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I’ve made more than a few college lists in my day–I couldn’t tell you the precise number, but judging from the state of the Notes app on my phone and the drafts section of my email account, it’s a lot. I suppose it’s rather like occupational risk–after all, the kind of person who would endeavor to outline the entirety of the college admissions process is also probably the sort who could easily find themselves giving their college list a series of pathological tweaks a la shifting deck chairs on a sinking ship. But why is the ship sinking? one could ask–and it would be a valid question, because that choice of figurative language wasn’t just a function of lazily flailing about for the nearest, nichest analogy. Rather, it exemplifies a recent shift in my thinking about the college list, one that exposes how, when we (and perhaps by we I just mean I) conceive, however consciously or unconsciously, of the college selection process as in any way objective, we’re erroneously buying into a lot of strange ideas about the process.
I know I’m guilty of this, but I didn’t realize to what extent until recently, so I can imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes right now: wondering what exactly I’m talking about, or if I even have a point to speak of. I do, but it’s a nebulous one, in much the same way that the process of choosing what colleges to apply to is nebulous. In some ways, this is common wisdom, to the extent that concepts such as the “fit” or je ne sais quoi of “that right college” are approaching canard status. We all know that there’s a certain intangible element to why we like certain colleges over others; it’s my theory (in this moment, at any rate) that this is exactly why we spend so much of the meta-analysis of making a college list trying to quantify the ordeal, even in qualitative terms. We speak extensively on, especially, categories such as academic quality and social atmosphere as if they can be properly indexed and cross-referenced with that feeling of “fit,” so as to justify why our college lists are the way they are.
This line of thought is probably exactly why college lists have, in my mind anyway, taken on a sort of reactionary zeal. I’m not necessarily arguing for focusing solely on “fit” without trying to discern why these things are so–in fact, I would argue that the concept of fit in itself has taken on its own problematic mystique. Rather, I’d say that a good amount of the motivation for how we talk about college lists, despite its stated reliance on both hard quantitative fact and well-sourced (or at least passionately sought out) anecdotal evidence, is trying to disguise the fact that, in all honesty, it comes down to I like this college.
What’s wrong with that? In some ways, nothing, except for the implied artifice. Rather than casting a value judgment with this explication, I’m more interested in divining why we do this. Partly, I’m sure, it’s to give ourselves a little more of a feeling of agency over the whole process. What takes away agency in the college process? one might ask. Well, it could be things like:
1. The simple, utter lack of control we have over so much of the process. To generalize in terms of the framework I’m speaking of, we’re not in the committee room when the decisions are made, we have no control over the iniquities of online application systems (see: CommonApp Fiasco of Fall 2013), and many of us have little to no choice when it comes to forking over large sums to the College Board, et al. In this sea of seeming arbitrariness, it’s pleasant, however facilely, to have something to control.
2. The cold and quantitative nature of the process. Straight up, college is expensive. Money has kept students with all educational environs from pursuing higher education to the extent they might wish. When we need to keep finances in mind, we might find it less jarring to try and similarly impose a feeling of regimentation upon the whole process.
3. The feelings of restriction we either impose upon ourselves or, to be more fair, have imposed upon us. Some people–including, I hope I’m not remiss in assuming, many Prospect readers–are planning on focusing their collegiate energies on only the top 20, top 50 or top 100 schools (by someone’s metric). This hearkens back to my comment earlier about moving deck chairs around on a sinking ship. When one is only satisfied with schools of a certain echelon, most of which are probably similar to each other in many respects, one has to figure out some way to make distinctions between them.
4. The fact that many of us don’t really know what these colleges are like at all. Sure, we can go on Unigo and read increasingly despondent and cynical reviews from students overly fond of phrases such as “there are many kinds of diversity” and “not that hot, but you get used to it after awhile,” and some of us have heard anecdotes from people who go to schools we’re interested in, but when it comes down to it, we have little to no idea what college will be like for us. Every experience is so unique to us, and so subjective in how we interpret it, that perhaps we feel like we have to get a handle on the whole process in the most concrete way. That way, we can be assured we’re not making the wrong choice.
This isn’t to say that concrete concerns aren’t salient, or should be seen as unilaterally suspect. We all have many specific concerns that have real value, such as: Does this school have a major I might be interested in? Is this school’s sociopolitical climate conducive to my safety? Does everybody at this school subscribe to the Platonic notion of an ideal? I’m just beginning to think that perhaps we’re losing sight of how truly arbitrary all of this is. Not to say that it’s not important–just, perhaps, that trying to step back and regain some more perspective about it could help. I know it’s helping me as I prepare to plunge into the college application process at full speed next month when I return home.
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