Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2006
An opportunity for personal growth
The college application process of my generation is a distant and fond memory. When I was 17, I applied to two colleges, visited neither, and waited to see which college would give me enough financial aid to pay tuition, buy textbooks and have a little left over for the occasional pizza and some phone calls on the black payphone down the hall from my dorm room.
Eager to move on with my education and my life, I was confident that one or the other college would welcome me with open arms and I would be on my way to four years of fun, freedom from my parents, and some interesting classes. My parents were confident that I would graduate with the requisite skills to keep me from being a continued drain on the family’s economy. If not, too bad. I was about to be launched from the family nest. And I couldn’t wait.
The result was that I was accepted and funded at both colleges. As I had no strong preference, I selected the college that my teachers told me was the “better” school. Sometime during the summer my father and I traveled barely over an hour to see my new home. It seemed nice enough and I felt optimistic that I would be as successful in college as I had been in high school.
Although my college turned out to be too large and too impersonal, I stayed, made friends, and did well enough to graduate and go on to grad school. As I write my annual alumni donation check I am aware that I owe a lot to the college that financed and supported my education. That annual ritual, however, reminds me of the haphazard way in which I decided where to spend four important years of my life. As I stamp the envelope, I always wonder how much more successful my college experience might have been had I known what questions to ask myself before I dropped those two applications in the mail.
The annual rite of passage, known as “college application season” is in full swing for today’s high school seniors. As the Class of 2007 prepares to return to school, 68 % of the students are working on, or are thinking about working on, their college applications. Some students have good ideas about why the colleges to which they will apply are a good match for their personality, interests, learning style, and academic and extra-curricular goals. Other students, however, make choices that have less to do with self-awareness than with factors such as reputation, location, and the opinion of others. The student who uses the application process as a way of increasing his understanding of who he is, what he values in himself and others, and how he functions in his world benefits as much from the process of applying to college as he does from the outcome.
For most students, the required application essays, personal statements, and interviews are the most time-consuming part of the application process. They require the student to speak directly to the admissions staff about himself or about something that is important to him. No matter how the essay or personal statement is phrased, it is always some form of, “Tell us something about yourself that we cannot know from your grades and test scores.” Students who take this opportunity to think about who they are, how they function in their world, what is important to them, and the ways in which they impact others not only produce effective essays, but also increase their insight and self-awareness. This thoughtful self-analysis increases the likelihood that the student will make good choices about the college he will attend, and will begin college with an understanding of why the college he selected is a good match for him.
Students often think in terms of applying to the “best” college that is likely to accept them. When urged to explain what “best” means, these students tend to refer to well-known rankings such as the annual U.S. News and World Report guide. The fallacy is that the criteria that elevate a school’s rank have little to do with the quality of undergraduate education and nothing to do with the way a particular school will be meet the needs of a given student. When students disabuse themselves of the idea that certain schools are better than others because of rank or reputation, they are free to select schools based on personal needs and interests, and to feel confident about their selection.
As students navigate the admissions maze, they should be encouraged to use the process to learn more about themselves and to consider the factors that will contribute to a successful college experience. As they explore their college choices they should consider which teaching methods make it easiest for them to be a successful learner, and what types of relationships they enjoy with teachers and classmates. They should think about their motivation for hard work and about what level of academic rigor prods them to strive for success. They should consider the qualities they value in themselves and in others, and think about how willing they are to learn from others who are different from them in significant ways.
Colleges will often ask, either in an interview or as part of the application, the deceptively simple question, “Why do you want to attend Most Marvelous University?” The student who is satisfied with the simple answer, that MMU has a great reputation, a beautiful campus, friendly and accessible professors and easy access to Boston (or New York or Chicago), deprives himself of the opportunity to explore his particular goals in relation to this college. A more thoughtful student, who considers the way that the school’s offerings will impact the person he currently is and the person he expects to become during his college years, will enter college with a good sense of how to maximize his learning and growth opportunities.
When students begin the application process, their focus is on the outcome. If during the process they develop a greater capacity to express who they are and what they consider to be important, an understanding of how they interact with the world, and the awareness that education is a process that must be worked through rather than a product they can buy, they are on the path to a successful college experience.