Charting Your Educational Path
By Thomas Broderick
Today is Columbus Day, and if you have the day off from school, good for you. A lot of high school students don’t, so enjoy your free day. But since you have some time on your hands, let’s talk Columbus, or more specifically, his first journey 525 years ago. Columbus, despite all his promises to the Spanish monarchy, had little to no idea what was he was doing when he set sail. In fact, if the winds hadn’t been favorable, he and the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria would never have made it back home.
Columbus was unsure about a lot of things.
I bet you’re unsure about what this year of high school will bring. Thoughts of college convey the same sense of trepidation, only magnified. Like Columbus, will you make it there? And even when you ‘arrive,’ will your destination be the one you intended? So on this Columbus Day, let’s examine your educational path. Our goal will be to help you create the outline of a map charting your journey to college.
After all, I bet Columbus sure wished he had a map in 1492.
Step One: Determine Where You Are
You can’t figure out where you’re going unless you know where you are. That means sitting down to evaluate everything that makes you, well, you. Here are some questions to get you started:
- What are my interests and passions?
- What is one thing that makes me unique?
- If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?
- If I could not take one subject in school, what would it be?
- How have I performed academically in high school so far?
- Am I enjoying my extracurricular activities?
- Am I taking an active role in my community?
The answers to these questions will help you create a small, personalized student profile. You’ll have to face a few hard truths, but there will undoubtedly be reasons to pat yourself on the back, as well. No matter what you discover about yourself, you will have taken the first step of your educational path.
Step Two: Decide Where You Want to Go
Deciding to go to college is a big step, but after that, you have to find your dream school. With literally thousands of options, the choices can feel overwhelming. If you’re going to ‘set sail’ for college, you must pick a direction.
By completing step one, you already have a powerful tool at your disposal. For example, by identifying your likes and dislikes, you can write off many colleges due to their course offerings or campus culture. Your academic performance plays another significant role. If you’re a junior who has struggled academically, it’s doubtful that an Ivy League or ultra-competitive school will accept you.
The point is that you’re looking for a college that works not for your parents, not for your peers, but for you. And since applying to college is competitive just about everywhere, you need to choose 4-6 possible colleges where you would be perfectly happy. Make sure your list has the following:
- One reach school (<20% chance of admittance)
- Two to three maybe schools (40-70% chance of admittance)
- One safety school (>90% chance of admittance)
In short, cover your bases. To get you started, here are some key self-reflection questions:
- Which colleges offer majors in the subjects in which I’m interested?
- Are these programs well-respected? What are current and former students saying? Where do graduates end up working or go on to graduate school?
- Do I want to stay close to home or explore a new part of the country?
- This may seem like a trivial question, but your future school’s location will have a large impact on your life outside the classroom.
- Why do I like ‘College A’ over all the others?
- Self-reflection can help you identify other colleges similar to the one you prefer the most.
Step Three: Chart a Course
So you know where you’re going. That’s great! Don’t know how to get there? That’s okay! We’ll figure it out together.
Get out your list of potential colleges and universities. For the moment, ignore the ‘maybe’ and ‘safety’ schools. To chart your educational path, we’re aiming for the top of the list. Everything you do from here on out will make you attractive candidate to that one school.
Why shoot for the moon? Easy. Even if you don’t make it into your top-choice school, you will make yourself the best applicant you can be to all the schools to which you will apply.
Let’s dive into our final set of questions to help you chart your course:
- Are my standardized test scores comparable to what this college expects of its applicants?
- If not, how can I improve my scores?
- Are my classes challenging me?
- Colleges love applicants who take rigorous courses. (I cannot overstate this enough.)
- How can I set myself apart from thousands of other applicants?
- For example, if your dream college promotes community service, you can set yourself apart in your application by promoting the community service you performed in high school. (e.g., Make it the topic of your personal essay. Write about how you went above and beyond!)
Well, loyal readers, I hope I’ve given you some tools to help you start your academic journey to college. There’s a lot to do, so don’t be shy about going to your parents, teachers, and college counselors for advice or help. Yes, adults are very busy, but the one’s who offer their help will have the best advice.
Finally, may calm seas and good winds bless your journey.