One of the best parts of the college application process is that it gives you the opportunity to imagine multiple exciting futures for yourself. Maybe you’ll attend a college with an exceptional study abroad program and launch a glamorous career as a travel writer. Maybe you’ll get into biochemistry, study with an esteemed researcher, and someday find a cure for cancer. Who knows? In that moment, it seems like anything is possible.
When imagining these possible futures, however, it’s possible to get so wrapped up in fantasy narratives that you lose touch with your existing interests, needs, talents, and limitations. This can cause problems down the line if you later realize that that career or life plan isn’t right for you—especially if you chose your college based more upon that dream future than upon what you know about yourself and need right now.
It’s tempting to choose a college based upon who you wish you were, the figure you see in these potential futures, but given the probability that you’ll change and develop over your college years, it’s wisest to focus instead on your current needs, along with finding a school that will offer you room to grow. Read on for my take on why these priorities matter.
Decision-Making as a Young Person
When you’re a junior or senior in high school, it’s easy to feel like you know what you want to do with the rest of your life. The process of preparing for and applying to college forces you to narrow down your goals and define your driving passions, at least for now. You can’t major in everything all at once, so you’re forced to pick out one or two fields on which to focus your attention.
Given the weight of the decision, choosing an intended major and speaking your goals for the future aloud can come with a sense of finality. Once you’ve made a plan, that plan will inform your college choices in a major way. This may be the first time that your future adult life has really seemed real to you, not just a childhood dream of what you want to be when you grow up.
I vividly remember the pressure I felt in high school to pin down my interests. When my parents, teachers, and other advisors talked to me about colleges I might be interested in attending, their advice was heavily based upon which colleges had the best programs in my intended field. Other factors came into play too, of course, but the question of what and who I wanted to become was at the top of everyone’s minds.
Since I wanted to become an author someday, I assumed I’d major in English or creative writing, so that became a major factor in my college choices. My interest in the college I ended up attending was initially spurred by seeing the college’s name in the author biography on the back page of a novel I loved—I figured that if such a talented author had studied there, it must be a good place to learn how to write.
As it turned out, my choice of college worked out fine—I didn’t major in English, and never took a writing class, but I found another major that I loved. Sometimes, though, I still wonder about the colleges I rejected outright for not having writing programs, or the schools I didn’t even research because they didn’t match the idea I had in that moment about how my future should unfold.
What I learned is that seventeen-year-old me, filling out her college applications and dreaming big dreams, had no idea how much she’d grow and change during college. Not everyone experiences this feeling in the same way, but in my experience, it’s pretty common among college students.
There’s nothing wrong with having goals, even big, ambitious goals. What can be troublesome is when you choose a college based entirely upon these lofty dreams rather than your realistic needs and talents, especially when you don’t take into account the strong possibility that the plans you made in high school won’t stick around through your entire college career.
The Inevitability of Change
Changing your mind about your future plans while you’re in college isn’t just acceptable— it’s commonplace. Some studies have shown that up to 80% of students change their intended major at least once in their college careers. I’m among them, as are many of my friends and classmates.
No matter how sure you feel right now about your academic path, there’s a good chance that eventually, you won’t feel so sure anymore. Even if you don’t change majors outright, you’ll almost definitely wrestle with doubts, alter the details, and otherwise need space for your plans to grow and evolve.
It’s important to remember that in the scheme of things, you’re still very young, and even though you may be treated like an adult in certain contexts, your life experience to date has been limited in important ways. As you gain experience and knowledge about the world, your understanding of what you’d like to do with your life will continue to evolve and change.
Biologically speaking, your brain isn’t even finished maturing yet— it will continue to grow and develop until you’re in your mid-twenties. The parts of your brain that are still works in progress well after you turn 18 include the areas that neuroscientists believe are responsible for emotional maturity and good judgement. Psychologically, you’re still an adolescent throughout the typical college years.
Your age doesn’t mean that your current goals and plans for the future are invalid, or that you’re not capable of making decisions about your education and career path. Your neighbor or family member who has big opinions about choices isn’t necessarily right just by virtue of being older. You still know yourself pretty well—arguably better than anyone else—and these are still decisions that you have to make for yourself.
What your age does mean is that you have to be open to the possibility that you’ll change, maybe even dramatically, in the years to come. A plan that’s too rigid and based too much in one singular vision for your future will likely not play out in the way you expected, and if you’re not prepared to be flexible, it will be very difficult for you to keep moving forward.
Making College Decisions for an Uncertain Future
Facing this uncertainty can feel a little overwhelming—if your goals for the future may change, and in fact are likely to change, how can you possibly be expected to make long-term plans right now? If you can’t depend upon the future that you’ve imagined for yourself, what can you depend upon?
That’s certainly a difficult question. My take on the answer is this: all you can do is focus upon what you know right now about yourself—your strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and motivations—while leaving the door open for you to explore other options if you change your mind in the future.
The stories we tell ourselves about our potential futures can be powerful motivators. It’s always important to have goals, and future hopes can get us through difficult times in the present. However, it’s wise to temper your future dreaming with a realistic perspective on who you are and what you want out of life, even if this understanding of yourself will continue to grow and develop through college and beyond.
Besides, college doesn’t hold a monopoly on shaping the rest of your life. The school and major you chose when you were a teenager don’t dictate all your options forever. Your college years are an important period of time for your growth and development, but they’re by no means your last chance to determine your life’s path.
All you can do now is do your best to find a college that’s a good match for your current self, but also provides chances to explore new areas and perhaps change your direction. We can and should make the best educated guesses that we can, work toward appropriate goals, and see the benefits of long-term commitments, but it’s also important to be open to new information and new opportunities.
Choosing a college that’s a good fit for your known preferences will give you the best possible chance to start strong and get the most possible value out of your college education. The dedication, hard work, creativity, and other positive characteristics you display while you’re pursuing your goals will benefit you no matter what path you eventually take.
As I get older, I’m learning that almost no one follows a path in life that’s neat and linear. Sometimes that thought scares me a little, but in the end, I’m finding it to be a source of joy—it reminds me of how much fascinating, worthwhile, and satisfying stuff exists in the universe. I do my best to make plans based upon what I know now, but more and more, I’m seeing the value in not getting too attached to a set idea of who I’ll be in the future. There’s always more to learn.
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