The College Process as Existential Crisis

When I counsel students and parents about college and the college process, I usually emphasize the importance of being able to choose one’s college. Taking a strong curriculum, doing well, and being active are important in order for the student to have many options when it comes time to apply and enroll. As juniors and seniors, students will be able to select from a large menu of colleges and universities available. This seems like an ideal way to approach the process.

Yet I’ve noticed over the years that some students (and parents) with the most options because of their excellent grades, test scores, and activities can sometimes freeze with anxiety and fear when the time for college comes around. Other students, for one reason or another, can go through the process more or less unscathed, accepting their condition and just getting on with things. And a very few of my students say, “I know I’ll be happy anywhere I go” and seem to mean it.

What distinguishes these students? Partly, I think, is their approach to the existential crisis that the college process provokes. In its short form, those who worry the most are discovering that they are, as Sartre put it, “condemned to freedom” as they consider the myriad of colleges and universities out there while trying to get a handle on who they are and then trying to make everything fit together.

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Used to a fairly well-ordered and regulated life in school and at home, they are now forced to make a huge decision that will shape their lives without any solid evidence or guarantee that that decision will be “successful” (however that is defined). In the short video below, Alain de Botton takes us through the basics of an “existential crisis,” one of the main characteristics of which is that we have “many choices but are denied the information we need to choose with ultimate wisdom or certainty.” We can’t predict the future and are afraid of making the wrong choice. In the face of enormous costs of time, money, and energy, the thought of making a mistake becomes overwhelming. We “plot our course in the dark without adequate reason or insight.” This sounds like the perfect description of the college research, application, and admission process on both sides of the equation (applicants and admission officers).

It’s possible to counter by saying that if students really think about what they want and do their research on colleges and universities thoroughly with solid support from parents and counselors, they can significantly lessen that stress. The more knowledge they have about each institution and their own selves, the better. We assume that rationality, the careful consideration of pros and cons, campus features, majors, and programs, will dominate the process. Make your list and stick to it! But this condition may only exacerbate the problem, since the more information students have the more it can lead to anxiety about making the “right” choice.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz puts this existential crisis in everyday terms.  Whether it’s shopping for a sweater or considering college, “Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.” (p.74) Additionally, “In a world of expanding, confusing, and conflicting options, we can see that this difficulty in targeting our goals accurately–step one on the path to a wise decision–sets us up for disappointment with the choices we actually make.” (p. 52) He notes (and I’m sure most readers will agree) that often, when confronted with forty brands and subtypes of a product we either stick to the one we know or decline to buy any of them. We’re defeated by the options.

Bombarded by information about colleges from all sides, students must confront the challenges of facing an ocean of unknowns. In this part of their existential crisis, students not only fear making the wrong decision but also being disappointed in the “right” one. Ironically, the more they know about each institution they consider, the more difficult it can be to choose one (or a few) and leave others behind. Coupled with the extensive self-examination required to make a “right” choice, this situation puts adolescents in a situation similar to the crisis many middle-aged adults have as they begin to evaluate and reassess their lives in light of the choices they have made.

In the video, de Botton summarizes the qualities of an existential crisis:

1. It’s a period when a lot that had previously seemed like common sense or normal reveals its contingent, chance, uncanny, and relative nature…. We are freer than we thought.

2. We recognize we’d been deluding ourselves about what had to be…. We come to a disturbing awareness that our ultimate responsibility is to ourselves, not the social world.

3. We develop a heightened awareness of death. Time is short and running out. We need to re-examine our lives, but the clock is ticking.

4. We have many choices, but are, by the nature of the human condition, denied the information we would need to choose with ultimate wisdom or certainty. We are forced to decide, but can never be assured that we’ve done so adequately. We are steering blind.

It’s unlikely that these conditions (particularly #3) will rise to the level of consciousness during the college admission process, but experienced counselors and parents will recognize the symptoms of crisis they can initiate: anxiety, depression, avoidance, perfectionism (trying to control every detail), uncertainty, loss of confidence, overconfidence, mood swings, panic attacks, regret, sorrow, grief, and even physical symptoms like loss of appetite, sweaty palms, nervous tics, and so on. Whether they know it or not, students are being asked to face the reality of existence, one that is “contingent, chance, uncanny, and relative,” without adequate information, “wisdom or certainty.”

In this respect, the emphasis on “choice” may actually be more intimidating for students than anyone would like to admit. The adults emphasizing the advantages of options or the need for particular results as if one could control outcomes have made their choices and are living with those outcomes. In retrospect, everything seems to have worked out well for them, so what’s the problem? For someone facing true freedom of choice at a major life stage for the first time (putting aside money issues and so on for now), this condition can be paralyzing, not liberating.

Anxiety mental health symbol isolated on white. Mental disorder icon design

The questions may not be asked aloud, but they undergird many students’ behaviors: Am I a worthwhile person? Have I done everything I need to do to get into college? Into a particular college? What if I make the wrong choice? What if I don’t like where I enroll? What if I disappoint my parents/ teachers? What if my friends don’t approve of where I go? What if I fail once I’m on campus? Will I fit in at any one of these colleges? What if…?

Adults can answer these questions at the surface level (“You can always transfer.”) but they indicate much deeper anxieties that adolescents often have difficulty expressing. They’re anxieties that even adults have, but at least adults have experience dealing with them. Unfortunately, adults often forget that what looks like smart moves from today’s perspective could not have been guaranteed so at the time they were made, which is where students are. Those of us whose plans have worked out perfectly are both rare and lucky.

The existentialist outlook may seem negative and depressing, but in fact there is a fifth element that can redeem us and our students. As de Botton puts it,

5. This [condition in #4] means that anxiety is a “basic feature” of all human existence.

Although we may feel isolated and alone with our knowledge of life’s uncertainty, we are all tied together by it. Everyone is in the same leaky boat. In a way, the student who has adopted the stance of “I know I’ll be happy anywhere I go,” has mastered, or at least steeled him- or herself against this existential crisis. He or she has implicitly acknowledged the conditional nature of life. When students and parents attempt to control the future through various schemes and plans, they are denying reality. They are adopting “the modern sentimental notion that perfection is within reach,” which the existentialists refute. In trying to avoid “bad” choices, they forget that “The regret-free life exists only in movies and songs.”

exist 1As de Botton demonstrates in the video, “That you suffer from the agony of choice isn’t some anomaly, it’s one of the most predictable and poignant things about being alive.” For students and parents in the college process, understanding and accepting this condition may be a crucial, not only to getting through it in one piece but also for doing well in college and beyond. We can never be certain that our choices will be “correct,” so constantly worrying about that is fruitless, leading only to regret. Instead, we must try to celebrate our ability to make decisions in the face of incomplete information.

Learning to accept that not all of our choices will work out and that we’ll regret some (perhaps many) of them can liberate us from the tyranny of having to choose and anticipating that we may regret our choices. “The way to diminish our anxiety and panic [in the face of choice] is to alleviate the sense that one had the opportunity to choose correctly, but failed,” says de Botton. “What helps with regret is the knowledge that in fact every life is burdened by it in some shape or form.”

One of the disadvantages of “strategizing” to be accepted by specific colleges, whether that means enrolling students in certain preschools or having them take on multiple internships and summer projects, is that it gives students a false sense that they control the narrative of their lives and can avoid regret. The romantic ideal that just by our own efforts we can achieve desired results without regret “exists only in movies and songs,” according to the Botton, not in real life. When that ideal is shown to be false, as it inevitably will be, that illusion of control is shattered, with nothing to replace it.

Is it any wonder, perhaps, that a recent report finds that rates of anxiety and depression on college campuses are leading to long waiting times to see a counselor? Whether or not they’re on the campus they most desired, students may still feel regret, failure, and loss over their decision or sense that they themselves are lost. Having assumed that their choice was rational and controllable, they are confronted with an inchoate sense that all that planning and strategizing didn’t really give them the certainty it should have. Without the experience of facing uncertainties bravely and clearly, they aren’t able to cope with the demands placed on them.

(That’s not to say all anxiety or depression is caused by an existential crisis; it’s just to point out a possible underlying contributor. Perhaps adults should take more time to contemplate this situation, however, as we push students onward.)

As students and families approach the college process, the twin burdens of freedom and choice become all too real. Our attempts to control outcomes at this moment are really attempts to swim against the current; we would be better off embracing the uncertainties and considering the possibilities for discovery in them. This doesn’t mean to give up or give in–quite the contrary. It means that the “dignity and grandeur” of our shared human existence come from our ability to see these conditions and proceed in spite of or even because of them. Understanding this crisis with the help of caring adults can be a critical moment for adolescents, whether they are going to college or not. They  may be happier as a result.

(This video is from a terrific website called Open Culture. It has a huge selection of free content from classic silent films to MOOCs to language lessons, lectures by Nobel Prize winners, ebooks, and much more.)

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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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