As a mother of four teenagers and a college consultant in Madison, CT, it is important to me, personally and professionally, to teach students and their families how to confidently narrow their college search. William Shakespeare wrote, “to thine own self be true.” A modern-day version of this sentiment translates to- “Just be yourself!” But this is easier said than done. How do you find your true self, and even more to the point, how do you find the best college to pursue dreams, build skills and character, and reach your full potential? There are 6 areas to explore as a high-school student heads toward a future college destination.
- Find Yourself: It is never too early in your high school career to start observing what you excel in and what interests you. Start noticing what subjects you enjoy and which teachers you prefer. Ask yourself how you learn? Are you a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner? Do you learn best when taking notes, reading in quiet places, or discussing topics with others? When you take tests, are you anxious? Do you prefer multiple choice tests, essay exams, or do you prefer project-based evaluations?
- Fight Noise: Don’t succumb to peer or societal pressures on issues of academic pedigree or college elitism. Well-researched anecdotal data can be persuasive for students and their parents who need to debunk the theory that the highest ranked schools (and most expensive) are always the best schools for their children and that good parenting requires the support of this pursuit. Real-life success stories disprove such a simple formula that a college’s ranking solely determines your future.
- Keep Perspective: As you discover more about your interests, habits, and strengths, you will begin to see recurring themes when researching colleges. For example, small liberal arts universities make undergraduates a priority, hiring professors who choose classroom investment over research and emphasizing small seminars and common core learning. Large public universities offer much exposure to research opportunities but may place priority on graduate students and hiring teaching assistants to lecture in populated classrooms. City schools take advantage of cooperative experiences and internships because of their practical locations and Jesuit schools emphasize service learning. These general categories are not without exceptions, but they help the college-bound make some sense of the available reference books that list and describe hundreds of academic institutions.
- Explore Options: The best way to get a sense of a specific college is to go visit. Even if schedules are tight and summer vacation is your only option, visiting a campus with few students on campus is better than not visiting it at all. Take notes on the schools you visit, schedule interviews if offered to show your interest, and participate in tours. Try to assess whether you see yourself studying at this campus for four years. Try to piece together a “day in the life” scenario of a college student at this institution. Do not force yourself to belong, no matter how much my own son felt that he should desire a small liberal arts school, his true self felt more comfortable at the larger state schools.
- Budget the Cost: However, before your trips are plotted, make sure parents have visited the net price calculator of each college to plug in their specific finances to view their EFC (estimated family contribution). Based on income and assets, the calculator does a good job of giving families a ball park figure of what they are expected to pay in tuition. If the school meets some degree of need, the school will award financial awards to fill the gap between the EFC and the cost of attendance of the college. (Do not visit schools that are too expensive for the family. Debt is a growing problem among college students, and merit money is only offered to students at certain schools who rank in the top 25 percent of the admitted class based on high-school grades and standardized test scores.)
- Embrace Your Future: As you visit the campuses, have fun and keep an open mind. Make sure to write thank you emails to people you met on staff or as tour guides. The schools keep files on candidates and demonstrated interest is an aspect of the candidate that admissions counselors gauge for enrollment management. Finalize your list, making sure you have some schools that are within your academic and financial reach. The goal is to have a choice of schools you are excited about when probable acceptance letters arrive. As you await the results of an application filled with authenticity and hard work, it is time to work on transitioning your mind set to a fulfilling and personalized college experience where you can be true to yourself in true Shakespearean style.