The Paradox of Choice in the College Process

choice_paradox1When I was a prosecutor in Philadelphia, I worked with Drew Wrigley, the current Lt. Governor of North Dakota, likely future Governor, and, my guess would be future Presidential aspirant in a dozen years. Drew came from the fortunate circumstances of a family that has thrived in America for over a century. He’s also both super smart and super ambitious. In other words, he’s the type of guy that in today’s world would have applied to at least ten of the top twenty colleges. But when he applied to college in the mid-1980s, he applied to one school: The University of North Dakota. He noted that the biggest difference he saw in the attorneys in the Northeast versus the Midwest was both the combination of our Ivy-league pedigrees and our strange penchant for “going all over the place” for college.

In today’s college process, my college counseling clients who want to look everywhere for college almost always confront “the paradox of choice.” Barry Schwartz wrote a book of the same title. The simple summary: variety of choice is good but only to a point. As soon as the choices exceed our capacity to make meaningful evaluations, we become overly stressed and can’t make good judgments.

Choosing to apply to 8-12 colleges among a choice of 20 that match preferred criteria will be stressful but manageable. Choosing to apply to 8-12 colleges among a choice of 50-100 will be overwhelming.

“We want her to go anywhere she wants.” Said Mrs. Jensen, a well-meaning mother of a junior at Valley Regional High School in Deep River, CT. I certainly appreciated the mom’s willingness to please her daughter. But I knew that it would lead to college process craziness when Mrs. Jensen would not rule out any region of the country. She was willing to visit colleges in the South, West, Mid-West, and Northeast. No stone or college would be left unturned. I explained that she just created a recipe for college application madness and told her the story of Drew. Fortunately, she understood.