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Decisions About College -- and Life -- Right Now

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Today I want to address directly a group of readers across the nation who are caught up in a most difficult moment of choice. But what I want to say speaks to all the toughest decisions we ever make.

Most people think the month of April starts with the silly jokes of "April Fool's Day." High school seniors and their families know that it starts with those long dreaded and hoped-for college admissions notifications.

Some of you who are in that category had very good news as the new month dawned -- your high school seniors got into the school of their dreams. If you were among these lucky few families, a hearty word of congratulations is in order. A great many other families, as you know, have faced initially less encouraging news.

It's hard to see an eager, hopeful child, of whatever age, receive a piece of difficult news. Perhaps a desperately desired "yes" did not appear. Or your senior now has to choose between two or more alternatives that no one is completely clear about how to compare. The decision might seem impossible. And as a result, there may be a high level of anxiety around your house.

If a choice is being faced, should your child seek to determine and pick the most prestigious of the available options? Or should the selection be made on other grounds?

If you and your senior are among those facing either a recent disappointment, or an apparently difficult choice, I have two pieces of very good news for you. And for any of you who have made a decision and are inwardly waffling, this will help you, too.

The first piece of good news is simple. The ancient stoic philosophers of Rome used to love to say this: Hardly anything in this world is a good as it seems or as bad as it seems, so we should all just calm down.

This is indeed good news, but of course as a philosopher I'm required to point out that, if it's true, then by its own cautions, it's likely not as good as it seems! And yet, we can use it. It matters less what happens to us in this world than what we do about what happens to us. The stoics helped us understand that many roads can lead to Rome, and they should know, since most of them lived there.

So, if you're dealing with a disappointment, allow yourself to get over it as quickly as possible. In the end, it need not derail any of the truly important goods of the future.

There's probably never been a life made or broken by a college admissions decision. It's ultimately not the decision, but rather what we do with the decision that counts. Admissions committees make their choices, and we make ours. They can make mistakes, and so can we, and life can go on quite wonderfully nonetheless. Adaptation, adjustment, confidence, and determined action are the keys.

This is related to the second piece of good news. My old friend Jeff Brenzel, dean of Admissions and Master of Timothy Dwight College at Yale, has long told me that, within an extremely wide range of alternatives, and vastly wider than you might suppose, it matters far less what school a young person goes to than what they bring to that school.

If your child has to make a decision now as to what school to attend, help take some of the pressure off. Few people make their best decisions under great pressure. Choosing a school is not like answering a multiple choice exam question where there is just one right answer and if you get it wrong, you fail.

Any bright teenager can flourish in any number of college contexts. In my many years as a professor, I came to see that. And we each have our own path. My daughter attended one university for four years and loved it. My son attended three in the same period of time. Both are doing very well. Regardless of what has happened, and what will yet happen, this month, and in the coming days, the next adventure that your child has will prepare him or her in surprising and marvelous ways for the one beyond that, and the one beyond that. Life is supposed to be a series of adventures.

So if your child has already made a decision, you can all feel good about it. If your admitted student still faces a choice, encourage that good student to continue gathering as much information as possible, and use imagination as well as intellect to compare and contrast options, to talk about it, and write out pro and con lists about it. Talking and writing clarify our thinking. But, in the end, know that any good decision will move them into position for the next adventure. And how that goes will ultimately be up to them. The decision made now doesn't have to be a perfect one, or by anyone's judgment the best possible one. Life is made of rougher timber than that. And great houses still get built.

If you'd like to think and talk more about the college decision process, and what comes after this month of April, come join me and some friends as we hash it all out at our new website and blog, www.CollegeStraightAhead.com. We'd love to hear your take and your wisdom on all of this.