it’s what you really want. There are a lot of other equally tremendous uses of your time. Providing that you do choose college, these are the things I want you to consider.

Most importantly, I want you to know that this is your decision–not mine, not your Dad’s, not your teacher’s, or your coaches’, but yours. We will equip you with all of the information you need, answer any of your questions if we can or point you in the right direction if we can’t, and listen to your thoughts, concerns, and feelings for as long as you want. What we won’t do (I promise) is try to persuade you to make the decision we think is right for you or the decision we want you to make. And here’s why.

There is no “right” decision. There are thousands and thousands of colleges and hundreds and hundreds of majors. People from older relatives to teachers to friends’ parents and grocery store clerks will try and pigeon hole you with questions like “What are you majoring in?” and “Where are you looking to go to school?” Just because they’re asking doesn’t mean you have to have an answer. Lots of times those questions are just small talk. “I’m not too sure yet” or “I haven’t made a decision yet” are perfectly acceptable answers, as are “I really enjoy math” and “I really need to learn more before I make a decision.”

One thing that was made very clear to us on literally every tour was that students don’t have to come to school knowing what they want to major in. One tour guide had changed his major three times, was a junior, and still was going to graduate on time. At another school, they have an undecided track where students learn from all disciplines during the first year and declare at the end of that.

You will make the college you choose the right one, with your attitude and experiences. And, worst case scenario, if you get there and you absolutely hate it or don’t find your people, you can transfer. Adopting this attitude early on can also help you keep an open mind and decrease pressure and disappointment. That rejection letter may not be such a heartbreaker when you have three or four other equally appealing options to choose from.

Four (or five) years later, the outcome of your decision may look completely different than what you thought it would when you made it. College can be a life-altering experience. Exposure to different people and different types of people; a wide variety of classes and clubs, combined with the most freedom you’ve ever had in a completely new location can make the world look brand new after four years. You may end up questioning who you thought you were and make a decision about your future accordingly.

And finally, the most important thing to remember is that this is not a life or death decision. But rushing to make a decision or making a decision based on what someone else wants for you can end up making you a very unhappy 40-year-old. There is almost no wrong choice that is too big to recover from. So follow your heart, know what you love, keep an open mind and in your own time, the right decision will come.