College Wise: How to be the best college applicant you can be - starting well before you apply

Rachel Petrella, Director of College Guidance
The concept of a ”best fit” college search is one that most families are familiar with, but what that really means can often be difficult for them to define. Based on our experience guiding students through the college process, we have come to learn that understanding fit is a deep and iterative enterprise that not only yields a good list of colleges to apply to, but more importantly, creates a strong and compelling candidate who will thrive in college. In a nutshell, understanding fit depends on understanding yourself.
At Pacific Ridge, we guide students toward this objective starting in 9th grade, because self-discovery happens over time. The most successful students we see in our office are those who have focused on understanding themselves and exploring what high school has to offer, rather than worrying about what colleges want from them. Our advice to students can be summed up in three maxims: Know Yourself, Challenge Yourself and Trust Yourself.
Know yourself.
Most parents can agree that their 9th grader doesn’t have the self-knowledge to discern which colleges would be right for them. The primary message we give freshmen when we meet with them is to engage in the high school years as a way to learn about themselves.
Building self-knowledge is an incremental process and is not work someone else can do for you. You might not even realize when it is happening. Knowing yourself takes time, but is essential to developing the personal priorities that eventually guide a healthy college search.
We encourage students to explore classes and programs, listen to what other students are doing and talk to their teachers. In a small environment like Pacific Ridge, teachers know their students well and notice what topics interest them. Active participation in service learning, signature projects and clubs can also help students learn what they enjoy, such as entrepreneurship, research or public service.
Colleges are looking for qualified applicants for their programs who show true intellectual curiosity and are pursuing true interests. The irony is that many of the things students are persuaded they should focus on to get into a good college  – specializing in one thing or being a Jack of all trades -- can make their application look like everyone else’s. Rather, colleges are looking for students who can speak authentically about meaningful and impactful experiences,which inform their interests and future goals.
Challenge Yourself.
Colleges like to see candidates who challenge themselves. As we tell our students however, challenge is most meaningful when it is personal.
What challenges you should be different from what challenges the person next to you, and doesn’t mean taking the hardest classes no matter what. Challenging yourself to rigor is important, but showing an authentic love of learning is what makes students stand out beyond what can be tallied in APs or specific kinds of courses. Build yourself as a student as if nobody’s keeping score. It’s about YOU. What interests you?
As for co-curriculars, Pacific Ridge gives you almost endless opportunities to develop your interests and challenge yourself outside of class. Your emerging interests can guide the challenges you choose. Be willing to explore – it’s not a failure if you peel off from things. Learning you don’t like something is just as valuable as discovering something you like. Once you find something that resonates with you, consider digging deeper by starting a service project or forming a new club around that interest.

Trust Yourself.
Becoming self-aware and building a personal filter helps you figure out the information you need vs. the information you don’t need. The challenge for students and parents is: How to turn down the “noise” of the college universe? Misguided messages of “to get into a good college you need to do this, or you are behind if you haven’t done that,” are so pervasive, the noise can be convincing.
Trusting their children to lead the process can also be difficult for parents. In keeping with the “purposeful life” pillar of Pacific Ridge’s mission, students who take the lead in building their high school experience are equipped to lead their college process with parents in an important supporting role. We rely on our partnership with parents, who obviously know their children best, to encourage an ongoing conversation at home like we have at school. Understanding what they are thinking and routinely checking in to keep things moving along are ways to buffer the outside noise.  
In addition, parents can keep children on the path of self-discovery and avoid undue anxiety by focusing on some important questions. What do they really want from the college experience? What would make college a personally satisfying and enriching journey? It might be that the answers to these questions won’t align with the schools you see as desirable according to external college rankings; listen to that difference. It is your inner work as a family, not the outside noise, that will lead your child to the right place.
The most important part of the college process happens after parents deliver their child to campus, help set up their dorm room and say goodbye. Students who understand that preparing for college is a holistic and introspective experience will be off to an excellent start, no matter where they earn their degree.