The Tyranny of Choice

This entry was originally posted at the website and blog College Admission

Once in a while at the grocery store I’m flummoxed by the varieties of toothpaste to choose from as I try to figure out which one is the best for me. Breath-freshening, whitening, plaque fighting, striped, mouthwash-containing? What do I really need? How are my gums this week? Should I get the whitening one even though it doesn’t have the mouthwash? What size? What brand? What permutation will give me perfect teeth? I start to feel queasy, realizing that any choice I make probably won’t be adequate, but also knowing that, really, it doesn’t matter: all toothpaste has fluoride, all of it will clean my teeth, and whether it’s minty cinnamon or cinnamon-y mint, it’s pretty much the same.

This paralysis has been called the “tyranny of choice:” Instead of luxuriating in our options, we freeze, more afraid to make a mistake than try something that may or may not work. Instead of choosing, we leave the aisle to find the cornflakes. Although choosing a college isn’t exactly like choosing toothpaste, it can make us feel very much the same: confused, nervous, helpless, sweaty, and drained.

As a college counselor I’ve sat with dozens of students and parents as we parse the characteristics of various institutions, trying to match them with the students’ own unique personalities and desires. Big or small? Urban or rural? Research-oriented or more generalized? Social or reserved? On and on the options go, each element necessitating the reconfiguration of all the others until everyone is tied in knots. I pity these families, because usually they’re agonizing over toothpaste: colleges are more similar than different in their essentials. It’s the particulars like location that differentiate them most. They are trying to eliminate uncertainty, and that’s no way to head to college.

On the other hand, I’ve had students tell me, “I’ll be fine just about anywhere,” and mean it. They’re usually the happiest in the long run because they are realists who instinctually know it’s up to them to make things happen, and that any college they attend will probably have what they need. They can confront the wall of toothpaste and just pick one.

At a certain level, most colleges and universities really are more alike than different; choosing one says less about the college than about the chooser. If you’re looking at all the colleges on the shelf, trying to decide which one(s) to choose, don’t let the tyranny of choice paralyze you or leave you obsessed with tiny details. Be open to the possibilities in colleges you haven’t heard of or that you might not have considered at first. Don’t deal with panic by closing off all possibilities but one or two, either, and don’t expect any particular college to be your Emerald City.

All colleges worth the name offer the possibility of exploration and change. They ask their students to participate in their communities and take charge of their own educations and futures. So when it comes to choosing where to apply or attend, by all means think about what you want, who you might want to be one day and where you’d like to be that. But don’t split hairs and don’t worry about who really has the best dorms or study abroad program. Just pick one. Once you get where you’re going you won’t remember the others anyway. And don’t forget to bring your toothpaste.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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