by | Apr 25, 2024 | Jenny Milchman, The Writer's Life | 2 comments

By Jenny Milchman

Dim, dramatically lit room. Seven white doors stand closed against a dark blue, wallpaper. Dark wood floors reflect them below.

For those of us who are parents of a certain age and stage, it’s college decision season. The months—years—maybe as much as a decade plus of hard academic work that our kids (and we!) have put in is coming to fruition. By this point in the spring, acceptances, spots on waitlists, and rejections are in.

For some the choice might be simple—it was for me. Way back when, I got rejected from every college I applied to, then a dear family friend suggested I apply late to X school, I got in, and five months later I was off to Annandale-on-Hudson. Easy peasy, I had no other choice, and it turned out to be the best non-decision I ever made. That first year of college awakened multitudes in me, to paraphrase Whitman.


A man, finger to chin, looks off in thought. Background is gradient gray with question marks.

My son is lucky enough that he got into two of his top choices. They are totally different types of schools, and each is ideal for him in an equally distinctive way. He has a serious dilemma, and it’s gotten me thinking about how people go about making choices when they have the opportunity.

Maybe even yourself? It’s likely not which college to go to—though some return for their degree later in life, which is one of the more impressive things I’ve seen people do—but perhaps you’re facing some other sort of crossroads. If so, I hope this post might provide guidance, a strategy or signpost, maybe even two.

I entered into thinking about this topic as an author, rather than a mom, mostly because the college decision will ultimately be up to my son, and also because writers are confronted with tough choices all the time.

Self-publish or publish traditionally? With a small press or a big house? Seek an agent or no? Stay with your agent once you sign with one or no? Which genre to write in? Series or standalone? I could go on.

As with my college situation, a lot of these decisions are not actually decisions, but more a matter of knowing when a door opens up, recognizing that there’s a choice to be had. Writing is a business of rejection and often we’re lucky to have even one option, let alone two or more.

But that in itself is a choice.

Do we walk through the open door? Or do we stay put, stay in stasis? (Is that redundant?)

When I chose to take my mother’s dear friend’s advice and go to the college she suggested, I did make a decision. So the first tool in our decision-making rubric will be just that, followed by nine more.

  • Should I stay or should I go now? With thanks to The Clash for the lyrics. Your first step in making a decision is deciding whether to decide. Something lies ahead of you that you could choose to do. Or you could not. Think of this as the call to arms in the study of mythology—do you choose to accept the challenge or journey ahead of you? Or do you stay put?
  • Write a pro and con list. Pros and cons apply to the above quandary, and they’re equally useful if you have multiple options. Make sure your pros and cons are as far-ranging as possible—this is not the time to hold back. The more variables you come up with, the richer the basis for making your decision.
  • Picture yourself already having chosen, selected, done the deed. Really get imaginative here—if Emerald Fennell were writing the script, what would the movie of this decision look like? Then chart your emotions as you watch yourself star. Write down your feelings and reactions and review them once the credits—that’s your name on the screen!—roll.
  • Write a letter to yourself as someone wise and sagacious. What advice do you give you?
  • Write a diary entry post dated a year in the future after you’ve made X or Y decision. What does your journal show? What’s happened since then? Was this the right choice? Create as many entries as you have options. If you find this exercise helpful, but not definitive, try writing entries ten years, twenty, even fifty years in the future. What do they reveal?
  • Solicit opinions. I am a big believer in crowd-sourcing my quandaries. Develop a thirty second elevator pitch that explains your dilemma. Then offer it up to family and close friends, keeping in mind that the responses you get could be colored by this cast of characters’ personal…stuff. Or the relationships you have with them. If so (and even if not), don’t stop here. Cast around for other people you can ask. You’re administering a study and amassing as large an N as possible. Are you part of a book club? Stand on the sidelines at soccer or Little League? Attend a house of worship? Get stuck on line at the market? Give your quick pitch to whomever will hear it, then listen to their responses with an open ear.
  • Speaking of lines—go online too. If you Google your decision, what comes up? Do people on Reddit, Quora, or another site have anything to say? Are there podcasts that speak to this dilemma? YouTube videos?
  • Take a break. You’ve done a lot of hard work. It’s time to take yourself out of this situation for a while. Even in the midst of a respite—sometimes especially in the midst of one—your unconscious mind is at work. So do something relaxing, go on a drive, engage in your hobby, treat yourself. Who knows, a solution may pop up just when you’re climbing out of a bubble bath.
  • Sleep on it. As you drift off to sleep at night, lay out your dilemma, then—and this is key—ask for help, either from your internal sage or a higher power, depending on your belief system. Or both! But make sure you’re not preventing yourself from falling asleep by cycling over and over things. Instead, you’re trusting that the solution is there, and in fact, you may know it already. Keep a notepad by your bed and if you dream about something relevant, scribble it down at whichever hour it nudges you up from the depths. Or, you may awake with your answer, whole and right there.
  • If all of these tactics fail to lead you to clarity, tell yourself this. Life is less about which choice we make, and more about what we do with that choice. Happiness studies show that someone’s happiness bar is determined not by external events, but by internal factors forged by circumstances, personality, biology, psychology, and also by daily practices. Even after huge positive or negative life events—say, winning the lottery or losing a literal limb—people tend to regress to their prior level of joy after a year or so. This decision you’re facing can go a lot of different ways. A good outcome depends on what you do with whichever choice you make—even if you choose not to make a choice at all.

Which is pretty much what I will be telling my son one of these days—and myself the next time a writerly fork in the road presents itself.


Sunset beach scene, two silhouetted figures leap into the air with arms and hair tossed above their heads on left side of frame. Colors: black for figures and sea, which glimmers orange in places; pink to orange gradient for sky; yellow for sun on right of frame.

Jenny Milchman, author of award winning novels and this blog: HOW TO MAKE A HUGE DECISION.

How do you choose

Rogue Jenny Milchman is the Mary Higgins Clark award winning and PEN/Faulkner nominated author of five novels of suspense. Her work has been praised by the New York Times, chosen as Indie Next Picks, received starred reviews from PWBooklist, and Library Journal, selected for numerous Best Of’s including Suspense MagazinePure Wow, and Popsugar, and appeared on the USA Today bestsellers list (once, but we authors like to name these things). In 2013, Jenny rented out her house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and pulled her kids out of 1st and 3rd grades to “car-school” them on what Shelf Awareness called the world’s longest book tour. Jenny now speaks nationally on the literal and figurative road to a dream.

Read More Blogs On How To Choose:

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    Interesting challenges here, Jenny. I recall making the decision to apply to a big ten college (recommended by my big brother.). However, once I got there, I felt pretty lost in the crowds and later I thought about transferring, but decided to stick it out. When my sons were applying, I suggested they consider a number of smaller colleges – they did and were very happy with their decisions. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Lisa Black

    Unfortunately in the two biggest decisions of my life, I made the wrong choice. The third biggest wasn’t so bad, and right now I feel I should be making a big decision and am afraid to leap—and wonder if it’s even worth the bother. But I appreciate your methods for decision making! I’m a big believer in listing pros and cons and especially in sleeping on it!