Flashback three years ago, I'm an over-anxious high school junior picking at her nails and shifting uncomfortably in the seat across from a college counselor. He is Yoda and I, Padawan, have come to him for guidance. He will show me the way to my "dream school."
We begin, of course, with The Question: "What is your ideal college experience?" My mind instantly goes to the two most influential times in my education. The first is my elementary school years. My education began in a small Montessori-like school where there were no grades or strict lesson plans, just natural curiosity and a love of learning to propel each student forward. There I learned to think for myself and to do work I believed in rather than trying to fit into what I thought a teacher wanted. When I transferred to my public high school I immediately despised the tests and grades that stifled curiosity in favor of competition. In my dream college I would go back to what I'd loved in elementary school, leaving the impersonal and unhelpful tests behind.
The second place my mind pulled me was across the ocean to my sophomore year abroad in Spain. Never in my life had I been exposed to so many new things: new people, new culture, new language, new history! There was so much to absorb and so much to rethink about what I understood to be true. Coming back home from a year in Spain I knew that I wasn't nearly done learning about the world, so study abroad was an important part of the ideal experience. In fact, I told my counselor, in my true dream college I would study abroad all four years.
This statement was met with a blank stare from my college Yoda. "Yeah... okay... but let's try something realistic." I left the meeting with a piece of paper with the names of the top liberal arts colleges neatly sorted into columns "Reach," "Likely," and "Safety" and instructions to go out into this great big world, study hard for the SAT, tour all the campuses I possibly could, and find my dream school somewhere at the intersection of my score and a school I liked. This was dreaming big. Padawan was on her way.
So I did what most confused, nail-biting high school students would do: I followed his instructions. I spent hours doing practice math questions and writing practice essays and thinking practice thoughts. I trampled with other sheepish high schoolers over grassy lawns past grand brick buildings and peered voyeuristically into libraries as "real" students hunched over textbooks memorizing for the next day's exam. I shuffled in and out of large auditoriums and imagined myself eating in the clanging cafeteria. I collected glossy brochures and course catalogs and hauled them back to the stack in my bedroom that continued to grow all the way through senior year when I suddenly realized that doing everything right was the fast track to somewhere I didn't even want to be. I had been so busy dutifully following the quest for "success" that I had forgotten what I really wanted -- that dream school that I'd outlined so long ago in my first meeting with my counselor. The worst part was, now that I remembered it, I still didn't know where to go to find it.
New realization in tow, I dragged my feet through the rest of the application process, all the while questioning the admissions system and the experience I had been blindly trying to obtain.
In January I stumbled upon an article about a new school called Minerva. Suddenly everything my college Yoda had said to me about the feel of your dream school made sense. Minerva students were from all over the world, and we would move each semester to live in a different global city. We would learn under a newly designed curriculum that eliminated both the lecture and the dreaded tests, focusing instead on cognitive skills that were valuable in a variety of disciplines. The more I read about it the more I loved it, and I nearly choked when I read that they were looking for their first cohort of students. I started an application immediately, certain that this time I was sprinting in the right direction, and I was lucky enough to be selected as a member of the Founding Class.
Now a year into my experience at Minerva, I am exactly where I want to be, but I know that I am very lucky to have accidentally found the place that is right for me. I often wonder what would have happened to me had I not found Minerva. I probably would have taken a gap year, but... then what? I didn't know of any programs or opportunities available and I wasn't thinking very critically about what I wanted from my education, nor what lessons, experiences, and people were going to help me achieve what I wanted.
I think that there are many students who feel as lost as I did my senior year, and I worry for the Padawans feeling unsure of what's next. Luckily, I have an opportunity to lead an initiative called Catalyst that challenges students to ask themselves the questions I wish I'd asked myself. Now, my classmate and I are traveling from Boston to Miami visiting high schools and colleges to lead a workshop based in entrepreneurial thinking that will hopefully start students thinking about what's right for them. Some students may like Minerva, some may not, and that's the point. There is no "one size fits all" dream school, but everybody deserves to find the experience that's right for them.
Step one, start asking questions -- lots of questions. Here's what I did. Take the concept of college and break it down into its fundamental parts: campus, classroom, curriculum, faculty, and students. Now, ask yourself what you want from each -- what you really want. If you're ready to get started, take a look at our research on creative programs and interesting ideas here. Hopefully this will save you some nail biting. I know it would have helped me.