Before the college brochures make their way into your house, I recommend asking yourself a series of questions to help you define the type of environment in which you will be most happy and do your best work.
Do you like the idea of being the smartest student in your class or being surrounded by really smart kids? Is it important to find a specific course of study or to have a wide range of options? Do you like the idea of meeting five new people a day or finding five people who will be your friends for life? Are you drawn to familiar people and places or are you excited by a new region, meeting students from across the nation and around the world? Do you prefer to work in a highly collaborative environment or are you energized by competition?
Knowing who you are provides a protective armor in a process that can be overwhelming. Not only are you inundated with communications from colleges, everyone you know has an opinion of what is a good college and what is not, and they feel very free to express it. And being able to say, “I’m the kind of person who…” is very empowering.
Time to take an old adage to heart: Know thyself. It's a good one to remember as you embark on the process of thinking about colleges. Don't begin your college search with rankings and reputations. Start with yourself: your priorities, preferences, and personal style. Take some time to do some informal assessing. Here's what we suggest:
Personal assessment. What aspects of high school have you enjoyed the most? How do you learn best? What are your passions, academic interests, favorite activities, career goals? What kinds of teachers inspire you? What kinds of people do you associate with and admire? How do you respond to people who think and act differently from you? How important are approval, rewards, and recognition to you? How do you respond to pressure, competition, or challenge? How much do you rely on direction, guidance, or advice from others? How much structure do you need?
Environmental assessment. Would you be happiest in a big or small college — and how do you define big and small? Are you more comfortable with lecture classes or discussion-based seminars? Would you prefer an urban, suburban, or rural area? Someplace close to home or far away? An array of core requirements or an open curriculum? Public, private, or religiously affiliated? Research oriented or teaching oriented? Exclusively undergraduate or multi-purposed? Coeducational or single sex? Liberal or conservative? Do you want to be surrounded by students who are academically curious, career driven, or socially-oriented?
Institutional assessment. Assess each institution in light of your priorities. Does the school have the majors and activities you're looking for? Does the student body match what you want in a college environment? Who teaches the classes, professors or teaching assistants? What about other features that may be important to you, like research opportunities or study abroad? What kind of financial aid is offered?
It's called the college search for a reason. It's a chance for you to look into yourself, then look for schools that match your interests and priorities. Embark on your journey of self-assessment now rather than waiting until senior year!