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Picking the “wrong” college

Finding the right college doesn’t always happen the first time around

Picking the “wrong” college

Every student wants to choose the “right” college. Unfortunately, sometimes their final decision does not pan out like they expected it would. As their first year of college unfolds, homesickness, academic rigor and/or or finances may pull students back to their hometown. I had one student who did everything “right” — grades, co-curricular activities, test scores, two summer leadership programs — and ended up at one of the service academies. After a while, she realized that she attended this institution for the wrong reasons and had to make a change. After a short break, she transferred into a highly-respected university nearby. Recently, I heard she was in a Ph.D. program for engineering at a world-famous university.


People can sometimes think transferring is a sign of failure or giving up. However, as I have learned, failure doesn’t happen by not getting it right the first time. Failure comes from refusing to continue one’s education at all. That being said, I still think a good portion of every graduating class in every high school can do a better job in their college search process. 


According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute’s student survey, 87 percent of students said they enrolled at either their first or second choice school. However, if that many students said they ended up at one of their top two schools, then why is the freshmen retention rate only 77 percent? If you look at schools in the U.K., the vast majority of schools are well above that percentage. Why? Their admissions process is a structured, fairly objective process that is designed towards access rather than efficiency.


Students must realize that the highly-desired “fit” of a school is an elastic concept. Juniors who enter into the college quest need to realize that the college where they enroll will be 50 percent different by the time they start. I entered into my search process wanting to play a certain sport and based the destination on that factor. However, by the time it came for me to actually enroll, the school had dropped the program and the coach had left. I still ended up attending this school along with one of my high school classmates. Did I pick the “wrong” college? Did I make a mistake? Not necessarily. Rather, I made an “unsuccessful choice.” I made a decision with the information I had on hand at that time rather than reinvestigating as I neared admission time. I don’t regret my choice or where it led me, but I do encourage students to continue researching their college choices leading up to their decision.


Regardless of where they go, newly matriculated students need to make a conscious choice to start working on what they want to accomplish in college. Becoming fluent in a foreign language or two, securing internships, taking challenging courses and seeking out leadership roles, should be at the forefront of every student’s postsecondary experience. As long as those opportunities are available, a college transfer may not be necessary. However, if students find they are lacking in the experience they expected, there is nothing wrong with trying again at another institution — as long as proper research is conducted.


Remember to tell your students: it is not where you go that matters, but what you do that is of the utmost importance. Should you accomplish that goal, then you have picked the “right” college.


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