Knowing God’s Will: Choosing a College (#1)
Common Errors When Choosing A College
“Where are you going to college?” is one of the most frequent questions faced by high school seniors in our ISC school system. It’s also one of the most emotionally loaded questions students face in their later high school years. For Christian students, it’s most-likely their first big “discerning God’s will” decision.
So many expectations (e.g. from parents, teachers, friends, themselves) are attached to the answer of that question that it’s no wonder many students just shrug and try to change the subject. At a time in life when students are just beginning to discover who they are, they are presented with the challenge to make a decision that seems to carry the weight of the rest of their lives. (We adults know that one’s college choice does not determine their fate, but from a student’s perspective, it sure seems like it does.) It’s as if going to a “good” college guarantees a successful future, and not going to a “good” college destines one to mediocrity. However, defining what “good” means is a tricky task and then getting accepted if often even trickier.
In my experience in working with youth and college students (as well as being a parent of a high school senior), I have seen (and, at times, struggled with) several common errors that make the discerning process much harder than it needs to be. Though I can not offer a formula for guaranteed stress-free choosing, I believe there are some helpful things to remember that can make choosing a college a little less anxiety producing. Similarly, for Christian students seeking God’s will for their college choice, these reminders can help to counter-act the fear-based messages of our culture.
Error #1: College reputation = Quality of education
Research demonstrates that factors such as class size, student engagement, and skilled teachers (vs researchers) are much more relevant to student success than a school’s reputation. Finding a college that “fits” the student and genuinely prioritizes effectively educating undergraduates should be a top priority for all students and parents. Some of the more reputable colleges and universities maintain this priority, but many have their priorities split among securing research grants, graduate students and maintaining their reputations. Often times, smaller (and less famous) schools are able to excel in educating undergraduates. Additionally, along with an academic education, schools pass along a value system. Students need to consider what values they want to be shaped by in the years ahead.
Error #2: “There is only one right college for me.”
Whether it’s attending a parent’s alma mater or getting into one’s #1 choice, students often feel that there is only “one right college” for them. While there’s nothing wrong with getting excited by a particular option, the truth is that nearly every college has the potential to offer a fantastic education and life experience. The unique character and offerings of each college does shape a student’s experience, but the attitude and engagement of the student is what matters most. Burdening the process with finding “the one right college” is neither accurate nor helpful. Therefore, as adult voices in the lives of students, let us remind them that God is present at every campus and no matter where they end up, they can expect God to bless and use them if they continue to obey and prioritize their relationship with God.
Error #3: Becoming passive or phony.
Two other errors, that both arise from fear, are when students become passive in the discernment process or manipulative. On the passive side of the spectrum, some students may fail to do the work of reflecting on their interests, priorities, values and vocational dreams. They may not believe that God will guide them, so they simply resist engaging. Paralyzed by uncertainty, some students settle for their high school’s default college options, rather than actively investigating where they might actually thrive.
Alternatively, some students respond to the uncertainty by launching a “propaganda campaign” to make themselves appear to be someone they are not. Ironically, most college application committees can pick out the genuine from the artificial elements in applications and the “embellishments” might actually undermine a student’s chance at acceptance. Similarly, this practice wrongly reinforces the idea that in order to succeed, we need to hide our true selves and construct a façade. We must encourage students to maintain their integrity and trust that God will work through their honesty.
Error #4: Basing one’s identity on their college.
The last common error students (and parents) make is to attach the student’s value or identity to the college they attend (or get accepted into). Sure, it feels good to get accepted into the college of one’s dreams, but it doesn’t make a student any more valuable than they were before. Likewise, it hurts to get a rejection letter from a college (or colleges), but it doesn’t make them any less valuable than they were before.
Competitive colleges reject many qualified applicants. They are limited by a target enrollment goals and end up selecting only a fraction of “worthy” students. Several factors are at play and many of them have little to do with the particular student (e.g. quotas based on regional, gender and racial diversity).
More importantly, regardless of whether students get accepted or rejected by the college of their dreams, they need to know that they are loved and valued no matter where they go (or don’t go at all). While many students know this in their heads, we need to reinforce this message to their hearts.
The road to choosing a college is full of potholes and hazards; however, seeing some of the bigger ones in advance can help us avoid running into them unnecessarily.
In my next blog post, I’ll discuss some positive approaches to choosing a college that can ease the stress and enrich the outcomes.
-Dr. Dave Zovak
Odyssey, ISC Leadership Specialist