What You Need to Know Before Starting a College Search

By Terry Troy

Before a young student embarks on a search for a post-secondary education, most counselors and educators offer the same advice Polonius offered his son Laertes in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” With myriad post-secondary educational opportunities available upon graduation from high school in our state, the sooner the search starts, the better.

“Earlier is always better,” says Bruce Johnson, president and CEO of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, an organization that represents Ohio’s 14 public universities. “If you are inclined to go to a technical school, you should take a technical high school curriculum. But if you are inclined to go to a private or public university, you need to take a college preparatory curriculum. Those are two very different pathways.”

Even in their freshman year of high school, students need to start thinking about where they see themselves in 10 or 15 years, says Johnson.

But at that tender young age, it’s not always possible to identify an educational path, let alone what a student may be doing on the job in a decade or more.

“Typically, you’re talking about someone with a limited life experience,” says Dr. Scott Markland, vice president of student development, regional centers for Sinclair Community College, a major community college headquartered in Dayton. “So the most important piece of advice I give to high school students is to do things to get to know yourself; to get to know what your interests are, what you are curious about, and what you are really good at. It’s all about passion.”

While you can tell a student to follow their passion, sometimes they won’t know what their passion is.

Markland’s advice?

“Take advantage of your time in high school,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities to get involved with extra curricular activities. Get employed. Travel. Be active and pursue your curiosity. That way you can engage in the college selection process and identify the academic programs that are going to get you where you want to go.”

Expect some dangerous detours on this journey of self-discovery—with some coming from the most well-meaning of sources.

“One that tends to get students into trouble is following exactly what mom and dad want them to do,” says Markland. “Often times moms and dads will have good advice, but it’s not necessarily what the student wants to do. Mom and dad have to be patient, supportive and guiding, but they also have to let the young person figure it out for themselves.”

Which makes the case for high school counselors, who do not have an agenda, but are simply trying to help a young student find their way. Gunnar Olson is director of college counseling at Western Reserve Academy, a college prep school in Hudson, Ohio. 

The advice coming from parents or relatives could be dated, he says.

“So when someone says something about an educational institution, you have to ask, ‘Where are they getting their information? Is it the same college that it was 20 or 25 years ago?’ Because more likely, it could be a totally different type of institution.”

“Friends may offer advice as well, but remember that advice is based on their own experiences,” adds Markland. “It may be good for them, but it may not be the best advice for another person. You get all kinds of college advice when you are a young student: good, bad and indifferent. The challenge is sorting out the flurry of information that is hitting you, which can be a little overwhelming.”

There are some students whose internal compass has always been pointed toward a four-year college. However, the same basic rules apply when traveling down an educational path even at this level.

“We are a college prep school, so the idea of going off to college has already been made when a student enrolls here in their freshman year,” says Olson. “However, we still meet with our students very early on to talk with them about gaining the most out of their experience here at Western Reserve Academy. They need to build the habits of being a good student, and also a good person. It makes it easier to show students how to be academically challenged and succeed.”

Like other students, those in college prep schools must be able to draw on their passion. But since their path has been a little more defined, they need to refine and further develop their passion toward a more singular goal. Many of Western Reserve Academy’s students attend Ivy League Schools as well as other selective colleges and universities across the country and around the globe, says Olson.

“Most selective educational institutions are interested in students who have a deep passion in one or two activities as opposed to a minimal interest in 20 different activities,” says Olson. “They are looking to enroll a well-rounded class, but it is a class of students who have a singular angle, an area where they have shown one clear interest.”

Of course, the path of least resistance is to allow past grades dictate future learning.

“Most students, if they haven’t performed particularly well in the past, can perform well in the future, if they focus,” says Johnson.

“Someone who may not have done well in one subject, may have not done well for reasons other than aptitude,” adds Markland. “It may because they weren’t going to class, or simply weren’t applying themselves. So there is a certain level of maturity and motivation that can play into past grades.

“But grades can also be a signal of one’s engagement with a topic. If you hated a chemistry class you took back in high school, it may be a signal for something you may not want to pursue later on.”

While most educators and counselors agree that it’s best to start a search for a post-secondary institution early, they also agree that it’s never too late to start the journey.

“A lot of people assume that our students come to our public universities right out of high school, and they are right,” says Johnson. “I’d say between 65 and 70 percent of our students come right out of high school.

“But the other 30 percent are non-traditional students, such as students coming back here from out of state, or adults who are coming back to school. Regardless of where they come from I’m confident that almost any student can find what they want in our state.”