By Peter Van Buskirk on August 28, 2019
“Which college is right for me?”
It's a question that’s top of mind for many of you. Soon enough, you’ll be completing applications and hoping for the best in the college admission process.
Getting from where you are today to where you want to be, though, won’t just happen according to some well-planned script. You can’t assume that because you are bright, talented, come from a wonderful family and go to a great school that you will be admitted to the college of your choice.
In short, you can’t will yourself into college.
The fact is that you will need to compete with hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of other students with credentials just like yours. They’ve heard about the colleges on your list. They want to pursue the same programs that are important to you with the same professors you’ve been reading about. And some of them want to paint their faces the same color you paint yours on Saturday afternoons! They want what you want.
So, how can you set yourself apart from the competition and make sure you’re taking the necessary steps to find the right college? Start by answering these four questions that will help you approach the college search process with a solid foundation.
4 questions to help you find your college fit
In order to set yourself apart with the best chance to enroll at the college of your choice, you need to first engage in a reflective self-examination. Ask yourself the following:
- Why do you want to go to college?
- What are three things you want to accomplish during your college years?
- What type of learning environment is best for you?
- How do you define a “good” education?
On the surface, these questions may not seem very consequential. After all, they’re not keyed to specific destinations—colleges that might be on your list. Don’t worry, that conversation will follow. If, however, you start with a list of colleges before you truly understand yourself and what’s in this process for you, you’ll be prone to mistakes—and expensive mistakes at that.
Taking time to wrestle with these questions at the outset of your college application process will enable you to identify your priorities and, more importantly, give you a sense of purpose going forward. When you are “student-centered” in your orientation to decision-making, you put yourself in the best position possible to target and, then, compete successfully for admission at colleges that make sense for you.
1. Why do you want to go to college?
You don’t have to go. There is no law that says you must. In fact, you have options. You can graduate from high school and get a job. You can engage in community service, or travel to interesting places. Or you can hang out at home and watch Netflix or play video games all day (we don’t recommend this!).
The question of “why college” often draws a “deer in the headlights” look from those who know college is in the future but have yet to figure out what the opportunity means to them. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
Here are some of the most common responses to this question (and they’re probably going through your head, too!).
“Do I really have to know?”
Answering a question with a question is not a good way to start the process—and, yes, you really should have a good understanding as to why you want to go to college.
“Everybody is going to college. If I don’t go, I’ll be left behind.”
Come on, is that really a good answer? To begin with, not everybody is going to college (nor should that be the expectation). Even if that were the case, though, is that really a good reason for you?
“Well, you don’t know my parents. They’re going to make me go.”
If that’s the case, how’s that working for you? Do you really want to spend four years of your life on a college campus because someone says, “You’re going,” or would you rather be there because you have chosen that opportunity? Don’t you prefer to do things by choice than by mandate? So, why would you choose to go to college?
The question is more important than you might think, and answering it will enable you to start the college process with a sense of purpose. Barely half of the students who begin college will ever finish, suggesting that many students on college campuses don’t have a good understanding of the opportunities that are present for them. If that sounds like you, now is a good time to start giving serious thought to the importance a college education might hold in your future.
2. What are 3 things you want to accomplish during your college years?
A college education means different things to different people. For many, it is a necessary credentialing process—a means to an end such graduate school or specialized career work. And it represents self-actualization and an opportunity to become a more widely educated person.
What do you want to accomplish during your four years of college that might speak to either (or both) of these considerations?
Starting with a sense of purpose borne out of thoughtful “I want” statements will help you find focus. It will also enable you to take ownership for your application process. Moreover, knowing what you want will make it easier to prepare compelling applications for the colleges of your choice.
The realm of possibility is unlimited as you contemplate the question about what you want to accomplish (things that would require consciousness of choice on your part) during—not after—your college years. Do you want to meet interesting people? Become knowledgeable in a particular subject? Explore new academic disciplines? Study abroad? Engage in undergraduate research? Participate in an internship? Play in the band? Join a club? There’s a good chance your list will grow beyond three selections!
Next, focus on “why” you have made each selection. What would it mean to have such an experience? How would it enrich your undergraduate experience?
As the “I want” statements begin to emerge, so will your priorities and, along with them, a growing recognition of the synergy you want to find between yourself and the colleges under consideration.
3. What type of learning environment is best for you?
Many students fail to consider how they like to learn when searching for the college that is right for them. Many assume that the subject material covered at most colleges and universities is similar, which can lead to the conclusion that beyond the name of a school, its location and its social life, most schools are alike.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Just as we all process information differently, colleges and universities deliver it differently. Your ability to find the synergy between the way you most comfortably engage in learning and the manner in which it is delivered by an institution can make all the difference between a successful college experience and one that comes up short of satisfying your “I want" objectives. Consider the follow scenarios:
- Would you rather learn biology from the book—or in the lab?
- Would you rather learn history in a lecture hall listening to a professor talk about the assigned book—or in a seminar room with 12-15 students talking with a professor about the same book?
While you can master the subject either way, your mastery will be likely be more personally satisfactory—and longer lasting—when you are engaged meaningfully. This is true whether your learning style is visual, auditory, experiential or linguistic. Putting yourself in a learning environment for which you are ill-suited can greatly compromise your potential to learn and achieve to the best of your ability, a factor that contributes greatly to students leaving college prematurely.
Now, consider learning style in a slightly different manner. If a teacher were to give you the opportunity to get a grade for the entire year, which form of assessment would you choose? Be prepared to explain why it makes the most sense for you.
- Take a test
- Write a paper of 20 pages or more
- Submit an independent project
In all likelihood, the selection will reflect your strengths—an ability to prepare for and take tests well, a facility for shaping and defending an argument or point of view, or a penchant for creativity. If one form of assessment stands out above the rest, now you know more about your style of learning.
As you come to better understand this, focus on finding colleges where you will be able to play to your strengths—where there is a proven synergy between the way you like to learn and the style of instruction.
4. How would you define a "good" education?
It’s not uncommon for students to articulate that they want a “good education” during the self-reflection process. Frankly, this is a great objective and you probably share it. The problem is that there is no textbook definition for a “good education.” You need to give it your own.
Imagine, then, coming to the realization at some point in your educational journey that the experience you are having truly fits the definition of a “good education” for you. What’s happening that draws you to that conclusion? Will it be your relationships with your professors or your peers? Will it be the manner in which you are exposed to the content of your chosen discipline or the curriculum in general? Or will it be an awareness of a broadened perspective?
For each student, the epiphany will be different. As you imagine yours, pay particular attention to the contributing factors. Then, look for learning environments that are most likely to afford you that “good education.”
By engaging in thoughtful reflection and taking stock of your priorities, you establish a sense of purpose and, ultimately, ownership in a process that will put you on the path to success in the college admission process. Moving forward, take control—and make the process work for you. Don’t let it happen to you.