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University Admissions: Beware of the cart before the horse

Whenever a family first comes to me they do want to show they’ve been doing some “homework” and usually express this to me by giving me some specific names of universities they want their child to apply to. I listen, take some notes, and assure them we will get to specific names of institutions shortly—and I will take every one they are considering seriously while assuring them that this process and thus the decisions are theirs, not mine—and then move on to the most critical part of the process, the self-assessment. (See the photo below from my book, pages 40-41.)

The name of an institution must never come before the individual student in the university admissions process. This is like putting the cart before the horse. The student will suffer this approach.

Self-Assessment exercise, Chapter 2 in my book

Yet, this is how everyone suspects it’s best to begin. Until they understand truly how the process works.

The US university admissions process is based on fit. Fit means that the student must always, without fail, come first. Then, based on who the student is—from academics to character to interests to strengths and weaknesses—a list of appropriate universities is created. It’s that simple in terms of process. The less simple part is focusing on the factors that matter. Who are you?

Three critical points about fit and why it matters for getting accepted (or not) into university:

1. Who is the student? This doesn’t mean her name. I want to know really and truly: who is the student? What are her likes? Interests? What does she fear? Who or what influences her?

All of the answers to these questions are directly related to her “fit” for specific universities. Not only will these answers help her find those institutions that overlap with her likes, interests and goals but the institutions will be looking for her to show this in her applications.

2. How does the student learn best? Does he love fierce competition in the classroom? Or does it make him feel insecure and critical of himself? Does he need a collaborative environment where the professors would know him by name? Is he inspired by freedom of expression in the classroom?

The worst situation is to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Identify how the student learns best. If she fears competition among classmates, this will be critical in finding the right academic environment at specific universities that suit her style of learning and competition.

3. Factors. I’ve found it’s helpful to consistently review a list of factors and have the student (and parents!) rate them for importance to them. I include things such as weather, housing, even “socially aware” as factors to consider for fit. Once the student starts researching, I bring her back to these factors to assess. Her mind can always change—she has the right and this is an organic process after all—but she has to stay close to relating her true self to the personality of the university. When there’s overlap, there’s room for a fit. (I bring the reader through this in Chapter 2 of my book, page 45--see photo here.)

Factors for Fit, page 45 in my book

Once the student starts to actively self-assess, look inward, and champion who she really is (“Actually, I think I like to lead but only once I feel safe in the environment and this can take months for me…”) she can start to determine which universities by name could support her, individually, for who she is, what her goals are, how she learns and what she’s curious about studying.

Student first.

Universities second.

The process will not work in favor of the student if it is approached the other way around. Pure and simple.

And, obviously, all of this is said without even having discussed academics. This is the most obvious—and relevant—factor for fit. And, the most relevant factor when I see families putting together a list before the student goes through a proper self-assessment. Marc has average grades and low test scores? Why would one ever even consider for Marc a university whose student profile is top 15% of his graduating class with near-perfect test scores? Just because a university has a profile with students as such does not mean it provides a better education. And, clearly, here we’d be setting Marc up for failure.

Let’s help set up our students for success—that means championing who they are, helping them to accept themselves and really get to know themselves and finding universities that will embrace their unique selves while giving them exciting opportunities in life. At the end of the day it’s up to the student—up to any human being—to make the most of her experiences. But we would be edging on error guiding our students to the next stage of their lives without giving them the opportunity to really open up and understand who they are first.

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