A productive and sane application process is a lot like finding a good match in a relationship. It requires an honest exploration of what you really want, what you really need, and what you really have to offer in return. Lots of admissions professionals advise that you look for the “right fit” when applying to universities, but you can’t know what that actually means or how that actually works until you let go of the “am I worthy?” mindset.

So how should you approach your college search? Let’s think about college for a minute. This is a place where you’ll spend four to six years. It will become part of your identity (even if you don’t put school bumper stickers on your car or wear school t-shirts, the name of your college is going to be pretty high up on your professional résumé). It’s a place you’re likely to form lifelong social bonds. It’s where you’ll get most of your initial professional contacts and advice. It’s where you’ll solidify your approach to thinking and problem-solving. It’s likely to decide the geographic area you live in after college. It’s a place that won’t ever stop sending you updates and asking you for money. With all this in mind, thinking about how big a part of your life college can be, it helps to think about it more like a long-term relationship. With my students, I used to call it the “dating model.” And I’d ask them to think about how silly it would be if we treated dating like we often do college:

·       “Hi, I don’t really know you or know if we’re compatible. But everyone seems to think you’re a good person to date, so do you want to go out?”

·       “I don’t really know who I want to go to prom with. So I’m just to going to ask 20 people, see who actually says yes, and then decide from there.”

·       “I’m not sure I really want to date you, but my Dad says he’ll only pay for the date if I go out with you, so I guess you’re my only option.”

·       “I guess I’ll just marry the person who will ask the least from me and interact with me the least. Then I can say I got married, but don’t really have to think about it.”

·       “I’m waiting for someone to publish a list of the top date prospects before I accept a date this weekend. I don’t want to go out with someone who isn’t highly ranked.”

When I told a friend about my “dating model” advice, he was skeptical. “Sure,” he said, “but most high school students aren’t really good at dating, either. I don’t know if that’s a good example.” Even high school students with no dating experience know better than to just look at a list of “10 Best Dates” to figure out romance, I said. “Ok, good point,” he said. “You’re right.”

In the college search, as in romance, the first step ought to be self-knowledge. Take time to think about what you really want, and take to think about why you really want it. If a school with prestige is really important to you to help alleviate a lack of confidence or to impress disapproving parents, that’s fine. You won’t be the first or last. But be honest with yourself about that. If you want to stay relatively close to home because you’re not sure you’re ready for the full independence of a big move, welcome to the club. But be honest with yourself about that. If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your life and need space to wander around—metaphorically or physically—make that a criteria. If social bonds are more important to you than academics and you want a school where you can join the Greek system and paint your face for football games, there’s no shame in that. But be honest with yourself about that. A good college search and application process requires you to stop and really examine yourself to know what you want and need. Too many students look for a “good school” where they can think about these things later. But waiting until you’re in college to think about what you want from college is about as unproductive—and, sadly, as common—as waiting until you’re married to figure out what you hope to get from marriage.

A match, in school and relationships, works in both directions. Knowing what you want isn’t enough. You also have to know what you do—and don’t—have to offer the other side. Even if I think I’ve found the 100% perfect girl for me, if she wants someone who is outgoing, social, and charming…I’m definitely not the 100% boy for her. So when you’re thinking about what you want, also think about what schools may want. How might you contribute to a college environment once you’re there? You’ll be a student, taking classes and getting grades. But you’ll also be a member of a community, one you might be a member of long after you’ve graduated. So what kind of a community member will you be? It helps to begin by thinking of what kind of a community member you are at your high school. Beyond your grades and your test scores, what do you contribute to the community? What roles do you fill? Chances are, these are similar to the roles you’ll fill at college. And chances are, you haven’t thought about this very deliberately before.

By thinking and exploring what you really want and need in a school and what you really have to offer, you can make a better match when it comes time to really start the search-and-apply mission your junior (or senior, for lots of students) year. You won’t be distracted by good-looking brochures from schools that aren’t right for you. You won’t have that dispiriting feeling that all the schools are the same. You will have a better sense for what kind of environment appeals to you when you go on campus visits.

Your process will be more productive and less anxious when you work on self-knowledge and understand what you want to get and want to give in the relationship. Luckily, you don’t have to fall in love with a college, just think it’s a good match. And in college as in romance, remember that you can still be rejected even if you think it’s a good match. But it’s not the end of the world.