Hello high school juniors, welcome to your college search!
Presidents' Day marks the unofficial start of the next admissions cycle as February vacation sends waves of 11th graders (you are now known in my world as a “prospective” for the Class of 2019) and their parents to campus for tours and info sessions. (Click here to sign up!)
As you begin this hype-filled journey, here's some advice from yours truly: be open to discovering a place you’ve never heard of. It happens. And here’s my second tip: be deliberate and reflective. In other words, take your time. We live in a fast-paced, internet-driven frenzy of immediacy but your college search can unfold at a more leisurely pace over the next six months or so. You don't need to pick your college before the daffodils rise from New England’s now-frozen garden beds. You might not answer the question of where you hope to enroll by late summer. And that’s okay. Time is your friend: use the next six to nine months to explore your options, see what's out there.
This first portion of your college search is the discovery phase. It's time to check things out; it’s not the moment to make any final decisions. Let yourself be surprised.
Five Ps (I'm channeling Sesame Street) define this first phase of your college search: Program, People, Place, Personality and Preparation. And for many of you, Pizza (as in, the need to assess the nearby options and quality of this staple of college life) would be a valid sixth P. In honor of February Vacation (to those of you who live abroad: US schools generally close for a week in February, don’t ask me why…), I’ll offer a post each day this week that explores the Big 5 Ps. Up first: Program!
Let’s be clear: program is the most important part of your college search. Everything else (the other Ps) supports this fundamental element. So as you investigate your options, here’s the essential question: Does College X teach what you want to study? Do you even know what you want to study? "Undecided" is a valid plan at this early moment but, for example, do chemistry and art history carry equal odds of being your major? If you lean strongly or mildly in one direction or another, "undecided" might mean "several possibilities within the sciences but never a humanities major” (or vice versa). If that's the case, your exploration of program should focus on colleges that offer broad and deep options in that area of the curriculum.
On the other side of the "undecided" spectrum, sometimes you know exactly what you want. You’ve wanted to be an orthodontist since someone wired your mouth full of braces back in 6th grade. So what’s the pre-dental track at each college? Is there one? Maybe you’re a budding environmentalist: is the program in that area science-based or does it have a public policy track or both? Is it a major or a minor? Or you see yourself working in the Middle East after you graduate and plan to be fluent in Arabic. Can you major in the language or does the Arabic program consist of a couple of courses? Now you have something to assess.
Ask yourself some guiding questions to get your bearings. Think about the subjects you’ve studied in high school: which ones really make you smile? Those are clues about majors that might appeal to you. Start a list. And be as inclusive as possible: there’s no need to eliminate an option at this stage. If you like psychology, put it on the list without wondering whether that makes sense or not. You're not declaring a major anytime soon. And be ready to discover related majors like cognitive science or child development. Your high school probably doesn’t teach those subjects but your exposure to and interest in psychology might lead you towards one of those courses of study.
Check out the colleges’ course offerings and the requirements in the relevant departments you have listed. Create an Excel spreadsheet to track and compare them in categories like:
And learn how to ask the question you really want answered. Many admission officers spend time manning a table at a college fair, where swarms of kids grab brochures, fill out inquiry cards (be warned: every time you offer your contact info you are inviting that college to send you mail, both electronic and the old fashioned variety) and, sometimes, fire questions at the admissions rep. "Do you have English?" is a common inquiry but the answer is almost always “Of course we do.” The original question is much too generic. What do you really want to know about that college’s English offerings? Do you like Victorian literature, modern poetry, creative writing, African women authors, playwriting? Ask that. The answer you get from the admission officer will be much more informative.
Your assessment of program is the meat and potatoes of your search. Gather data. Be analytical. This is the part of your search where facts are your friends. (Assessing your feelings comes later.) Type things in Google or the College Board website and see where it takes you. And read the materials we send you, at least for the places that interest you the most. Colleges will join your list and drop from your radar as your sense of program comes into greater focus. Your college search is a fluid experience. And then you can expand your discovery phase to the other informing Ps.
Next up: People!