If I made a bumper sticker for how to approach the college search process, it would read “College: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination.”
Too often, students will race through their high school years, compiling tallies of courses and AP credits completed, joining activities to lengthen their résumés, taking and retaking SAT and ACT tests, and always keeping one eye on the prize: their first-choice college.
These same students arrive at college only to repeat this process with a goal of getting admitted to a top graduate or professional school or landing the perfect first job.
You Don’t Have to Follow a Straight Path to College and the Workforce
We live in a goal-focused society where it is difficult to become a mindful, lifelong learner instead of an educational trophy hunter. I hope that future students might approach the college search, as well as their day-to-day learning, with a greater appreciation for the long view of education: It is not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey to get there.
The path to a bachelor’s degree does not have to conform to a straight and narrow path, where graduation from high school is immediately followed by four years of compacted study at one college. This may be the most common method, but many students choose to take an alternate journey to reach the same goal.
Taking a gap year between high school and college or starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year college are two popular options. How should you decide if these alternatives are right for you?
Ask the Right Questions to Yourself and Others
The process of not only choosing a college, but figuring out how and when to go, is best started by asking questions that only you can answer.
- Why, really, are you going?
- What are your abilities and strengths?
- What are your weaknesses?
- What do you want out of life or in life — something tangible or intangible?
- Are you socially self-sufficient, or do you need warm, familial support?
- What kind of learning community do you want to be part of?
This is just a start, but it gives you an idea of the types of things to think about.
Exploring these questions with family, friends, and high school counselors — the people who know you the best — can help you choose colleges that match your learning style and expectations and can be instrumental in figuring out when and how to reach your future goals.
A wonderful resource for gathering information about college outcomes is NSSE: The National Survey of Student Engagement. It provides a list of the right questions to ask during the college search.
Keep in mind that what you do when you arrive at college and how quickly you engage in the academic and cocurricular life of the campus will make the difference in both your early success as an undergraduate and your options when you graduate.
Marty O’Connell is Membership and Development Coordinator at Taos Center for the Arts. Her college admissions career spans three decades, including posts at large and small colleges. Her college admissions advice has been featured on National Public Radio, MSNBC, in The New York Times, and in other national media outlets.