All too often, we hear students rave about the moment they first set foot on campus for that gorgeous fall tour. Students were clustered in small groups dotting the quad, enjoying the brisk autumn air, discussing Kant or Boaz. A softball game had broken out on the diamond in front of one of the dorms, and these college kids felt effortlessly casual in the way they interacted with one another. In the dining hall, it was lasagna night—with a side of garlic bread, of course—and the conversations drifted from pop culture to the big game to politics. Wow. “From that moment on, I was in love.”
Not so fast, kiddo.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. And it should not be the driving force of your college application process. For when you connect with the campus on the rare fall evening where the stars have aligned, you’re not bound by the hours of homework that await a current student back at their dorm; you’re not experiencing the consecutive weeks of snowfall that will make the slog to your morning calculus class feel like that traverse your grandparents always told you about. You’re not frustrated by the kid who won’t shut up in class, the TA who didn’t explain the assignment clearly enough, the continual crashing of the online registration page as you’re scrambling to sign up for that one class you need to graduate on time.
Our experiences in college are balanced. Moments of triumph are tempered by the reality of the educational project you’ve undertaken. While those challenges are always good for you, they’re neither lovable nor avoidable. And they’re certainly not visible when you’re wearing those rose-colored glasses on your first visit to campus. On that visit, allow yourself to be impressed by the students and to lose yourself on your campus wanderings. But take some time to read and research, to consider (realistically!) the changes in the weather and the corresponding shift in student attitudes, and to understand, perhaps most of all, that as much as you give yourself over to your love of a college, there’s no reason to expect it’ll love you back.
Our approach to the college list must therefore be balanced and rational. While you build that list—and listen to what your mind (and Naviance!) tells you about your likelihood of admission—be careful of your heart. No matter how hard you fall for a college, you’re ultimately at the whim of the gatekeepers. If they say no, that’s the end of it. There’ll be no showing up on campus next fall with a boom box and a trench coat to make your final plea for acceptance. (If you’re a reader under a certain age, you’ll want to finish reading this post, then do an online search for Say Anything.)
But stay with me here. There’s reason to hope. We fall in love—really fall in love—with our colleges not when we first meet them on a visit, and not when we write our “Why College X?” essay, but when we get to know them and our own best selves over the course of four years. We fall in love with the experience of developing new friendships and relationships and learning new things, day after day, clad in Green and Gold, or Richmond Rose, or Carolina Blue. That kind of love can wait until you begin college in the fall after your senior year concludes. Until that day, approach the college application process thoughtfully, listening to head over heart, keeping always in mind that there are plenty of fish in the sea.