Samantha Fogel, high school senior who is applying for college, in class at Derryfield School in New Hampshire . (Photo by Annie Branch)

This post is the third in a continuing series about a high school senior as she navigates through the process of searching for and applying to college.  She is Samantha Fogel, a student at The Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades six through twelve in Manchester, New Hampshire. Samantha and her college counselor, Brennan Barnard, are documenting her application process in a series of occasional posts that will include the voices of her parents, teachers, friends and others. Her story may help debunk some myths surrounding selective college admission while providing a window into a time of transition for one young woman growing up in rural New Hampshire.

In the first post, which you can read the first post here, Samantha Fogel and Brennan Barnard wrote about the beginnings of the college search.  Fogel explained how starting the application process was like “being sent out to sea by myself with 20 different maps.” The second post, with thoughts from Barnard as well as her parents, Erin and Jeff Fogel, speaks to the issue of how to parent a child trying to finish high school while undergoing the anxiety-ridden college application process. Here is the latest post, about the search for the “perfect” college.

From Samantha Fogel:

When it came to visiting colleges, I found that the best course of action was simply to just start somewhere. Let’s trace just how scattered this search has been for me. My first college visit was filled with eager anticipation and excitement as my mother and I drove down to Boston to tour my very first university. When adults and peers would ask, I’d naively and liberally use the terms “large” and “urban” to describe the type of school I was hoping to attend. In truth, I had visited none and just desperately needed something to tell people as to not sound completely behind in starting the college search.

I had built up the idea of Boston University to such a degree that I still am not sure how it could have ever lived up to my standards. As my tour guide led the large group down Commonwealth Avenue, I kept waiting to be struck with the awe I had anticipated. I felt no sense of attachment to the school and grew concerned when I realized how big the university is. Coming from a small high school, I began to understand just how lost I might feel at a school of that size. I have friends that find BU to be their ideal college and a great fit, but as the tour progressed, my disappointment grew, not so much with the school, but with myself. I had set my expectations high and craved instant gratification by immediately finding the college of my dreams. The universe seemed to finalize the decision for me at the end of the tour when a student inadvertently slammed a door on my foot. It was not meant to be, but rather time to cut my losses, accepting that despite how much I wanted it to be, Boston University was not the school of my dreams.

The next school I visited was, to say the least, an over-correction. My father had been adamantly recommending schools in Texas and Alabama for quite some time, so, my best friend, my mother, and I ventured down south. A complete 180-y turn from the cold and high energy life of the city, Southern Methodist University in Texas appealed to me with its slow pace and warm community. I told myself this is where I belonged and came home with a strong sense of southern pride. With the help of my parents and Mr. Barnard I drew up quite a long list of more rural southern schools; however, Texas was the only place I got to visit before my search got cut short.

Over the past summer, I was fortunate to spend a month studying at a school in the city of Zaragoza, Spain. Zaragoza closely resembled Boston in size and appearance and I felt myself gradually falling back in love with the city. Upon return, to the slight annoyance of my parents, I announced I was officially looking at city schools in New England again. Senior fall was fast approaching at this point and I was feeling slightly pressed for time as my entire college list needed to be reworked. At Mr. Barnard’s suggestion, my mother and I took a tour of Northeastern University in Boston. I drove there keeping my expectations low, dreading that I would have a similar reaction as I did with BU. However, what we found was a pleasant surprise. My mother and I agree that Northeastern delivered the best information session we had attended. The university offers programs that jump off the page to me, an outstandingly positive energy, and even the bonus of an impressive campus in the middle of the city. Although Northeastern remains one of my top schools, my other two seem to fall entirely out of this mold.

My father and I recently took my college search to upstate Maine, visiting two small liberal arts schools, Colby College and Bates College. It’s hard to explain what exactly draws me to these to schools so strongly, considering the fact that neither one fell into any of the initial criteria of what I had been looking for in a college. They just feel right.

To the casual observer, my erratic college visiting search could be seen as disorganized and careless. There are times when a feeling of uncertainty does seem to plague me a little, a fear of not making the right choice. I know I don’t have to be concerned though; I have found so many schools I could see myself a part of, I know that I’ll be happy anywhere I go.

From Brennan Barnard:

The “perfect college” is like the “perfect marriage:” it doesn’t exist. As much as we might want to believe in the storybook ending in which we find the one and only partner that we were meant to be with, the reality is that there can be more than one ideal mate — and more than one ideal college. In a relationship, there are highs and lows, times of great joy and fulfillment, and others of difficulty and struggle. Likewise, the search for that one college that will meet all needs and expectations can be an exercise in frustration. If students can enter into their relationship with college with understanding and openness to imperfection, the process of making the right—and lasting—match will be much more fluid and fulfilling.

Exhausting this analogy, finding the right college fit can be much like dating. Yes, we can use and view individual profiles to whittle down our choices. We can take recommendations and be set up by friends and family or hope that place and circumstance will expose us to the partner we seek. Maybe he or she is that individual who we have grown up with (the college next door) or perhaps someone we meet in our travels. For some, the marriage is arranged, predetermined by parents who for financial, cultural, religious or other reasons will decide with whom their child will end up. Ultimately, we cannot truly know about the interpersonal chemistry, values and comfort level until we have the opportunity to date and get to know our potential partner, his or her foibles (we don’t get to use that word enough), idiosyncrasies and all that make him “Mr./Mrs. Right”.

Though I don’t plan to encourage my own daughter to start dating early, I do recommend that students and families start the “dating process” of visiting colleges proactively. I suggest that long before senior fall, when families are traveling or maybe just have a few available summer days, they stop by and tour a few colleges. I urge students not to be too persnickety in their initial sweep of college visits, but rather see a large school, a small school, an urban campus and one that is more rural. Maybe this speed dating stage means visiting a technical school, a liberal arts college and a state university. Perhaps it starts with a group date accompanied by classmates or a casual, unofficial walk around campus. It could be a “summer fling” spent at a college as part of an athletic camp or studying in a high school program. There are many ways to get to know and assess the right match.

For Sam Fogel, searching for the right colleges has been an imperfect process but a necessary one. She allowed her search to unfold slowly, staying aware of her expectations, intuition and maintaining an openness that has served her well as her relationship with college evolves.