For many high school students, senior year is an exciting time: after all the classes, tests, and extra-curricular activities, the time has almost come for the next big step: college!
There is, however, one part of being a senior that causes a lot of stress for students: choosing the right university.
Selecting a college can be daunting. Not only is the choice important – higher education is the key to a long and satisfying career – but it also reflects the first big life decision that a young person makes, and that can bring added anxiety.
Here are some psychological principles to help students choose the right school – and feel confident and relaxed doing so.
Make a List of What You're Looking For
There is a growing field of research that points to the psychological satisfaction of making lists. As a recent article points out, lists are tools that help us narrow down an infinite number of choices into a finite number of options. They help the list-writer feel a sense of control, while also helping to find which aspects are most important.
Here are some helpful items to think about when making a list:
- Academics: Is there a particular area of academics which you're interested in?
- Religion: Is your faith important to you?
- Sports: Are you looking to be involved in athletics?
- Greek Life: Are you interested in joining a fraternity or sorority?
- Reputation: Are you thinking about post-graduate work?
- Location: Are you looking to go to school close to home? Far from home?
- Finances: What can you afford?
So do some soul-searching and figure out what you want in a school. Do you want to double major in dance and finance? Find schools that offer both, and if the school doesn't offer both, don't add it. Want to go to school within 200 miles of your home? That'll help exclude a ton of schools. Want to go to school in Hawaii? Now you know where to look. Build a list of ten or so schools that meet your criteria, and be strict about adding/omitting schools that meet or don't meet your criteria.
Now That Your List Is Finished, Toss It In The Trash
Once you've determined a list of universities that meet all your needs, you no longer have to worry if the school measures up! No matter which university you choose, it will meet your needs, and you are now free to find out which university you fall in love with, and make a choice.
Here's a secret: we ourselves tend to be rational and logical, but we make the majority of our decisions based on emotion. Numerous tests have shown that most of the choices people make depend on the emotional reactions that an option creates. It's surprising, but it's true.
Choosing a college is no different – nor should it be. When you're visiting each of the schools on your list, be mindful of your thoughts and feelings. Did you fall in love with one of the schools? Does your mind keep returning to one of the choices? Be sure to write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal, because they can be fleeting!
A psychologist recently studied gamblers at a racetrack. When the gamblers placed a wager on a particular horse, their anxiety spiked. Their anxiety continued to remain high until their bets were final, and they had to watch the race – at which time their anxiety fell, but their excitement level remained the same.
So what does this have to do with choosing a school?
The research shows that when a decision is final, our confidence in the decision grows. So once you've chosen a school, said yes, and started imagining your life there, you will no longer be wondering if you made the right choice, and instead begin to become excited at the idea of making new friends, learning new things, enjoying a new sense of independence, and all the other wonderful things that college brings.
But What If I Don't Get Into My First Choice School?
It's very common for students to get very excited for a particular school, only to find that the university has declined admission. That happens, and it's a bummer. The good news, however – college is a pretty wonderful place full of incredible and unforgettable experiences, and the school that's Number 2 on your list will most likely bring you the same amount of happiness and fulfillment that your first school would!
Choosing a college can be a trying experience. Remember to keep cool and use psychology to your advantage, and you'll be certain you've made the right choice!
About the author
Matthew Burke is a counselor in northern New Jersey, and helps clients with decisions related to schools and careers. He runs the blog at CounselingCareerGuide.com.