Beginning Your College Discernment Process: Tips from a Notre Dame Counselor

Author: Zach Klonsinski


With nearly 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States (and thousands more around the world!), beginning your college discernment process can at times certainly seem overwhelming.

Wait, what’s that word “discernment?" 

The college discernment process, when carried out intentionally and thoughtfully, is ultimately about empowering you to learn about yourself—your values, dreams, passions, and so much more. 

Truthfully, this can be an unnerving or even downright scary experience, especially if what you find does not always align with the expectations or experiences of your peers, parents, and others.

You know what though? That’s OK! It’s your college discernment process, and you get to own it—no one else.

So with this idea in mind, here are a few of my tips to help you get started on your college discernment journey.

1. Go on lots of “visits.” Ask lots of questions.

You can visit schools across the country and the world all from wherever you can find a WiFi signal. Take advantage of these opportunities! If you have the time and any amount of curiosity about a school, register for and attend a virtual session.

I once had a student and their father drive six hours (on a weeknight!) to attend an ND on the Road session, but there is no need to do that! 

If you are attending an event (in person or virtually) and find yourself intrigued or confused (or both!) by something, ask about it! Whether during a Q&A portion of the event or following up via email, in the college discernment process there is no such thing as a bad question. I guarantee someone else in the room has one like it! 

2. Have a list.

“How many of you have been on so many college visits that they all blur together and you don’t really remember how you got here today?” 

When I ask that question in information sessions, it’s always good for a few laughs. It highlights one of the unwritten truths of the college discernment process: You won’t remember everything—nor should you!

Trying to compare the visit you are currently attending with the visit you took to that one other school six months ago is a futile endeavor for most of us.

So instead, have a list of what you think you want. This could be anything from basic facts, like what majors are offered, to more abstract information, like the school’s “feel.” Compare each visit to your list and make note of schools that align well—from there, you can dig deeper!

3. Listen when your list is wrong.

Graduating from high school in Montana, my college list was three items long: I wanted to be somewhere in the mountains, with no humidity, and a very distinct campus feel.

As I like to say, “One out of three gets me into the Baseball Hall of Fame!” 

Notre Dame is not in the mountains, and South Bend does receive its share of humidity (though, as my wife from New Orleans frequently says, “Bless your heart”).

I learned—or rather, I discerned—that overall community, campus environment, and residential life were far more important to me than the more surface level geographic factors I thought would be. Admittedly, Division I hockey was a plus!

I must also acknowledge I was privileged enough to be able to visit campus, both in ability and global circumstance. But if you can't visit, my colleague Maria has written a fantastic blog post providing advice on getting a feel for a school if you are not able to visit in person. Everyone should give it a read!

4. There is not one perfect school for you.

Instead, there are many great ones. 

Through a combination of discovery, applying, your admissions, and your family’s financial situation, your list of great schools will eventually be whittled down to a few main contenders. 

To begin though, don’t set the expectation of a “perfect” school—you will only set yourself up for disappointment. From there, it’s easy for exterior motivations (i.e., “rankings,” the opinions of others, superficial things) to start driving a search for colleges. You will lose the “discernment” piece that is so important to your personal development along the journey.

If you have been intentional and honest with yourself throughout this process, you won’t have a “wrong” or “bad” decision in front of you when it comes to spring of your senior year.

Always remember: It’s your college discernment process, and it can’t be that without you!

Zach Klonsinski

Zach Klonsinski is an assistant director with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

He is the regional counselor for:

  • Iowa, Kansas, Missouri (greater Kansas City and Northwest), Minnesota, Wisconsin
  • Andorra, France, Monaco, Portugal, Spain
  • Beijing
  • Read Zach's profile.