Learning to Make Decisions

College Search Starter Kit: Post 2

“A healthy college search is one that treats the decision on where to attend as an investment. Now, as with any investment, from houses to stocks, positive returns are never guaranteed, there are simply too many factors that contribute to happiness and success, so the goal of the college search process should be simple…to tip the chances of success in your favor by conducting a college search that leads to a highly informed decision rather than an educated guess. If you can do that, no matter the immediate outcome, you should be well-placed to react to anything that follows. Let’s take a look at how to turn a traditional college search into a robust decision-making framework you can leverage throughout your life…

Hopefully you’ve already read the first post in this College Search Starter Kit series. If not, I highly recommend you go back as it outlines the basis for my college search philosophy and framework, including what I consider to be the three most critical aims of every college search process. 

Beginning with this second post we will look at each of these three aims in detail, starting with what it means to learn a reliable decision-making framework that will hopefully lead to a wise college investment, but also represents something you can carry forward and leverage throughout your life to make other difficult decisions like purchasing a house, investing for retirement or choosing a career aligned to your life goals.

Now, in just a few minutes we’ll review the college search process I presented to you as an incomplete model in the first post, and we’ll discuss how to adjust it into something far more reliable, but first I think the best way to illustrate why I believe it is so important to learn a proper decision-making framework is to tell you a story…my story.

In the spring of 2002 I graduated from Fairfield University and was on top of the world. I loved my college experience, made great friends, met my future husband, graduated with a solid GPA, was excited to start a graduate school program in Chicago and, owing to a soccer scholarship, had absolutely zero student loan debt. I felt as though I had done everything right and was well-positioned to reap the “inevitable” rewards that come from sustained hard work.

Seven months later the picture was very different. I was a graduate school drop out, living a thousand miles from home and stuck with an apartment lease in an unfamiliar city, and saddled with a five-figure debt load in the form of both student loans and credit card debt.

And that wasn’t even the worst part of the situation.

The worst part was that I had no idea where I had gone wrong, thus I no idea how to recover. Despite a thousand ideas bouncing around in my head, I didn’t even know how to begin to figure out which option, if any, represented the “right” way forward. After all, it was the sum total of my best decision-making abilities that had landed me in this situation in the first place. So I made what felt like a safe choice, and got a job in marketing!

I knew before signing the contract I didn’t want that job, and hated it with a passion – apart from all the great people, which would lead to a personal and professional breakthrough. My colleagues were great and one day in the first week, while having training with my the account coordinator I would replace, he mentioned that he was leaving because his wife had gotten a job as a university academic advisor, and suddenly a light flicked on. I’d never thought about it before, but right down to my core I knew that was what I wanted to do next. 

The only problem? 

I was still paralyzed with fear from my previous graduate school experience, so I decided to take a different approach.

I decided to read everything I could on becoming an academic advisor, talk to the advisors at my alma mater about the pros and cons of their profession and meet with professors to discuss the available programs, career paths and alternatives, to study how to make effective decisions in the first place…in short, I decided I would make the most informed decision humanly possible before leaving my job and committing myself to a new path.

And that’s when the penny dropped!

I didn’t have a wonderful undergraduate experience because I had done everything right. I had a wonderful undergraduate experience because I was lucky. 

I had conducted a traditional college search with steps like the ones listed in my first post, which ultimately led me to an educated guess amongst a handful of schools…and I guessed right. But that ended up being a problem because it meant I moved forward in life thinking that same process represented the best way to make other important decisions, so I repeated it when choosing my graduated school program…and that time I guessed wrong. 

I’d gone all in on a graduate school program I’d only researched on the surface, to work in a profession that I hadn’t fully understood, in a city where I didn’t know a single person, all on borrowed money without truly understanding the financial implications. And the end result was that I now had zero flexibility to pursue a life I wanted and was forced to take a marketing job in order to pay my student debt.

It was a painful and embarrassing experience, but I am forever grateful I learned my lesson at a time when college costs were still somewhat sane, and before I was forced to make any bigger life decisions with a faulty approach. 

And it later informed my approach to helping college-bound students conduct highly effective college searches that lead to lifelong results. In other words, over time I have integrated decision-making skills as a critical part of my consulting services…on par in importance with the outcome of the process itself!

So, with that as a backdrop let’s revisit the college search process I showed you in the first post and talk about how it can be adjusted to represent something far more robust and worth carrying forward in your life.

The steps presented were:

1 – Input your base-criteria into a search tool like College Board

2 – Generate a sensible list of target schools

3 – Conduct internet based research on those schools focusing on the five college pillars (geographic location, quality of academics, social dynamics, extra-curricular offerings and financials)

4 – Discuss the decision with a school counselor, your parents and a few friends

5 – Visit the “last schools standing”

6 – Choose and apply

Now before moving forward let me say that if this is what you consider a thorough college search you are not alone and, as a matter of fact, you are on the right track because all these are critical parts of robust college search. The problem is that there are a few really important steps missing – and it’s these steps that move you from making an educated guess (like I did) to making an informed decision.

Let’s look at what those steps are:

1 – Start with self-analysis.

2 – Organize your search

3 – Input your base-criteria into a search tool like College Board or Naviance

4 – Generate a sensible list of target schools

5 – Conduct internet based research on those schools focusing on the five common pillars (geographic location, quality of academics, social dynamics, extra-curricular offerings and financial situation)

6 – Conduct a second layer of research focused on secondary factors and the longer term implications of the five pillars

7 – Discuss the decision with a school counselor, your parents and a few friends

8 – Visit the “last schools standing”

9 – Have a pre-defined, “on paper” process for making micro (adding and dropping schools from the list) and macro (final choice) decisions

10 – Choose and apply

So I’ve obviously added four steps to the standard model (see the bold text above) and what I want to do next is talk a little bit about what each of these represents and why they are so important. You might also notice this is a ten-step process, but they don’t all need to happen in this sequence. For example, I would consider #7 as something you should do throughout the entire process, #9 as a part of #2, and would combine #3 and #4 into one step. As such, I typically consider my college search process to be a eight-step approach that looks something more like this:

1 – Start with self-analysis.

2 – Organize your search; including a pre-defined, “on paper” process for making micro (adding and dropping schools from the list) and macro (final choice) decisions.

3 – Input your base-criteria into a search tool like College Board and generate a sensible list of target schools.

4 – Conduct internet based research on those schools focusing on the five common pillars (geographic location, quality of academics, social dynamics, extra-curricular offerings and financial situation) and speak to teachers, counselors, your parents, friends and current college students about your decision.

5 – Conduct a second layer of research as your list begins to narrow to likely candidates, this time focused on secondary factors and the longer term implications of the five pillars.

6 – Continue to hold discussions with teachers, counselors, your parents, friends, etc., but make sure these conversations are more specific as you go along.

7 – Visit the “last schools standing”

8 – Choose and apply

Now, at this point I will briefly talk about the four steps I added, but if you want a more detailed look at all eight-steps, now is a great time to sign-up for the Your Path College Consulting Online Community because I’ll soon be publishing a more indepth look at all 8-steps for members; plus you will be among the first to know when my new eBook launches, which condenses thousands of dollars of private college consulting guidance into a fast and easy college search guide!

Begin with Self Analysis
So the first thing to realize about your college decision is that it is important, expensive and there are a LOT of options – and because of that it can be very easy to get sucked down the wrong path, or to get overwhelmed and feel pressure to make a “safe” (and usually very expensive) choice based on archaic logic, other people’s opinions and mostly irrelevant metrics like school rankings. 

The point is, as we talked about in the first post, unless you are going to one of a handful of truly elite powerhouse schools, it’s typically far more important to be happy with your choice, be in an environment in which you can thrive, and graduate with the tools, network and flexibility to pursue your ideal life (like the ability to make difficult decisions) – and that all begins with self-analysis.

And to be clear, it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want 10-years from now, what’s important is that you know enough to set-off in an exciting direction while closing as few doors as possible. 

And the good news is that your school counselor probably has a questionnaire to guide you through the self-analysis process…I know I do!

Organize Your Process 
You wouldn’t believe how much time gets wasted on repeated research and how many decisions get made in moments of emotional over-reaction (both positive and negative) simply because students set-out to make a college decision, one that often spans 18-months or more, solely reliant on their brains and maybe a few pieces of scrap paper to store, track and organize all the information and impressions they take in. 

In my 10-years of working with students it has not been uncommon to have a student have absolutely no idea why they dropped a school from their list just a few weeks later, or return from a campus visit on a rainy day (or when the college is closed for vacation) and want to drop the school from their list suddenly forgetting all the great reasons the school was on their list in the first place. The point is, don’t rely on your brain or gut alone. Have an organized method for doing research and tracking your decisions.

Have a Method for Making Micro and Macro Decisions
This goes hand-in-hand with organizing your progress, but perhaps my number one tip for the college search process is to develop a way to split hairs between schools. 

Throughout the process you will need to add and drop schools from your list, and the further along you get the harder this will be as the differences between schools can be very hard to define – and sometimes driven by gut alone. And while there is nothing wrong with making decisions that take gut-feelings into account, a decision as big as college shouldn’t be left to gut alone – particularly as our gut can sometimes be misled by rainy days or quiet days on campus like I mentioned above. 

As such, the best thing you can do is come up with a way to track exactly what sets each school apart from the others so you can make a decision that is a balance of both gut-feeling and hard facts. 

I personally use a numerical scoring approach which I developed a few years back and it seems to work really well with my one-on-one clients. You don’t necessarily have to follow a numerical approach, but you should absolutely make sure you have a meaningful method for ensuring your decisions are aligned to your life goals and not simply aligned to how you feel on some random Tuesday!

Conduct a Second Layer of Research on Secondary Factors and Deeper Aspects of the Five Pillars
This last point gets to the heart of treating the college decision like an investment, which is the next post. Where so many students come up short is that their college decision is based solely on the five pillars – and how those pillars will impact the next four years of their life. Yes, some students also think about their desired career and how a given school may increase or decrease their chances of landing a position in that field, but even that is far too narrow. 

You will be paying six-figures for this education, and it would be foolish to demand nothing more in return than four-years of memories and a piece of paper to carry into your first set of interviews. Again, this is the main topic of my next post, so I won’t go into detail here, but what we are talking about is secondary factors, like what services, systems or programs the school has in place to help an alumni who maybe lost their job five years after graduation, or what impact geographic location will have on your long term career prospects, how often you see your family, or whether your college friends scatter around the globe after graduation.

These are the types of topics that get lost in reviewing the latest rankings and admissions statistics, but they are perhaps a bigger driver of long-term happiness than how modern a given school’s recreational complex might be.


Okay, that was a really long post, but I think it is perhaps the most critical topic in the entire college search process. 

What I want you to take away from this post is that the college is often a six-figure decision with lifelong implications and, as such, it deserves a very thorough decision-making process. And while the eight-step process I outlined above involves a fair amount of work, probably more than you had initially planned, I believe it is not only far more likely to tip the odds of having a positive college experience in your favor, but represents a process that can be applied to virtually any decision you make in life, which means, if it is learned correctly, it represents the first return on your college investment! 

Alright, that’s all for now. If you liked this post I hope you will share it using the buttons on the left, and if you haven’t already, join the Your Path College Consulting Online Community for more articles, tips, tools and strategies!

And remember, you can always use my home page to submit your most pressing college search questions and I’ll be happy to do my best to provide you with my professional opinion.  No sales, no pressure, just answers!

Why Make a Six-Figure Decision Alone?

Sometimes all you need to make a wise college decision is the right piece of guidance at the right time. Which is why I created the YOUR PATH COLLEGE CONSULTING ONLINE COMMUNITY where I share tips, tools and advice, answer your most burning college questions via email, and much more. Join the FREE COMMUNITY to get a closer look at my EIGHT-STEP PROCESS and start dominating your college search TODAY!

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