Many years ago, walking through a large department store, I overheard a conversation between two shoppers. The young man picked up an expensive leather jacket with an eager grin and exclaimed in a breathless voice, “I need this.”

His girlfriend slowly looked up from the clothes rack with a look of pity and said, “I think you need to learn the difference between need and want.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle and went along my way. But I’ve never forgotten that exchange, especially when talking to students about creating a college list that genuinely represents who they are and who they can become in the future. 

Qualities You May Want from Your College Education but Probably Do Not Need

I often hear students confusing qualities they want with qualities they need.

A Prestigious College

The most significant quality that no one needs is attending a prestigious college. Despite what society pressures many young people to believe, going to a prestigious school has little measurable value compared to a less prestigious college. And while this may sound harsh, if someone applying to college has an ego that is so fragile that the only thing they can focus on is prestige (which is just another way of saying paying attention to what other people think), I don’t feel that person is ready to go to college. 

Hyper focusing on attending a prestigious college is, in my opinion, the likely cause of many of the most troubling aspects of college admission today. Suppose I could wave a magic wand to remove the notion of prestige in the college search process. In that case, I am certain many students would have a markedly different (i.e., better) experience applying to colleges. 

The “Minor Conveniences”

There are several additional factors that students often believe they want but don’t need that I call “minor conveniences.” These are ‘nice to have’ conveniences, such as weather, dorms, food, parties, or an exciting location. You might ask, “If these are ‘nice to have,’ then what is wrong with factoring them into a search for colleges?” The problem is that many students hyper-focus on these factors.

Location and Weather

For example, some students spend so much energy thinking about the location of a college in ways that do not determine if they will get an excellent education. Going to college in a place with preferred weather (sunny for students who think they want to spend much time at the beach or snowy because they enjoy snowboarding on the weekends) has little impact on later success or happiness in adult life.

The truth is, busy college students don’t have nearly as much time as they think to enjoy their preferred weather. And I know no one who has graduated college and looks back on the experience reflecting on the great weather.

“Big City Life”

A recent trend I have noticed is students who believe they need to go to college in a well-known large city. Their arguments about why this is so essential sound like this, “A smaller city or college town could not possibly have anything to do after class. I grew up in a city, so I really crave ‘big city life.’ Plus, I must get a job after college, and I will need to start getting internships right away. Only a big city will let me start my career.” 

I can’t argue that going to college in a big city would not be a remarkable experience in many ways. But these arguments simply do not hold water. No matter what size city the student grows up in, I know of very few high school students who are actual “city people” and are only accustomed to a social life staying up late bar hopping around a major metropolis. 

I also know that a considerable percentage of the most successful professionals in every field worldwide attended a university outside of a large city without immediate access to internships, jobs, or exciting nightlife. There is simply no good reason to believe that attending college in a smaller location will hold anyone back from pursuing a career filled with great success and happiness.

The Next Stage of the Equation…

There are many more “minor conveniences” I could list. But I think it’s more important to get to the next stage of this equation: What do students truly need? 

Stay tuned for part two of this blog, where I share my observations (based on years of experience as an Independent Educational Consultant) about some of the most important qualities of an excellent college education. And if you would like to know more about how I can help you or your student personally with the college application process, please feel free to contact me.