(Re)defining the Perfect College

A new way to look at an outdated paradigm

What’s the “Best” College?

When I talk to students and parents about choosing a college, I use the term “best college;” while it is a familiar concept, using it in the way I do with my students will differentiate your approach to the college search from almost everyone else’s. Even better, once you determine to not only choose the best college but then make it the best experience – more on that in the last chapter – it will be really freeing, and you won’t be saddled by the weight that your classmates are carrying with them through this process.

My “Best” College is a new way to look at the all the schools that are out there and a response to all of the ways – in some cases conflicting! – that education after high school is measured. The key point about this concept is that it’s the best school… for you.

But how do you know which is the best school for you?

If you can, think about choosing a college for someone else; how would you do it?  On second thought, what if you were planning a party at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday.  Where would you host it?  Whom would you invite?  What games or activities might you plan?  You probably answered those questions pretty quickly, based on knowing your friend’s likes and dislikes in food, atmosphere, and the people to invite (and not invite!).

Just from this example, do you get the sense that you’re better able to plan a party than you are to choose your college?

Don’t worry! The same factors that help you plan a great party can help you choose a great college.  You just need to know your friend – in this case, be self-aware – and which questions to ask. This book will give you the questions to ask, and if you take time to answer them, you’ll know yourself a whole lot better!

How to Think Differently About College

Having worked with hundreds of students just like you, I’ve had numerous meetings with parents about choosing a college.  I hear them out as they talk about GPA, class rank, and extracurricular activities, and at some point the student or the parent asks the crucial question: “What’s the best college?”  Put another way, “Which is the best school that my child can get into?” At this point I like to reply with a question that likely neither the students nor the parents have considered:

“Which is the best school for your child, the one that will best prepare him for a great career or that will help her become the best person she can?”

Silence.  In the majority of cases, they have never thought to ask that question.

In the past – and by past I probably include you until you started this book – the view of choosing and applying to college was “If I can get into college, and especially if I can get into a “good” college, I’ll be set. They’ll teach me what I need to know, and I’ll be ready to go.” Unfortunately, that perspective has led students and parents to do whatever they can to impress an unknown collection of admissions officers in schools that they may not have visited before. It’s a one-sided relationship that gives all of the power to the college, leaving the student grateful for whatever the college will give him.

Buying a Car

In order to help you think differently about the way that many people – perhaps teachers, parents, friends – view college, let’s use a metaphor that initially might not seem at all related: buying a car.

If you are talking with your friends, you might discuss which car is the best. Maybe you’re a truck guy and you’re talking about Ford, or Chevy, or Dodge, etc. Maybe you’re talking about luxury cars and you’re all over Bentley and Rolls-Royce; maybe you want speed and you’re talking about Lamborghini, or Ferrari, or whatever.  (That’s about the limit of my car knowledge but you get the idea.)

If you walk onto a car lot and say, “Hey, I need to get a new car,” the salesperson will likely ask, “What are you looking for? Are you looking for safety, are you looking for great mileage, are you looking to haul stuff? You know, are you looking to fit six kids in this car?” These are all questions that you need to know in order for you to make the best selection for yourself.

However, if you need a new car but don’t have the answers to these types of questions, you’re effectively saying, “I’ve got a certain amount of money to spend on a car; I’ll take pretty much any car in that price range.”  What are the chances that you’re going to get the best car for you?

Without the proper questions to ask – the criteria for choosing the best car for you – you can choose any of eight to ten different cars, but have none of them be good for you.  Perhaps the insurance is too high on one, or the maintenance is super expensive on another. Maybe the car you choose only seats two, and you got a bunch of friends who are now mad because you got that car. You need to realize that you’re hiring or buying four years of education. You’re buying four years of education; you’re hiring a college to help you do a job.

There are more than four thousand colleges in the U.S. alone. Which of those – and it’s likely a really short list – fit the criteria that you’re looking to accomplish will all the things that you’ve laid out thus far? If they can’t do the job, don’t worry about them. If I come to you and I said, “Hey, you know, you’re a personal trainer. I want to get in shape,” the college – in this case the personal trainer – needs to ask, “What are you looking to accomplish? Why do you want to get in shape? Do you want to run a marathon? Do you want to drop thirty pounds? Do you want to get muscular for fitness? What is it that you want to do?”

Then, once they define that, then they can say, “Hey, here’s a program that we have for you.” If you come at college like that and say, “This is what I’m trying to accomplish. Can you deliver?” You’ll realize that they owe you a chance to say, “Hey, we want your money. We want your experience. We want you on campus. Let us be your guide for the next four years.” If you go and just go into whatever college based … Again, my story on rankings and say, “Please, let me in. Because if I get in here then I’ll get this, and this, and this,” but it’s all external then the college is in control.

The (New) Purpose of College

Returning to the question of which college is best for you, ask yourself this series of questions so that you can better understand why you’re going to college, or what you’re trying to accomplish by getting a degree.  Make sure to write your answers in your workbook or the margins of this one. Very few people get to the heart of the matter, which makes answering these questions an advantage to you!

  1. First, “Why am I going to college?” At least in part, let’s assume that it’s to be able to provide or equip you with the resources to get a great career.
  1. In that case, “Which career do I want to pursue?” If you’re unable to answer that right now, don’t worry. Instead, consider this: What is the purpose of having a great career?  I propose that a great career is one that creates a fulfilling life.  Make sense?
  1. So the next question would be, “What kind of life do I want to live?”
  1. Lastly, “What are my unique characteristics that can make my life, my career, and my college experience the best… for me?”

Put in the proper order, these questions lead to a more obvious collection of colleges:

  1. What is the best version of myself, including who I want to become?

Best Me: my values, my strengths, my talents, skills and accomplishments, my personality and passions and interests, and my discontent.

  1. What is the life I’d like to create, starting now, not after college?

Best Life: my personal growth, my accomplishments, the impact I want to have, my relationships, my health, the setting like where I want to do life, and my finances.

  1. What career provides the most fulfilling life for me and those around me?

Best Career: my work environment, the collaboration that I have with others, my personal growth, the impact I want to have, and – oh yeah – the things I actually get to do on a day-to-day basis.

  1. Which college can best equip me to begin my desired career?

At this point in time I hope you realize that you can take the wheel of the college selection process… and your life. I’m excited for you. I think if you have that sense of empowerment of, “Who do I hire to get me to my best life?” then you’ll look at this whole process in a totally different way. I think you can actually choose the perfect college… for you!

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