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The AREA Method: How High School Seniors Can Make Their Big College Decision Better

Right now high school seniors everywhere are faced with a high stakes decision about which college they will go to. It’s a decision that will have a long-term impact on their lives, where the outcome is unknown and the price for making the wrong decision could be very costly.

Many seniors select a school based upon the reputation that it has within their circle of friends, and with their parents and guidance counselor. But as you make this choice don’t rush; you’re solving for an important and uncertain future: yours. And you want to use the college years to solve a problem which is unique to you and how you see your future.

What might our seniors do? First, invert your thinking: Don’t focus on what you can’t know. Instead, focus on what constitutes a successful outcome to you. By picturing a successful decision you can more easily reach that goal; you only need to tell the story of your success.

Second, by figuring out what you are solving for, you may develop what I call your Critical Concepts, those one, two or three factors that really matter to you in the outcome and therefore the few things that you would want to deeply and creatively investigate so that you can decide which college will best provide you with the environment and opportunities that you want.

For example, while choosing a college is an enormous decision, the differences are not as vast as you think. There are certain constants across colleges and universities: dorm rooms, a student union, a wide variety of extracurricular clubs and activities, some freshman core courses, and a long list of possible majors. Thus the decision is not necessarily a make-or-break one in the way you think: You will have amazing opportunities to make new friends, drink coffee in the student union at 3 a.m., argue with a professor, and take on a new activity (drum circles anyone?) no matter where you go. So then the question becomes what really constitutes success for you? If you want to major in psychology, congratulations! Every college and university offers that major. But what if you really want to be in a place with art and theater too? The psych program still matters, but you know you’ll need to focus on which college best provides both opportunities.

One way to do this is to look at a university’s website because that’s valuable real-estate; it’s where the university gets to present itself in any message that it wants to convey –and students going there are buying that message.

Another way to solve your college acceptance problem is to go to the admitted students open house or featured day and pay attention to what the school says about itself. What does it highlight? And, is it highlighting things that matter to you?

For the student interested in both psychology and the arts for example, when she visited Skidmore she was delighted by the amount of student artwork that was featured; not only did the school’s accepted students day showcase a main stage theater production, but the closing event was an energetic acapella group performance. That’s what Skidmore chose to foreground –it wasn’t an arts related accepted students’ day, it was the university crafting a day for admitted students and what it conveyed was both student-centric and very much focused on the arts.

What is featured at the schools you are choosing between? And which excites you and talks to your vision of success? Some schools will present you with things you may already know about, and know whether or not you want to try. Other schools might feature activities and options that aren’t on your radar now but they want you to know exist so they can expand your horizons, whether it’s indoor kayaking or ballroom dancing or a class in food analysis.

Keep in mind though, that beyond what the colleges feature, pay attention to whether or not you will need to fulfill a lot of requirements. Does one of your choices dictate nearly every course you’re required to take for the first two years while another has looser distribution requirements? One option is not better than the other, but one option might be better for you than the other.

The bottom line is that we all grow up to be decision makers yet somehow there’s no well-established way to make high-stakes decisions well. It’s one of those topics that has been hiding, in many ways, in plain sight. Now, as you are faced with a high-stake decision, this is your opportunity to learn a little bit about decision making because there are few things that we do more frequently that has higher stakes than making good choices. Just think, if you can begin to master decision making then you’ll have greater agency over your future.


Cheryl Einhorn is the creator of the AREA Method, a decision making system for individuals and companies to solve complex problems. Cheryl is the founder of CSE Consulting and the author of the book Problem Solved, a Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence & Conviction. Cheryl teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and has won several journalism awards for her investigative stories about international political, business and economic topics., twitter: @cheryleinhorn

And try out Cheryl’s new Problem Solved app to make your big decision better! The initial results show that although average session duration for direct traffic is 1 minute and 50 seconds, the average for the Problem Solved app is about 10 minutes, with users averaging 6.5 pages per session showing both strong longevity and engagement with the app. You can find it on the homepage by clicking the big orange button that says Make Your Big Decision Better.

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