Stepping Off On the Right Foot

Juniors, if you haven’t already begun to think about the college search, it will here before you know it.  We’re excited about it, are you?  This January the College Counseling team will host individual meetings with you and your parents as blue-footprintyou begin your college admission journey.  That journey will be equal parts roller coaster ride and introspective Mad Libs exercise.  We’ll challenge you to think about who you are and why you do the things you do; to consider your dreams, your goals, your strengths and weaknesses, and your priorities.  We’ll encourage you to be explorers, to understand the landscape of educational opportunities in front of you, and we’ll encourage you to research the ways those options may or may not fit you.  There will be conversations to have, web sites to visit, a To Do list ten miles long, and tasks to schedule.  You’ll likely be happy, sad, annoyed, anticipatory, anxious, thrilled, nervous and appreciative, all at some point over the course of the next year and a half.  And you know what?  It’ll all be worth it.  Finding the group of colleges you believe will truly fit you best is an incredible process.  It is a chance to plan for your future and select a new home.  A home intended to help you learn, build relationships, explore yourself and discover your place in a world which needs you.  A world which is waiting for your talents, your fresh perspectives, your creativity and innovation, your skills, your questions, your kindness, and your enthusiasm.  What an amazing adventure you are about to embark upon!

In anticipation of those important discussions, and as an extension of a similar post I shared last year, here are answers to some of the most frequent questions we receive from students just getting started.  They aren’t nearly the total of our advice, and they certainly don’t cover any turf which is specific to you- that’s what our meetings will be for, but I hope they will help you frame your mindset as you transition into this important time.

How do the “successful” students get started?  Well.  “Successful”.  Can we start with that word?  Success is such a subjective thing, and it’s important to begin the college admission process recognizing that no two students are alike.  Shooting for an idealized notion of a “successful” outcome is a great way to ensure disappointment in this process.  You are your own person, and we are honored to help you get to know that person; to help you determine which schools will help him or her achieve the things he or she would like to achieve.  That’s going to be fun and interesting and dynamic.  It’s also going to be work.  Every student can achieve the success he or she defines, but it takes time, commitment and a willingness to go into the process open-minded about your prospective college paths.  Are there characteristics which the students who are admitted to their first choice schools share in common?  Yes, and we’ll talk early and often about those traits.  Now, the students who finish the process happiest with their outcomes, the students who best manage the trials and tribulations along the way, they are the students who spend time creating good habits for themselves in the beginning.  They attend to the college search and application phases incrementally and regularly.  They care for the admission process in the way they care for their classes, family obligations, an athletic team or theatrical commitment.  Setting aside 15 or 20 minutes, two to three times a week, for exclusive focus on college admission related tasks, between now until May 1st, 2016, would be a great start.  Many of you have likely heard me say you can eat an elephant, but not in one bite.  Work to avoid becoming a weekend warrior and embrace the start of this process as the start of an ongoing investment of time, focus and energy.  The purposeful attention will save you stress, heartache and frustration in the end.

How can I really enjoy this process? Know that you have a team on your side.  Your parents (yes, it’s true), teachers, counselors and friends, even the admission officers with whom you will work, want you to end up at a fantastic place (fantastic FOR YOU).  Use your support system.  Communicate with your support system.  Be patient with your support system.  Lead the effort, after all, it is you who is going to college, but let those around you be involved.  Speak and listen.  The more you create open channels for communication and share your real feelings about and goals for your future, the more those around you can lend a hand.  Visiting college campuses can be incredibly fun.  Grab a bite to eat at a student hang-out, people-watch, introduce yourself, visit a class and, or attend a campus event.  Enjoy the time you set aside to explore campuses with your family.  Allow those conversations about the future to help you get to know the people who love you, better.  You’d be amazed at what you can learn about yourself by learning about your family.  Enjoy.  This.  Time.

What questions should I be thinking about before I put together a list of prospective colleges to consider?  Before you begin to focus on questions pertaining to colleges specifically, you need to take an honest and careful look at yourself.  You may not know all the answers, in fact, you may feel like it is the first time in your life when you’ve been asked some of the questions, but considering the answers will help you be better prepared to begin your search.  It’s important to note that there are no correct answers.  None.  And your answers, they are going to change.  You won’t be the same person you are now in three months, six months, or a year.  Your vocabulary for you who are, what you want out of a school (and life) will expand and evolve.  So, know that defining these answers provides you with a launch pad, a starting place (only):

  1. What are your personal strengths?  Are you a leader?  Are you thoughtful?  A teacher? Independent?  Adventurous?  Resourceful?  Civic-minded, etc.?
  2. Do you have any particular professional paths in mind for your future?  Are you curious about a career, or set of careers?  When you look at the adults around you, who inspires you?  What do they do?
  3. What are you curious about?  Are there subjects you haven’t had the chance to study that you would like to explore?
  4. Do you have dreams for your future that you can give voice to?  If you could paint a picture of your life ten years from now, what would that life look like?
  5. Do you envision yourself living close to home for college? Far away? If so, what does that mean to you?  A four hour car ride?  A plane trip?  Would you like to be in a new location during your college years, or are you excited about remaining geographically close enough to share your college adventures with family nearby?
  6. What kind of student have you been?  What do you like about school?  What do you dislike?  Do you seek opportunities for learning outside of the classroom?  Are you proactive about your education?  Do you enjoy your teachers?  Do you wish you had greater autonomy?
  7. What interests, hobbies or involvements are so central to who you are that your college experience would not be complete without access to an appropriate outlet which would let you further your involvement?  (Church?  Are you a surfer?  Do you love nature and your Saturdays are not complete without a hike?  Are you a Sunday afternoon Farmer’s Market attendee?  A music lover with a propensity for scouring vinyl at a local shop?  Are you a computer wizard?  A researcher?  A lover of rare books?)
  8. Will financial limitations affect your college search?  Have you had a serious conversation with your parents regarding their ability to assist you with the cost of college and their expectations regarding financial aid and scholarships?

What questions should I be asking about colleges as I begin to explore?  There is a big difference between asking a great question of a college admission representative during a visit (deserving of its own blog post down the road) and beginning to get to know a school.  As you initiate your search consider make use of Naviance, college web sites, faculty and student blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, people you know, admission officers and institutional news sites.  Search for the following general information:

  1. What is the sticker price (initial cost) of attendance (prior to financial aid and scholarships)?
  2. Is this a liberal arts institution?  An arts school?  A school with a particular bent on technology or STEAM related fields?
  3. Are there other core institutional characteristics (public, private, religiously affiliated, single-sex, for profit etc…) which influence the experience for students?
  4. Where is the college located?  What is the community like around the institution?  Is it an urban setting?  Rural?  Suburban?  Tourist town?  Are there obvious cultural influences (e.g. You’ll likely have an amazing music scene in Nashville and, be amongst a huge Red Sox loving crowd in Boston. etc…) on the campus?
  5. What are the admission requirements like?  Are there elements of the application the college feels are more, or less, important than the others?  Does the admission office review applicants holistically?  What percentage of applicants is admitted?  Early decision?  Early action?  Regular decision?
  6. What percentage of freshmen receive financial aid?
  7. Where do students live (e.g. on-campus: single gender dorms, co-ed dorms, apartment-style dorms, theme style housing; off -campus: apartment, condo, house etc…)?
  8. What is the school’s reputation for academics?  Does the institution have majors in the areas of study about which you are most curious?  Are the programs highly-regarded?
  9. What is the average class size for underclassmen?  Are there teaching assistants in classrooms? Are there break out discussion sessions for larger classes?
  10. Does the school offer additional programs (e.g. study abroad, civic engagement, multicultural programming, internships, etc…) that are important to you? If so, are you excited about their offerings?
  11. What career services support programs are in place for students?  Are most graduates heading on to graduate school or seeking employment?
  12. How do students, faculty and alumni describe campus life?  Do people seem happy?  Are they proud to be connected to the school?
  13. Is the college a commuter school or “suitcase campus” where most students live at home or live nearby and go home on the weekends?  If not, what do students do for fun?
  14. How does the media seem to characterize students from college X?
  15. Are facilities well kept? Is there evidence of innovation and commitment to being forward thinking?

Remember that there are an incredible number of terrific colleges out there and that the value you will add to your own experience is far more meaningful than the impact of a specific institutional characteristic.  There is more than one institution at which you will thrive academically and socially, and more than one institution which will be eager to have you.  As you begin, know that with the appropriate level of commitment, perspective, education and initiative, the college admission process will work for every student. Breathe, relax and be prepared embrace all that is to come.  We are excited to work with you and for you, and hope you will think of us as a resource at every turn.

Jennifer K. S. Scott, Director of College Counseling
Norfolk Academy
Fall, 2014