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Why do we do the college application process?

Picture of Anita Gajula
By Anita Gajula on May, 9 2022 | 7 minute read

What’s the point of this college admissions process?

I like to say there are three questions that come up repeatedly in life, and each time, the answers are different. Those basic and profoundly difficult questions are:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I want?
  3. How will I get what I want?

There’s also a 4th and 5th about why you are who you are and why do you want what you want, but those are much too existential for this short piece of writing.

Question 1: Who am I?

The college process is the first time most students have been confronted with these questions in a meaningful way. For most students, their parents have chosen where to live and therefore the primary and high schools they are attending. The basic school curriculum is usually set with parents and students making only a few decisions. The student’s friends are usually people in their neighborhoods, classes, and activities.

When college comes around students have many more choices. There are over four thousand schools out there to choose from in the US alone. Students are asked what they want to do with their lives and what they want to study. It can be overwhelming.

I suggest students start the college search thinking about who they are with a few big reflection questions:

  • What are my own personal interests, values, and skills?
  • What have I enjoyed about my life so far?
  • What do I like and dislike about my high school?
  • What are my favorite and least favorite classes?
  • What activities have I enjoyed and continued versus the ones I tried and left?
  • What types of atmospheres have I thrived in, and which ones have left me feeling unsatisfied?
  • Have I enjoyed getting to know my teachers or do I enjoy a more passive distant learning style?
  • What financial state is my family currently in?

When we dig internally first to find out who we are and what we value, so much of the stress of other voices simply becomes a kind of white noise in the background.

The other part of the research when determining you who are is “who do I want to be?” For instance, you might decide you are currently shy but wish you were more outgoing. That leads us further in the process.

Question 2: What do I want?

The second question of “what do I want?” is the next phase of the college search, although too many people start the process here. It’s the one where you ask things like:

  • Do I want to attend a big school or a small school?
  • Do I want to live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?
  • How far away do I want to be from home?
  • What might I study? What areas of study do I want to explore?
  • What kinds of skills do I want to gain and learn?
  • Am I willing to go into debt for a degree?
  • Do I want or need scholarships to cover most of my costs?

Every student needs a few criteria for the college search to get them started. But don’t have too many priorities because you might be left with few options. This is where visiting schools can help. Find two to five schools near you and just take a walk around them. No one is asking or expecting you to attend these schools. This is just preliminary window shopping to see some options. Don’t bother with the formal tour but do sit in the student union and observe what you see. What impressions do you have? Do you like that environment? I find that students do much better with this process when college is no longer part of their imagination, but rather a reality in front of them. Most students have not spent time on campuses, so it’s important to see a campus or a few campuses in person.

Then dive deeper into the types of colleges out there and do your research. You want to keep an open mind while also narrowing down your possibilities. No place is perfect, so just let that go now and you won’t be disappointed. At this point, you are ready to build a college list. Your final list will likely contain 6-10 schools. At least 2 of those should be likely schools where you want to attend, you will get in, and you can afford.

Question 3: How will I get what I want?

Finally, we get to the actual application parts. This is where you must verbalize who you are and what you want so I hope you have been taking notes. There are essays to write, activities to describe, recommenders to ask, and biographical data to fill out on the applications. There are also hard decisions to make about your final list, if you will apply early or not, and the financial pieces. You need to be organized here and keep a good steady pace for your work. This part is often exhausting for seniors because they are juggling schoolwork, activities, family, friends, their mental and physical health while doing all these details of the applications. Again, ignore everyone else out there and set your own to do list and pace for how you will get things done.

Then after you finish applying, there will hopefully be some tough choices to make as you decide on your destination. Don’t be swayed by anyone else here. Go back to thinking about who you are and what you want. Which place best fulfills your own needs and desires?

Going back to the basic questions

There will be multiple points in your life where you come back to these fundamentals. When you choose a major or summer experience, you will have to think about who you are and what you want. When you get close to graduating from college, these questions of “who am I, what do I want, and how will I get what I want?” will come up again. When you are job searching, starting or ending romantic relationships, experiencing the loss of someone close to you, or starting a family of your own, these issues will surface again and again. Your answers will change because as humans, we are always growing and changing.

I will also say that most people ask these questions in the wrong order. When they are looking for a job, they dive into their resume or looking online for job ads instead of thinking about what they have enjoyed and disliked about past jobs and what they want from a new job. In the college process, I find far too many people worrying at the essay writing or result without figuring out who they are and what they want. Answer these questions for yourself first! Then you must articulate all these things to others out there, especially in the college application process or in a job search. Admissions officers and employers are listening closely and studying your actions as they make their decisions.

People like Brennan Barnard and Rick Clark talk about the admissions process being a rite of passage in their new book, The Truth About College Admissions. I agree whole heartedly. Any rite of passage is one where enormous amounts of change occur. It’s where we figure out what we are truly made of and what our character is. The college search is likely the first time you are actively asking and answering these questions, but when you get thru this, you will have this experience to lean on for other stages in your life.


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