My daughter, Kate, recently decided that she will matriculate at Bryn Mawr College this fall. She is absolutely thrilled, and everyone in the family has their Bryn Mawr t-shirts. Even a few months ago, let along a year ago, I would not have predicted this outcome.* I'm bringing this up because our experience hold some illustrative lessons not just for finding a college (or high school), but also for the educational process in general.
During the spring break of her junior year, Kate and I took a college trip while my wife and son did their own thing. Our trip was based on her belief that she wanted to attend a large urban university in the northeastern United States, preferably Boston or New York. Her college counselor also suggested some other places for perspective and exposure. She gladly agreed, but remained adamant about one thing: she did not want an all-women's college.
After the trip and some reflection, we reassessed and spelled out the new criteria. Small liberal arts college. Liberal political atmosphere with commitment to social justice. Vibrant music and theater program for her to participate in, although not major in. Preferably in the northeast, but not necessarily. Did have to be near a big, lively city...but not right in the city. Near a train station so she easily could get into the city, and the train also should take her in the other direction to beautiful natural areas for long bike rides. Co-ed. I remember thinking, this makes it easy since probably around a dozen colleges fit all these criteria exactly!
One school kept rising to the top in her mind, and I believe she wanted to apply early decision. We nixed that idea for assorted reasons. The most compelling one came from her college counselor (new since the other had moved to a different school): Kate will be a different person in the spring than she is right now. We identified the list for Kate to consider now, and he convinced her to keep an open mind about Bryn Mawr. So, with that in mind, we planned another trip for the fall. We kept Bryn Mawr on there since we would be near it visiting another school. We had a very nice time there--as we did everywhere--but nothing that made me think, "This is the place!" Kate seemed to feel the same way.
Then came the applications, more interviews, waiting, happiness, disappointment, more trips, reflection. Most of the news was very good and quite affirming, but we tried not to get too high or low with any of it. She was going to have strong options, and she said several times she could be happy at any of her choices. One moment, though, stands out in hindsight. She texted her mom and me, "I got into Bryn Mawr!!!!!" Note the multiple exclamation points. We hadn't seen quite such a reaction to any other place. Soon she reduced the choice to two colleges: another and Bryn Mawr. A trip up with my wife, and they were hooked. The more I've learned, the more I'm sold. Meanwhile, I've done loads of wondering about how we ended up with this choice.
I think the answer is simple: we trusted in the process. And while that process felt interminable at times, that turns out to have been a good thing. As that counselor predicated, she was a much more mature young woman in the spring, able to make a more informed, self-aware decision. The entire time she had been doing her research (more than we realized), doing some healthy self-reflection, and thoughtfully weighing pros and cons while remaining open to anything. Speaking of those counselors, I'm so grateful to them. By them I mean her first counselor and then his replacement; and I mean the admission counselors at the colleges who, despite the pressure for high numbers and yield, always made us feel they had Kate's best interest in mind. I know many other people--adults, friends--helped in different ways. We listened to people who had different perspectives on Kate. It was a multi-faceted partnership. And none of us began with definite outcomes in mind other than a sense of pride and fulfillment. Although I did sometimes have to remind myself it was where she felt best about, not where I would want to go. Similarly, as one college counselor reminded me, "See this through her lens. You naturally love ____ because you see what's happening there through an educational leadership lens."
I also think this experience, while condensed, captures how education in general should work. It is a long-term process, one that is anything but linear. It's full of frustrations and excitements and quandaries and realizations, often coming in ways we simply don't expect. And if we can just have faith and trust, it's a really beautiful thing.
*I am choosing not to mention the other schools to which she applied. They all are great places, and I don't want anything I write to suggest otherwise. Plus I believe very strongly in the philosophy expressed in Frank Bruni's Where You Go Is Not Who'll You: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.