09/16/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2012

As You Like It: College Searching and Soul Searching

For some, it's isolating themselves in the green countryside studying Latin, Locke or Love's Labour's Lost. For others, it's painting their faces blue and maize and bellowing "Go Blue" with a crowd of 110,000 on their feet. And for some others, it's holing up in an engineering lab experimenting with neon-yellow tube lights.

Picking a college that suits you, your values, your goals, is an unnerving experience. In some ways, it can be even more trying than scoring an 800 on that subject test or becoming president of the high school investment club.

But more often than not, competitive high school students skirt the process and impetuously select a college based solely on its reputation and ranking, as opposed to exploring who they are and with what kind of school they are compatible.

Let's consider the following student: perfect Board scores: check. Enrolled in the maximum number of Advanced Placement courses: check. Class President: check. Captain of the Debate and Speech team: check. Finalist in the Intel science research competition: check. Founder of the business club and intern at a major hedge fund: check, check.

His resume continues to unfold in this same impressive, albeit trite, progression and will eventually find its way to the desks of admissions officers at the country's most prestigious universities.

But just because his numbers and credentials match those posted on the
Collegeboard website for top tier schools, doesn't mean he matches the fit of such schools.

How do you know where you will fit best? Answering this question offers a novel opportunity for self-reflection and provides students a chance to investigate their most critical values and defining passions.

Students should not ask themselves "Am I in the SAT score range for this school?" Rather, they should ask themselves who they are, what their personal convictions are, what they want to study and how they want to grow.

It is this type of introspection that allows students to accurately determine the environment in which they want to learn, socialize and live for the next four years. When students visit campuses, they will notice that such thorough questioning not only elucidates their personal understandings of themselves, but also allows them to scrupulously discern between a school at which they know they belong and one at which their numbers belong.

Former dean of college admissions at the University of Chicago, Theodore A. O'Neill, identifies the value behind students recognizing their uniqueness and thus the uniqueness of their application. O'Neill was quoted in a 2010 New York Times article "Application Inflation: When Is Enough Enough?" advising: "It's important to signal something true and meaningful about yourself. The more signals, the more honest you're being, and doing that does limit the applications."

Reputations deceive; they fool the overachieving valedictorian into applying to Harvard University even if he would be happier at a rural liberal arts college. College applicants must remember that there is no one-size-fits-all school, despite what the popular U.S. News and World Report College Rankings might insinuate.

I grew up in Manhattan where, come junior year of high school, the social scenes changed from Saturday night get-togethers to Sunday morning SAT practice tests, and where students would reveal their GPAs more openly than they would reveal their phone numbers.

I found the culture jarring and demoralizing. It did not need to be this way -- such competition was futile. I realized there is a realistic way to supplant the numbers game with a more sincere search process that honors who we are.

So, competitive applicants, after some soul-searching you may decide surrounding yourself with green cornfields studying As You Like It is as you like it, and there you have it. Everyone will find his or her fit. Good luck, and in some cases, maybe even "Go Blue."