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The College Admission Paradox: Opportunity And Choice

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at January 1, 1970

The headlines would have you believe that it is impossible to be admitted to college. This could lead the media-soaked applicant to conclude that their options are limited. Not true. The truth is that the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges in this country hovers around 65%. Inherent in this truth is that college admission is ripe with choice, and applicants have a lot more control than they are led to believe. Therefore, students are wise to ignore the false narrative of impossible selectivity and instead focus on the greater conundrum—the paradox of having too many options.

For college-bound students, May 1 is the National Candidate Reply Date, the day by which they must decide among the colleges to which they were admitted. Meanwhile, high school juniors are beginning to build their college application lists. You see, choices abound. But this might not be a good thing, especially for young people whose brains are not yet fully wired for decision-making. There is, however, hope in moderation and in approaching college admission intentionally.

In his book “The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz makes a compelling argument for “why more is less”. Throughout the first ten chapters, he provides study after study as evidence of how an overload of choice can paralyze even the most discerning individual. He concludes:

“Here we are, living at the pinnacle of human possibility, awash in material abundance. As a society, we have achieved what our ancestors could, at most, only dream about, but it comes at a price. We get what we say we want, only to discover that what we want doesn’t satisfy us to the degree that we expect. We are surrounded by modern, time-saving devices, but we never seem to have enough. We are free to be the authors of our own lives, but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’”

Schwartz summarizes the impact of this dilemma, saying,

“The ‘success’ of modernity turns out to be bittersweet, and everywhere we look it appears that a significant contributing factor is the overabundance of choice. Having too many choices produces psychological distress, especially when combined with regret, concern about status, adaptation, social comparison, and perhaps most important, the desire to have the best of everything—to maximize.”

Fortunately, there is an antidote to this quandary. In the final chapter of the book, he provides a framework for approaching choice, and it is wonderfully applicable to college admission. Student-authors, as you write the next chapter of your lives, and make decisions that will shape them, consider the following:

Choose When to Choose

The number of choices you have in the college search can add up quickly and start to have a negative impact. Schwartz explains that we need to “manage the problem of excessive choice“ by focusing on the decisions that really matter. Essentially, “don’t sweat the small stuff“ because it can cumulatively become big stuff and impede your ability to move forward.

Take control of the choices you have and decide which are important to the ultimate outcome. This can be accomplished by setting limits and protecting yourself from being overwhelmed. Perhaps decide at the beginning of your search that you will apply to no more than 10 schools. Talk to those who support you and decide what choices are central to your post-secondary life, and determine whether you will make them in collaboration with others, or by yourself. Don’t waste time spinning your wheels about the abundance of choice, instead narrow it to what matters.

Be a Chooser, Not a Picker

Searching for, applying to, and deciding on a college is not a passive experience. Schwartz describes “pickers“ as those who settle for picking from whatever is available. “Choosers,” he says, realize that good decisions require “time and attention” and a resistance to simply following the herd. They are active and opportunistic about choice. Plan ahead. If you don’t want to default to simply being a picker, you will need to be proactive about the admission experience and creative in how you approach it. Engage with schools in meaningful ways that will help you know the community and opportunities more fully. Ask good questions and do your research. No need to obsess over choosing but be more than a picker!

Satisfice More and Maximize Less

Are you one to always look for the best and accept nothing less? If so, you are likely what Schwartz identifies as a “maximizer”. If, on the other hand, you are comfortable with “good enough” (or maybe even excellent but not the very best), you might be what economist and psychologist, Herbert Simon, calls a “satisficer”. Schwartz warns that “maximizing is the source of great dissatisfaction, that it can make people miserable.” These people are less happy, less optimistic, and more depressed.

If you find yourself combing through commercial rankings like US News and World Report, searching for what has—often haphazardly—been dubbed the “best”, put down the magazine. You are only setting yourself up for the curse of the maximizer! Instead, go out and look for an opportunity that will be excellent, while meeting as many of YOUR unique needs as possible.

Think About the Cost of Missed Opportunities

With most decisions, the positive aspects of the option you choose will be accompanied by the loss of that which you did not. Schwartz explains that it is important to consider these missed opportunities, as they can also provide confidence in the option you did choose. Only to a degree, though. The more choices you have the more missed opportunities will emerge, making your decision that much more difficult. He says that while you should not ignore the associated costs, don’t worry that “you’ll miss out on all the new things the world has to offer.”

Make a list of pros and cons of each school you are considering and weigh the costs and benefits of each. Once you have decided, stick with that, and as Schwartz advises, “don’t be tempted by the ‘new and improved’.” To adapt an old saying, “The grass is always greener on the other college’s quad,” so appreciate the choice you made and pay close attention to the benefit of all the opportunities on your campus.

Make Your Decisions Nonreversible

Schwartz reflects on his years teaching college students and explains that those who think they are in the right place get far more out of that school than students who don’t. The conviction that they found a good fit makes them more confident, open to experiences, and attentive to opportunities.

If we see our decision as reversible, we are less likely to go “all-in” and Schwartz says that “the very option of being allowed to change our minds seems to increase the chances that we will change our minds.” Of course, you can always transfer colleges if you ultimately are convinced, after giving it a fair try, that it is not the right match. But it is unwise to enter in with this mindset. Once you choose a school, buy the sweatshirt, get excited, and go with conviction.

Practice an “Attitude of Gratitude”

“You don’t have to do this, you get to do this.” This quote, which is attributed to American jazz musician Tom Kubis, says it all. College admission is a privilege and having an abundance of choices is even more so. Don’t ruminate on the challenges of having to choose. Approach it as an opportunity and not a burden. This will help alleviate some of the pressure and increase satisfaction with the decision you make. Schwartz writes, “we can vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful more often for what is good about a choice or an experience, and to be disappointed less by what is bad about it.” He also points out that gratitude takes practice, so try incorporating this attitude into all aspects of your life.

Regret Less

Regret is a powerful emotion, and the fear of making the wrong decision can stop us in our tracks. Schwartz emphasizes that “it pays to remember just how complex life is and to realize how rare it is that any single decision, in and of itself, has the life-transforming power we sometimes think it might.”

College can be transformative in many ways, but it is what you make it and the power of this experience, as he points out, is not about the one school you choose. It is more dependent on the approach you take once you are there and how you engage with the opportunities around you. If you live with regret for the choices that you did or did not make, you are more likely to be unhappy and less inclined to seize these opportunities.

Anticipate Adaptation

The college you choose today is not going to look the same in a month, year, or when you graduate. Schwartz explains that it is natural to adapt as experiences change, but how we do so will dictate our feelings about the choices we make. He writes that we can “reduce disappointment from adaptation by following the satisficer’s strategy of spending less time and energy researching and agonizing over decisions.” If you accept that your college experience is going to feel very different after two months of classes than it did during orientation, you will be prepared for shifting emotions and satisfaction with your decision.

Control Expectations

Schwartz argues that adding more options increases expectations, and more expectations decrease ultimate satisfaction. He jokes in his popular Ted Talk, that “the secret to happiness is low expectations.” This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t have high hopes for the college path you choose. However, if you let your projections of what the experience will be go unchecked, you are likely setting yourself up for disappointment. No matter which school you choose, there will be moments throughout your college career that let you down–this you should expect. By managing these expectations at the outset, you will enhance your ability to be more confident and content with your choice.

Curtail Social Comparison

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is a thief of joy,” and this is perhaps most true in college admission. Despite attempts to keep your search and application experience private, it is ultimately destined to be exposed to public scrutiny and comparison. You have no control over what is said about your college choice by peers in the cafeteria or by parents at social gatherings. What you do control is how you compare yourself to those around you. Schwartz writes, “social comparison seems sufficiently destructive to our sense of well-being that it is worthwhile to remind ourselves to do it less.” Celebrate the joy of the decision you make and do not let anyone, including yourself, steal that from you.

Learn to Embrace Constraints

We can’t have it all, and in fact, Schwartz’s research suggests that if we did, we would likely be worse off. With an abundance of choice, sometimes it can be beneficial to have guardrails that narrow the available options. To prevent us from the “tyranny of choice,” Schwartz recommends “choice within constraints” and “freedom within limits”. Your college decision might be dependent on an intended major, family finances, distance limitations set by parents, or other factors. Rather than view these as detractors, embrace them for the ease they provide your deliberations.

Whether you are deciding on the college you will attend, or just starting to make sense of all your college options, don’t fall prey to the “tyranny of choice.” Be grateful for the freedom you have to choose, but resist the pull toward maximizing. The right choice for you is one that is made from a place of self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-acceptance. Embrace opportunities and manage your choices wisely.


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