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The College Search as a Journey of Self-Discovery

January 29, 2021

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Phil Hooper
Director of College Counseling

The college application process is quite involved these days, and given the organizational skill, time, and energy it takes to complete just one application, it is no surprise that students equate the process with other consuming after-school extra-curricular activities. Students readily admit that the essay is by far the most challenging part of the application. While they may choose from a variety of essay prompts, all the options are devised to evoke from applicants some indication of who they are, what they believe, and what they truly value—in essence, what makes them tick. About this requirement of the application process, an Ivy League writing instructor once said that we’re asking seventeen-year-olds to do something they are not yet equipped to do, which is to hover over their lives with perspective.

Indeed, the personhood of Grade 12 students is still emerging. The pace of maturation is quickening to be sure, and their exposure to the breadth and depth of Thaden’s liberal arts and sciences college preparatory curriculum provides a foundation for their developing worldview. It is profoundly gratifying to reflect on the dozens of Thaden teachers who each play an important role in helping students build, bit by bit, a more sophisticated understanding of themselves and the world around them. But it is not until our students leave the safety and security of their homes and experience being on one’s own, beginning anew socially, and living within an active learning community, that self-awareness truly awakens. When Thaden students finally have the opportunity in college to take measure of their ideas and values against the backdrop of a more diverse set of backgrounds and experiences—both inside and outside the classroom—they begin to see with greater clarity who they really are and embrace what they truly believe.  

Well before that happens, however, the college search process demands that our students take stock of who they are. In order to answer with confidence the question of what colleges would be a good fit in terms of size, location, academic offerings, student makeup, and the like, it is first necessary for our students to reflect on who they are—what are their strengths, their interests, their values, their talents, their accomplishments? Honest self-reflection allows students to put their needs front and center when evaluating a potential college option. A well-curated application list is a product of considering the most appropriate—not the most prestigious—colleges for which one is competitive. It is in identifying those true fits that best situates our students to reap the most from their college experience and fully flower as a result.

The overarching goal of Thaden’s college counseling process is to build students’ confidence and self-knowledge so they are prepared when the time arrives for them to compose their applications. What is a college application anyway, if not snap-shots and excerpts from their lives, an abridged autobiography, if you will? In order for college essays to sound consistent themes that ring true, students must strive to be self-aware and authentic as they write their stories.

These are certainly interesting and challenging times to counsel students through the college search and selection process. The very public “Varsity Blues” scandal of 2019 had the unfortunate effect of leaving the uninitiated high school student and parent with the impression that the admissions process is largely transactional. Making matters even more interesting is the not-so-public decision recently by the Department of Justice to require that the professional association of college counselors and college admissions officers—the National Association for College Admissions Counseling—restructure its Code of Ethics for Professional Practice to prioritize the interests of colleges in their marketing and recruiting efforts over and above the interests of students and parents. We’ve yet to see the extent to which these changes to the Code of Ethics will eventually play out in the admissions marketplace, but early signs suggest that, except for a subset of selective colleges and universities whose applicant pools have been and remain robust, much more aggressive and possibly questionable forms of marketing and recruitment are in store, such as incentivizing binding Early Decision applications with rewards like reserved parking spaces, early course registration, and preferential housing.

It is in this climate that Thaden students are applying to college. Now more than ever, students and parents need college counselors who emphasize a developmental and educational approach to self-discovery, who affirm the relevance and importance of each young person’s unique story, who empower students to effectively self-advocate, and who encourage relationship-building over transaction. A thoughtful, highly individualized, student-centered process that parallels the educational mission of Thaden is the best antidote to the cynical gamesmanship that at times pervades selective college admissions. The Thaden college counseling program should help students and parents envision a process focused not on admissions wins and losses, but rather on the tremendous personal growth and understanding that comes from the journey itself.