April 27, 2020, by

Ramp up your college research online and at home!

It can be easy to forget that the college search is, first and foremost, an invitation to connect—and that the most important person you are connecting with is…you: college applications depend on your interests, your passions, and your goals. Over the span of your college application year, you will likely reach out to many people, whether you are asking questions of your college admissions reps, interviewing with local alumni, or contacting current students for firsthand info on their college experiences. In the same vein, the college essay process itself might be best understood as working to connect—to help your readers feel like they have gotten to know you better through your writing.

But the applicants who really nail this have focused, first, on clarifying what they want to share about themselves. This means that the key ingredient to college application is self-reflection—work that, given time, you can do on your own from just about anywhere.

In many ways, there has never been a better time to dive in to your college search.

Done right, applying to college is a win-win: the applicants with the best results are those who also finish the process with a greater understanding of what drives them, and what they hope to accomplish. Nobody expects you to have final answers to these huge life questions; but we’ve found again and again that those students most willing to think creatively about these questions end up finding the best college fits for them—and end up getting in!

If you are one of the many high school students looking for productive ways to use your extra time at home, here are a few tips on how you can take advantage of resources for remote college research and, at the same time, ideally, get to know yourself a little better.

Be on the Lookout for Questions, Not Answers

It can be enough in high school to have correct answers at your fingertips and present them well; excellent work in college more often entails being inventive about the questions you ask.

No matter your academic interest, reflecting on questions that drive your curiosity is a sure-fire way to show admissions readers that you are ready to excel.

And colleges have provided you with many great resources to help you think about this. I think the best places to start looking here are department homepages. Let’s say you might want to study economics: check out the newsfeed on the econ department homepage at any school of interest—there could be info here on research projects recent undergrads have taken on; there will certainly be info on recent articles or books published by faculty. Read through the titles and descriptions. Think about the kinds of questions that students and faculty seem to be asking—do any of them help you clarify some of your areas of interest?

Gaining a “bird’s eye view” of questions that people are excited about on college campuses might inspire you, might help you find the next series of questions that will pique your curiosity, and might also help you figure out which schools might be the best fits.

Think about the “Why?”

Nothing can help you clarify your goals more than asking “Why?” Why do I care about this more than that? Why does this question speak to me more than this other one? For most of us, “Why” is essentially a question about priorities: there are only so many hours in the day, so why do I plan to do x, rather than y and z? Motivations and priorities can be mysterious things, and you might never have a complete answer about why you do the things you do. But being able to start answering this question will help you stand out in the admissions process.

“Why?” is also an often-overlooked question to ask when researching colleges. Looking at the service opportunities various colleges highlight, for instance, why do you think they prioritize these and not others? Where there is funding for major research centers, new programs, or campus-wide initiatives, why these particular areas of focus? Remember, colleges are proud of the choices they make, and often broadcast them on Instagram, Twitter, and various institutional websites. Tuning in to this news and asking why—and reflecting on how a college’s priorities might fit with you own and help you extend them—can be a hugely important step in your college search, and your own personal reflection.

Focus on the Crossings

A great way to help clarify your interests and passions is to consider where they might cross—which can also help direct your college search. Interested in architecture and human rights? You might be on the lookout for programs in Urban Planning that place an emphasis on social justice. Passionate about computer science and Latin? You might search around for programs in Computational Linguistics, or AI.

Sometimes, reflecting on where your interests might meet up—even if they seem very distinct!—can jump-start your thinking on where you might want to go, and not just in the next four years. This might be just the time for a deep dive into the questions that might need answering at those points of crossing, and the college programs that offer the best-fit opportunities for pursuing them!

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