When I talk about the college admissions process with students and families, I speak often of the importance in "finding your fit.” But what does that mean?
I can remember my first visit up to West Point. I was in seventh grade and my cousin was a freshman cadet. I immediately fell in love with the place. The uniforms. The campus grounds. The gothic buildings. The motivated and inspiring student body. At that moment I knew West Point was where I wanted to go to college.
I spent my time in high school building a profile that I knew would make me incredibly competitive as a West Point applicant. Team captain on the tennis team. SGA class vice president. Participant and member of multiple clubs. Summers spent building teamwork and leadership skills through various military-aligned programs (primarily Boys State and the Naval Academy Summer Seminar). I also worked hard in school, achieving strong grades and a strong enough SAT score.
I received my acceptance to West Point on September 12, 2001 (yes, the day after the 9/11 attacks). It was a surreal moment and if I’m honest, it almost felt like a sign that this path of service was meant to be. In October of my senior year, with the acceptance in hand, I was able to participate in an overnight visit at West Point. To my surprise, there wasn’t much about the visit I enjoyed. West Point just felt uncomfortable, intimidating, and not especially welcoming.
Despite the less than positive visit, I decided to enroll anyways. Afterall, it was West Point! It was a free education. And it sounded so impressive! How could I say no?
In July of 2002 I began my 4-year journey as a cadet. To be honest, I pretty quickly felt those same feelings of unease and discomfort that I remembered from my overnight visit.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t miserable all four years. I made some great friends. I did well at West Point (graduated in the top 20% of my class). I had some super cool and unique experiences – jumped out of helicopters, led soldiers in Germany for a month, served as an aide to a senator on Capitol Hill, fired pretty much every weapon in the US Army’s arsenal, etc.
But because I never felt comfortable or that I truly fit, I adopted somewhat of a “bunker” mentality, with an unspoken mantra of “just get through this.” (For those wondering, that’s probably not a healthy mantra to have in a college experience). In every opportunity that was presented, my deciding factor on whether to partake was “is this necessary to graduate?” As a result, I have no doubt that there were many unique opportunities I missed out on, simply because they didn’t fit into my decision criteria.
When I compare my undergrad experience at West Point to my graduate experience at Princeton, the difference is night and day. At Princeton I found a community where I felt far more welcomed and at ease. And as a result, I took part in all kinds of opportunities simply because they sounded interesting. And why does that matter? Because these interesting opportunities led to immense personal growth as a person. And isn’t that really what a college experience is all about?
As I frequently remind students – when researching various colleges, we should be looking for places that will feel welcoming and comfortable. Places where you will be able to partake in a wide range of opportunities and where you will feel inspired to do your best work.