When I was a kid, one of the highlights of the week was going out for pizza after a softball game or a Girl Scout meeting. The parents would sit at the table and manage the chaos of 14 girls’ pizza topping preferences. And the kids would crowd into the tiny little arcade that boasted three or four video games. I was always most compelled by the racecar game, where you’d select your car (about which I knew nothing) and your location (Miami, Paris, Outer Space). What I remember most vividly about this game was the hypersensitive steering wheel. You’d nudge the wheel slightly to one side, and your car would go careening into the guardrail or off a cliff. It made me terrified of driving an actual car; I couldn’t believe my parents were skillful enough to keep the vehicle in a straight line on the road. Now I know that real cars aren’t like that, but that image has stuck with me, of trying to correct in one direction or another and instead of veering wildly off to the side.
I use this metaphor a lot with my students when we’re in the college search process. Finding colleges that are the right fit is an art, not a science. A student can tell me that they love Loyola Marymount’s Southern California location, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be equally enamored with University of Redlands, Chapman University, and Occidental College. Or a student can identify January term as one of the things they’re looking for in a school, but that doesn’t mean that Colby College, Saint Mary’s College of CA, and Elon University are all a similarly good fit. And so searching for the right colleges can feel a little like that racecar game, where for every one appealing college, five schools aren't quite right. But there is no perfect list of schools, no ten colleges that are right in a sea of 2,500 that are wrong. In reality, colleges have more that unites them than divides them. So there aren’t just ten colleges where you can be happy; there are hundreds.
The students I work with who have great college experiences do so because they’ve given thoughtful consideration to what they need from a school. They’ve come up with ideas of what they want to do when they get there: clubs to join, opportunities to apply for, and academic programs to explore. Students go in with openness and enthusiasm, ready to give as much to a school as they hope to get. A successful college experience (and after college too, for that matter), depends on what you do than where you go. And just like crashing into the walls in that racecar game helps you find stability, taking the time to sift through the colleges that aren’t right for you will help you recognize the ones that are.