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The Power of Choice

The COVID 19 pandemic has, among many other things, disrupted our ability to choose the activities we do.  This narrowing of choice had led many of us to invest more emotion in mundane tasks. Moreover, this investment frees us to enjoy these tasks on a deeper level—a trip to the grocery store becomes an outing; folding laundry gives us time to blissfully zone out or reflect; mowing the lawn is similarly inspirational.  The point is, a narrowing of options offers the opportunity to appreciate and reap the rewards of meaningful choice-making.

 Such are the claims of Sheena Iyengar, a professor at the Columbia University Business School and author of the book The Art of Choosing. Her thesis in the book is that having more options doesn’t always lead to better or happier decisions. To grasp her point, think of all those channels you have available to you in your cable package—does it make you happy to have such a range or is it frustrating? Or think of Pelican’s SnoBalls; have you ever found yourself paralyzed by the myriad flavors available?
 Professor Iyengar’s research indicates that attitudes to choice vary by culture, but a recurring theme in her experiments is that satisfaction with one’s choice is diminished when that choice was made among many options, rather than a thoughtfully vetted few.  As Professor Iyengar notes, “The power of choice lies not in being reactive to what’s in front of us, it’s being able to be proactive in creating those choices that enable you to go from who you are today to whom you want to be tomorrow.”

And that sentiment perfectly encapsulates what the college search and application process can—and should—be.  

There are over 2000 four-year college options in the United States.  It’s absurd to ask a seventeen-year-old to “pick one”.  What criteria would she use?  The football team is great!  My mom went there!  My friends love it! 

Seems like a thin basis to make a decision, but it happens all the time.  It’s a basic human tendency when faced with overwhelming choices to gravitate to the known or familiar.

But what is more familiar to us than ourselves? I would suggest that this familiarity makes the best launch pad for a college search.  A seventeen-year-old (or sixteen, or eighteen) likely knows what she likes (Teacher lectures or class discussion? Living in a city or the country?  Being in a warm climate or a cold one?), and the answers to these questions can dramatically narrow the focus of a search. 

Once these foundational elements are established, then our seventeen-year-old (or sixteen, or eighteen) can start applying other metrics to the search (cost, relative strength of a particular academic program, a robust Greek system).  The resulting realization might be thus: I want a mid-to-larger sized college, in or near a city in the Midwest, and with a string computer science program and the list of colleges might include Case Western University, the University of Chicago, DePaul, Miami University in Ohio, and the University of Tulsa.  

It makes the choice much more manageable, right?

And thoughtful!

I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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