Mother and teenage daughter use laptop at homeThis time of year, I often find myself at college planning events for high school juniors being asked how students and their parents should start the college search and application process.  The more I’ve done these programs, the more I’ve started to think about the educational framework called, “Understanding by Design” — in particular, the part that says, “the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.”

A technique employed in the classroom, Understanding by Design has teachers thinking about what they want their students to know on the last day of class—rather than thinking about what they want to teach on the first day of class—and then writing their syllabus backward.

With this approach in mind, I encourage parents not to think about how to start the college search and application process, but instead to think about the end of the process, when their son or daughter will walk into the first day of class as a college freshman. And I stress not to think about where their child might be enrolled, but to think about the qualities and skills they want their son or daughter to have in order to be successful when they begin their college career.

I encourage parents to take it a step further and to really think about these qualities, perhaps 3 or 4, and to write them down. Parents who go through this exercise will hopefully come to one important realization: the college search and application process is filled with opportunities to foster and develop these very qualities.

For example, I went through this exercise for my daughter, Cosette, and here is the list I came up with:

On the first day of class in college, I hope that she:

  1. has a well-developed sense of voice
  2. has a clear understanding of the value of hard work
  3. has the ability to give thanks and the sense to know when to give it
  4. has started to develop an understanding of money, cost, and value

By laying out these goals before she begins the college search and application process, I know that I will talk with my daughter early on about our family resources and relevant costs of attending college (#4), I will encourage her to write thank you notes to her teachers, counselors, and to the tour guides and interviewers that she meets (#3 and #1), and I’ll encourage her to make the most of her opportunities in writing essays and supplements as well as admissions interviews (#2 and #1).

This skill-building approach puts students in a position to succeed no matter where they attend college and also will help lessen the anxiety that comes when the goal is simply to “get in.”

Andrew CarterAndrew N. Carter is the Senior Associate Director of Admissions at College of the Holy Cross. He lives in Groton with his wife, daughter, and son.