Many students approach the college process like performers trying to please judges. They spend their time wondering what the colleges are looking for, then frantically try to do those things. But those applicants often forget that they, not the colleges, are the ones with all the options.
So here’s a suggested exercise for juniors who are just starting your college search:
I’m going to assume that if you’re a student reading this blog, (1) you want to go to college, and (2) you’re at least a little excited about the idea. Before you think about specific schools, make a comprehensive list of everything you want to do when you’re in college. Nothing is out of bounds, so don’t edit yourself. If you want to study biology with a Nobel Prize-winning professor, write it down. If you want to minor in theater, write it down. If you want to go to football games, join a fraternity, play late night video games with new friends or just finally experience life on your own, add it to the list. If you need a little inspiration, here’s a past post.
Whether you’ve got 10 or 100 things on the list, it’s a start. We call this a college wish list. Now, as you learn about schools, you know what to look for—the items on your wish list.
A savvy college shopper will change your wish list over time. You’ll add new things, take away others, and rearrange your priorities about which items on the list are non-negotiable and which you can take or leave. But the point of the exercise is that you’ll be consistently training yourself not to ask questions like, “What is Dartmouth looking for?” Instead, you’ll be asking, “What am I looking for, and which schools can offer those things to me?”
If you do this for 6 or 8 or 12 months, you may put some items on your list that can only be found at a particular school, such as a specific professor, program, or opportunity that simply can’t be found anywhere else. Those will make for great inclusions in your “Why this college?” essays. Unlike many other applicants, you won’t just be visiting the website and grabbing a few statistics to include in the essay. Instead, you’ll have some good college soul-searching to back those desirable offerings up.
But more importantly, you’ll probably be consistently reminded of just how many schools can actually give you what you’re looking for, whether or not they’re prestigious.
So instead of making a college list and then trying to match yourself to those schools, start with a wish list and match the colleges to you.