Choosing a college that you fall in love with

Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching and while lovers scramble to honor this “Hallmark holiday” with flowers, chocolates and other expressions of affection, I am naturally thinking about college admission.

This is the season when high school juniors head out on college tours, looking to fall in love.

While the hopeless romantic in me wants to believe this is a good approach to the college search, the pragmatist and counselor in me says otherwise. My own experiences with love have proven that when one has a forced goal of enchantment, connection or attraction, one is unlikely to find it. After all, love can’t be manufactured or willed, it is a more organic emotion that evolves over time or perhaps strikes us when we least expect it.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, when I began my college search, I vowed not to attend college in Pennsylvania, or in any state that touched Pennsylvania. I had visited schools with my older brother when he applied and was convinced that I knew what I wanted. I just needed to find that “perfect” out-of-state college.

When my mother suggested that I sign up for a “practice interview” at a school an hour away, I scoffed at the idea but went along under duress. You can probably see where this is headed: I loved it. The setting, the opportunities, the people, it felt right.

Reluctantly admitting that mother knows best, I widened my search and found other colleges near and far that gave me the same sense of place and purpose. I applied and was accepted to a handful of schools (and denied from a few as well).

Then came the hard part, choosing. I re-visited, made lists of pros and cons and sought the input of anyone who would offer an opinion. While I would like to report that my final decision was based on an exceptional understanding of self and my life’s trajectory, the reality is a cute girl in my class had already chosen the college that I now am proud to call my alma mater (yes, the one my mother had suggested). Once again, love strikes unwittingly, and while nothing came to fruition with my classmate, I did have a fulfilling collegiate experience.

The art of finding the right romantic connection is a lot like the art of finding the right college.

Think of our questions when we begin to date: Do we share the same values? Are our interests compatible? Are we able to accept the other’s imperfections? Do our life goals align? Is this someone we can grow with? All good, rational questions, but they are hardly the only ones.

Just as in a relationship, these are not attributes you can engineer in a college. Rather than begin with who or where you love, instead consider beginning with what, how and why you love, then use this awareness to inform your search. If a school’s mission, location, or community do not resonate or correspond with the experience you aspire to have, then in the immortal lyrics of Johnny Lee, you are “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

My point? Forced attraction is futile, but staying open to love will allow for opportunities that are both unexpected and rewarding. Unfortunately, young people can feel pressured to know what the future holds, they perceive that they must pinpoint their “passion” and dedicate themselves to one true love. Resist the fallacy of future, the notion that all 17-year-olds know indefinitely that they will be an engineer, doctor, financial advisor or lawyer. Do not go looking for a school to which you can apply early decision because it offers “certainty.” 

Often love is uncertain and setting an intention to immediately fall in love at first sight is at best an exercise in frustration. Allow love to guide you but don’t permit it to confine you.

Ask yourself, what do you love right now? What do you value? What do you enjoy? What that you do or learn brings a sense of wonder? When do you feel most alive? As you visit college campuses, consider whether those things could grow at this school?

There are thousands of colleges that offer diverse experiences, some at a distance and others just down the road. Keep an open mind and heart, listen to your mother and don’t count on the cute classmate to inform your decision. Instead, as you visit colleges, ask yourself, “could this be mine?”

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