Traditionally, winter of junior year is when the college search kicks off in earnest. School counselors schedule informational meetings for families. (Not students, not parents--families.) Admission deans take a break from application reading to visit high schools and talk to families about the myths and realities of the application process. And students start doing some self-reflection.
I know what some of you are thinking right now. "Self-reflection?! What does that have to do with applying to college? Just tell me what I need to know. Should I take the new SAT or the current one? Or should I take the ACT instead? When should I start visiting colleges? What do admission counselors want to read in my essay? How do I apply for scholarships?"
You're right to ask these questions. The number of tasks you need to juggle as you learn about and apply to colleges can be daunting. But starting with the details of the application process before understanding what you want to get out of it is a bit like planning where to stop for lunch on a road trip before you've decided which direction to drive.
With that in mind, here are three questions to ask yourself as you begin this process. Take a close look at them. Do you see the words "college" or "admission" anywhere? No, you don't. That is because this process is not about getting into college. It is about you--and you are so much more than any college you might apply to.
1. What makes you happy?
It might be tempting to cry kumbaya at the thought, but don't. To be successful in college, you need to be happy. And to be happy, you need to find a place that will let you excel at being you. Maybe it's math. Maybe it's nature. Maybe it's art or travel or sports. Or maybe it's all of these things. Until you know what makes you happy, you won't know where to look for it.
2. What kinds of people do you want to live and learn with?
During your time in college, you'll learn at least as much from your peers as you will your professors. Perhaps you're comforted by the idea of finding people just like you--or perhaps you're energized by the prospect of being surrounded by people with vastly different backgrounds and worldviews. Whatever your perspective, give some thought to the questions you might ask as you go through the process to make sure you're looking in the right places.
3. How willing are you to take risks?
For some of you, simply going to college--any college--will be risk enough. But most of you will need to grapple with what it means to leave home for the first time. Would you travel to another city? Another state? Another country? Would you welcome the chance to experience a completely unfamiliar environment? How would you feel being in the minority--whatever minority means to you? Are you confident enough to be a trailblazer within your school and family? Would you be comfortable defending your choices to skeptical family, friends, and others?
These aren't the only questions that matter right now, but they're a good place to start. Just remember that your job is not to find the right answers. It's to find the right answers for you.