Finding the Center of the College Search

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A junior recently had this to say: “I am very clear on what the colleges are looking for in their students. But do they care about me? Do they care about what Iam looking for in a college?” This is a very real question, and the answer is strong and positive and is absolutely “yes.” Colleges and universities are interested in individuals. Schools aim to build communities that are vibrant and diverse—from the prospective high school student to the engaged undergraduate to the alumni network—communities that will offer individuals the opportunity to learn, socialize, and evolve. 

In giving more thought to this question, I can see that my student was stating his dissent from the perspective of the competitive world of college admissions. His observation is that the college search appears to be misaligned: the search appears to be directed at the series of tasks required to satisfy application requirements, i.e., standardized tests, competitive grades, essays, campus visits, interviews and more. If one is busy mastering a list of tasks for the application and competing for a spot on campus, where does one find the freedom to make a personal choice? In short, does the school choose me, or do I have a creative hand in this operation? 

The answer to this question is “both.” A college choice is a complex arrangement of decisions made by multiple parties; however, a student can still drive a college search in an active way and maintain a degree of personal control over the college application process. The answer, again, is “yes.” Students can be empowered to center themselves and own the exploration before, ultimately, coming to a final discovery: their college choice. 

Self-understanding, a move toward independence, and a sense of responsibility will help students own and take charge of their transition from high school to college. My advice to students is to practice the art of decision making, get used to identifying your preferences, and reply to queries with a definitive yes or no. Know who you are, what you like, and be aware of where you can compromise. Know a deal breaker when you see it. There are a number of ways you can put yourself in the center of your search: prep early, get to know the lay of the land, research both academics and campus cultures, and contextualize your supplements. Make it personal and represent yourself by being forthcoming about your strengths and interests; do not be afraid to speak your mind. Be real about real information such as deadlines—after all, deadlines are deadlines, not rough estimates or simply suggestions.

As the juniors breach the horizon through campus visits, final test scores, and junior year grades, they will be clear on their facts and, this is important, they will also decide if a school is a good fit. Make college visits personal and, when considering a college, evaluate by asking, can I relate? Does this school fulfill my vision for an undergrad experience? One must be open-minded to embrace the unknown, and it is in the wandering that a student will find control. This seems a bit of a paradox, but by navigating the search, a student will find focus. Embrace discoveries about self and the schools that interest you. This is your life, your choice, your responsibility. And this is the great part about having other people care. You can ask for help—and you will receive it. Colleges and universities offer face-to-face meetings with reps, video chats, social media exchanges, tweeting, YouTube channels—all sorts of methods for communicating with you and helping you to make the best plan for yourself. 

The seniors have a bit of experience about making this time of their life a personal journey and can probably say that the YOU in the process comes out of commitment and presence. This is a busy month as seniors settle out a variety of activities: admit, wait list, or denial in response to early decision applications and/or putting the finishing touches on regular decision applications. Managing the good news/bad news activity during the month of December may add a different dimension to your holiday celebration, but hang in there because you will arrive at the journey’s end and identify the right college for you. Stay engaged in the college process, weigh your choices carefully, and keep a keen eye on your ultimate goal.  My advice: continue to attend to your work one step at a time, all the while keeping perspective on your overall outcome. 

And here’s one more thing. Your outcome may be the result of factors that have nothing to do with you or your application. The college/university decisions unfold at various points on the calendar and can often create unpredictable bands of statistical drama. Know that the enrollment goals of a college/university will influence the building of a class of students and the goals that will drive admission decisions. So, juniors and seniors, understand that admission practices are determined by many factors, including budget, financial aid, departmental needs, and recruitment strategies. For example, a school may be recruiting more international applications or transfer students in order to cover students who are leaving or studying abroad. Many schools are looking to manage their yield rate, increase their selectivity, and gain points on the college ranking lists. 

Even though you will not be privy to the inner workings of institutional goals, you are in control of constructing your personal path. Wherever you are in the college process, reach out, engage, and find time to reflect because a thoughtful endeavor will procure true outcomes—otherwise known as a good fit.

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