The first week of April is just around the corner. For the past year, you have focused heavily on where to apply to college, and then how to win the hearts of people like me. You've been increasingly anxious about the results as the decision dates loom. Oddly, all this effort may have left you surprisingly unprepared for a task that is just as challenging as making your applications.
Here are a few thoughts based on several years of observing what happens after students get their envelopes, whether thick or thin, and they are suddenly faced with a big decision.
* If you receive some rejections, you will tend to dwell on them. It's only natural -- what we can't have suddenly seems far more valuable or interesting than what we can have. You will tempted to revisit every step of your high school career and your application process, pondering what you might have done differently. But there is one and only one good answer to any rejection letter you receive, dream school or not: "Your loss, baby." Then move on.
* If you are like most students, the process has now delivered to you a handful of admission tickets to the greatest shows on earth. Every one of your colleges has infinitely more opportunities to offer than you could pursue in a lifetime. At one of these places you are going to take friendship to a new level, go adventuring and exploring, make your own decisions about what to do and how to do it, perhaps develop a permanent intellectual interest or a personal mission. Smell the roses. Put the acceptance letters up on your wall. Recognize how profoundly fortunate you are to live in this country and to be presented with opportunities that most of your peers around the world would give virtually anything to experience.
* Now for something practical. To the extent humanly possible, wipe out every assumption you have made up to this point about these schools. Let there be no reaches, good fits or safeties. Throw away all the ranking lists. Stop obsessing over selectivity or prestige. You now know more -- a lot more -- about colleges than you did when you first started looking. The shoe is on the other foot now -- colleges will be falling all over themselves to win your favor. Treat all of this as a brand new game, and do not be too hasty about putting any school aside. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a student say, "I wish I had looked more closely at the schools that accepted me. I wish I had actually talked to more students who attended those schools and also more students at the school I finally picked. I was blinded by what I thought I knew about my first choice school."
* Most important step: if you possibly can, visit schools that accepted you, even if you have visited them already. Let me repeat this. Go back for another visit to the schools you are seriously considering. When you arrive, act like you are just starting your search. You may be amazed at how some of the schools have changed since you first visited or differ from what you've been reading in the brochures. Why? It's because you have been changing and you are continuing to change now that you face a real decision. When you walk onto campus, try to avoid finding reasons not to like a place -- things that turn you off. Instead, try the much more useful exercise of picturing yourself there as a student, thriving and enjoying both the educational opportunities and the campus scene. This may involve picturing yourself in some new ways as well. This is a good thing.
* Do something that can be very hard: ask your mother, father and/or guardian what they truly think about the schools that have admitted you. Insist that they be specific about their impressions, and weigh what they say in the light of what you know about their good judgment. Why do this? First, they care about you and may know you in ways you don't know yourself. Second, they have often been paying close attention to the differences among colleges. Third, they are probably going to be paying or helping to pay for this. Make it clear that you would like to make up your own mind, that you view certain things differently than they do. But ask them, listen to what they have to say, and weigh it carefully against what you think. By approaching them directly, you will also save everyone the agony of communicating by subtle hints, bizarre facial expressions, comments to relatives, or desperate pleading.
* If you haven't done it already, you also need to talk with your backers about the money. I am always amazed at how many families have somehow gotten to this point without a serious discussion on who's paying for what and how much difference a difference in price is going to make to the final decision.
* If you can follow these steps and hold off the rush to judgment, you may be very surprised to find yourself strongly considering a school you did not originally put at the top of your list. And if instead, you end up confirming your first choice after all, you will do that only after giving it a very sober review in light of the competition and the finances. This is not only healthy, but it is going to make you much more knowledgeable and realistic about what to expect when you arrive on campus.
Remember above all else that no college is going to be paradise, and that all colleges have something truly outstanding to offer you. As much as the deans who admitted you hope to see you on their campuses come September, what we hope even more is that you make a wise, thoughtful and fruitful choice, one of many more to come.