That it is important to begin the application process by properly identifying your target schools seems like an absurdly obvious point. However, a key opportunity that is missed by not fully understanding the WHY of this protocol. Despite the ease of clicking around Big Future, College Confidential and other websites, the college search should be much more than a computer game in which you overlay your grades and test scores over a rubric of college acceptance rates and parameters, and perhaps a few other factors such as geography, size, and Greek life. In fact…
I will demonstrate why by first asking you to complete this worksheet:
I chose this school because…
BAD ANSWERS: It is a cool or famous university. My best friend/girlfriend is applying/attending. I have seen it. It is near my house.
While not necessarily untrue, are these answers getting you or the desired institution any closer together? No. Are they good reasons to apply to a university? Probably not.
Consider these GOOD ANSWERS: It has a great undergraduate writing/biology/business program. Professor X teaches there and I’ve read all her books. I attended a summer program there AND enjoyed Y about it. It offers both X program and Y activity.
As you continue completing the worksheet, avoid citing your GPA or test scores, commute times, or the fact that you googled “business schools in Alabama" and got this one. Try instead for specific answers related to how a school can support your planned course of study, extracurricular/community objectives, and long-term career plans. Find an honest reason you would “enjoy attending” even your safety schools. Otherwise, this process can kind of like walking a plank.
AFTER you have honestly completed the worksheet to the best of your ability, ask yourself:
- Are there any similarities between the schools I am choosing (e.g., strong Spanish departments, BS/MS Engineering options, fantastic school newspapers, ten a capella groups)?
- Am I using the same type of language across many of the explanations about why I would be a good fit or enjoy attending (e.g., I have student leadership experience or I would like to continue tutoring kids through your college’s terrific outreach program)?
- For the reach schools, would you like to follow through on the steps that might enhance your application? Why did you list this as a reach school in the first place?
- Do I honestly believe I would be a good fit for every college on this list? Does each of these schools truly belong on my application list?
Now, circle the name of the college that you feel is the most natural fit for you (it may be a reach, a match or even a safety school). Write a one paragraph letter to someone important in your life (a parent, friend, girlfriend, mentor) explaining why you want to attend this school.
Somewhere in that paragraph, there is likely the germ of an idea for your Common App essay. And you haven't even looked at the prompt options yet! DON'T, by the way. I'll tell you why in a coming post.