How to choose a college that’s right for you

By Nick Yates, ISB Communications

Sometimes the best way to learn is to turn to people who have been in your shoes. That is exactly why ISB regularly invites alumni of the school to come back and speak to the current student body, giving them college tips to make the admissions process a little easier. Learn more about ISB's college counseling programs and services.

Among the many resources provided by ISB guiding students as they navigate the next step in their educational journey, the Senior Retreat is an annual event for Grade 12 students close to graduation. It is an intensive get-together presenting ISB’s oldest students with expert instruction and workshops on college applications and life once in post-secondary education. 

>> Factors to consider when choosing a right international school <<

At one Senior Retreat in August 2019, six ISB alumni came back to campus to clear up any questions regarding the college application process. The panel also shared advice on how students can make the most of their college experience and adjust to life after ISB. Here is an inside look at the event.

Before students can adjust to life on their new college campus,they first have to get accepted and to do that they have to put together an application. But how exactly do you make sure your application sticks out from the pack? 

The Retreat is an annual event organized by our High School counselors that helps seniors navigate the next step of their educational journey with confidence. 


“The purpose is to introduce seniors to the application systems for colleges and universities, and share strategies on how parents can support their children through this stressful yet exciting time,” said Sommer Blohm, an ISB counselor at the time of the August 2019 Retreat.


Panel of ISB alumni and high school senior tips and help students understand how to choose a college that is right for them

The alumni Q&A session was preceded by a mindfulness exercise involving an ISB mother. Sitting on stage, she was asked by counselors to complete a test as eight students – who played the roles of a parent, teacher, coach, and the self – repeated questions aloud. The activity highlighted the many expectations students face and the importance of having a strong support network throughout the year.


Journey of self-discovery

Warona George, a psychology and languages science major, shared her experience of taking a gap year after graduating from ISB. Seeking to deepen her connection to China, Ms. George put mastery of Mandarin on her radar by studying at Beijing Language and Culture University.

After completing her course, she spent two months backpacking around south China, which allowed her to “find” herself.

“Taking a gap year can be very useful because it allows you to learn things about yourself you can’t necessarily learn at college due to the pace of study. For me, I had a clear purpose: to improve my Chinese. Along the way, I also learned to be independent, which helped me adjust more easily when I did eventually go to university,” she explained.


Choosing the ‘right’ school

For many seniors and their parents, finding the best-fit college can be challenging for countless reasons including location, campus culture, and co-curricular opportunities. Learn more about what co-curricular activities colleges like to see on an application.

Woody Laui, who is studying natural resources conservation, wanted a school that fit his active, outdoors-oriented lifestyle. 

“Facilities are another important consideration. When I saw the three-floor gym at UMass Amherst, I thought, ‘Awesome, I’m in,’” he recalled. “My school is also ranked second in the nation for food, so that was another bonus. The thing to remember is that college will be your home for four years. You want to make sure you’re happy and not just there for your degree.”


Making a statement

One of the first questions asked by students was about the fine art of “modest bragging” when writing a personal statement and undergoing interviews with admissions officers. The key is to not feel overwhelmed and develop a strong message you can effectively communicate.

“I had a very hard time writing my personal statement. It really isn’t everything, though, because you can never capture everything about you in 700 words. My advice is to focus on one part of you that makes you who you are, rather than a certain skill,” said Vanessa Meng, a public relations major.

Ms. Meng also spoke about being interviewed for all but a few of her 10 shortlisted colleges.

“Some of the questions were weird. 'Are you a dog person?' 'What kind of ice cream flavor would you be?' The important thing is to know what you want to say and stay focused,” she said.


Keeping an open mind

Researching colleges in the digital age can be overwhelming due to the abundance of online discussions, ratings, and forums. However, Philipa Yu shared her wisdom for cutting through the clutter.

“Keep away from College Confidential because it’s full of stressed parents and seniors,” she joked.

“Just remember to take things one at a time. After Senior Retreat, I remember counselors telling us to relax, which seemed impossible at the time. Those hellish weeks will pass. Just stay ahead of your deadlines and don’t dwell on them all at once.”

Ultimately, each student’s path is unique. Esther Tu said the secret to having an enriching college experience is to embrace change and remember you only get out what you put in.

“Your experience is what you make of it. You tailor it through your friendships, where you live, the activities you take on, and so on. Always keep an open mind and don’t forget to have fun,” she said.

ISB would like to thank our alumni panel:

  • Ms. Warona George (‘14), University College London
  • Ms. Amanda Chou (‘15), Syracuse University
  • Mr. Woody Laui (‘15), University of Massachusetts-Amherst
  • Ms. Vanessa Meng (‘15), Swarthmore College
  • Ms. Esther Tu (‘14), Boston University
  • Ms. Philipa Yu (‘15), Babson College


Now that you have some useful college tips from those who have been in your shoes and you have more clarity in what to look for, we wanted to help you with the next step: applications. Post-secondary institutions receive countless applications so how exactly do you guarantee yours sticks out? Click the link below to find out!

Make your college application
stand out

ISB is an extraordinary school, made so by a tradition of educational excellence spanning 40 years. Establishing, nurturing, and growing such an exceptional learning community has been and remains intentional; we work hard to build strong relationships so our learning is at its best.

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High School College Counseling & Prep