This article by Tony Di Giacomo Ph.D. originally appeared on River Journal Online
The college planning process is no longer defined by the early months of senior year, completing applications to finally submit to a curated list of colleges and universities. This process begins much before these action-packed weeks of deadlines and tough decisions. The real choices that define the college process start as early as middle school. Yes, I know, middle school? What could those years of pre-algebra and vocabulary flashcards possibly tell us about where a student may wish to apply to college or how they might frame their application? In truth, quite a lot.
Taking a long-term view of the college process can certainly be intimidating, and perhaps seem anxiety-inducing. Yet, understanding the process as one centered in the bigger picture, rather than the final moments of one’s high school career, ultimately makes the process substantially less overwhelming. To reach their ultimate destination, students should strive to make the most of what is available to them at every waypoint. This means taking those first piano, coding, drawing, or language lessons, and being open to where that initial spark of interest may lead. A seemingly insignificant 7th grade venture could play a role in shaping a student’s future path if they have the right tools and guidance to move forward with what they find motivating and inspiring. Maybe it’s an internship down the line that informs a student’s choice of major or career. Or maybe it’s a passion that helps a student form meaningful connections with their local community. Those who hone their sense of self through academics, extracurriculars, volunteering, and more, will best be able to understand and communicate their personal narrative come senior year.
Today, there are simply fewer spots at college than there are interested and qualified students. While grades and test scores are still vital cornerstones of a strong application, it is most often those with this longer-term view and plan that come out on top. Academic merit does not in itself equate to one’s likelihood of acceptance or the competitiveness of their application. One must consider other factors at play and how they can shape the narrative being told to their advantage. This is not to suggest all students should feel the need to strive for these most competitive institutions and ignore other indicators of best fit. Rather, we hope to demystify these underlying assumptions about college admissions that are particularly poignant in the most selective admissions pools. While the probability of getting into these schools will always remain challenging, there are certainly things that can be done over time that can improve outcomes.
Standing out through the story one is telling doesn’t mean being untrue to oneself. In fact, it is through radical authenticity, bolstered by years of well-considered, intentional decisions relating to avenues for involvement, self-discovery, personal learning, and a gradual narrowing and strengthening of core interests and passions that the college application can almost begin to write itself.