Making Better Decisions in College

By Yuchen Yang and Taylor Walker

Every college student will be challenged with making decisions at some point during their college career. The decisions made by college students impact their relationships, family, career trajectories, jobs, education, sex, health, money, living situation, diet, friends, beliefs, and drinking.

However, compared to upperclassmen, college freshmen are likely to experience a hard time making these types of decisions because their lack of knowledge about new environments like college.

Some common questions asked by college freshmen are:

“Should I go out for drinks tonight or should I stay in to study for my exam on Monday?”

“Should I take this course because it seems easy or should I take a different course that challenges me?”

“Should I choose my major based on salary or should I choose a major that interests me?”

All college students will probably face these questions types of questions at some point, but not everyone knows how to make a “wise” decision. So here are some tips that may help college freshmen make better decisions during their time in college.

How to avoid risk-taking behaviors:

Although we may not be of age, many college freshman cannot wait to become a part if the drinking culture in college. From beer pong to jungle juice, drinking can be pretty exciting, but it can also be dangerous. According to Rolison and Scherman (2003),  one third of college students reported episodic heavy drinking of alcohol1. Studies also show that drinking increases after the first semester of freshman year2.

Other risky behaviors include sexual encounters3. More than  half (65%) of sexually active students risk catching an STD, but only 29.6% of college students had used a condom during their last sexual encounter in the past 3 months1.

Studies have suggested that adolescents and young adults may not sufficiently consider the possible consequences of their actions, and they may have a perception of invulnerability to consequences1. Higher perceived benefits and lower perceived risks of risk-taking seemed to be associated with more involvement in risky behaviors1. Perceived peer participation was a significant predictor of involvement in risky behavior1.

So, what can you do about it?

  • Try to consider the possible consequences before you act.
  • Try to acknowledge your perception of invulnerability and the fact that bad consequences could also happen to you.
  • If you want to prevent yourself from engaging in risk-taking behaviors, try to tell yourself that the potential risks outweigh the potential benefits.
  • Reinforce protective expectancies and attitudes toward risk-taking behaviors2.
  • Try to acknowledge that risk-taking behaviors practiced by the majority.

How to make better educational and career decisions:

All current and former college students understand how stressful it can be deciding what career they may be interested in after college. Research has found that delaying involvement in information gathering and other decision-making tasks, dependence on and desire to please others, aspiration for an ideal occupation, and inconsistent information were all associated with a heightened perception of career decision difficulty4. Studies have suggested that students who made their choice based on personal interest stated being more satisfied with their decision once it was made5.

Another research finding has suggested that when evaluating their decision with the made choice with a larger temporal delay, all participants became more critical and showed a somewhat smaller degree of satisfaction with their choice as more negative aspects of their decision would have become more apparent at that time6.

So, what can you do about it? 

  • Try to start your career information gathering early to minimize decision-making difficulty.
  • Instead of being dependent on others, try to be more independent in the information gathering process, because career decision-making is an individual responsibility.
  • Try to base your decision more on your personal interests than on wishes or expectations of family members and peers.
  • Identifying a set of acceptable choices rather than ideal options, for ideal occupational choices may not exist.
  • Try to gather your information from people with authority and expertise, such as faculties of the career services center, to preserve informational consistency.
  • Try to start the information gathering with a set of non negotiables sought in a career, because too much flexibility can slow the process.
  • It is normal for people to experience negative emotions such as disappointment or regret a delay after the decision was made; it doesn’t mean you’ve made a wrong career decision.

Understanding the effect of emotions on decision-making:

Emotions can influence decision-making in numerous ways. One explanation is that some people may find it difficult to accurately evaluate the emotional outcomes that may result from different decisions7. Studies have suggested that the inability to correctly predict the emotional outcome of a decision can lead to inefficient decision-making8. Incidental emotions, emotions that are not caused by having to make a decision, can also influence decision-making9.

So, what can you do about it? 

  • Acknowledge that your decisions can be affected by not only the emotions caused by having to make a decision, but also by your incidental emotions and general dispositions (whether you are naturally happy or sad).
  • Be cautious when making important decisions while being overwhelmed by emotions.


(1) Rolison, M. R., & Scherman, A. (2003). COLLEGE STUDENT RISK-TAKING FROM THREE PERSPECTIVES. Adolescence, 38(152), 689-704.

(2) Stapleton, J. L., Turrisi, R., Cleveland, M. J., Ray, A. E., & Lu, S. (2014). Pre-college matriculation risk profiles and alcohol consumption patterns during the first semesters of college. Prevention Science, 15(5), 705-15.

(3) Ross, L. L., & Bowen, A. M. (2010). Sexual Decision Making for the “Better Than Average” College Student. Journal of American College Health, 59(3), 211-216.

(4) Shin, Y., & Kelly, K. R. (2015). Resilience and decision-making strategies as predictors of career decision difficulties. The Career Development Quarterly, 63(4), 291-305.

(5) Bubic, A. (2014). Decision making characteristics and decision styles predict adolescents’ career choice satisfaction. Current Psychology, 33(4), 515-531.

(6) Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.

(7) Chen, V. J., Allen, H,. Beb, S., & Humphreys, G. (2011). Role of emotion in shifting choice preference: A neuroscientific perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, Article 300, 1-3.

(8) Kermer, D. A., Driver-Linn, E., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2006). Loss aversion is an affect forecasting error. Psychological Science, 17, 649-653.

(9) Simonsohn, U. (2009). Weather to go to college. Economic Journel, 20, I-II.

One Reply to “Making Better Decisions in College”

  1. Taylor and Yuchen, I really enjoyed reading your blog post! It was realistic in regards to college freshmen drinking habits. The fact about how drinking increases after your freshman year was quite interesting. I think freshmen will find your tips really helpful!

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