Apply Yourself

College applicants can take control of a frenzied process by reflecting on their values and goals — for the next four years and beyond

November 14, 2016
Female student from the rear, walking down long campus pathway

With the college application season in full swing, high school seniors are choosing which schools they would like to attend, using a number of criteria to govern their decisions: cost of attendance, academic programs, location, size, alumni outcomes — the list goes on. 

But students (and the teachers and counselors who advise them) may forget to consider a less tangible set of questions about this next stage of life. What do you hope to gain from college? How will you be happy there? How can you be productive? What are your core values, and how would you like to commit to those values during the next four years? 

The Importance of Reflection

In the 20 years he has spent interviewing college students around the country, Professor of Education Richard J. Light has noticed a pattern in how undergraduates experience their four years. “Some students are completely overwhelmed” when they first arrive at college, says Light. Academic demands can be intense, and many students tend to overcommit to extracurriculars. And for many freshmen, the pressing concern is making new friends. Active reflection is simply not a priority.

And yet when college seniors look back, some realize that they’ve missed opportunities to contemplate how to make the most of their precious college experiences, Light says. And the pattern continues: They gear up for graduation and a career without seriously considering what sort of work/life balance they want, which kinds of relationships are constructive for them, how faith and family fit into their life, and how they plan on doing good in the world.

For nearly a decade, Light has been helping Harvard freshmen grapple with these questions, in a seminar series he created with Professor of Education Howard Gardner, Dean of Freshmen Tom Dingman, and Director of College Initiatives and Student Development Katie Steele. In the seminar, called Reflecting on Your Life, freshman students meet in groups of 12, with a trained facilitator, to reflect on their goals and values and to think critically about how they can use their time in college to live out those ideas.

Light has seen students use these discussions to make decisions about changing their majors, restructuring how they spend their time on campus, recommitting to religious practices, and even ending romantic relationships. “Whatever insights that may come up, they can then apply to their time at Harvard,” says Light, so that college becomes a purposeful and intentional pathway to their goals. If students waited until senior year to have these conversations, “that wouldn’t have much impact on their college experiences, so it would become a wasted opportunity.”

Applying with the Right Questions

This same kind of introspection about the college experience can start before students arrive on campus — during the application process, as students are looking for the right school to fit their personal, social, professional, and academic goals.

“As students are applying to college, they should reflect on the honest answer about why they want to go to college — what is my ‘mental model’ of college?” says Project Zero's Wendy Fischman, who is directing a national study on changing attitudes about the value and goals of higher education in the 21st century. The study is being conducted under the umbrella of Howard Gardner’s Good Project, which offers resources and toolkits to help students and professionals navigate ethical dilemmas and make thoughtful decisions.

Fischman says students should ask themselves: “Am I going to college because it’s the natural next step, to get a job, to explore different areas of academic and extra-curricular interests, or to think deeply about my own views about my own beliefs and values?” Reflecting on these questions and answers can add intentionality to what can feel like a frenzied process.

Tips for College Freshmen — and College Applicants

Light offers advice to freshmen looking to make the most of their four years — and his guidance can also shape the college application process, helping high school seniors pick the school that will help them grow the most.

College freshmen should get to know one faculty member reasonably well every semester.

  • So college applicants could: Ask current students, during campus tours, how accessible their professors are outside of class, whether they’ve been able to forge any mentoring relationships, and what kinds of research and internship opportunities the school has for students and faculty.

College freshmen should think hard about time management.

  • So college applicants could: Think about what kinds of commitments they want to spend their time on in college. A largely unstructured freshman year can be tough for many students, particularly when they’re so concerned with forging new friendships. On campus tours, ask how current students schedule their time.

College freshmen should strike a balance between “investing” in new activities and “harvesting” their practiced talents.

  • So college applicants could: Look for schools that offer new clubs and teams that they haven’t had the opportunity to try before. At the same time, look for programs that will allow them to continue with some of the activities they already excel at.

College freshmen should befriend people with whom they don’t always agree.

  • So college applicants could: Think, “If a college seems demographically similar to my high school, will I be introduced to new perspectives? Is vigorous and civil controversy on campus encouraged? Does a campus look demographically diverse, and does it encourage diverse ideas? Will I make an effort to meet new people if I attend the same school as several of my high school classmates?” Entering a new environment can be daunting, but potentially very rewarding.

“To find the 'right' fit,” advises Fischman, “students should read, listen, and talk to others at each school about how these issues are presented and be on the alert for consistencies and inconsistencies.”

Additional Resources

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.