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Staying Student-Centered in the College Search

“What do I need to do to get into XYZ college?” It’s often the lead question from students, with their junior years of high school largely behind them, as they begin to focus on college planning. Unfortunately, as many ask the question, they have already skipped a vital step in the planning process. They have failed to fully assess their own needs and interests. Instead, they are focused, if not obsessed, on the place—the destination.

Not long ago, a young woman approached me after a program to inquire about rigor as it relates to course selections in her senior year program. “Is it better for me to take four APs or five APs next year?” she asked. Before attempting to answer her question, I asked if she had some colleges in mind as the importance of rigor is correlates strongly with the selectivity of a college. Her immediate and enthusiastic response was to identify schools at the top of the pecking order (or the tip of the Pyramid of Selectivity for those of you who have read my book, Winning the College Admission Game).

Curious about her thought process, I asked her “why” she was interested in these schools. She looked at me with astonishment and said, “Well I always assumed if I could get into one of those schools, that’s where I should go.” Without missing a beat, I again asked “why?” She was dumbfounded. Apparently, no one had ever challenged her thinking before. What’s more, she had no answer and that was the end of the conversation. I wasn’t trying to talk her out of the schools about which she seemed very excited. I simply wanted to see if she had given much thought to her choices. Based on this brief exchange, it appeared she had not done so. Instead, she was “destination oriented.”

On the surface this may not seem to be a big deal. However, it is my observation (over years of watching the admission process unfold) that most of the students who are frustrated by their lack of acceptance into high profile (and highly selective) schools are “destination-oriented.” Think about it. Every year, it seems the headlines in early April read “Record Number of Talented Students Rejected at Top Colleges.” And why is that? It’s largely because kids (and families) become so consumed with getting into places that they overlook the fundamental needs and interests of the student. They are not student-centered in their respective approaches.

A student-centered approach to college planning begins with a fundamental question: “Why do you want to go to college?’

The correct answer is not: “Isn’t that what you do after high school?” Or “My parents told me I have to go.” Or “I don’t know what else to do.” Regardless of your circumstance, going to college should never be the default answer! There is too much time and money at stake for you to follow a whim. That doesn’t mean you have to have the rest of your life mapped out before you can consider college, but it does mean that going to college needs hold some sense of purpose for you.

If you think college is indeed the answer to your post-high school plans, the next question to ponder is, “What are the three things you want to make sure you accomplish by the time you cross the stage at your college graduation?” As you think about the answers, you begin to identify your priorities or those factors that will be important filters as you process information about colleges that come across your radar screen.

When my son answered this question, he said that he wanted to make sure he got a good education. This struck me as a pretty thoughtful response so I asked what a good education would look like to him. As he talked about how he liked to learn and the type of instruction that inspired him, he began to hear himself describe the qualities of an educational environment that would be important to him. When we had finished working through each of his priorities, he realized that he could be more intentional in evaluating his college options.

Focusing on this question of “what do you hope to accomplish” will also help you get past a lot of the emotional stuff about wanting to live in warm weather climates or big cities—or on campuses with big-time athletic programs. While these characteristics of a college experience are not unimportant, they are the gravy or the value that is added when you have found a college that fits you and your priorities well.

So, stay student-centered as you begin to think about college planning in earnest. Stay focused on you and your priorities. Evaluate why you want to go to college and how you will measure the success of your experience. This is not college for your parents or for your teachers or for your friends. It’s all about you.

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