Before You Apply

Most articles on the college admission process focus on applying or getting in to college, and that’s unfortunate. Applying to college is the last of three stages in a thoughtful college search, and what happens during the self-evaluation or research stages is ultimately far more important in finding the right college fit.
Two things you need to know before applying:
  1. Know yourself.
  2. Know the landscape.
Know Yourself
The college search is a journey of self-discovery and the journey is more important than the destination. The college process is an opportunity to make decisions about your future, and that is something you should be excited about and ready for! The better you understand yourself, your unique strengths and the things you care about, the easier it will be to identify colleges that fit you. Take some time to think:
  • What are your academic interests? What courses have you enjoyed the most?
  • How do you learn best? Is there a type of teaching style you particularly enjoy?
  • Which of your extracurricular interests means most to you? Why?
  • What accomplishment are you proudest of? Why?
  • How would your friends and teachers describe you and your role in the school community?
  • How has the environment in which you’ve grown up helped/hindered you?
  • What balance of study, activities and social life suits you best? How well do you respond to academic pressure and competition?
  • How would you feel about going to a college where other students were very different from you? Would you find it exciting or intimidating?
  • If you had a year to go anywhere and do whatever you wanted, how would you spend that year? 
Know the Landscape
There are more than 3,000 colleges (two- and four-year) in the US. Every one of them is right for someone and every one of them is wrong for someone. What makes a place right or wrong depends on the fit between its culture and personality and your wants and needs. Every college also has its own unique personality that influences fit. Take some time to think:
  • Do you prefer a large university or a small liberal-arts college?
  • Would you be comfortable in large lecture classes, or is it important to be known by your professors?
  • Do you want to know most of the other students on campus, or do you prefer some anonymity?
  • Do you want to stay close to home, able to see family and friends on a regular basis, or do you want to experience a different part of the country?
  • Do you prefer to be close to a city, in a “college town” where the college or university is the major employer and source of culture, or at a rustic campus separated from civilization?
  • Will you be more comfortable in a school where most of the students are interested in ideas and learning, a school where most students are grade-conscious and work hard, or a school where students do enough to get by and are primarily interested in having a good time?
  • Do you want a school that is politically conservative? Politically correct? Politically apathetic?
  • Do you want a college or university where most students live on campus, or do you want the freedom to live in an apartment off-campus after your freshman year?
  • How important to your college experience is varsity athletics? How important are fraternities and sororities?
  • Would you rather attend a college where you are fortunate to be admitted, where your credentials place you in the middle of the student body, or where your credentials qualify you for honors programs or merit scholarships?
Answering these questions should not be easy—most of the worthwhile things in life aren’t easy. There are no right or wrong answers, and it is important to answer honestly rather than giving the answers you think your parents, friends and teachers want to hear. The more you know who you are and what you value, the easier it will be to decide where to apply and what to communicate through your application.

Jim Jump, NACAC 2010 Past President