In Praise of Instincts

There’s a place for gut-level decisions on the postsecondary journey

When my younger daughter, Katie, was little, she often froze or panicked over big decisions – and when you’re little, pretty much anything can constitute a big decision: which kind of sprinkles to get on your ice cream, which stuffed animal to bring to the grocery store, which crayon to use on your self-portrait.

As time went by, something curious happened. While Katie still got bogged down with some of the choices that came her way, she made others with the brisk confidence of a day trader – a trait that I recognized in myself and viewed as a coping mechanism, a way of avoiding the decision by getting ahead of it: Leap into the surf before you have time to talk yourself out of it, in other words.  

It’s an interesting theory, but lately I’ve been thinking it misses the mark a bit. 

Last spring, when Katie was rounding out her junior year in high school, we began the process that many high schoolers will undertake: deciding what to do after graduation. For too many students, their choices are limited, whether that’s for financial, academic, family, personal, or a variety of other reasons. Others are fortunate and can choose their own paths.

My daughter’s chosen pathway was a four-year degree, so we started talking about selecting a college.

I probably don’t have to tell you that as decisions go, this one’s a biggie.  Your choice of profession, your career prospects, the people who will forever shape your thinking and maybe even play a starring role in your life – all hang in the balance. 

Not only that, but for many young people, the college admissions process is, unfortunately, one more way of ranking yourself among your peers, of proving your worth. It’s a two-way decision, choosing and being chosen. 

Oh, and let’s not forget that there are more than 5,000 colleges in the United States alone, a number that roughly correlates with the poundage of mail you will receive as a household with a college-bound student. And then there’s that little issue of tuition and financial aid. 

I thought we might be in for an ordeal to rival the Sprinkles Incident of 2007.

But as it turned out, even with the stakes this high, Katie ended up taking the day trader approach. After developing a sensible college list that included about a dozen schools ranging in size, location, academic focus, and degree of selectivity, we took a road trip to two of Katie’s top choices. And on a leafy campus a few hours from home on a sunny August day, our quest abruptly ended. I’m not sure if there was a lightning bolt moment, but Katie just knew this college was the one. 

At first, I tried advising her to keep her mind open, but Katie was resolute. I paced, worried, consulted friends and experts, and repeatedly completed the school’s financial aid calculator, but ultimately, I let her apply early decision. 

Several stressful weeks later, Katie got the email she’d been waiting for. She was in! And with a good financial aid package to boot. 

I’ve been thinking about Katie’s whirlwind decision in the months since, and I’ve come to believe it was wiser than I gave her credit for. Let me be very clear that I am not advocating for early decision. It worked for us, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest it’s not a wise idea for many students and is an unfair practice that should probably be done away with. 

What I’m suggesting, rather, is that gut-level decisions deserve some respect. In reality, making a gut-level decision isn’t so much bypassing the analytical process as I’d formerly thought. It’s trusting the process. Today’s kids are savvy and well-versed in high-level topics, and they have a world of information at their fingertips. If we as parents, teachers, and counselors have done our jobs, we’ve armed them with knowledge and 21st-century skills, including the ability to think for themselves. What might seem like an impulsive decision may, in fact, be the natural result of good training. 

Trusting your gut is not the same as following your heart either, although the two overlap. A gut-level decision is grounded in reality but cuts through the smog of information that can blind a young person and cause indecision or even inaction. 

Besides, choosing a college – or an alternate pathway – doesn’t necessarily need to be paralyzing. Let’s not forget that roughly a third of college students transfer to a different institution before graduating, and relatively few of us actually work in a field closely related to our degree. Our pathways in life are fluid. Recent work in postsecondary planning incorporates that reality. Understanding it can be freeing. 

Finally, it’s helpful to remember that there isn’t a right choice when it comes to college and career pathways. For each student, there are likely many good and viable choices. Nor is it even remotely possible to weigh all the pros and cons of all the colleges filling our mailboxes and inboxes with their cheery pleas for attention. 

In the end, instincts may rival spreadsheets when it comes to choosing a postsecondary pathway. It makes sense, then, to feed those instincts. Young people should have the tools they need to make good decisions, including access to literature and uncensored history. Educators and parents should address the disruptions they endured during the pandemic but also celebrate and build on the skills they developed, including independence and self-advocacy. 

And ultimately, we should have faith that their decisions will be brilliant ones, whether they’re choosing crayons or colleges. 

-By Sarah Earle

This is the first in a new series of essays on education. 

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