Choosing the Right College: It’s a Match to be Made, Not a Trophy to be Won

Deciding where to apply to college can often be the first significant decision that a young person makes for themselves. Identifying which colleges are a good fit for you takes a bit of self-reflection on what you want for yourself. With shy of 4,000 degree-granting options, there are campuses available for everyone, but identifying what you want out of a college and narrowing down those options may feel overwhelming. The goal of this blog will be to organize and orient yourself to figure out what schools may be a good fit for you and how to approach this process.

First and foremost, the college admissions process can be an overwhelming experience; just the requirements and deadlines for applications alone, on top of the overall notion that this decision will have a lasting impact on student’s futures. It’s important to normalize and understand that this is inherently a stressful process, and it is natural to feel overwhelmed and anxious about the outcome of the admissions process. There are many excellent colleges and universities, so keeping your mind open to opportunities and productively managing stress is important. It must be remembered that this developmental period of adolescence and early adulthood comes with its inherent stressors, without the added weight of future setting. That’s why students need to explore stress management with the following:

Staying Organized: It’s constructive to be aware of all the requirements and deadlines for the admissions process for each school you’re considering. Having this information beforehand allows you to prepare appropriately for each application. It will also prevent any last-minute scrambling to get something done, often leading to increased stress levels. Talking to your school counselor may be a great way to identify these milestones from the start so there is ample time to map out a realistic path forward. Marking these milestones in a planner/calendar and then working back to set personal deadlines for smaller goals can be a great way to keep oneself organized.

Define Goals: Since there are so many options in this country alone, it’s important to be clear about what you are looking for in your college experience, narrowing down the playing field on where you may begin to visit and apply. It includes location, size, cost, public/private, area of study, and extracurriculars. If you keep a strong definition of what you are looking for, you can focus only on the schools that would fulfill your needs.

Prioritizing rest: Reminding oneself to participate in downtime, get a proper night’s sleep, and engage in mindful activities to offset anxiety. As high schoolers are juggling the additional responsibility of the college search on top of their already demanding schedule, having a good foundation of rest will set you up for success.

Staying Connected: Although there may not always be time, staying connected with your support network is still important. Whether that be family or friends, putting aside time to be social and experience your teenage years is imperative to avoiding burnout, so when you are sitting down to focus on the college hunt, you are your best self.

Next, focus on narrowing down the type of colleges or universities you want to apply to by defining the experience you are looking for. Then, you can assess and see which colleges or universities fit your criteria. This process is known as finding a match. It’s important to categorize your matches into realistic and objective performance indicators to see if your matches are likely (typically referred to as safety schools where admissions are assumed), target (will most likely result in acceptance), or reaches (is a competitive acceptance process) for positive admissions. These performance indicators are typically based on academic performance, GPA, advanced placement courses, standardized test scores, including SAT and ACT (where accepted), extracurriculars, volunteer work, and a personal essay. Understanding and reflecting on students’ academic performance is an important starting point for identifying proper matches. Using online resources like the college board will outline every university’s average academic admissions data so you can see where you fit on the spectrum.

There are ten common factors to take into consideration when exploring your college matches:

  1. Academics
  2. Location/distance from home
  3. Cost and fees
  4. Majors and Programs
  5. Sports and Extracurriculars
  6. Campus Life
  7. Career Services and Internship Opportunities
  8. Class Size
  9. Safety
  10. Gut Feeling

By understanding your perspective on these factors, you can organize yourself and begin to manage how overwhelming this process can be. Regarding how many matches you should apply to, it is important to consider being efficient with your resources (time and money), as these applications can be lengthy and costly with the application fees and campus and program visits. It is significant for colleges to see you have a well-rounded application, follow directions, meet their deadlines, and visit the campus to show interest. It can be a better use of your time to complete the process thoroughly for a select few instead of inconsistently to a larger quantity.

Another favorable aspect of the college matching process is deconstructing the elitist nature that clouds the college process and that your worth and future are tied to the exclusivity of these institutions. In America specifically, the brand name of higher education is often believed to indicate a brighter prospect for the future, opening doors and providing a top-tier education. That may be true for the colleges and universities at the top, but it doesn’t mean that the doors are closed and that your education is meaningless if you don’t capture a seat at one of the top-ranked colleges. In fact, many colleges’ rankings in recent years have been disrupted by many institutions for not having ethical criteria across the board, meaning that they shouldn’t be dictating or taken as the end all be all.

It’s best to remove the stigma of self-worth wrapped up in striving for these acceptance letters. So many years of young people’s lives are consumed in preparing for college admissions. The pressures start early in high school, with the ideas of well-rounded extracurriculars, volunteer work, and high marks on grades and testing. Indicating that these pressures are required and forced upon these young people, at someone else’s judgment, can be troubling. Instead, setting specific goals based on general interests, drive, and excitement in what they are doing will encourage accountability in the process and allow for a better acceptance for finding a college match.

Something to take away from this blog is that choosing a college is an incredibly exciting yet challenging time for teenagers and their families. Managing the challenges and embracing the exciting opportunities to keep this a positive experience may limit the stressors commonly associated with this process. Remember to manage stress by staying organized and on task and being very clear about the objectives you want to achieve from your college experience. Often, it is not necessarily the college that shapes who you are, but more often than not, how you, along with your future peers, shape the college experience.

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