This June, my father will retire from a 30-year career as a college counselor. His work has been tremendously influential on my career in college admissions, but long before that, he helped me with my own college process (free of charge)! In honor of him, I’d like to share his best lessons as he helped me navigate the road to college.
1. Do your research and search your soul.
When I inherited my dad’s old car, the trunk was filled with copies of college guide books. My dad encouraged me (a.k.a. withheld my allowance until I agreed) to spend time reading about different colleges, and then follow up on colleges that had similar features. If you like that small liberal arts college in New England, you might like a medium-sized college in New England. If you like that large research university in the South, you might like that large research university in the Midwest. Doing your research helps you identify what are your “must-haves” and what would simply be icing on the cake. Taking quizzes that help narrow down your needs, strengths, and values is also incredibly helpful as you navigate the huge variety of college options. Put in the time now to create a thoughtful college list—it will make your final decision much easier!
2. Dream, but be pragmatic.
As my father helped me put together my college list, he insisted on two things: I had to have a financial back up, and I had to have at least one school that was in-state. This was in the days before net price calculators made it easy to get a sense of what your financial aid package would look like, but to this day counselors recommend having options in case you don’t get the funding you were hoping for. Admittedly, I was very hesitant to apply to any schools in-state. I once told my parents, “There are no good schools in California…” I am now much older and SIGNIFICANTLY wiser. My dad explained that, because the future is uncertain, you need to have options for whatever might occur. Your pragmatic choices might look different from his, but I would still recommend thinking through some worst-case scenarios to see what college choices you’d want to have available.
3. Have a system.
Many of our family vacations included a pit stop at a nearby college. On the campus tours, my dad showed me an outline for note taking. Keeping track of pros, cons, impressions, etc. as we went along helped me to better process the information the tour guides were sharing. It was especially helpful months later when I sat down to compose my college-specific writing supplements. If you’re doing a multi-college tour, having a systematic way of keeping track of information is a no brainer. Additionally, using spreadsheets to record deadlines, requirements, scholarship opportunities helps ensure you don’t miss anything important.
4. Ask someone else to read your essays.
You know what you mean to say, but sometimes it’s hard to convey that through writing. My dad advised me to have teachers read my college essay (and thankfully he had a few college counseling friends who could offer me help as well #counselorperks). Not only does having another set of eyes on your paper prevent you from making typos and grammatical errors, it gives you the opportunity to learn which sections or ideas are so good they should be expanded, and which are not serving your purpose. It can be hard to edit—let someone offer a much-needed new perspective.
5. Step out of your comfort zone.
I almost didn’t visit the school I’m now proud to call my alma mater. When I read the description of the student body, I didn’t see myself reflected, but I am so glad my father refused my request for an early return flight and made me visit the campus. The experience that I had while there showed me more nuance and gave insight into how I could both fit in and stand out among future classmates. Don’t be afraid to try things on for size.
6. Recognize that you don’t know everything.
I’ve always been a bit of a know it all, but it was especially bad during my college process (I blame the fact that my pre-frontal cortex was still forming). It’s hard to acknowledge that there’s much for you to learn, and even harder to admit that you don’t always know what you don’t know! It is, however, important to be open to the advice of experts. Acknowledge that there are many people (from parents to admission counselors) who can teach you in this process and let them guide you. If I hadn’t listened to my dad’s advice, I never would have considered the college that ended up being the perfect fit for me. Allow yourself to benefit from the perspectives of others!
While Mr. Baker may no longer be in the guidance office, I know that many will continue to benefit from my dad’s advice. He’s looking forward to doing a lot of hiking in retirement, so we’ll end this post with a related metaphor. The trail of college admission may be new to you, but if you prepare yourself with the right equipment and listen to an experienced trail guide, you’re in for a great adventure!