The Search For A “Good” College Starts Within

“I just want to go to a good college.” I’ve heard some version of this phrase more often than any other from students and parents during my 15-plus years in counseling. On the surface, it sounds like a simple wish with reasonable expectations. Talk to any senior and you will quickly realize that it is quite the opposite. Every student or parent has a different definition of what good means to them. For some, it may be a school’s ranking while others may be influenced by family, friends, or local reputation. Still others may define good by how the school fits personal circumstances. When I went through my college process, I had just lost my father, so part of what made a school a good one for me was directly related to its distance from my home.

Big, complex decisions are hard and difficult to wrap our brains around. They are so daunting, in fact, that we often turn to others to help us make sense of it all, to help us figure out what “good” really is. We lean on college rankings and other resources to sort the good schools from the not so. Don’t get me wrong, resources like guidebooks, college admissions professionals, rankings, friends, family, teachers, and others are all excellent sources of information, but students should not rely on them to do the heavy lifting, in defining good or best. The process and the result is simply too critical.

How does a student know whether or not a school is a good fit for her? A student’s process should begin by looking inward rather than outward. Building lists of schools or looking through rankings before a student has an intimate sense for who she is, what she values, and what works best for her is like planning a road trip from an unknown origin and focusing only on the destination. You have to know where you are before you can decide which route to take.

Students should spend considerable time and energy reflecting on those things that have worked really well for them up to this point in their education. Think. Write. Talk. Question. When a student thinks that he has asked himself all that can be asked, he should turn to someone who will help him probe even deeper. Does he like to work in a team and collaborate on projects, or does he prefer a little healthy competition and more solitary work? Does he like to be pushed outside of his comfort zone, or does he prefer experiences complementary to his personality? What teaching style best complements his learning style up to this point? Does he like to engage in a multitude of different activities outside of the classroom, or does he like to focus on just a few? There are countless other questions that a student could ask himself as he works to understand how he has been successful academically, socially, physically, mentally, politically, and spiritually.

By engaging in introspective work, the student gains a deeper understanding of who she is and how she defines what a good school means to her. This is the foundation for a productive and meaningful college search process. With a strong sense of self, a student is now equipped to narrow the seemingly endless field of college options to a short list of places that are most aligned with her interests, values, ambitions, and personality traits. This sets a student up for a much more efficient and productive process. For example, she can visit those schools that are closest to her preferences and know what to look for on those visits. It also makes it easier for others to engage in her process and provide ideas, suggestions, and, most importantly, support. When she heads off for college in the fall, she will confidently step on to the campus of her choice knowing that she picked the right place for her and did not leave that decision to anyone or anything else.

Looking for the right college or a good school is a very big decision and can look very different depending on the student. Students are doing more than just choosing a school; they are choosing a community, a home, an experience. The hard work will result in meaningful moments for years to come. The hard work is worth it.

By Jim McGuire, Director of College
Counseling at Louisville Collegiate School