Young Americans

American kids and their parents navigating the twenty-first century.

The Desperate Season

Thinking rationally about your child's college choice? Think again!

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Psychologists who study the irrational- whether we call it intuition, the unconscious, "automatic" knowledge or the "unthought known"- can only love the last two weeks in April. This is the season when high school seniors have been admitted to the colleges of their choice, and have to make The Big Decision. Now, we know there are kids who have no Big Decision: some have only been admitted to one college, or unequal financial aid packages offered by several colleges make the decision a no-brainer. But for many kids, this time of year is when they have to make a seemingly life-altering choice. On what basis do they make it? Up until now, the process has seemed oh-so-rational. Kids use guidance counselors and parents to select colleges that seem to be a good fit in terms of size, courses of study, geography, costs- and then apply to these rational choice colleges with great and systematic effort. And now…three out of the five, or two out of the six, said yes. Now what? Suddenly, irrationality kicks in. All those rational choices devolve into things like "I liked the girl that gave the tour," or "The tuna melt they served was a little sketchy." One college admissions officer tells of a high school senior who declined his school because "they don't have any trees." But she had visited in November, when the numerous campus trees were bare: she changed her mind and decided to go after all after a second visit in leafier mid-April. Some of the reasons given are potentially disastrous, like "Another kid from my high school is going so it will be just like home." But most of these intuitions are rationalizations for something deeper that might be understood if one had the time- which one doesn't, because the decision has to be made in two or three weeks. What's a parent to do? Don't despair. If the original set of choices was rational, the final choice will have to be sound as well, even if your child's explanations make him sound a little too…intuitive. And if all else fails there's always the transfer application. Then your kid will have a whole new set of choices to make at this time next spring.

David Anderegg, Ph.D., is a clinical and developmental psychologist on the faculty of Bennington College and a child therapist in private practice in Lenox, Massachusetts.

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