In August, two separate news items dealing with how we come to know something and how we make choices caught my attention.
In an OpEd piece in the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote that ” it feels as though I know something if I can find it with Google. Technically, of course, I don’t know it. But when there’s a smartphone or iPad within reach, I know everything the internet knows. Or at least, that’s how it feels.”
I thought of the “curious feeling of knowing” Wegner wrote about when I subsequently heard that approximately 10% of people bought a car this past year without first taking it for a test drive. (That’s up from about 6% of people who did so in the previous year.) I understand that this would be an appealing option for people who would rather avoid the pressured sales strategies some auto dealers use, but this is also a great example of just what Wegner is talking about — because you research a car online, you come to feel you know it, so a test drive seems unnecessary.
The idea that the wealth of online information gives consumers the sense that they know a car so well that they don’t need the direct experience of a test drive before they buy it hit home for me. I think this practice of making a decision based largely on information gathered online (I call this making a decision by proxy) can be seen as students choose colleges to apply to.
For the last few years, college admissions officers have commented on the increase of “stealth applicants” in their candidate pools. With a “stealth applicant,” the admissions office has no previous record of that student requesting information about the college, attending a recruitment event, or visiting the campus, for example. The application is the first contact between student and school. Stealth applicants frustrate admissions professionals who track applicant interest to predict a student’s likelihood of enrollment, but the practice makes perfect sense from the student perspective.
High school students, eager and adept denizens of the online world, are often comfortable relying on the information they glean “remotely.” Many students are stressed and busy during the senior year of high school, so substituting online research for more time-consuming contact with a college admissions representative or a potentially costly (and also time-consuming) visit to a campus, is undeniably efficient. And as those of us who work with high school students know, the anxiety they feel about the future in general makes them crave the security of a decision — any decision — to give some shape and structure to the great unknown which is life after high school graduation.
It isn’t easy to live with uncertainly, and there are times in all of our lives when any decision can seem better than no decision. This isn’t one of those times, though. This can be a “teachable moment” if students can be encouraged to understand that the college search process isn’t just about building “the list” of schools to apply to. This process is also about becoming discerning users of the many available sources of information as they make decisions, and most importantly, about learning to trust themselves to make a good decision, once all the information has been evaluated.
Here are a few suggestions for high school seniors who are in the midst of the choice process now:
* Question your sources of information. Much has been written elsewhere about the limited reliability of the many college discussion websites, where the posted opinions of a disgruntled few can lead one to think that they represent an entire student body. I won’t rehash the drawbacks inherent in substituting college rankings and ratings for your own research, but I will point out that recent revelations of colleges falsifying the data they submit to the ranking agents further diminish the utility of these rankings.
* Know when to say when. More information isn’t necessarily going to make the decision process easier for you. Psychologist Barry Schwartz has noted that an overload of options and a seemingly endless amount of information about those options can hinder our ability to make thoughtful choices, and lessen our satisfaction with the choices we make. His book The Paradox of Choice is recommended reading for anyone who wants to pursue those ideas further.
* Keep yourself in the picture. When you’re looking at rankings or reading comments about colleges in blogs or on any of the opinion-based college information sites, it’s easy to be swayed by the power of the printed word. And when your friends and relatives have 1001 opinions about colleges, it can be hard to develop and defend your own ideas about the suitability of a particular choice. It’s hard to trust your own feelings and conclusions when it’s always possible to find a counter-argument or two. But when you’ve done some prior thinking about the factors that are most important to you, and your research draws from multiple sources (including direct contact with a college, its students, and/or one of its admissions representatives) you’re ready to make a choice and move on to the next step…filling out the applications.
A shorter and slightly different version of this post appeared as an Op-Ed in the Oregonian newspaper, Sept. 29, 2012