The Final Approach to College

07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After more than a dozen school visits, fourteen applications, and 4,000 hours of conversation, my daughter has decided to go to Amherst College. We wrote the check, bought the t-shirt, checked the boxes to tell the other colleges, "No thanks." Last week, as the May 1 deadline approached, high school seniors across the country all made similar decisions -- and after all the hand-wringing about it being a record year for college applications, and a grinding, competitive, cut-throat process, the lesson learned is these kids know how to make a good decision. And they may know it far better than their Internet-searching, advisor-hiring, stressed-out parents. Turns out that you can contrast and compare all you want, consult school rankings, and try to project into the future about what course of study will be most valuable, but really, in the end, the best way to choose where to go to college may have nothing to do with any of that.

Carlyn has grown up in Southern California -- the land of little rain. When we first asked her what she wanted in a college, she said, "I want to wear sweaters and rain boots." She has played six years of club water polo and they don't play a lot in places where it rains, and so as the acceptances began to trickle in, and the rejections, too, she began to ask herself, What is water polo worth? What are the four seasons worth? As things went on, she added in more criteria. What is Aunt Laura's opinion worth? How much weight should I place on the quality of the food? The May 1 deadline loomed -- and still, Carlyn couldn't decide where she wanted to go. No amount of analysis seemed to help. Her dad and I joked that what we needed was a neon sign in the sky.

We happened to attend the Admitted Students day at Washington University in St. Louis with another student from Carlyn's high school, and his family. The parents escaped Iran when the Shah fell, came to this country with nothing, and have made a good life for themselves. They were rattled by some of the rejections their son had received (what parent wouldn't be?), and the dad was stalking around the Wash U campus like someone kicking the tires on a used car. He was determined to uncover every flaw. By the end of the visit, however, he was ecstatic. He liked every last little thing he saw. He said, "This is what we all dreamed of when we dreamed of America."

Later, on the plane on the way home, "You know what's weird?" Carlyn said to me. "He's right. There are no flaws. Everything about that school is great -- but somehow it doesn't add up." We spent the next several hours examining that strange equation. We talked about things that can't be measured, the sparkle you want to feel about the school you attend. The college counselors would call this "fit" -- and it has to do with tone and texture. It has to do with the feng shui of the buildings, the way the students walk across the quad -- or whether or not there's a quad at all. It's not something you find in any guidebooks, on any Internet search, by any means other than being there. One school may sparkle for one kid, but appear flat to another.

We approached L.A. from the south, across the desert. There is nothing out there, and it was dark, and then the lights of the city appeared in the distance, and then we were over the grid, looking down on baseball fields, football stadiums, and freeways. It's dramatic and striking on any given evening. It happened to be exactly nine o'clock, which is when the fireworks go off at Disneyland -- which you would know if you were Disney-obsessed like Carlyn -- and we watched the red, blue and green explosions in silent awe. The plane droned on toward LAX, and after a few minutes, Carlyn turned to me and smiled and said, "I've decided." It was, of course, the culmination of months of research and self analysis. It had been inspired by a long day of looking hard at a good school and knowing that the clock was ticking towards the decision deadline. But I'm the mom, and it also had the feel of magic. Fireworks. Sparkle. The key elements of higher education decision-making.

Carlyn got off the plane and told her dad she'd made up her mind, and he bought her a mocha shake at her favorite burger spot to celebrate, and she came home and posted her decision on Facebook, which is as good as carving it in stone.