Since the Sunday afternoon in the seventh grade my mom brought home the Princeton Review of the 278 Best Colleges, college has been of constant discussion in my house. In between dance classes or after dinner would come the occasional “you should look up the campus of—” or “there’s an excellent English program at—” and so on and so on. By the time I started going on college visits the summer before sophomore year, thinking and talking about college was not a foreboding task to be avoided at all costs, but a regular and even exciting part of my life. Even though I’m only a junior, I know exactly what I’m looking for in a school and what I want to study. As I wish to study English and writing is a passion, I decided to further my education by going to a writing camp this past summer at Kenyon College in Ohio. Although I spent two amazing weeks there, every time my mom asks me what I think about applying to Kenyon, I tell her “I can’t think about that yet, it hasn’t been long enough”.
I say this to her because I know myself, and I know how dearly I cling to familiarity. I’m the type to sit everyday in the same spot at the lunch table or in the same chair in my kitchen. At ballet, I have a place at the barre everyone recognizes as my own because I refuse to stand anywhere else (and no one dares to stand there instead). Admitting this quirk to people usually sparks some sort of negative reaction, but deep down, everyone shares this quality with me. The unknown is daunting for most people, which is why we cling to things that are recognizable. According to research done by the social psychologist Robert Zajonc, the more we are exposed to stimuli the more we like those stimuli. Essentially, the more often you see someone’s face or spend time in a room, the more you will like that person’s face or enjoy being in that room. We feel safe, surrounded by things we know and people we’ve spoken to, expecting no new surprises or challenges. For example, you would most likely feel more comfortable walking through rooms in your house than through a crowded museum, because your mind understands your house while it requires mental energy to navigate somewhere you don’t know.
College is all about navigating situations you haven’t run into before, and choosing where you go will have a huge effect on what situations you end up dealing with. Here in Lake Forest, students are often exposed to a plethora of possibilities and, by their senior year, are prepared to go out and explore the world. However, not all students are given the opportunity to be as adventurous. In fact, only 15.5% of students in the United States go to school more than 500 miles away. Even with financial stress and rejection letters, many students have a few other options outside of the schools in their immediate circle. Yet, in Illinois, 65% of students go to a state school. At this point, familiarity begins to endanger the decision making process and skew the college search. The security of being in a place you’re familiar with—much like a home advantage—provides immediate comfort when you’re thrown into so many new situations. I would be the first to argue that there’s nothing wrong with ensuring your ease in certain circumstances, but college is supposed to be a huge time of change. And though that change might be frightening, relying on your current knowledge of places will not guarantee future happiness. Just because it requires less mental energy to think about going to a school close to home, in areas you’re familiar with and in environments you’ve encountered before, doesn’t mean you will exceed in them. By choosing familiarity over risk, you’re limiting yourself and throwing away potential opportunities. Your perfect college might be out there somewhere, in Minnesota or Texas or Washington, and you won’t know unless you decide to push yourself out of your comfort zone a bit. So, my advice is this. Don’t settle on your parent’s college simply because you’ve visited the school every summer and know the campus by heart. Don’t go to your state school if you only want to remove the stress of a new place. Don’t limit yourself to the schools in a 500 mile radius, because there are a lot of places out there, each with their own unique qualities, waiting for you to fit in and work with them to the best of your advantage. Do more research. Look up colleges with your favorite colors as their school colors, or colleges whose founder has the same name as you. You might be surprised how easily you become comfortable in an environment you never would have imagined yourself inhabiting. As you search for your college and witness yourself shying away from unfamiliarity, remind yourself that everything now familiar to you was once unfamiliar.