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Tradeoffs—You Probably Can’t Have it All

college list narrowing college list
College list

When you’re putting together a college list, you will probably find some things you love and some things you’re not crazy about at each school. It’s like choosing a partner. You might have a wish list of 37 characteristics, but if you hold out for every single one, you could be alone for a long time. There’s not one perfect person or one perfect college. You need to make tradeoffs.


One student will travel anywhere in the country, as long as the college is prestigious. Another student is willing to trade the prestige of attending a highly selective college for a scholarship at a less competitive school, which will leave him debt-free at graduation. And another is willing to tolerate a cold Midwest winter if it means he’ll get Division I football.


Many students say they want to experience life in a big city where they’ll have access to lots of internship opportunities, nightlife, restaurants, and great shopping. After growing up in the suburbs, they love the idea of being able to walk outside their dorm and into the energy of an urban environment. It is true that going to Boston University or NYU can be very exciting, but it’s important to understand the tradeoff that comes with a big urban school. There may not be a traditional, grassy campus with a central quadrangle. And with so many attractive options luring students away from campus, you can lose the sense of community that you often find at schools located in college towns. You’re likely to encounter crowds of people as you walk to class every day, and that makes a school feel lively, but the tradeoff is a more impersonal atmosphere.


There are always tradeoffs. The goal is to find a school that meets your most important needs. Writing “must have” and “would be nice” lists may help you to evaluate potential colleges. When you know what you must have and what you are willing to give up, you are more likely to be happy with the decisions you make and to have a happy and successful college experience.


This process of establishing priorities doesn’t begin or end with college applications. A high school freshman or sophomore who plans to take every available Honors and AP class and become immersed in extracurricular activities needs to be willing to live with intense academic pressure and a lack of free time. For students who genuinely love learning and enjoy being very involved in school, this may not seem like such a sacrifice. For other students, the idea of spending their high school years studying all the time, obsessing over SAT scores, filling every free hour with community service, and feeling like they never have a minute to relax isn’t worth the possibility of getting into the most competitive college.


In the future, you may need to decide whether it’s more important to rise to the top of your profession or to balance family life with career success. When you are clear about your priorities, you can make more satisfying choices throughout your life.


Photo by Ivan Samkov: