Decision Day Is Almost Here. “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

You have already made big decisions about your life, some at least as important as choosing a college. You are not a finished person (no one is while they are alive) but you are a “started” person. You have failed, succeeded, worked hard or not worked hard enough; learned from your mistakes or not learned much at all; taken care of your mind and body or done them damage; and suffered from events beyond your control.

You have probably experienced more of life than most people would suspect. Now you are here. Heed the words of the late tennis star Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

“Now” is mid-April and “Here” at hand is your next big decision if you are among the declining majority who do not make college decisions early.

Advice about what to do now is abundant. Net cost. Distance from home. Strength in your major field. Reputation, ranking. Where do your parents want you to go? Where are your friends going? Your current romantic interest, if any?

But let’s go back to Arthur Ashe. “Start where you are.” Figuring this out can be difficult. Be honest with yourself. You know your grades, your test scores, your recommendations, your likely major. But is that data science major your choice or someone else’s? Are you really prepared for it? How about premed? Do you want people to say, “Look at her, she’s a physician?” Or do you want to do what a physician actually does, after a decade of extremely hard work? Computer science. Do you want to write computer code or get paid to write computer code that you don’t care about? You love your parents, and they love you; but do you want to do what they believe would be best for you or what you truly want to do?

If you choose a STEM field, think about the math involved, the usually strict major requirements, the sometimes narrow career options. Your parents want you to have a good life, and in recent years our culture has increasingly defined such a life as one with a highly remunerative career. Be honest but be prudent about the connection between college and career. If you love history, literature, or philosophy, be assured that those disciplines reflect the best of humanity and that your love of them speaks well of you. Be proud of this profound connection. But this country and the whole world have changed. Attend to the change; minor or double major so that you have a reasonably secure future. And proceed with confidence that your work in the humanities will be as big a part of that secure future as your more vocational minor.

Are your parents hard-pressed for money? Are you a late bloomer? Start at a less selective college, at lower cost, and work hard. A strong start can make up for a lot of setbacks. Point yourself in the right direction. The rest will follow.

“Use what you have.” Having lived more broadly than many people would believe you have lived, you know what you are most afraid of, hurt by, devoted to, strongest at, or confident of. If you are confident in math, you might want to zero in on that subject or hold on to that wonderful ability while pursuing something different. If you are terrified of speaking in front of people, are you willing to see this as an obstacle you now have but are determined to overcome or does the fear reflect a deep-seated and authentic introversion that could lead to artistic or scientific achievement at the highest level without confronting the fear directly? Using what you have requires you to understand that what you assume is a deficiency might turn out to be your own kind of strength.

“Do what you can.” A math deficiency, a fear of public speaking, a loathing for English grammar–they might stand in your way, but be patient. Don’t sell yourself short because you aren’t good at everything. Few people are outstanding in a wide range of endeavors. Some of these people were not outstanding in much of anything until they saw an opening, a way to go forward with just enough confidence or hope to move to the next step. In college, it is often the right instructor leading the way through a subject the student disliked or feared. The student earned a tough B. In the next difficult class she got an A minus. Then an A. Then she did it again. Then it was something that she just did.

If being realistic about starting where you are leaves you in, say, a regional public university that is not among the “public Ivies” or is not well known outside of your own state, doing what you can may still yield astonishing results. In recent years students from Youngstown State, UW-Eau Claire, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga have gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships. Did they have to transfer to Princeton in order to be chosen for this most prestigious award? No, they stayed where they were, used what they had to the utmost, and did the very best that any student, anywhere, could do.

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