College Choice & Chowder
By Jonah O’Hara | December 12, 2022
Most coastal New Englanders have opinions about chowder, and, at some point, all of us have asked, been asked, or overheard the question, “where’s the best chowder?” First, you have to define what kind of chowder we are talking about—fish, seafood, or clam. To me, it is always clam, but then you need to define what kind of clam—New England white, Rhode Island clear, or the other one that shall not be named. Then, there are the hard and fast rules that many people feel are gospel—potatoes or no potatoes, bacon or no bacon, and, my father-in-law’s biggest chowder faux pas, celery or no celery. For that Cape Ann native, there should be absolutely nothing green in a cup of chowder. Ask ten Rhode Islanders, and you’ll likely get ten different answers.
A cup of chowder is of far less cost and consequence than a college education, and yet many people have very strong opinions about what is “the best college.” And people come to that conclusion without any regard for what “best” really means. And best for whom? Can there be an objective “best” or is it always relative? When I’m talking with students, I ask them, “what are the best jeans?” and “what are the best shoes?” Usually the answers are whatever are the most trendy or what their friends have or what celebrities wear, but they quickly catch on when I ask, “have any of you eventually got the jeans or shoes you thought you wanted and they were really uncomfortable?” A room full of nodding heads begins to realize that it doesn’t matter how expensive or well-known something is if it doesn’t fit. Fit is everything.
I’m sure you’ve had conversations about what colleges are good or not good, and this short blog post from a director of admission really nails the trouble with that conversation. Most of us in this field see the college search process the same way. The best approach to exploring fit is to start with questions, not answers. First, if you went to college, what was your own experience like? Was that college a good fit for you and your needs? Why or why not? If you didn’t go, think about what kind of college environment would have brought out the very best in you. Then, think about your own student (or the 11th grade niece or cousin you’re about to see over the holidays) and who they are. Are they exactly like you and would therefore thrive in exactly the same kind of college you did? If they are interested in this conversation (trust me: most high schoolers are not), ask them what they have liked and not liked about the schools they have attended and why? The college search process, at its best, is grounded in honest self-reflection. This is part of why Seminar at Rocky Hill is so important; it is preparing students for the college process without them even knowing it is happening, starting in 9th grade! Students need to think hard about what matters to them—what do they value—and why, so then they can look for colleges whose values align with their own. Know thyself.
When I’m getting to know students in the early stages of their college process, I never ask them what colleges they are thinking about or where they want to go. Most students have absolutely no idea, and the only colleges they can list are where friends and family have gone or from the BCS playoffs or March Madness.
If you were to ask them why they think those colleges are “good,” you usually get blank stares back or cringy rationalizations because they think they’re supposed to have all of the answers. They’re not. The conversation can build off of the questions above: what are some of the properties or characteristics you hope to find in a college—Urban, suburban, rural? Small, medium, large? Warm, cold, or seasons? Similar to their current school or really different? While I don’t encourage college-centered conversations next week with high schoolers, I hope you can steer those conversations in a direction that focuses on what matters most—honest self-awareness rooted in questions about values that leads to thinking about fit. Again, fit is everything.
Oh? Where do I think is the best chowder? So glad you asked! I prefer Rhode Island to New England (I like a clam-forward flavor and am lactose-sensitive), and the best Rhode Island clam chowder I’ve ever had was at the East Ave Café in Pawtucket (may it rest in peace; their stuffies were my favorite too), and I’m still hunting for a rival. Until then, I look forward to lunch on Fridays in Campbell, where chowder is always on the menu. I think it is pretty good, but you will have to judge for yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Director of College Counseling, Rocky Hill Country Day
Jonah O’Hara joined Rocky Hill in 2021, marking his 23rd year in college admission counseling and his 16th year living in New England. Jonah worked in admission offices at three different universities and as a college counselor at three independent schools, so the diversity of his experiences allows him to focus on finding the right fit for the wonderful diversity of students he supports. As a college student, Jonah was a thoroughly mediocre two-sport athlete, an average baritone in the choir, but an excellent DJ on the college radio station, hosting a show called, “From the Belly of the Whale it Cometh.”