Find the Right College by Knowing Your Story
Choosing a college is often the first major life decision a high school student makes. The successful college search is predicated upon finding the right fit. Students leave high school brimming with knowledge about the physical world, history, languages, and mathematics; purportedly, these are the building blocks for future academic and professional success. Yet how many students graduate with a sense of who they are at their core? Without a strong sense of self, correctly identifying that fit is a nearly impossible task. Finding the right college, then, often begins with a long, hard look in the mirror.
KNOW THYSELFThis Ancient Greek aphorism was engraved at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and has been the foundation for millennia of philosophy. Thinkers ranging from Plato to Benjamin Franklin have expounded on the importance and difficulty of this simple phrase. The modern American school curriculum, however, leaves precious little room to explore oneself. A strong college counseling program begins with this challenge. Long before students concern themselves with essays, interview strategies, or standardized testing, they should consider who they are...and who they want to become.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO KNOW ONESELF?Let us accept that to know oneself is to live in awareness. Teenagers, in particular, can be caught up in the sweep of high school life with all of the academic demands and social pressures that come with the threshold of adulthood. To live in awareness is to recognize the emotions, motivations, and values that shape our perceptions of and reactions to the world around us. Which challenges inspire us? What do we fear? Did I have a voice today, and did I listen to others’ voices? Queries in this vein require quite a bit of introspection, and are all the more revealing and empowering because of that. Although this self-exploration is typically a private endeavor, the results are often quite public. We may not always realize what we are describing, but we already have words for young people who possess a greater degree of self-awareness. Grounded. Poised. Assured. While these qualities can lead to a successful college search, they are also worthy traits in their own right.
RESIST GROUPTHINKAmerican higher education presents a broad and diverse landscape of collegiate options, and the admissions process is murky and fraught with uncertainty. The human mind often reacts to this confusion by retreating into groupthink. We find comfort in conferring a mantle of authority to others, which in turn can make our decisions easier, if not more informed. College rankings are presumed to be correct. Opinions presented in guide books are unconsciously adopted as our own. Uncertainty can lead students to seek easy solutions to the question of fit, solutions which steer them away from the sometimes uncomfortable task of self-reflection. The more we learn about ourselves, the better equipped we are to become the authority in which we place our trust.
IT’S NOT A ZERO SUM GAMEBoth news media and the entertainment industry often portray the college search as a zero sum game which produces winners and losers. Getting into college becomes the finish line rather than the start of something new. Students pursue the “best” college instead of the best college for them. In reality, however, finding the right fit is not just a strategy — it is the reward for an honest exploration. Look at the college search as a journey, not a contest. Walt Whitman did not have college admissions in mind when he wrote this verse, but we believe he would fully support our appropriation of his words for this purpose:
Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.
The outcome of a decision letter from an admission office would not have fazed Whitman. He was more concerned with the journey to that exact moment, the accumulation of experiences that defined his character and shaped his perspective on life.
WHAT IS YOUR STORY?The ability to tell stories is a uniquely human trait. From the earliest cave art to the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel, stories have defined, engaged, and inspired us. We should embrace the fact that we are each rough drafts, right until the moment of the final pen stroke. Contrary to popular opinion, colleges do not want to admit finished products. They want to enroll someone like us, with all of our foibles and potential for growth. We do not live our story in the third person. We write our story every day, whether or not we put it into words. Let us write with purpose.