Originally published March 11, 2020
When developing your list of potential colleges, there is a particular back-and-forth that can guide you to finding the very best fit for you. Whether you hit college campuses on foot during spring break or begin your investigation online, keep in mind that this motion involves two strokes: research and reflection.
Doing the Research
The research side involves curiosity and fact-finding. You need to examine how each institution on your list describes and guides the undergraduate experience. What does each school value? What is the framework for the undergrad experience? For example, is there a core curriculum or open curriculum? Are there other educational requirements (which are sometimes referred to as distribution requirements)? In looking at each school, you will want to consider the size, location, academic majors and concentrations, internship and study abroad programs, and other programs that shape school life in and outside the classroom.
College campuses are also living communities, so check out the campus culture and look at the intramural athletics, clubs, social and dorm life, and even the food choices available. If sports and school spirit are important to you, make a note of that. In fact, you should be writing down all of the info that is interesting and important to you. Record the facts that make the schools stand out from one another, and as you move from campus to campus, note the strengths and gaps of each school.
Write it all down on each visit, because as the number of schools you visit grows, the details will begin to blur together. In the long run, it is important to have this information on hand. You will want to use these facts to determine how your potential schools differ and to analyze if and how they meet your specific educational, social, and extracurricular preferences.
Your diligent research will prepare you for the next phase of the process. Over time, you will uncover a great deal of material about the undergraduate experience, and as you move deeper into your college search, you will begin to form opinions about the options that most excite you. Here, you will identify your solid list of preferences.
Engaging in Active Refection
This is the reflection side: the motion that will help you shape your list and determine what is right for you. This activity requires you to think carefully about your vision as an undergraduate, about how you learn best. What kind of learning environment supports your learning style? What schools support your academic goals? And, of course, remember the campus culture. Does the community speak to you? Practice the art of decision making, get used to identifying your inclinations, and respond to options 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. Make the college search personal: reflect on what it means to you.
Reflective action will also help you differentiate yourself from others when it comes time to completing your applications. Consider the strengths that have defined you so far: your interests, your personality, your goals. Your narrative should be authentic and take the admission rep beyond the facts of your transcript and test scores. Keep going. Move beyond a resume or activity list to share how your experiences have inspired your goals and aspirations for the future. The only way to differentiate yourself from others is to think carefully about your own story.
The back-and-forth motion of research and reflection will occur throughout the college search process. It is not a one-and-done deal. Preferences evolve over time, and new details will emerge as you investigate schools at a greater depth. It takes time to get to know each school and to understand what is important to you in a college. Moving through your research and reflection work will give you practice in making decisions. A final college choice will be the outcome. Yes, effort is required, but your reward for those efforts will be a college choice that reflects the best of who you are and where you hope to go.