02/12/2013 11:58 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

And the Wait Begins

At this time of year, college applicants struggle to find the right institution for them. In the early stage of the process, the first decision is to determine whether or not they would feel most comfortable at a large institution or in a smaller setting. I always encourage students to visit those campuses that meet their criteria, filter out the noise, and imagine themselves in the setting. At the same time, however, I warn them that the accumulated wisdom acquired during these campus visits will likely change their own criteria for selection.

Whatever happens, applicants should be prepared for an adventure. Those that see only trauma where unbridled opportunity exists miss the point of the exercise entirely.

Usually something happens during a campus visit to make their choice easier. One of my sons ruled out two very prestigious Eastern schools because the tour guide would not visit the dormitory facilities. He reasoned correctly that if the institution couldn't take the time to show him where he would live over the next four years then perhaps it was the wrong institution for him.

His brother took a different approach. From the outset, he knew that his undergraduate years would be spent at a smaller institution. For him, the decision came down to the following logic - you know when you feel it. For him, schools had personalities and failed or succeeded because they were quirky, humorless, or too precious. Of course, he was right because the young man has a clear sense of self that carried into the selection process.

My wife and I remember one of them sitting on his suitcase looking dejected after visiting a very good school to which our son had been offered a prestigious "full-ride" scholarship. In retrospect, it was one of the best if costlier moments of our life together as a family. Like his brother, he knew when he felt it.

With these thoughts in mind, students and their families should consider the following advice:

* Students should apply to any college - public or independent - for which they believe they are qualified - and don't confuse sticker price with the cost to you.

* For some students their first experience in college should be at a two-year institution where the quality of the program, the opportunity to get their feet wet, and the ability to save for a four-year degree offer attractive options.

* There is no "right" college but there are a unique first cluster of exceptional colleges at which the student will likely be happy; indeed, many applicants waste far too much time trying to make a perfect single match.

* There are two decision points. The first is whether or not the student received an acceptance letter. If the answer is "yes," the most pressing question is whether or not the financial aid package is sufficient to continue the discussion. Don't rule out anything until after you have explored it.

* If the college presents an aggressive financial aid offer, should the family qualify for aid, students and their families must reasonably expect that they should also shoulder some reasonable responsibility for the education of their children.

* In the end, no one will remember which schools rejected or wait listed you or why you chose Loyola over Georgetown; in fact, you will be judged on the basis of whom you became and how you handled the opportunity that a college degree presented to you.

For a privileged few students, receiving a wait list or rejection letter may seem like the end of the world. They have never heard "no." There's really nothing to say to them. They too must come to terms with what many of their peers likely already know - rejection is a bump in the road to maturity. Smart and privileged doesn't make you any more mature than less fortunate peers. Hopefully, most students understand that colleges reject for many reasons even when a student falls within the spectrum of their acceptance profile. As colleges and universities fill out their class, they look to some variation of gaps - in profile, major, gender, financial capacity, and others - to round out the class. In the end, it is what it is.

For three generations, American society has placed special value on a college degree. It has been and will remain the best path to the promise that is still possible in a robust democracy. For most students, the hard part was done when the application reached the admissions office. The wait will be hard. Rejection will likely occur. The path they take by April may not be the road they planned to travel in November.

If they keep their perspective and are flexible and creative, however, what a path it will be! Relax and chill out. In the end, they'll know when they feel it.