If high school is supposed to prepare students for college, it’s a mystery to me why some of the most important elements of the college application process are never taught in school. The SAT and ACT don’t measure skills students learn in school, yet their scores can be determining factors in college admissions. Most students make it through high school without ever writing a single essay about themselves, yet they’re asked to do exactly that – and in a way that will set them apart from the crowd – to be considered for admission at most colleges. Students then have to make major life decisions about where to go to college and what to do when they get there, without ever having spent time learning enough about themselves to make informed decisions.
I can’t do anything about the problems with standardized testing today, but I am going to talk about the ways that getting to know themselves better can help students through some of the more challenging parts of the college application process. Understanding their personalities can help students gain a better sense of who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what kind of environment they thrive in.
It’s important to keep in mind when thinking about personality in this way that just because something is true for some or most people with a certain personality type, doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone with that type. Everyone is different and tendencies are just that – things that tend to be true, but are not necessarily always true. Using these tools can help students gain a better understanding of themselves so they can make the decisions that are right for them.
How Understanding Personality Can Help in the College Admissions Process
Determining the right school
Understanding various aspects of their personalities can help students determine the types of schools that will be the best fit for them. The size of the student body, social environment, amount and type of activities offered, location, institutional values, and educational approach are all factors that can appeal differently to students based on their individual personalities. Look into each of these factors at the schools you’re considering and think about how they align with your personality. Does it seem like the environment of the school is the kind of environment in which you thrive? Does the school have opportunities to pursue the kinds of activities that light you up? Does the school offer the types of classes that fit your learning style?
Deciding on a major
Choosing a major can be even scarier for some students than choosing a college! Students tend to think that the major they pick is locking them into a lifetime of doing whatever that major is. But the truth is, most people don’t end up in a career field that’s exactly what their undergrad major was.
Picking a major is an important decision but students shouldn’t feel that their entire futures rest on which classes they take in college. Rather, they can use what they’ve learned about their personalities to explore areas of interest in the types of fields that they may be best suited for.
Writing college essays
Writing college essays requires a lot of self-reflection and self-knowledge. Understanding various aspects of their personalities can help students understand how they came to be the person they are today, which is at the heart of most college essays. The essays ask students to dive deep into their own lives, sharing stories, emotions, and insights. The best essays are the ones in which students are able to do that in a thoughtful, authentic way.
Making big decisions
Deciding where to apply to college, what to major in, and ultimately which school to attend are often the first major decisions teenagers have to make in their lives. For this reason, many of them might feel paralyzed at the thought of making such life-changing decisions! Understanding what makes them tick can help students feel more confident in their decisions, knowing that they’ve made their choices based on what is best for them, not what everyone else is doing or what they think they “should” do.
Helpful Personality Frameworks
When most people think of personality tests, they probably think of the Myers-Briggs test, which gives people a 4-letter personality type, with each of the letters corresponding to a certain personality preference. (More on this in a bit!) But there are actually many different ways of understanding and typing personalities.
Introversion vs Extraversion is one of the preferences indicated in the Myers-Briggs personality test, but I’m going to talk about it separately here because I think it’s an important component to consider in relation to making college decisions. This preference has to do with how people prefer to engage with the world and where they get their energy. Introverts prefer their inner world, thinking about ideas and processing them internally. They also tend to feel drained after too much social interaction and need time alone to recharge their batteries. This doesn’t mean that introverts aren’t social or don’t enjoy spending time with friends, but rather that these activities use up their energy instead of giving them energy. Extroverts, on the other hand, prefer to spend their time in the world outside of themselves and gain energy by spending time with others. They often need to talk things out in order to process thoughts or new information. Neither preference is “correct,” though there are more extroverts in the world than introverts.
Knowing where they fall on the scale of introversion/extraversion can help students make college decisions in a number of ways, some of which may seem counterintuitive. While it might seem that students who identify as introverts would prefer a small school – and for many this will be true – some may prefer the ability to be lost in a crowd that comes with being a student at a school with a larger student body. For example, many schools with smaller class sizes might emphasize seminar style classes where introverted students might feel that the forced participation of those classes isn’t conducive to learning. They might prefer a lecture hall with 200+ students where they can sit back and take notes, feeling more comfortable since they learn best by taking in information and processing it internally rather than externally. The reverse may be true for extroverted students – some may love the idea of attending a large school but find that they prefer smaller classes that are more discussion-focused. Extroverts might also thrive socially at a smaller school where they have a better chance of getting to know a large percentage of the student body.
This is a great test for determining if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is made up of 16 different combinations of four letters, with each of the possible letters representing a psychological preference. The letters represent one preference from the following four dichotomies:
According to Anne Bogel’s book Reading People, Introversion/Extraversion explains how one prefers to engage with the world, Intuition/Sensing identifies how a person prefers to take in information from the world around them, Thinking/Feeling describes a person’s natural decision-making process, and Judging/Perceiving describes whether a person brings a judging or perceiving preference to their outer, external world. These elements together make up a more complete picture of an individual’s personality than any one of the elements alone.
Taking a test like this one can help students to understand the fields they might be best suited for, and thus help make decisions about majors and career paths. I like this test because the results explain the characteristics to look for in a job or field of study, rather than just giving a list of options that can feel limiting. It also discusses how each personality functions in friendships and explains strengths and weaknesses of each type.
The Enneagram focuses on the motivations behind people’s behavior – why they act the way they do. There are nine types on the Enneagram, with each type indicated by a number. The Enneagram can be tough because taking an online test isn’t the best way to determine which number you are. Rather, if you want to know which you are, you should read through the descriptions of all of the numbers and see which one you feel is most like you. Because the Enneagram doesn’t shy away from pointing out the weaknesses associated with each number, sometimes you have to be brutally honest with yourself to accurately determine which number best describes you.
This personality framework offers a good look at what makes people tick. This can help students make college-related decisions because they can figure out what has motivated them to do the things they’ve done so far and determine if those are the motivations they want guiding their futures. Knowing this about themselves can also help students refrain from making mistakes by doing what they think they should, rather than what they really want.
I like the StrengthsFinder framework because it is based in positive psychology and focuses on the individual’s strengths and talents. The test helps people identify and understand their natural talents, so that they can then develop those talents into strengths that help them do their best work (work meaning anything you have to do, not necessarily the work a person does for a job). According to the framework, there are thirty-four strengths, divided between the four themes of executing, influencing, strategic thinking, and relationship building.
To take the official StrengthsFinder test, you need an access code, which you can get by purchasing the accompanying book. You can also read about the 34 strengths at the website. Or, you can take this free test online. It’s not “official” but I think it’s still a valuable assessment.
This assessment can help students learn how they work best, which can help them make decisions about the kind of environment they learn best in, the fields they might be most suited to pursuing, and the ways they can build on their strengths to help set them on a path to success.