Finding Your College Match

Does a college choose me, or do I choose my college?

A couple of years ago, a junior said to me, “I am very clear on what colleges are looking for in their students. But do they care about me? Do they care about what I am looking for in a college?” This is a very real question, and the answer is absolutely “YES!” Colleges and universities are interested in individuals. Schools aim to build vibrant, diverse communities from those individuals — communities that will offer those individuals the opportunity to learn, socialize, and evolve as engaged undergraduates and alumni..

In giving more thought to this question, though, I see that my student was also stating his distaste for the gauntlet that is the competitive world of college admissions. He was sharing with me his observation that the college search appears to be misaligned with the application process, which appears to be directed at the series of tasks required to satisfy application requirements — i.e., standardized tests, competitive grades, essays, campus visits, interviews, etc. 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? Does the school get to just 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, as a student, you can still drive a college search in an active way and maintain a degree of personal control over the college application process. Whether you’re just beginning the college process in earnest as a junior or are deep in applications as a senior, be empowered to center yourself and own your college search.

Put Yourself in the Center of Your Search

This past June, a senior, who was set for next year and very happy with her college choice, told me, “Admissions can be really random. It is a mixed bag, but I learned to recognize that I did everything I could do, and I had an amazing time doing it. If I didn’t get in, I thought, ‘I am worth it to me. Someone else will see me.’ It is difficult to see the colleges mindset, but you have to see and understand you own self-worth. Keep in Mind: It is not your fault that you didn’t get in; there are many qualified applicants.”

Self-understanding, a move toward independence, and a sense of responsibility will help you own and take charge of your transition from high school to college. My advice 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. And finally, be real about information such as deadlines — after all, deadlines are deadlines, not rough estimates or simply suggestions.

Communicating with Colleges

Now more than ever, schools are broadening their capacity to meet and connect with prospective students. In-person visits may not yet be offered on some campuses, but many schools do offer on-campus visits or live personal video tours to families via a current, in-residence student via their smartphone. So, reach out to schedule a visit, whether in-person or virtual. Also, with visits to high schools limited, college field reps are eager to speak with students and find out more about you. Colleges and universities also offer video chats, communicate with prospective students via social media, and maintain active YouTube channels. There are all sorts of methods to use for communicating with colleges, and by taking advantage of those options, you’ll be able to create the best plan for yourself.

For Current Juniors …

As your college journey picks up speed — through a whirlwind of in-person and virtual campus visits, test scores, and especially this year’s grades — you have to seek out the information you need to decide if a school is a good fit for you. Make your college research personal, and, when considering a college, ask yourself, can I relate? Does this school fulfill my vision for an undergrad experience? Embrace the discoveries you make about yourself and the schools that interest you. Be open to embracing the unknown: the search itself will help you find focus. This is your life, your choice, and your responsibility. Obviously, you can ask for help — and you will receive it! Your college application journey is a collaborative process, and a lot of people are interested in seeing you succeed!

For Current Seniors …

You already have a bit of experience in making this time of your life a personal journey and will probably agree that the YOU in this process comes out of your commitment to and presence in the college search. This is a busy month as you make your final decisions responding to early decision/early action applications and put 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.

Finally …

Here’s one more thing for you and your family to keep in mind. The outcome of your application process may be the result of factors that have nothing to do with you or your application. College decisions unfold at various points on the calendar and often reflect statistical analyses conducted in hopes of building a college class matching the needs of a particular institution. Know that the enrollment goals of a college will drive admission decisions. Our world has changed dramatically over the last few years, and college admissions is right there seeking changes that enable them to thrive as dynamic living and learning communities. The goals of institutions are changing, as are student preferences, so listen carefully to what schools are sharing with you and include that information in making the best decision for you.

Although you’re not privy to the inner workings of college and universities — neither their institutional goals nor their admissions decisions — 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 guarantee a good fit.