‘Frozen’ and the Flawed Ideal of the Dream College

Nicholas Soodik writes that myths about one perfect place hurt high school students thinking about their futures.

October 30, 2017
 

With two daughters in its core age demographic, I have seen the movie Frozen roughly 300 times. My girls can’t seem to get out from under its spell. I enjoy the movie, I must admit, and I know most of the songs by heart. What I especially like, though, is that the movie resists the typical Disney mythology of the soul mate. (Spoiler alert!) The prince in Frozen does not rescue the damsel in distress -- her sister does.

Our romance for the narrative of the soul mate is pervasive and even extends to the college search process. Right now, many high school seniors are finalizing college applications, racing to meet November deadlines. These students spent their spring, summer and weekends this fall visiting different colleges, attending information session after information session, all hoping to find the one -- a perfect match, their dream college, the campus where the blue lights twinkle a special shade of periwinkle.

“I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” Anna sings in Frozen, the same tune our students might hum while taking their college road trips.

There is danger, however, in clinging too tightly to the myth of the dream school, the belief that there is one perfect college out there for every applicant. Despite what Jerry Maguire might have us believe, a college career is not had at hello, and believing in a dream school makes a victory out of the admissions decision rather than the achievements earned while there.

The students best equipped for success in college and beyond pursue long-term projects, seek out mentors and engage in internships that apply what they’re learning. Searching for a dream school treats matriculation as the crowning accomplishment of the college process when, in fact, it’s just the beginning.

A meaningful college search should work to expand the applicant’s sense of self-awareness. The narrative of a dream school assumes that the applicant’s identity is already known and static, thus limiting the learning opportunities of the college search. Few teenagers know who they’ll be next semester, let alone several years from now, and the best college lists are flexible enough to contain all the versions of selfhood each applicant may one day try on.

Perhaps worse yet, the myth of a dream school leads to a preventable kind of self-doubt -- not just the disappointment every applicant feels when the admissions office sends back a thin envelope. All college counselors have listened to students wonder why their heart hasn’t yet fluttered on a campus tour and worry there is something wrong with them.

What’s wrong, however, is the belief that there is ever a first-choice college. The goal of the search is not to have a favorite but to have options, several institutions where students can flourish and find fulfillment.

Now, I am not naïve. Many applicants will continue to have a first choice. There’s only so much we can control as college counselors, and some kids will fall in love with a particular college.

Parents and counselors can, however, be more careful with the language we use to describe the college search and work to avoid sending the message that falling in love is its point. In the past, I have frequently asked seniors in the fall what their first choice is, a practice I now try to curtail.

Additionally, many counseling offices require students to rank their colleges in order of preference, implying that applicants should have just one college at the top. Too often, we urge students touring colleges to “trust their gut” -- never the best organ for rational decision making -- indirectly pushing students to wait for those heart flutters and to find them at only one place. I don’t have one-size-fits-all strategies for avoiding these practices, but being aware of their implications and consequences is a good first step.

At the end of Frozen, Anna realizes that her so-called soul mate, Hans, is a self-interested jerk. Her desire to discover magic and fun, as she sings early in the movie, led her to invest in a fantasy. The relationship between the film’s sisters, though ambivalent, is the movie’s most genuine attachment, and maybe that’s the best lesson we can share with our seniors right now. Strong relationships -- whether with colleges, siblings or significant others -- require work to form, not magic.

There aren’t catchy Disney songs that celebrate the effort needed to establish real relationships, but there is one that describes the myth of a dream school. To that I sing, “Let it go, let it go.”

Bio

Nicholas Soodik is associate director of college counseling at the Pingree School.

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