Looking Back on the College Process

Honest advice from a high school senior who is committed to college and traveled down her own path


courtesy of the author's family

The college process can be long and daunting, but it also can bring great reward (Charlotte Ward)

Charlotte Ward, Editor-In-Chief

At 6:34 p.m. on December 16th, 2022, I received an email that changed my life. The words “Decisions Are Now Available” stared at me from my laptop screen. Immediately, my heart started beating a million miles a minute as I hastily entered my admissions portal.

I took a final deep breath. I clicked “View your decision.” Confetti. “Welcome to Kenyon!” was typed in purple letters across the top of the screen.

Instantly, the feeling of uncertainty that had been so heavily present in my life for a year and a half began to lift. The long wait was over. I was headed to the college of my choice after months of waiting and hoping.

I applied Early Decision I to Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio. Ironically, it was the last school that I added to my list. Originally, my list consisted of small colleges strictly close to home. I told myself that I did not want to get on a plane for college, and I did not want my school to be more than a 6 hour drive from home.

Chalmers, the Kenyon College library, newly finished after a few years of construction. (Charlotte Ward)

Kenyon, hilariously, is 8.5 hours away from Connecticut by car, and if you want to get there faster, you have to fly. While it isn’t too far, it isn’t close to home in comparison to the other institutions that were on my list. Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, New York…and Ohio. Kenyon was the break in my pattern, and it completely changed the trajectory of my college search.

My college application process was long. It was sometimes stressful. But it was also rewarding. Overwhelmingly, it was a joyful adventure, and I sure did learn a lot. Here’s the truth: Applying to college is scary, yes, but it can also be eye-opening and exciting.

There’s a lot that I wish more people had told me while I was in the process of applying to college. Everything that I learned during my college search can be broken up into a few main points that I think are important to keep in mind while on your own path to higher education.

Self-reflection is essential.

The bottom line is that applying to college is a time for self-reflection. Your time in high school should be used as a means of figuring out who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what kind of environment you thrive in. Get involved, figure out what classes and activities you enjoy, do the very best you can, and don’t give college a thought.

Very early on in my search, I knew that I wanted to learn in an environment that was collaborative rather than competitive. I struggle to learn in competitive and pressure-filled environments. I value spaces where students work together to help each other succeed rather than being in a race only for themselves.

I also knew I wanted to get to know my professors and peers on a more personal level and be part of a community where I could get involved and feel connected to those around me. I have been lucky enough to have wonderful relationships with my teachers and other staff members at school, and have been able to find clubs and organizations that relate to my passions and give me a place to hone in on my skills in areas that speak to me.

From there, I was able to take what I loved and disliked about my high school experience and apply them to my college search by establishing a list of boxes to check off while looking at schools. Those boxes, for me, were all checked by small liberal arts colleges in rural or suburban areas, where the hub of college life was on campus, professor-student relationships are important, and a collaborative community is fostered. By knowing what I wanted and who I was both as a student and person outside of the classroom, I was able to eliminate big universities and urban settings and focus on small schools.

Kenyon specifically called to me because of its community. Both times I visited Gambier, I was greeted by students and staff members who treated me as if I were already a student there. Every person I met was open, kindhearted, passionate, and willing to answer questions and offer me advice. They also, most importantly, seemed tremendously happy. It struck me that Kenyon students did not fit into one single box, they were involved in many different activities and areas of study, while having friends from all different parts of the school.

Walking around Kenyon’s gorgeous campus, I heard birds in the trees, the gravel of Middle Path (the central artery of campus) under my feet, and got to interact with so many different people from different backgrounds. A rural area is not for everyone, but I wanted to live and learn at a school where learning was the main focus. I’m not going to college for a roaring night life, rather, I hope my college experience provides me with new opportunities to learn, to discover more about myself, and to have close connections with others.

High school helped me to figure out my priorities for college and to identify what I valued in a school environment. If you take the time in high school to discover the beginnings of who you are, by the time you begin looking at colleges, you will have a launchpad, and narrowing down your choices will be much easier.

Applying to college is a time to self-reflect and figure out who you are and what you value.

Don’t be afraid to step outside of the norm.

You don’t need to do the same thing as everyone around you during your college search.

I did not seek outside help during any phase of the college process. Instead, I used my guidance counselor and resources provided to me by DHS during my search, and I also did very intensive and independent outside research about each institution on my list before going to visit campuses. There is so much information online, between YouTube videos, social media accounts, and information sessions. I took advantage of every opportunity to get a taste of the culture at each school I was looking at.

In addition, I chose not to submit my test scores to any institution on my list. I decided to focus on other aspects of my application and strengthening those parts – my courses, my essay, and my extracurricular activities, both in and outside of school. For many, great emphasis is placed on getting the best standardized test score possible. The truth is, some students are just not strong test takers. I’ve done well in high school, but taking standardized tests isn’t one of my strengths. The “test-optional” movement has proven that many colleges have the ability to track down bright and capable students without needing their test scores. Even if those around you are focused on standardized testing, don’t be afraid to consider other options.

Stepping outside of the norm can be scary, but it often pays off.

Stepping outside of the norm can be scary, and there were times when I was worried because I was taking a risk. Looking back, though, I am so thankful that I stayed in my own lane, because I was able to travel down my own unique path.

It’s about what you want, not what other people want.

There are so many voices you hear while you’re applying to college, and it can get suffocating. Teachers, counselors, parents, peers, even your own. That noise can make it harder to stand your ground and can sometimes turn the process into something that isn’t your own.

When I discovered that most of my friends were looking at bigger universities, I started to wonder if I’d made the right choice in applying to smaller schools. I was also tempted to add more schools to my list when I discovered that many people around me were applying to 20+ schools and I was applying to 10.

However, I forced myself to stay focused on my own process, and frequently reminded myself that this was my college search, not someone else’s, and that I needed to choose the school that was best for me, not the school that was best for someone else.

Remember that this journey is about what you look for, what you value, and what you want in your college experience. You don’t need to attend your parents’ alma mater or the school that, in your grandparents’ day, was considered prestigious. Find the schools that speak to you, not the schools that speak to others.

If you take the time in high school to discover the beginnings of who you are, by the time you begin looking at colleges, you will have a launchpad, and narrowing down your choices will be much easier.

There are so many institutions out there. Keep an open mind.

It’s important to remember that there are so many colleges and universities out there, and that there isn’t just one good fit for a student. Don’t get yourself too fixated on one school – this will force you into a box that is best avoided.

Today, it seems the focus is on schools that get a lot of attention or are viewed as “prestigious,” schools that are hard to get into and look impressive on a resume. The most highly ranked schools are often the most sought out, and while I’m sure those schools are wonderful, it is okay to not be driven by rankings. There are so many different institutions, just like there are so many different types of students.

Keep an open mind. Don’t discount a school because you’ve never heard of it or never considered it. When Kenyon was recommended to me as an option by an alum, I almost didn’t look at it because it is in Ohio and is further from home than I had originally wanted. The leap of faith I took in visiting the school paid off. I started seriously considering it when I was able to open my mind to new possibilities, and look what happened! Venturing further from home showed me an option that offered a unique community and felt very different than the other schools I visited. Kenyon was the only school that I looked at that sent me personalized, handwritten correspondence, showing me that they were interested in me as a human being, not just another applicant.

College, ultimately, is what you make of it. Lots of schools can provide you with an amazing experience and education. Don’t focus too hard on just one, and don’t be afraid to explore all of your options.

Trust and listen to yourself.

This is your journey, and your intuition can be your best guide.

I visited some schools that simply didn’t feel like the right fit for me. When I stepped onto Kenyon’s campus (and a few other campuses), I knew I belonged there. That feeling of belonging was the main reason I chose Kenyon, and the trust I had in myself brought me to the school that I hope is the right place for me.

A view of Leonard Hall at Kenyon College. (Charlotte Ward)

Embark on a journey of self-reflection, don’t be afraid to go against the norm, try not to listen to external noise, remember that there are so many institutions and different paths out there, and know that this is your journey. Applying to college is of course not this simple, but knowing and reminding yourself of these themes will set you up for a rewarding adventure.

If there is anything I learned while looking for my own special place, it’s that life can take you in unexpected but exciting directions if you choose to let it guide you. And chances are, you’ll end up exactly where you are supposed to be.