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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

Understanding Yourself as a College Applicant: 4 Tips for Self-Assessment and Reflection

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Applications are easier, less stressful, and more rewarding when you approach them in a three-step process:

  1. Understand Yourself

  2. Find the Right Fit Schools For You

  3. Apply With Purpose

Today, let's focus on step #1: assessing your strengths and weaknesses, and reflecting on who you are and what motivates you, in order to better understand yourself as an applicant and as a person.

What are you good at? How do you see yourself in the future? What do you need to do in order to achieve that goal? Understanding yourself is crucial for identifying the institutions of higher learning with the resources you need to succeed at whatever you aspire to do.

For example, if you are a nature-lover who learns best in a quiet, supportive environment through small group discussions, then a large, urban university with a high student-to-faculty ratio may not be the best place for you, even if it has the best program in your intended major. You might do better at a smaller, suburban or rural college known for its seminar-style courses and emphasis on faculty teaching. While academic programming is important, your learning and living environment for the next four years are essential for your happiness, wellbeing, and, consequently, your success.

Before you decide which schools to apply to, take a moment to evaluate what makes you happy, under what conditions you learn most effectively, and where you feel most comfortable and most like yourself. Take stock of what you value and what kind of people you want to be around everyday. Think about your favorite classes, what kind of jobs and potential career paths interest you, and the classes you need to take or the college major you need to study in order to pursue those professions.

Understanding yourself happens through ongoing, honest reflection. While you can self-assess and reflect over the course of days or weeks (if you need to), this type of work is best done over the course of months or even years.

How should you do it? Whether you are a 12th grader needing to get started ASAP, or a 9th grader looking to get ahead, here are 4 tips for self-assessment and reflection.

Interview Others

Ask people who know you well, such as your parents, grandparents, siblings or other relatives, friends, neighbors, coaches, employers, or even teachers, the questions you have about yourself. Write down their responses to questions like these:

  • What are three words you would use to describe me?

  • What do you think are my biggest accomplishments, and why?

  • What are my biggest strengths and weaknesses, and what are some examples of them?

  • What challenges have you seen me face recently, and how did I handle them?

  • Where do you see me in 5, 10, 20 years? What will I be doing?

Ask follow-up questions if you need to. Then, read their answers and record your reactions. Do you agree? If you disagree, what do you think is the source of the discrepancy? To maximize the quality of your reflection, set aside dedicated time for this task, do it in a quiet and comfortable space, and consider breaking it into manageable "chunks," recording your responses over the course of days or even weeks. Seeing how others perceive you can be a productive starting place for an honest understanding of yourself.

Take a Quiz (or several)

These tests won't be graded in the traditional sense, but they can help you better understand strengths and weaknesses, interests, values, and possible educational and career paths based on your answers. There are a variety of useful assessments available, designed to extract different kinds of information about you. Some are truly self-assessments: for example, you decide whether A or B is true about you, and your answer contributes to a conclusion about your most (or least) prominent traits. Others are more objective: in aptitude-based assessments, for example, your performance in a series of "brain games" generates a description of your natural abilities ("aptitudes").

Here are some examples of the assessments available and what you might use them for:

  • Interest-based assessments, such as College Board's BigFuture Career Quiz, the O*NET Interest Profiler, and the Interest Profiler that comes with your GuidedPath account as a Hilltop College Consulting client: Best for those in a hurry (I'm looking at you, 12th graders!), these assessments ask you questions about what types of jobs interest you and then match you with possible careers based on your answers. An interest-based assessment is a good starting place for reflecting on job tasks that excite you and what you imagine yourself doing in the future. Some assessments also provide job descriptions, prospective salaries, job outlook information, and educational pathways along with assessment results.

  • Values-based assessments, such as the College Planning Values Assessment from College Match by Dr. Steven Antonoff and the Work Values assessment included in my clients' GuidedPath portals: Helpful for 12th graders and younger students, alike, assessments like these guide you in exploring what is important to you personally -- now as well as in college and in your future career. Like an interest-based assessment, a values-based test can help you identify the career paths best suited to you and the most fitting post-secondary pathways for getting to those careers. But they can also help you reflect on core values that may impact what kind of college you choose to attend. Indeed, different values assessments may have different goals: while Dr. Antonoff's quiz is presented as a tool to guide your college search and selection process (and to gauge your readiness for college in general), the GuidedPath Work Values assessment is more a tool to identify jobs that align well with your personality, disposition, and value system.

  • Aptitude-based assessments, such as those offered by YouScience: Tests like these match students to possible careers (and provide information about the education and training necessary for those careers) based on their performance in a series of tasks. Such assessments measure abilities like numerical reasoning, spatial awareness, sequential reasoning, timeframe orientation, and creativity (idea generation) in order to provide aptitude-based guidance.

  • Personality assessments, such as the 16Personalities quiz and the AchieveWorks Personality Test, which is based on the work of Carl Jung, Catherine Cook Briggs, and Isabel Briggs Myers and is included in my College & Career Readiness and College Planning services: Suitable for high school students of all grade levels, this type of assessment helps you examine how your personality type (determined by your answers to a series of questions) guides your leadership style, your interpersonal relationships, and more. Tests like these can increase your self-awareness, enabling you to build on strengths and minimize weaknesses over time (especially for younger students) and make smart choices about the kinds of environments in which you'll thrive as a college student (for those closer to applying).

  • With clients, I use additional AchieveWorks assessments, including Learning and Productivity Styles (for developing strategies to increase academic performance), Intelligences (for gaining insight into emotional and intellectual abilities), and Skills (for determining skills that may be valuable to potential employers).

No assessment is likely to feel 100% accurate, but your results will give you a starting place for thinking through what resonates, what doesn't, and why.

Keep a Journal

Whether you write in a plain composition notebook or in a fancy, leather-bound diary (with a key!), recording your feelings, thoughts, and experiences can be a helpful tool as you approach college applications. Not only will a journal assist you in identifying emotions and processing experiences; it will also exercise your reflective writing skills, which you'll need for college application essays. Even better, your journal entries are likely to yield potentially fruitful essay topics (or even rough drafts) when it comes time to write your Common App Personal Essay or your supplemental essays for specific colleges.

Not sure what to write about? Try a guided journal with prompts to spark inspiration, such as the Journey180 planner or journal, the Big Life Journal for teens, or the Start Where You Are journal by Meera Lee Patel.

If writing by hand is not your thing, try a journaling app, such as Reflectly, Diaro, or Day One. Some are even available for free!

Explore Potential Careers and College Majors

Finally, remember that you'll need to indicate an intended major on your applications (or, at the very least, choose one eventually in order to graduate). Make sure you do your homework when it comes to suitable career paths and majors so that you apply to schools that have the academic program(s) you'll want or even need.

Maybe you love math class but have a hard time imagining what you can do with math as a working adult? Or, maybe you like all of your classes (or none of your classes!) and have no idea what subjects you should study in college. Either way, start with some basic research into your options.

If you're a 12th grader already immersed in applications (or an 11th grader quickly approaching them), use your research to determine academic disciplines and careers that suit your strengths in school or in your extracurricular activities. Have you taken and loved the most rigorous History or Social Science courses at your school? Are most involved in Model United Nations and Debate Club after school? Research majors related to those demonstrated interests.

If you're a younger student, use your research to develop your interests. For example, if the business sub-field of finance sounds interesting, take an open online course, such as one through Coursera, or a summer class to learn more. If your high school offers business courses, enroll in one for the next school year. Join a business interest club at school, just as FBLA or DECA, or consider starting one! Developing and demonstrating your interests now will help you be more sure of your choices when you apply to college (and a more compelling candidate for admission).

Here are my favorite resources for major and career exploration:

  • College Board's BigFuture webpage, including Career Clusters and College Majors

  • U.S. News Guide to College Majors (“what you need to know about becoming a ____ major”)

  • Degree program lists at specific school websites: go to the website for a school that interests you and browse it's list of academic majors or programs to see what's available. Then go to the department web page for a major or program of particular interest. Often, department web pages provide a wealth of information about what this discipline/major is, the course requirements for that major, and even career outcomes for recent graduates with that degree. Beyond showing you which academic programs are offered at an individual school, this kind of research can broaden your awareness of academic program possibilities, what studying a specific major might entail, and what you can do with a given major after you graduate.

"Understanding Yourself" might be easier said than done, but it's an important first step in the college application process. When you know your strengths and interests and how you want to apply them -- and when you're aware of your weaknesses and have a plan for minimizing them -- you’re better positioned to identify the post-secondary schools that fit your goals, lifestyle, and values, and where you'll thrive after high school.

Once you've done the work of reflection and self-assessment, you're ready for step #2: finding the right fit schools for you, based on what you know about yourself. Stay tuned for tips on how to search for and research schools and how narrow your school list!

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