Here’s the counterintuitive thing about a college search: it’s not about the college. Oh sure, you’re looking at colleges as you check out a campus and ponder its program, culture, and vibe. You wonder if it’s affordable, far enough from home, and whether its degree will enhance your resume. Those are important considerations but lack context as a search commences or concludes.
Take an “existential selfie”
A search requires a more personal reflection as the queue of institutional priorities takes shape. High school juniors and seniors need to ask themselves: Who am I? What’s the best environment for me to learn and thrive? What are my hopes and aspirations? A college search and the ultimate decision on the destination it produces is your search. It is intensely personal. So, start with you. Hello, you.
I’m not advising narcissism. I advise that you take an “existential selfie” of sorts. By this, I mean: hold up an imaginary camera or mirror, and take an extended moment to pause and ponder what you see.
Students should begin by asking themselves: What animates my personality, talents, interests, and goals? Write those things down. Add a degree of weighting to each item as a priority of more or less importance to you. Now, guided by that vivid, “high-res” selfie, assess your higher ed options.
Students should start with the “program”
Start with what I call a “program.” Do you like exploring, or are you ready for a specific academic path? Do you favor words more than numbers or equations more than languages? Hands-on learning more than notetaking? Open options versus requirements?
Every college offers a different answer to those personal inquiries, which are important clues for you to examine. Do you favor discussion or listening familiarity or more anonymity? Do ten seats around a conversational table with a professor feel cozy, stimulating, or too confining? Does a lecture hall of 500 with a faculty member presenting to you feel exciting or intimidating? Would you raise your hand? Do you want to raise your hand?
Those are clues about campus scale and classroom size from your perspective. My answer to those questions might not be yours. (I always preferred a small circle, and I raised my hand. But that’s me, not you.)
Next, consider “place”
Now to a sense of place. Are you a city slicker, outdoorsy, cosmopolitan, a hip kind of cat, a tinkerer, crunchy? Are you entrepreneurial, conservative, an activist, or a geek? Are you laidback, or do you thrive on competition? Those qualities will ultimately inform the application you submit (more on that later) and inform the list you explore.
Do you need a jazz scene nearby or a place to cut your hair? Do you hope to watch your university play football games on ESPN, or is club soccer okay? How close is a major airport, and how straightforward would the semesterly trek to and from campus be? Do you want to drive or fly? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does. You tell me.
What else matters to you? How do you feel about snow? Humidity? Subways? Cows? Diversity? Brick sidewalks? Museums? Religion? Partying? Open spaces? Required courses? Politics? Night skies? A rah-rah vibe? Quarters versus semesters? Nightlife? Intensity versus chill? Are you a nerd who needs a community of nerdy peers? So many questions. Only you know the answers.
Your sibling’s search last year wasn’t yours, even if you tagged along on most visits. Similarly, your best friend’s list does not need to sync with your options. Maybe it’s time for you and your twin to go solo. Maybe mom’s Alma Mater doesn’t sing to you even though you’ve been wearing the sweatshirt since you were in diapers. This is about you. Own it.
Begin your exploration and discovery phase — whether you are a senior with a decision to make or a junior bouncing at the starting line — with self-assessment — then progress to your list of options. Your list (or decision) will shift as priorities rise and fall. A few might evaporate, and others might reveal themselves as you learn more about the various options and consider them through your prism. It’s a fluid process. Shifts are normal, good even.
An appealing college might yield a type that hadn’t occurred to you — like a women’s college or rural campus. If so, check out a second one. Is a theme emerging, or was it a one-off reaction?
Be open to surprises. Set aside “reputation” and consider the substance of each place as you meet it. For juniors, today’s list won’t necessarily be the one you end up with at the application deadline. And seniors, the journey through April offers a fast-track version of the same idea as campus visits and open houses, and the conversation with your head and heart unfolds.
This is the time to explore, try things on, and sort things out. When something doesn’t resonate, let it go. When it does, look closer and add more options that channel whatever theme you’ve identified as important.
Make sure your selfie is “in focus.” Ready, set, click. What do you see?
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Lee Coffin is the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College. He also hosts a podcast, Admissions Beat, which kicked off its third season on Jan. 24, 2023, and provides high school juniors, seniors, and parents, as well as their counselors and other mentors, with “news you can use” at each step on the pathway to college.
He was the guest on a Grown and Flown Facebook Live session for parents of high school students hosted by Grown & Flown.