Be yourself! Everybody else is taken...

High school counselor Barbara Simmons joins us today to examine the meaning of the directive to "Be yourself!" in the college application -- and provides some steps for getting there. Heads up, juniors! The time to start thinking about this is now.


With all of the resolutions swirling around in January when everything is fresh and new – I propose a resolution for all students embarking upon their search for those colleges that will become their new educational and social homes in a year and a half.  So, this resolution is for you, the juniors in high school, heading towards your 2nd semester of junior year.

Resolved:  I will continue to “know myself”.

Many of you will think that this aphorism, “know thyself”, has been both overused and around since ancient Greece – at times a proverb used to help those who boasted about themselves, “exceeding what they actually were,” and at times a “warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude." .  How many times have you heard “know who you are?” from a counselor or educator or parent?  How many questionnaires have you answered with this as the guiding theme?

You might even think “what does this have to do with a college search?”  It's difficult to imagine a college search that doesn’t include your wanting to know everything you can about each school that you’re interested in – from on-line sources, from Facebook, on Twitter - from friends and family.  After all, it’s about the college, isn't it?

Not exactly.

It’s easy to acquire all sorts of information about colleges – they use vast marketing outreach to acquaint you with their institutions, from facilities to faculty, from recreation to retention rates, from curricular choices to commencement speakers.  But, students really need to know, first, who they are before they can begin their college search for WHAT they want.

When I start to work with students, one of the first questions I ask hearkens back to those perennial questions asked by Plato and the Greeks.  Do you know who you are well enough to know which colleges fit that REAL you, not the you that is a combination of what you THINK you should be or who your best friends say you are, but the YOU that in Doris Lessing’s words, has “learn[ed] to trust your own judgment, learn[ed] inner independence, learn[ed] to trust that time will sort good from bad – including your own bad.”

A quick Google search on the words “know thyself” brought up some well-known phrases that I’d heard before or read before – from history and philosophy classes and from well-worn quotes that often preface a chapter in text books.  But it is Ben Franklin’s statement, “There are three THINGS extremely hard, STEEL, DIAMOND, and to know one’s self” that resonated most with me as I ponder this first task of students looking at colleges that might meet their authentic needs, their authentic selves.

So how do you get there?

It truly is a matter of more than figuring out whether you like urban or rural settings, although that does figure into your tastes and values. 

Knowing yourself means knowing what you value, what your habits are, how you make and sustain relationships.  Knowing yourself means knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a student, your passions and dislikes in learning situations.  It means knowing what your insecurities are as well as your courageous moments.

One writer said you are not born knowing yourself. And, you do not get to know yourself better by just turning one year older!  To know yourself is a conscious effort.

Sandy Grason, author of a book Journalution: Journaling to Awaken Your Inner Voice, Heal Your Life and Manifest Your Dreams, has five prompts to help you discover who you are, to know yourself.

  1. “I don’t want to write about” --- a way to get you to “let go” of all that is hiding beneath the surface so the real you shows up.
  2. “Who am I now?” Perhaps remember who that person was at 7 and at 10 and now at 16 – and explore the paths you took to get where you are now.
  3. “Things I love” – What does make you happy?  Good conversations, time alone, the complexity of urban crawls or a meandering walk through a park?
  4. “Affirm how wonderful you are” – Make a list of qualities that you like about yourself – and keep these in mind when you begin looking at colleges that, you deeply hope, will help you keep these vibrant.
  5. “Conversation with your 99 year old self” – Write about what experiences this 99 year old version of yourself would have liked to have had – and keep in mind that colleges should be enhancing the years that come before old age!

Too often in the world of  “hype” it is the knowledge of marketing gurus that we acquire first – what colleges are the best for (fill in the blank); what faculty are the recipients of the Nobel Prizes; who’s at the top of whatever ranking is the current trend.

But, it is YOU who are going to college – not the marketing guru’s invention of the ‘typical high school senior’ – and before you begin that college search, take the time to know yourself, your hopes and dreams and strengths and limitations, so that the colleges that appear to be ‘right’ for you are actually a match for the REAL you and not a figment of anyone else’s imagination.

Barbara Simmons is currently Director of College Counseling at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, CA.  Previously, she worked at other public and private high schools (in California and in Massachusetts) as an English teacher as well as a college counselor. She worked 'on the other side of the desk' as an admission officer at both Santa Clara University and at Wellesley College. 


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Excellent article, and I love your title!

Thanks! Headline writing is fun! But when you have a great guest blogger like Barbara, it's made easier. Happy to have you on the site! Christine VanDeVelde

What a great blog! Thanks for sharing it with us!

Thank you for your kind words! Christine VanDeVelde

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