Jake Breeden

Tipping Sacred Cows

How to Help Your Kid Pick a College

Advice from the social science of decision making and a wise pediatrician.

Posted Mar 19, 2017

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When my daughter, Emily, was two years old, I asked her pediatrician for his advice on how to speed up toilet training.

“There's not a lot you can do to speed up Emily's potty training,” he said. “But there is a lot you can do to make her neurotic in the process. So don't do those things. I promise you that when she goes to college, she won't be wearing diapers.”

Emily is a 19-year old college sophomore and -- as her wise and droll pediatrician predicted -- diaper free.

As Emily's 17-year old sister, Clara, begins to receive her college admission decisions, I'm thinking back on the parenting advice to relax and let things unfold. It's tough advice to follow, especially with a decision that feels so monumental.

In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot called April the “cruelest month.” Although I don't think Eliot was referring to the time when college seniors make their decisions on where to spend the next four years of their lives, he could have been. The decisions come back from colleges by the end of March, and the deposit must be sent to the chosen school by May 1.

Cruel April is the time when the tables are turned and it's the teenagers who pick the colleges. The admission committees have made tens of thousands of decisions - they know how to pick kids. But a kid picks her alma mater only once. The student doesn't get to look back at all the colleges she's picked before and base this choice on accumulated experience and data analytics. She's flying blind.

Based on the science of decision making that I study and share with executives and on mistakes I've made and observed, here are a few tips for the parents whose kids will pick their college this April:

First, a message for pushy parents: resist the urge to push your little scholar up the rankings list. You can find compelling evidence that selective colleges are overrated. You can find compelling evidence that the previous sentence is wrong. You can find good evidence for anything you want to believe about how to pick a college - so you might as well relax.

Second, a message for the clingy parents: If you desperately want your kids to stay close to home, your child will pick up on your desires. No matter the words you say, if your kid is smart enough to get into college, she's smart enough to detect your desperation. So work on yourself. An empty nest is not a harbinger of death. Get yourself to a good place so that you can let go happily, and do it now. Meditate. Work not only on the words you say but the thoughts you have. Notice the thoughts of fear and worry, and peacefully wait for them to abate. Eventually, you'll become bored by your angst and move to other thoughts. Your bright young child will notice that you're ready for her to go.

Now a message for all of us: let her pick. You decide how much you can pay, of course. But within those rules, let her pick. If she deselects a school because the tour guide was annoying, the dorm rooms smelled funny or the place just didn't feel good, perfect: the list is winnowed. If she selects a school because she liked the chai latte at the coffee shop or the smell of the blossoming cherry trees, perfect: she's falling in love with her future home.

Finally, you should decide you are thrilled with the school your child picks. Our minds have a powerful ability to seek out evidence to confirm the things we believe. This confirmation bias is often problematic, but it doesn't have to be. Use your brain’s foibles as a method to find happiness fast: decide to love a school. Believe it was meant to be all along, and let your brain get busy finding all the reasons why that one college was, indeed, always meant to be your child's home for the next few years.

As Emily’s pediatrician might have said, there's not a lot you can do to guarantee your child makes the choice you think she should make, but there's a lot you can do to annoy her as she makes her decision. So don't do those things. Be grateful she's growing, and be curious about what's next for her and what's next for you.