Writing your college mission statement

I normally hate mission statements. Ideally, a mission statement is honest, written well, to the point, helpful, and something that directs the group on a daily basis. As far as I can tell, no mission statement actually meets all those criteria. Personal, as opposed to organization, mission statements are even worse. They're usually so grandiose and vague that there's no way they can actually direct a person's energy and actions toward a better future. To my thinking, a feasible and actionable to-do list for tomorrow is almost always going to be better than a big fuzzy mission statement that covers the next three years.

But the thing is, college admissions season is actually a pretty good time to write a mission statement. What makes this time different? For one, it's got a relatively short time frame, typically from the second semester of your junior year until the winter break of your senior year. It's also unusual in that it's a really important and meaningful experience that most people only do once--there's no practicing or getting better with age, so it helps to spend some extra time doing it right the first and only time. But the main reason to work on a mission statement is that so few high school students actually spend much organized, productive time thinking about what they want out of college. Writing a statement helps you focus all your discussions, aspirations, daydreams and goals into a coherent sentence, which provides you and others with some clarity.

So how do you write a mission statement? When it comes to one for college applications, here is the Magic Formula. "I want to _____ at a _____ college with _____." Let's look at those three blanks.

The first blank: what all you want to do. Spend some quiet time by yourself and think about all the things you really want to do at college. Focus on verbs. So many smart and ambitious high school students have a mess of a time applying for college because they haven't thought through the verbs beyond "go." I want to go to college. That's fantastic, but what do you want to do once you go? 

Don't feel the need to limit yourself to one or even two verbs here. Brainstorm. The first blank might be things as detailed as "be the top microbiology student" or "study Chinese political history." It may be more big-picture things like "be inspired," "build lifelong relationships," or "discover my academic passions." And don't limit yourself to majors and studying. Think about all the things you want to do at college: academic, social, spiritual, professional, familial. Come up with a long list of things, and then choose the most important to fill in the first blank of the sentence. 

The second blank: the kind of college where you'd like to do these things. Most students have some preferences about the type of school they're looking for. This might include the size of the school, the location, the type of school (like liberal arts college, for example, or big research university), the organization of the school, or the reputation of the school. So maybe you come up with something like "top tier research university in the midwest," "Historically Black College," or "urban and multi-cultural university." 

It's really super-extra important that you not put "good" in this second blank. Of course you want to go to a good school, but the point of this exercise is to help determine what it means to be a good school to you. If you refuse to do this, then you have to rely on advertising, marketing, and other people to determine what's good for you.

If it's really important that you go to a school with a "good" reputation, dig a level deeper and think about why that's important to you. If it's about upward social mobility, moving into a higher class than you feel like you currently occupy, that's fine, just say so. If it's about impressing your parents, no problem, but understand that's what's going on. Maybe you already have graduate school plans and you want to make sure your undergrad college will help you get there. Maybe you think you'll be at some kind of disadvantage later if you know that every time you tell someone where you went to school they'll ask "where's that?" And so you want  a school with name recognition so you don't always feel like you're explaining yourself. Whatever your reasons, think through what a "good" school means to you and why it's important to you. Don't just put "good" in that second blank.

The third blank: what else are you looking for? What other specializations, opportunities, requirement, or extracurriculars are important to you? You may end up putting something you cut out from the first blank here, but it's really good to think about all the things you want and need. Here is where you put things like study abroad opportunities, a strong financial aid program, small student-professor ratios, a large sports program, religious organizations, moderate weather, world-famous professors, and all the other things you want. 

So brainstorm all these three blanks. It's common to realize you have contradictory items in there, so don't just gloss over those--think about the conflicts within yourself. Make the sentence grammatically correct, and then try saying it loud a few times. Now you have a mission statement to guide your college search. Or at least a first draft. 

If your sentence feels too long or too short, the problem isn't the sentence. You've identified that you still need to do some more thinking and exploring. If you're mission statement is too long and detailed, then you may need help prioritizing. You may also need to be more open to the idea that you haven't got it all figured out yet. If it's too short, then you're probably having difficulty picturing yourself in college, and some more visits and discussions are in order. But the process of constructing the sentence is still an immensely important tool in identifying where you need to do more thinking. 

It's ok to change your mission statement. As you get more information, have more discussions, and grow as a person, you may find that your needs aren't what they used to be. No problem. Just amend your statement and keep on moving. If you find yourself changing your mission statement very often, then that needs to be a part of the search criteria. You still aren't committed to what you want, and so you need flexibility. 

It's not ok to ignore your mission statement. If you've identified what you really want in a school, yet you keep spending time and energy dealing with schools that don't meet your needs, then there's a larger problem. Perhaps you feel a lot of pressure from your family or community to do something other than what you want. Maybe you're easily distracted by peer pressure or good marketing. Perhaps you need help with self-confidence and understanding your self worth. If you've done your mission statement right and aren't following it, then you may need to find help with more than the college search. It's ok to admit this to yourself and get working on the problems. They're not just going to go away on their own.

Practice saying your mission statement out loud. Say it out loud to yourself, and say it out loud to others. Get used to this statement, and let it be a normal thing for you to say. As I discussed last week, there are plenty of students who know what they want, but they get quiet when asked about it. Don't be quiet--you know what to say.

Please share this with someone who would like to read it. Follow Apply with Sanity on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I love comments and emails.