My best college advice: figure out what matters to you.
For high school juniors navigating the college process in the midst of a global pandemic this has never been more important. The college process, as we’ve known it, is disrupted. The external resources we’ve come to rely on, as well as the hoops we are accustomed to pushing students through are gone. SAT test dates have been cancelled, remote AP exams were beyond frustrating, summer plans - jobs, internships and camps are now virtual or called off altogether and visiting college campuses will be limited, if not impossible.
With all of these changes, what should rising seniors do to make the most of their college process?
I have long believed that navigating the college process isn’t about all of the stuff happening out-there, but rather all of the stuff happening in-here - in a student’s heart, soul, and mind. Without all of the external raucous, perhaps we can (and must) make room for internal growth.
To figure out what matters to you isn’t rocket science. It is our brain’s fundamental blueprint for decision making. Take this example:
What do I want for dinner?
What matters to me is eating something cheap. → Cook up rice and beans.
What matters to me is eating something tasty. → Order take out.
What matters to me is eating something healthy. → Make a salad.
Though it is fundamental, it isn’t always easy. Because we are human, what matters to others, matters to us. We care about appearances, we don’t recognize our biases, and we bend to peer pressure. Figuring out what matters to us and learning to stick by it is a life-long occupation.
In my work as a college counselor, I see this ‘what matters’ scenario play out in often intense ways. Choosing a college is a loaded decision. For most students, it is the first adult decision that they make (or make with their families). It aligns completely with the time in their lives when they are emotionally and cognitively grappling with the idea of who they are (a mere variation of the question, ‘what matters to you?’). It is also highly visible; everyone knows and is asking about it. As a society we have (right or wrong) attached a great deal of social capital to the college choice. And, as though this wasn’t enough, there are major financial consequences.
It is precisely because the ‘what matters’ scenario is so challenging that the college process is an amazing learning opportunity. It is a forum unlike any other through which students can learn self-awareness. Self-awareness is our ‘what matters’ barometer. It is a skill that throughout our lives helps us to figure out, and stay aligned with what matters. A more technical definition is the ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.
Self-awareness is the key ingredient for the college process for two reasons. First, if you know what makes you, you, then you are able to make better decisions. One of my favorite observations on the subject of self-awareness is from author Marina Keegan. Keegan was a 2012 graduate of Yale University. She died tragically in a car accident not long after she graduated. In an article she wrote for the Yale News, that was collected in her posthumous book, The Opposite of Loneliness, she said “The question is: where do you need to be with yourself such that when the time comes to ‘cast your whole vote,’ you’re reasonably confident you’re not being either fear-based or ego-driven in your choice...that the journey you are on is really yours, and not someone else’s?” Her article considers the jobs that students take directly out of college and the social pressure to which they often succumb in making that choice. The same can be said of the college decision. When students have high self-awareness they can ‘cast their vote’ based on the growth they seek as a person, not based on what others are doing, or what they’ve been told is right, wrong or possible for them.
Secondly, research from PositivePsychology.com shows that strong self-awareness boosts self-esteem. The college process is a doozy because it functions on external validation alone. GPA - external. Test Scores - external. What neighbors, teachers, and friends think - external. Growing self-awareness during this period is like creating a shield so that when the judgement and rejections come (and they will, they always do) students have the sense that who they are is not where they go to school. They are bigger than this process.
So, where to start? I recognize that “what matters to you?” is a gigantic question that even spiritual gurus struggle to answer. Since that is true, here are a few exercises that I’ve found help students uncover relevant insights to begin to grow their self-awareness.
- Essence Objects with The College Essay Guy: The College Essay guy is a counselor that helps students write their personal statement. This is a link to his video leading you through the Essence Objects exercise. He will ask you to think about the objects in your life that are meaningful to you, that represent your ‘essence’.
- Design Thinking for Your Life - The AEIOU Method described in this article is a method of reflection created by two professors at Stanford. They teach a very popular class in which they apply the concepts of design thinking that are typically used to build technology products to designing your happiest life. Where the Essence Object exercise has you consider meaningful things in your life, the AEIOU exercise has you reflect on experiences. (AEIOU stands for Activities, Environment, Interactions, Objects, Users)
- #GTW - This is one of The Mindful Applicant’s signature exercises. Once a day, any time of day (while eating lunch, taking a shower or just before bed) you recite to yourself (in your head or out loud) what you’re grateful for (G), thinking of (T), and working on (W). For example:
- I’m grateful for the warm weather today and running in the sun.
- I’m thinking of my sister. I hope she feels proud of all that she is doing for her family.
- I’m working on my focus. I will continue to dial down distractions (ie, my phone).
Self-awareness has always been the overlooked linchpin of the college process. But it is now, more than ever, so important. The college experience in the near and long term will be different than we’ve known. Just as airports after 9/11 (hello TSA!) looked very different than before that tragic day, we can expect key institutions - restaurants, arenas, and certainly schools, to operate differently after this pandemic. One would worry actually if they didn’t. Evolution in the face of crisis is natural and necessary.
Colleges are currently considering a range of possible scenarios for the 2020-2021 school year, everything from adapting courses to multiple modalities (online and in-person), to using block plans in which students take one class at a time. Though these plans are being rolled out in a temporary manner, it is likely that some will stick, and certainly that we won’t be returning to a form of higher education that we’ve seen before.
Because the future of how we teach and learn is uncertain, self-awareness is critical. Nietzsche said, “When we know our ‘why’ we can handle any ‘how’.” If students know why they want to go to college: what matters to them, what skills they want to gain, what experiences they need to grow in the direction they wish, they can and will find them. It may not be how they expected to learn, but they will get there. If they don’t know what matters to them, why they are heading off to college, if it is just the next rung on the ladder that they’ve been told to climb, it will be hard to persist.
Sara duPont is the Founder of The Mindful Applicant. Through the development of social-emotional skills, students determine their “why” so that the college process becomes a transformation rather than a transaction. Check out their summer program - Brain Alive - to learn how you can develop your self-awareness while you write your common app essay this summer.