It all starts with a question.

It’s true for the scientific method.  And it’s true for getting into college.

Since my last blog post drawing parallels between the college admissions process and the scientific method, I’ve been thinking a lot about college admissions for students specializing in science, technology, engineering and math.  And I’ve found myself focusing on the questions that confront students at the start of the college admissions process.

The questions matter.  Like a scientist embarking on research, it’s absolutely essential to start with a good question at the outset of the college admissions process—it’s the key to the whole thing.  Skipping the question step, failing to ask critical questions at the outset, is like building a house without a foundation.

But it’s easy to skip the question step.  It’s easy to assume the questions away and reject the questions as a waste of time.  It’s easy to just assume that college is the next step, fixate on one or two schools, and sleepwalk through the college admissions process.  But the scientific method is rooted in curiosity.  And the college admissions process for young scientists has to capture that same element of curiosity.

What do I mean by questions and curiosity in the college admissions process?  I mean taking a step back as you begin to think about college, wiping the slate clean of all the preconceived notions about college in general and specific colleges in particular, and allowing your mind to freely do what it does best: investigate and inquire.

Some of the inquiries to investigate:

Why go to college?  This is an easy question to skip.   For so many math- and science-oriented students, college is just the next step.  But it’s important to ask the question for yourself and understand why college is the right next step for you.  What do I hope to get out of college?  What is it about college that will help me become the person I want to be?  Of course, answering questions like these requires information, and the answers often lead to more questions.  But it’s absolutely crucial to wrestle with fundamental questions about college in order to find your way to the right place.

What’s the best fit college for me?  This question has another embedded in it: Who am I?  The only way to figure out what fits with you is to figure out what shape you are.  This is the coolest part of the college admissions process to me—the opportunity it gives students to take stock of who they are and who they want to be.  And once you’ve figured out your own shape, you have to figure out what college shapes there are out there that you might fit with.  One of the key elements of this process is to let go of preconceived notions about certain colleges—take a break from your fixation on that one school you (or your parents) have always talked about, and open up to universities you’ve never heard of.  Let the questions broaden your field of vision.  The narrowing can come later.

How do I make my college choice?  As with any math problem or engineering challenge, there is a process and a strategy to college admissions.  Sure, you can wing it, but you’re less likely to find the right answer.  The better your process, the better your result.  Being thoughtful and strategic with your college search is going to yield better results.  And there are a lot of resources out there that can help you develop that strategy.  A good counselor or consultant can be an invaluable guide.  There are great books and internet resources.  Use these tools to develop a process that will enable you to make a wise, informed decision about college.

The great thing about this is that all this questioning comes naturally to STEM students.  The college admissions process ends up being a great way to channel and focus the curiosity that drives math- and science-minded students toward a subject that’s worth the time and energy: what lies beyond high school.

And it all starts with a question.

By Jenny Umhofer