Lessons along the Pathway To College

I recently met with a student who said that he had wished that his high school had encouraged their students to explore a wider variety of college choices and pathways to get there. 

When I asked him why, he said that it would have provided the opportunity to not only learn about different options, but also to learn more about himself.   I thought that was amazingly awesome and mature.  It also demonstrated that the college application process is much more than just applying to colleges – it’s a huge part of a teen/young adult’s journey to discover who they are, what’s important to them and WHY they feel that way. 

I am a big believer in taking time to create a college list and then continuing to evaluate the colleges that you want to apply to right up to and during the application process.  I love when I get a text that says “I’ve been thinking and I really don’t know that I want to apply to ‘X’ college anymore” or “I went to an info session at my high school and I really want to add this college to my list”. 

There are many opportunities throughout the process to engage in that type of self-reflection. The key, is to pause long enough so that you can take the information you receive and evaluate it based on your values and interests.  While that can be accomplished at any time during the journey, I’ve broken it down into 5 phases:

  1. The gathering phase 

  2. The pre-application phase

  3. The application phase

  4. The results phase

  5. The decision-making phase

The Gathering Phase:

The gathering phase doesn’t just have to begin junior or senior year.  Often times, students reflect back on how a college came on their radar when they were young.  One of my students first heard about Santa Clara University by watching the movie Bend It Like Beckhamwhen she was a young girl and identifying with the soccer players in the movie getting a scholarship there. The gathering phase is like the “scavenger hunt” portion of the process – where you’re gathering all types of information and options from all different sources and memories, but aren’t quite sure yet which you’ll keep or how you’ll use them.  

The Pre-Application Phase:

This is the tentative list of colleges you’re most interested in.  It is by no means your definitive list, but it is the result of all of the information you’ve gathered about yourself and how that matches up with what you’re looking for. Having a tentative list provides context to answer questions like:  Do I need to take another year of language” or “Is 1300 a good SAT score”?  The pre-application phase is also a great time to explore different pathways and timelines to college.  The student I spoke with shared that at the prestigious private high school he attended, there was little if any discussion about not going straight to a 4-year prestigious university.  Being able to feel like he could explore other options may have changed the way he felt about going, changing it from a “have to” to a “want to” for him.  

The Application Phase:

This is your “list of colleges I’m applying to” as you begin the application process.  It has a nice range of schools that represent reach, target AND safety college that you want to go to!  They don’t ALL have to be your first choice, but they also shouldn’t be places you know you wouldn’t want to attend. This list helps you set your due dates and deadlines and a timeline for completing your applications, BUT it can be altered as you go along. This is where some of the best discussions and growth can be experienced as the student evaluates adding or changing their list as they complete their applications:

  1. Tell me “WHY” you want to add Syracuse?

  2. Tell me “WHAT” has changed that you want to drop TCU?

  3. Tell me “HOW” you are going to meet all of your EA deadlines with this huge list of colleges you’re applying to?

  4. Tell me “WHY” you haven’t started working on your Northwestern application

The Results Phase:

The waiting is over and now you know.  Sometimes, the results phase and the application and decision-making phases can overlap.  For students who applied early decision or early action, there is often enough time to apply regular decision or even to take colleges off your list that you planned to apply to.  It is also a great time to reflect on how you feel when you receive the results, which can help in the decision-making process.  I’ve seen students hear back and feel even more excited than they thought they would be about a college, or not as excited as they thought.  This awareness helps them process the results they receive and make their ultimate decision of where they want to go. 

The Decision-Making Phase:

Even after this entire process, don’t be surprised if it feels like your teen is going “backwards” before they move forward. This is more than choosing where you want to spend the next 4 years,  it is also one of the first HUGE life decisions that they are making which can bring up many fears:  fear of making a mistake, fear of missing out, fear of leaving home, to name a few. Remind them of how they have successfully navigated through each of the previous phases and how they can use what they’ve learned about themselves, the colleges and the process to aid them in their choice.  If you haven’t yet visited the colleges, this is a great time to attend an Accepted Students day and evaluate it based on the initial criteria they used to choose to apply to the college and what they’ve learned about themselves and the college throughout the process. 

The self-awareness that is built through decision-making throughout the pathway to college is one of many that teens can utilize in college and throughout their lives.