How do people make this weighty decision, especially if it’s a free choice among equally good schools? I’ve talked to enough prospectives over the years to know that it’s not always a slam dunk, and little things can wind up making a big difference.
One obviously irrelevant but influential factor is the weather. I dimly recall that when I visited Princeton long ago trying to decide on a grad school, it was cold and rainy most of the time, and I never saw the campus in its amazing spring splendor. Luckily the awful weather didn’t dissuade me from what, in retrospect, was clearly the right choice, but I’ve often wondered whether some data miner in the depths of West College is looking for correlations among temperature, sunshine and acceptance rate. If there is a correlation, then surely the famous Princeton Weather Machine will be turned on for Preview as it almost always is for commencement.
Do campus tours make a difference? I remember going on tours with my son when he was making similar decisions a few years ago. One tour of a small New England liberal arts college took us through an actual dorm at about midday, an experience that made me realize messy rooms were not a phenomenon unique to our teenager. No other tour ever revealed so much dirty laundry, both literally and figuratively; perhaps this is one of several sound reasons why Princeton tours never go through dorms. Of course, prefrosh stay in dorms with their hosts, where they will quickly learn about a range of housekeeping standards.
I happened to be visiting Yale on the first day of spring this year and got a chance to see both tours and weather at work. It was a perfect day: warm, sunny, the trees in full flower and the campus full of happy sunbathers. It was actually so warm that at one point I went inside the Beinecke Library to cool off, check out the new Shakespeare exhibit and pay my respects to the Gutenberg Bible that is pretty much on permanent display there. I sat down in one of the comfortable leather chairs a few feet away and watched no less than five campus tour groups come through in half an hour, each one getting a good close-up look at this amazing historical document while listening to a pitch on the rich resources that Yale offers. I don’t know whether many of the somewhat bored-looking high schoolers in the groups realized how remarkable this access was, but the adults certainly did, and it won’t hurt Yale’s yield a bit.
Do all the information sessions make a difference? For my sins, I’ve been drafted into being on a Preview panel where the panelists answer questions, mostly from parents (if experience is a guide) and less often from students. I did this once before and remember none of the audience questions, only that it was fun. One of the other panelists was a woman who had been in my class a couple of years earlier, and it was nice to talk to her again, an added benefit. I’m going to guess that for the most part, whatever is said in this setting won’t change many minds. The event does seem geared more to parents than students, and realistically, it’s the student who ought to be making the decision.
That leads to another question, of course: Do parents make a difference? Probably they do, though one suspects that it’s sometimes negative: If Mommy and Daddy lobby too hard for a particular school, there’s a natural tendency to rebel by choosing someplace else. Fortunately, most parents are wise enough to know this and bite their tongues throughout the decision process.
The bottom line for most college applicants is that if you have thought hard about what matters to you and made sure that the schools you applied to will do well in those things, then it doesn’t actually much matter where you go. The experience will be different for sure, but not in any predictable way, and for the most part, it will be what you make of it, independent of weather, tours, panelists and parents. So let’s hope all our visitors applied to schools that really make sense for them, thought hard about what they want in a school and, in the end, make the right decision: to come to Princeton.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at email@example.com.