How I Chose My College – Or How It Chose Me

I loved college. I really loved it.  Don’t get me wrong, it never was easy, and there were some tough parts—calculus, two semesters as a sophomore in a freshman dorm, Minnesota weather—but the four years I spent earning a BA were terrific.

I didn’t always think they would be; in fact, for most of high-school I didn’t want to go to college.   

During fall 2003 my senior classmates were feeling the pressure and frantically completing applications. Not me though—I wasn’t in a hurry and besides, I wasn’t sure about this school business. I would’ve rather become a fireman or joined the army, or become a jeweler, things that shouldn’t require much additional class time.

These revelations did not please my father, a teacher, who’d spent the better part of 20 years, and considerable money, ensuring my sisters and I received the best possible education. Nor would this information have thrilled my private high school’s administrators, who prided themselves on a near perfect record of sending graduates to college.

In a latent effort to make him and myself feel better, I applied to a few schools, mostly places I’d heard of nearby. One evening as the application deadline drew close, my dad handed me a brochure embossed with fall leaves—a rarity in evergreen California. The school was called Macalester.

“You’ll like this place,” he said. “They march to the beat of a different drummer.”

I read the brochure silently.

“It’s off the beaten track,” he said.

Not one for mixing metaphors, my dad was clearly excited. In this instance ‘off the beaten track’ meant the Midwest, but his enthusiasm convinced me to include the school in the common application.

By the time acceptances and rejections began arriving, I’d come up with a unique plan; I would join Americorps and go to the East Coast, where I’d be close to my college-bound girlfriend. As a concession, I’d accept and defer admission to one college. If I changed my mind about school, at least I’d kept my options opened.  

A trip to the mailbox revealed a flaw in my designs. Despite an aloof approach I hadn’t expected many rejections, but my applications to most colleges and to Americorps were denied. I did, however, get into a few places, including Macalester, which pleased my dad immensely. And, the more I learned about the school, the more appealing it sounded. A college with a reputation for internationalism sounded nice; I’d never been to Minnesota before, and of course I liked that I got in.

That didn’t mean I was ready for college, and I did defer admission, choosing to travel around Europe for some time. This journey turned out to be its own great and eye-opening experience, and when I came back to the states, I volunteered at a mentoring organization in New York City, living in a Brooklyn YMCA where I played a lot of basketball and read a lot of books in my free time.

Time ran its course, and when I returned home that summer, I was looking forward to school. I’d learned so much from working in an office, travelling through 13 countries, and plotting a path largely by myself, but I’d also realized I wasn’t 100 percent prepared to spend the rest of my life outside a campus. 

From friends who had not taken a “gap year” I’d heard that college was a place where you could live on your own, make mistakes surrounded by people who wanted to help you, and prepare for whatever next step you wanted to take. That sounded really appealing. When fall arrived, I was not simply ready, I was excited to get to school.

I’m always a little embarrassed telling this story, but I’m undeniably grateful that a brochure turned up in my mailbox. Macalester was a great fit for me. Could I have found a better one through careful research and planning? I don’t know. But I do know from subsequent visits to various colleges and conversations with undergraduate friends that America is blessed with lots of great schools. If you are prepared to seek out opportunities, regardless of where you wind up, you’ll find something, and probably many things, to love about college.

I also know that for me, perhaps most importantly, waiting was something I needed to do in order to appreciate the opportunities to come at Macalester. Today I count them among my life’s great experiences.