If you or your child are going to be applying to college any time soon, this would be a good post to read. It’s from Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at The Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for Grades 6-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

By Brennan Barnard

My family had a New Year’s tradition that might strike outsiders as a recipe for years of therapy.

On New Year’s Day, my mother, father, brothers and I would gather around the breakfast table, enjoying my mother’s homemade coffee cake while we made New Year’s resolutions, but with one huge twist: none of us had any say in our own resolutions. Instead, the rest of the family would discuss, and come to consensus about what each individual needed to work on for that year. The person in the “hot seat” had to resist reaction or defensiveness, but rather listen with an open mind and refrain from retribution when the next family member’s turn came.

One might cringe at the thought of such insight on their shortcomings. In the earlier years, my assigned resolutions progressed from “stop sucking his thumb,” to “not pester his brothers,” to “clean his room twice a week.” I found this exercise excruciating. The worst part of this tradition was that the log of resolutions was safely stored away to be revisited each year before we started on the coming year’s resolves. While we did not generate our own challenges, it was up to each of us throughout the year to decide the extent to which we accepted it and acted resolutely.

As I launched into high school and college, however, I actually began looking forward to this scrutiny, the chance to accept the feedback and discernment of those who knew me best—to see it as a gift. Resolutions morphed into encouragement to be more confident and suggestions about how to nurture my strengths and passions. Sure, there was often advice about my less desirable habits, but regardless, I was honing my ability to accept critical feedback. I learned to trust in the wisdom of others, acknowledging that often those around us can see things in us that we are blind to.

Looking back, I credit this tradition for developing my willingness to process and apply guidance both solicited and unsolicited. When it came time to embark on my college search, I relished input from the teachers, family, and friends who knew me best. Though set on finding a college far from home, I entertained my mother’s suggestion to consider schools nearby. As it turned out, the best fit for me ended up being an hour’s drive away.

In 2016, high school seniors will make decisions about what lies ahead. Many juniors are just beginning to engage in the college admission process. Openness to counsel and insight, both invited and imposed will ensure that the search for a college match is thorough and informed. Ultimately, however, it is contingent upon students to determine their paths in the months and years ahead.

At the end of 2016, what does a successful, resolute year in the college admission search look like? Here are some of my unsolicited suggestions:

  • Expand your world: Consider a college in a location outside your immediate sphere. There are some real gems in places you never imagined. For some creative ideas, visit the “Colleges that Change Lives” (www.ctcl.org) website.
  • Resident expert: Do not write off your state universities. In some states there is a stigma attached to attending an in-state school. Often these land grant, research institutions (like The University of New Hampshire) offer top notch programs at a more reasonable price.
  • Aim high: As Wayne Gretsky said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Don’t sell yourself short. Maintain perspective, but reach for at least one college that is beyond your profile. If nothing else, it is always good to hear “no” to keep us humble and unafraid of failure.
  • Have Fun: The college search should be enjoyable not stressful. Take road trips, try new restaurants and create lasting memories with friends and family.
  • Let go: Try to release the illusion of finding the “perfect” college. There are likely many schools where you can find success. If you can accept that there is not one set path to a college degree, it will allow room for exploration.
  • Carpe diem: Start early. Do not wait until the last minute to start researching, testing, visiting and applying to schools. If you plan ahead, the college admission process does not have to consume your high school experience. Do not let essays and interviews hang over your head, but rather be proactive and then focus on the learning and growth in front of you in the moment.
  • Communicate: The college process is one of relationships. Be sure to be intentional about communication with admission officers, teachers, counselors and most importantly, parents. Set one night of the week to check in about the college search and try to limit discussion to that one time. It will allow for much more harmony all around!
  • Be authentic: Don’t make high school be all about crafting a persona for college admission. If you try to over-package or over-polish yourself in this process, you will miss opportunities. In the end it is not going to be about the extra class that you took or additional activity that you joined but rather about who you are and what you have to add to a classroom or community.

As we welcome in the new year, I challenge us all to seek insight from others with open minds and a commitment to giving their feedback a try. As the saying goes, “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Let us each reach out to at least one individual in our lives and gently share some constructive thoughts on a positive quality that we see in them and encourage them to nurture this gift.

Happy New Year!