How to Reflect on What Matters to You as You Begin the College Search

by Diana Drake

The Process, a special quarterly program that used to air on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio powered by The Wharton School, offered guidance and insight into the college admissions process. Eric J. Furda, the former dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, invited guests and experts to explore all aspects of the admissions process, from discovery and decision-making to enrollment and transition. 

Here, Furda speaks with Eileen Cunningham Feikens, director of college counseling at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey, about the work that students must do (like attending summer programs) as they prepare to make informed college application decisions.

The discovery phase of college planning is all about researching, exploring and even visiting to discover which colleges fit best with your personal wants and needs. Eileen Cunningham Feikens, director of college counseling at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey, urges high school students to be savvy consumers. “The one area that you have 100% control over in this entire process is the formation of your college list,” said Feikens. “No college can make you apply to them. In order to make sure that list really matches what you want, you have to figure out what you want first. You’re No. 1, and those colleges have to fit your needs.”

Eric Furda, former dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, often wrote in his Page 217 blog that the time of college discovery needs to be a mindful process where students aren’t just thinking about getting in, but thinking deeply about what is important to them. It is a time to reflect.

Furda has devised a simple self-assessment method to help you identify your values, interests and dreams. “I call these the Five I’s: Identity, Intellect, Ideas, Interests, and Inspiration,” said Furda. “How will they combine to think about the type of college environment that would be good for [you] as a student?” Here are some more details:

Identity. “How do you see yourself and how do others see you? Be reflective about how you see yourself and how you want others to see you, in a genuine or authentic way. In this area, you could start thinking about teacher recommendations. How will a teacher talk about me? How will two different teachers put together a picture of me because they see me in a different light or because of how strong I am in an academic subject?”

Intellect. “How do you think about and approach knowledge? I’m not [referring to your IQ], or talking about testing. I’m talking about how you process information and how you approach different subjects and subject matter. And how you then communicate that information to your teachers and to your peers.”

Ideas. “What do you think and why? We all have opinions out there, and particularly our children. So, what really makes you frame your reference? Where are these ideas coming from? What is the context? What do you think? Why are you thinking that? Then, how do you share that again within your community?”

Interests. “What do you choose to do when you have the time and flexibility? I would like to use this as an opportunity to say that this is not filling out an extracurricular list. This isn’t trying to fill the lines on an application so you look a certain way. I really want a perspective on how students are genuinely interested in what they are involved in — in the classroom, co-curricularly and extra-curricularly.”

Inspiration. “What really motivates you? I don’t think we need to feel that we have to have these moments every day. We’re not inspired every single day, and I think high school students may feel that we’re looking for those types of stories. It really isn’t the case. But when your heart is beating a little faster, when you’re feeling that something really is resonating with you, how does that come out?”

It’s important to recognize, added Feikens, that these five I’s are all connected. “Whatever inspires you, chances are that is going to have some kind of force in how you spend your time, and where your interests are directed. And it will probably come from where your ideas are framed, and what values are important to you, and whether or not you’ve learned them at home or on a job or in a class,” noted Feikens. “I think that if students really focus on that, without necessarily thinking that they have to be Einstein, [it will help the reflective process]. We’re not asking students to come up with a Pulitzer Prize-winning dossier on what inspires you. It could be something very basic — the environment, sustainability, women’s empowerment. How does that evidence in who you are in your school community, in your home community, in your religious community, and how does that help form your identity?”

Most importantly, said Furda and Feikens, high school students shouldn’t feel like they must have all the answers about their future. “I certainly didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 16 or 17,” said Feikens. “To put that pressure on a 16 year old or 17 year old — what do you want to do when you grow up? — is anxiety-provoking. Instead, focus on what interests you.”

Added Furda: “I also think it’s hard sometimes to sit down and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to think about Dean Furda’s five I’s right now.’ There are reflective moments maybe after you’re out on a long run, or for many of us waking up in the middle of the night. Jot down your ideas. Those could become pieces for your application later on. They’re not contrived – they’re in the moment, they’re genuine, and they’re authentic.”

Conversation Starters

Eileen Cunningham Feikens alludes to students thinking they have to be Einstein and Dean Eric Furda addresses the authenticity of your ideas. What are the takeaways here about personal truth? As experts in the field, what do they want you to know about the message that you communicate?

Before thinking too much about Dean Furda’s Five I’s, come up with one word for each category. How do those words connect with each other? Are some of them the same? Very different?

With these five I’s in mind, create a personal statement. Visit the Related Lesson Plan link to access the Personal Statements: Part 2 plan and check out the linked handouts for guidance. Share your work with a partner or group for feedback.

6 comments on “How to Reflect on What Matters to You as You Begin the College Search

  1. The idea that your college experience should be something you are passionate about, not simply something that will looking shiny on your resume, has never been a foreign concept to me. I’ve always been the student who, regardless of my obsession with a 4.0, wanted to enjoy what I was doing — especially when I had to do it well. And so, with this mindset, I’ve been searching for a college that shares my values. However, I have not been searching for a place that agrees with everything I stand for, because where I’ve found I am strongest is when I am challenged beyond where I am most comfortable, and when I’m pushed past a point where I know I’ll succeed and into that grey area where one becomes unsure.
    My grey area, as I see clearer after reading this article, I discovered not when I was sitting down to write a self-evaluation for that journalism camp, but when I was riding my horse — and then again after I read that one really terrible book, and when I didn’t do so well on that math quiz, and when I got that job I wasn’t sure I was qualified for.
    College, regardless of what suits you personally, will inherently challenge everyone — that’s the point, right? But what I think is immensely important to remember, and what this article does a fine job of conveying, is that college is your experience, and only yours. Yes, your parents may be paying for it, and yes it may affect where you end up down the road, but in order for you to end up in a place where you actually want to be you should probably be starting in a place you actually want to be.
    As students, we all could take a lesson from this article, and start shaping our education around our passions, rather than sacrificing what matters most to us for a prescribed goal we could live without.

    • Hello Macy! I loved how concisely you phrased your ideas, especially how you explained that our passions matter more than the grades we get in school.

      First things first, grades do not define who you are as a person. It only defines your intelligence in one or multiple areas instead of all the other fields in college and career readiness. Perhaps you may excel in mathematics, but lack in English, or numbers fly over your head, but the genres of music never bore you. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. And it is up to us to decide which areas suit us the best.

      I remember I was applying for a computer science program, and in the application, the first thing they asked me was what my interests were and what I would do in my free time. I thought, “Odd. Would they not ask for a transcript first?” It turned out the transcript was on the fourth out of the five pages. In another STEAM program, there was a similar occurrence. The application placed the applicator’s interests before the transcripts. It goes to show the people who review the applications do not necessarily put so much emphasis on grades only.

      Contrary to popular beliefs, what college or university you go to does not matter as much as you think. According to a study hosted by Strada Education Network in 2018, 90% of 2,108 business professionals who hire employees do not look at college rankings; 56% believed it was “Not at all important,” and 34% believed it was “Not very important.” Instead, the employers look at skill. The college the applicant chose to study in has to refine their desired skill set. High school seniors should look for colleges that support their future goals best instead of aiming for their golden prestige, such as the Ivy League title.

      And after college, we must start looking for jobs relevant to the major and skill set we’ve curated. No one wants to sit in a banal office waiting for hours to go by, the only incentive being the strip of paper deposited into your account. Why chase a constrained life by sacrificing what you love the most?

      Choose a path that makes life enjoyable. After all, your happiness matters the most.

  2. “Just be yourself.” These three words have defined me as a person and are always on my mind. Unfortunately for me, I did not know myself until this year when I transferred to The Harker School, a competitive private college prep school in San Jose, California. I always knew that I had the academic capabilities to succeed in a competitive environment such as Harker, but I was still discovering myself as a person. Like the article mentions, I did not know what I wanted to do down the line or where I want to attend college, but ever since this year I have grown as an intellectual and have seemed to figure out who I really am. No longer do I have to fear the words “just be yourself” because being myself is what I enjoy doing the most. Self-realization to me is an important step in the growth of a person socially and academically because now I have found the answers to the questions I always had; an investment banker who graduates from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

  3. In consideration of the article, it has been difficult and challenging in the presence of my parents to decide what colleges would suit my characteristics, ideas, desires, and overall well-being. As their persistence to strive for greater things came from their background, I comprehend the reasons behind why they want me to have a lucrative job and more opportunities in good positions; these reasons being they themselves had a indigent life that they do not want me to have. However, in my consideration of the article, I feel like a resonate to the very similar stated I’s that Mr. Furda mentions as what should be the most important thing to consider. Similar to the article, I found, in my own ideas and way of thinking, that it does feels much better to consider my ideology, intellectual prowess, friendships and family, and personal happiness for I know that I will always fail if I never satisfy myself first. However, while I agree with Mr. Furda’s stance, I do feel like I have an obligation to also appease my parents’ ideas for sometimes I do not know what I am thinking; instead, my parents sometimes know what I would like better than me. Therefore, I may not choose my inspirations and interests when deciding a college, but to contrast, I find myself personally liking my parents suggestions for what should inspire me instead of my own. For example, I personally love engineering, and I hope that I can find a college that suits me in this category. However, my parents were the ones that inspired me after they realized I loved math. From this, I can agree that their is some independence needed for doing what you love and excites you will lead to an experience that suits your passions, but sometimes, you need to rely on others to help make such decisions as going to college. Now, I am not stating that these other people should make the entire decision, but they should help to serve as guide to what best suits your ideals. This is because people still need to grow everyday, and people cannot grow without help from others.

    • Good morning, Ram. I find your comments very thought-provoking. As a parent of a high school senior, I strive to be a guide without pushing my own agenda. We all have to strike that important balance of independence and constructive advice and feedback that helps us to grow. Thank you for expressing your point so well!

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