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Finding Your Voice: Self-Reflection and Authenticity in the College Application Process (and Beyond)

By Brooke Smith, Associate Director of College Counseling

At Viewpoint, we often refer to our school’s motto when advising students: “Find Your Voice, Give Your Best, and Go Beyond!” My advisees usually laugh when I say it, and if I’m lucky, I may even get an eye roll. Nevertheless, I make the assertion because it’s a motto that perfectly epitomizes the existential questions of adolescence.

Who am I? Who do I want to become? What inspires me? What makes me unique? What matters? What impact do I want to have in this world?

As students approach the college application process, they are often so consumed with the ever-present GPA and test scores that they often forget to reflect on what really sets them apart from the hundreds of other equally qualified applicants with stellar GPAs and test scores. Their unique self!

Colleges want students who are compassionate, interesting, self-reflective, well- balanced, open-minded, resilient, and engaging. There are many ways in which colleges will try to get to know you more deeply, from quirky essay prompts and hashtags to interviews. All of these strategies can be missed opportunities for students who haven’t yet engaged in self-reflection before they dive deeply into the college application.

Here are some examples of the ways in which self-reflection can present in the application:
  • Villanova University quotes Saint Augustine, “Become what you are not yet” and the essay prompt asks, “When you daydream, who do you hope to become in the future?”
  • The University of Michigan asks applicants to “Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.”
  •  The University of California asks students to respond to four “Personal Insight Questions” and they encourage applicants to, “Be open. Be reflective. Find your individual voice and express it.”
  •  Harvard University asks, “What you would want your future roommate to know about you?” which can be surprisingly difficult to answer if you haven’t thought a lot about who “YOU” are.
Sure, it sounds easy enough, but how exactly does one self-reflect? Here are some questions to consider as you begin looking in the metaphorical mirror:
  1. If I had to choose one activity or club that is the most meaningful, what would it be and why?
  2. What will I bring to my college community (other than my grades and test scores)?
  3. What type of academic environment do I thrive in? For example, do I prefer courses that are: discussion-based, lecture-style, hands-on, self-paced, online, collaborative, or more traditional?
  4. If I had to choose two core values what would they be and why?
  5. What three adjectives would your best friends use to describe you?
  6. Who do I hope to become in college and beyond?
  7. What is your family story?
By engaging in self-reflection and knowing yourself more deeply, you are better equipped to find the “right fit” colleges for you. Your applications will be more authentic, which in turn helps set you apart from the thousands of other highly qualified applicants. Rebecca Sabky, former admissions director at Dartmouth College, discusses the importance of intangibles in her recent New York Times piece titled, “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person” (April 2017). Sabsky writes,

Every year I’d read over 2,000 college applications from students all over the world. The applicants are always intellectually curious and talented. They climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies. They’re the next generation’s leaders. Their accomplishments stack up quickly.The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit. Yet in the chaos of SAT scores, extracurriculars and recommendations, one quality is always irresistible in a candidate: kindness.

So remember, be kind to yourself and others. Engage with your faculty and peers in meaningful ways. Reflect on who you are and who you want to become in college and beyond. Those who successfully navigate the unpredictable waters of the college admissions process are the students who not only excel academically, but who also know themselves. Students who are more self-aware become more confident and empowered to take the lead in their application process. Moreover, they are better equipped to convey their unique experiences and perspectives to the colleges in which they are applying. They also tend to be less focused on the distractions of prestige and more concerned with finding colleges that will be the right fit for them. Sure, GPAs and test scores still matter, but remember, you are also so much more than that. Take some time to really get to know yourself so colleges can get to know the real you!  
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