Mike's Mailbag: Picking a College


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, email me at: swimmingstories@gmail.com. 


Hey Mike,

I am about to enter my final year of high school, I can't believe that I'm already a senior. I just finished reading your most recent article about the college decision, and I agree 100% about the part of going to where you will get the best education. I have narrowed my schools down to three, and in the fall I will go and take visits there. One is very prestigious for academics, another is a big name for swimming, and the other is a smaller school that is close to home. Right now I am stressing about what school to sign with. Each school has something unique to it, and I'm worried that I am going to make the wrong decision. I know this is the first "big decision" I have to make, but I'm only 16  and I want to be sure that I make the best decision for myself. How do you know what the right school is for you? I don't want to make a choice and then regret it later on...Do I pick the one where I would be most successful swimming wise, where I would get the best education, or where I would fit in best? I just can't decide what the best choice is…

Confused Recruit

Hey Confused Recruit,

Picking a college is like dating. When you’re single, there are probably lots of people who catch your eye. Many look good on paper – athletic, smart, attractive. Of course, you’d never pick a prospective significant other without first going on a date or two. Picking a college isn’t a first date – it’s more like four, six, or eight dates in, when you finally decide to make it official.

The process feels overwhelming because you have a lot of dating to do. You have a lot to learn. You’re in the beginning date phase. And that’s okay. It’s good to be confused, to wake up and be unclear about your future path. It means you’re open to ideas, and you’re giving the process thought.

First, go on as many “dates” with each school as you can. Take your recruiting trips. Take unofficial recruiting trips. Spend time on campuses. Talk to current athletes. Talk to other students. Walk around the campus and watch people who go there. How do they interact? Are they friendly? Would you fit in here? Does everyone wear Converses and you’re more of a Nike kind-of-a-swimmer?

Second, pick a few majors or careers that catch your interest. It can be a broad range. Does this school offer these programs or majors? I wanted to be a film major. Not many schools have film programs, so it made my decision easier. Is one college much, much better than another? Ask yourself, “Which of these schools will help me accomplish my dream career?” 

Third, get a little creepy. Watch. Watch everything. Watch carefully. If you can watch a practice, do so. Watch how swimmers interact with the coach. Is there respect on both sides? Is there communication between coaches and swimmers? Watch how swimmers interact with each other, as teammates, as sisters, as brothers, as supportive friends. Do they make fun of each other behind others’ backs? Is it a swim team of “mean humor” or fun-loving humor? Do they only talk about swimming, or do they have other, outside-of-the-pool passions, too? Look at the seniors: Do these seniors embody the kind of woman you’d like to someday be? 

It’s amazing the kind of information that is available if you just look and watch and hear and listen. But be sure to ask questions: Ask about endowment plans. Are there any? Is the coach working with alumni to ensure that the swim program stays on forever? College swimming is experiencing ever-more precarious times. Football teams could unionize. NCAA sports could be completely different in 10 years. I spoke with one current NCAA swim team coach who told me that NCAA swimming would be practically non-existent in a decade. Ask your coach questions. Ask about endowment plans. Ask about training trips. Ask about what kinds of careers swim team alumni are engaged in. Ask. 

Like dating, picking a college is about the details. Ignore the fact that so-and-so is 6’4” with 40-inch biceps. Does he hold the door open for you? Does he listen? Does she talk about herself the entire dinner, or can you both talk to each other with mutual respect?

Picking a college is an exciting opportunity. Don’t feel overwhelmed. There are no perfect choices. Just like there is no perfect man or woman, there is no perfect school. It only depends what is perfect for you. Learn as much as you can about all three colleges, observe, ask questions, and give it some time. Like any love story, with adequate time, you will begin to just “know.”

And if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay, too. You can always transfer. 

I once heard you can’t choose who you fall in love with. But you can choose your college. Like any prospective significant other, pick a college that will challenge you and support you, respect you and help you accomplish your dreams. 

Hope this helps.