Senior year I was sitting in an interdisciplinary class on the history and literature of Great Britain. I was supposed to be paying attention to something about Henry VIII’s sixth wife, but in my lap I held a tattered scrap of paper with a list of 10 colleges on it. I was almost going blind staring again at the biggest decision of my life, sweating, no longer able to hear, flashes of fate, glory and doom assailing me with every short breath, until my best friend slammed her hand on my desk and said, Put that away!
I loved boarding school, even the parts other people didn’t love so much, and was extremely successful academically and well rounded in my extra-curriculars. For some reason when it came to picking a college, I lost my usual confidence and the spirit of adventure that took me head first into everything. Here are 6 things that would have helped my young angst-ridden self as I reached for my sixth side dish of crinkle cheese fries later on hamburger day.
#1 You’re way ahead of the kids who didn’t go to boarding school. Remember when you first walked into the dining hall for dinner – alone?!? Who’s in here? Can anyone see me? What’s that smell? Is there anywhere else I can get food? Where am I going to sit! Am I wearing pants? You faced all that social pressure and confusion, not to mention weird food if only on occasion, when you were only 13. Or 14 or 15. Other college students are going to be confronted with the terrors and liberation of living away from home for the first time when they’re 17, 18, 19. You’re an old salt. College will be a continuation of a journey you’ve already started. So start thinking about how college is a next step for you, not a first step. What do you want to get out of college that’s beyond what you’ve gotten out of boarding school? What can build on the person you are already becoming as an individual out in the world? You’re not going to be all hung up about managing your own laundry once a week or getting along with a stranger (read: roommate) who now sleeps in your room, so what’s the new frontier for you? What do you want to be the same or different from boarding school? If something’s working for you now, seek it out. In fact, keep doing that.
#2 You don’t have to know “who you are” yet. If you know what you want to be when you grow up, go to the best college that’s going to get you there – through academics, career counseling and connections. But if you don’t know – if boarding school is like a Renaissance heaven and you can’t decide between microbiology and the theatre – choose a college whose culture and academic requirements will support you to explore. Some do, some don’t.
#3 Listen to the small voice. That is to say, go with your own instinct. You might not know what you want yet, but you can probably smell the bread that’s going to lead you to the bakery. It may be hard to know where you want to go if you have family pressure to go to a particular school or kind of school, or if you’ve been groomed in a particular direction, say writing and literature, but you really want to study astrophysics and the Mayan calendar. One day it happens to all of us – what we really want, what we really love, pokes its head through and starts to grow like a mighty oak – sometimes with a vengeance crashing everything down around us and sometimes as elegantly as the most beautiful ballet dancer. If you can – yes I’ll say it – listen to your heart now and base your decisions on what you hear, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble in the future when what you really wanted all along erupts like Mount Vesuvius. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.
#4 The east coast and the west coast are very different. North America is huge and very diverse in terms of industry, history, current culture and how far you have to drive to get from work to a place where there are more than a few trees. Now consider the world – it’s round, did you know? Huge and wondrous, manifold and beautiful. You are going to be putting roots down wherever you go to college in a way you might not have in boarding school. And the culture of the region where you go to college will definitely put its roots into you. Go where your industry is, go where the culture will entrain you with the outlook you need, go where it’s familiar or where it’s totally new, depending on what helps you best. Go where you feel like you.
#5 Make college visits. Definitely. You’ve got to feel it, to know if you feel it. You probably visited a few boarding schools before you found the right place, right? This time, spend the night. Ditch your parents. Try to stay with fellow boarding school alums. Ask questions. And above all, notice what you notice. What pops out? What seems weird? Ask about that. Maybe it’s just different from what you’re used to and will suit you more in the long run. Maybe it’s just weird. Always remember, the Pink Floyd concert at Oakland Coliseum in the pouring rain, is not what it will be like every day.
#6 It’s not the biggest decision of your life. Look at Henry VIII. He changed his mind all the time, and with that, the world. You will make numerous decisions throughout your adult life that will feel as momentous as this one and will be. But there’s always opportunity to make another decision to change your direction and find what’s right for you. Start to notice how you make choices right now and develop that skill. It’s Decisions 101 and it will be one of the best prep courses you ever take.
In the end, in terms of where you get in and where you go – it’s true, if you graduate from a big name college, like really big name, it will open doors for you for the rest of your life. Rest of your life. It doesn’t matter how well you do there. Maybe it will matter to someone who’s also on the inside, but there will be so much support, camaraderie, or pressure to excel, that you’re going to do your best anyway. If you go to a college that’s not a household name and excel, you’ll do well for the rest of your life and get to where you want to be. And if you choose to leave college and reinvent the internet, that’s good too. Learn to be your very best you and to make the most out of what is available to you. This will serve you forever. You already have a great head start.