To Decide or Not to Decide: The Paradox of Choice in College Decisions

The college process can feel daunting, especially for the current class of seniors forced to apply to universities they may have never visited.

If you’ve already been through the process, you may fondly remember the days of filling out endless questionnaires asking you whether you prefer “urban or rural” or “large or small” for your college environment. Never mind the fact that you truly had no conception for what attending a 40,000-student institution feels like nor what it would be like as a Californian native to spend February in a rural Pennsylvanian town. While these characteristics remain valuable to narrowing down your list of schools, you may end up in a totally different place than you expected. I would know.

All-in-all, I visited twenty-two colleges and universities located around the country. Some of my best memories took place on those college trips. I would recommend considering college tours if you have the time and resources. If you take a vacation somewhere, ask your family if you could stop by one or two local colleges while there.

I visited schools that ended up the complete opposite of what I wanted in a college experience, but I never would have known that had I not explored a wide variety of options.

college campus

In the fall of my senior year of high school, my college counselor instructed me to rank all the schools I applied to in a rough version of my preference order. At this point, I had narrowed it down to twelve schools. The University of San Diego, the school I currently attend, remained second to last on that list for a good portion of the fall. I felt sure that I knew where I needed to end up: Scripps College, a small all women’s liberal arts school in a suburb east of Los Angeles.

My transition from my all girl’s academic-focused grade school to my co-ed athletic Jesuit high school was rocky at first. I would not trade anything for how I grew through high school and I cherish every memory I experienced. But as an emotionally turbulent seventeen-year-old, I could only think of one thing: I wanted out. I craved an experience more akin to the environment in which I flourished during my primary education.

Juggling SATs and Common App essays with your schoolwork and extracurriculars get a reputation for being incredibly stressful. Personally, the college process brought out the best aspects in me. It challenged me to hone time management skills and the ability to simultaneously focus on the present and the future. However, as soon as I submitted all of my applications, I made the fatal mistake of putting college out of my mind until I received my decision letters.

From January through March, I barely had any conception of college. Only the vague but overarching understanding that the relationships and life I built in high school was destined to come to an end. However, on the research side of things I seemed underprepared. I prided myself on keeping my options open and avoiding attachment to one college, although I still had my eye on Scripps. The day I received my acceptance letter from Scripps, I felt absolutely ecstatic.

I finally felt free from the childish drama that had gotten ahold of me the last few months of high school.

mean girls

Or so I thought. I spent spring break touring my top three colleges, all located in the Los Angeles area. To my absolute shock, I found myself feeling completely out of place at all three of the schools that I had been so convinced were the right fit for me. Within a week, I rejected offers from Scripps and Occidental, my previous top two choices, on the grounds of financial and academic offerings. As an aspiring business major who needed a hefty merit scholarship to put myself through college, I should have easily known that liberal arts schools that only covered half the cost of my tuition would not hold as the best option.

I found myself sobbing in a hotel bathroom in downtown LA at 3 am a week before decisions were due, convinced that I was destined to have to transfer. All my hard work throughout high school to find the perfect fit college felt like a waste. On the drive from LA back to San Francisco, I spent time frantically researching transfer acceptance rates for schools not even on my radar throughout the process.

I felt completely defeated.

woman in airport

In a final Hail Mary attempt, I hopped on a plane to San Diego just mere days before the due date for college decisions. I had long before written off the University of San Diego as “below me,” blind to the fact that they offered everything I was looking for in a college.

Before you think I’m about to tell you I immediately fell in love with the campus and knew right then and there that this was where I belonged or any of the other cliches college counselors will tell you, let me clarify that I didn’t. I walked around campus, attended a class, ate lunch at La Paloma… and pretty much felt nothing. Overall, I felt that it was okay, it was fine, there seemed nothing “wrong” with it. However, I returned home still undecided.

And even after I accepted my offer at USD on at 5:30 p.m. on May 1st, I had second thoughts. I woke my dad up in the middle of the night to tell him I changed my mind and begged him to call the other college I was deciding between to ask for my spot back. I felt uneasy about my decision even over the summer, even when I arrived on campus in the fall.

However, I now can see that USD seems like the perfect fit for me in every way, and I could not feel happier.

people laughing

Looking back, the college process taught me many things. First, you simply must realize that there exists no single ‘perfect’ school for you. Chances are I would have loved any of the schools I had applied to. Secondly, look at reviews on websites like Niche but don’t concern yourself with U.S News and World Report rankings. While your school doesn’t rank in the top 20 overall, the specific program you want to get into might rank highly.

If you apply yourself and take advantage of career resources in college, you will succeed in securing a job almost no matter where you attend college. Lastly, don’t worry if you haven’t found that school that feels “right”; you might not feel that spark (especially if the pandemic stops you from visiting campus) and that remains perfectly okay. Take advantage of this process as an opportunity to explore and learn about yourself. I believe in you, Class of 2021. You got this.


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