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What I wish I knew – Alisha Boerstler, Assistant Dean of Admission

Alisha Boerstler
Alisha Boerstler, Assistant Dean of Admission

I didn’t believe this 10 years ago, but there is, in fact, zero chance that you will wreck your life by choosing the “wrong” college. Or the “wrong” major. The wrong roommate? That might be more serious. I had one who slept during the day and worked on her assignments, lights on, from 1:00 – 5:00am. But that’s another story.

I was a giant ball of stress my senior year of high school, largely because I felt so much pressure to choose the perfect college so I could get the perfect degree so I could land the perfect job…etc. There are thousands of colleges in the US, as you have probably discovered, which can be overwhelming. Do I want a rock wall? Do I want to go to Vermont? Do I want a D-1 field hockey team? Do I even know how to play field hockey? (No.) I painstakingly narrowed down my search criteria to three things:

  1. No more than a three-hour drive from home
  2. Must have my major – a specific four-year engineering program (I spent months and a fair amount of time with The Idiot’s Guide to Choosing a College Major to figure this out); and
  3. A pretty high ranking on one of those internet lists.

I didn’t visit many colleges, and I begrudgingly decided that one of the four that I did visit was tolerable enough. I applied. I got in. I deposited. I got a cool magnet in the mail, and I went to a scholarship breakfast at the spring open house. The rest of senior year went by and next thing I knew I was off! A bona fide college student with a lot of homework and even more confusion about which stairs actually led to the correct entrance of the dining hall.

Criterion #1 (distance) worked out pretty well throughout my four undergraduate years. My parents couldn’t just drop by whenever they wanted, but it was easy enough to get home for family events and holidays. Criterion #2 (major) was a different story. A very short time after classes started, I found myself in a Dean’s office getting a paper signed to switch out of the College of Engineering into an undecided major. So much for that search parameter. What a waste. I could’ve gone to any old school! Everyone has Sociology and English and Math, and I felt like a failure for leaving the super-competitive discipline that I had worked so hard and stressed so much about getting accepted into.

My alma mater was not quite as forgiving as Juniata with its super-flexible and student-centered POE , and so by March of my sophomore year I had to pick something to put down on the card that I had to take, signed, to the Registrar (AKA the Wizard of OZ, amirite?),  so that I would be allowed to register for classes for the next semester.

Fast forward another semester and I was studying English and Education with a concentration in human diversity thanks to an awesome professor in a social foundations of education class, a field of study that fascinated me, but that I never knew existed until that class. I learned the things that I saw in my daily life could be explained, or at least explored, and I was way more excited to go to my ed classes than Calc II. I learned that some of these things were systematically disadvantaging certain groups of people. And…I realized that college ranking lists, the same lists that helped me choose my perfect college, are influenced by things like wealth and class and race. (This is an oversimplification, but I was told to write a blog, not an academic paper, and I am trying my best.) So, by the time I graduated from college, criterion #3 (high ranking) was also essentially tossed out the window as I realized that these rankings have little to do with how good of a fit a college is for you, or how well it can support you and help you build a community and stretch your mind and make you a better version of yourself.

Thankfully, the college I chose and graduated from did all of those things for me and more. I had an amazing experience, met a ton of great people, and grew intellectually and personally. But my college’s ability to do those things for me, and the moments I remember and cherish most, had very little to do with the criteria that I spent SO MUCH TIME stressing over. 

Senior year of high school I needed to come up with some parameters, and you have probably realized the same thing. You can’t visit 4,000 schools, or even 45 schools, so you have to make some choices. But if you can manage it, don’t spend too much energy trying to whittle the list down to just one perfect place. Go with your gut. Visit a few places, and try to get a feel for how you fit into that space. If you make a few connections, if the people are kind to you as you get lost in the science building, if the students you have lunch with make you smile… keep that school on your list, and enjoy the rest of your senior year knowing what I wish I knew.