What I wish I had known before entering the college application process


The first weeks of my freshman year of college have been a blur, filled with new people, classes, and activities. It’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was a senior in high school. Here are some things I’ve learned that would’ve helped me in the college application process as an incoming senior.

1. Be yourself

There’s no recipe for getting into the colleges you want. You are responsible for telling your own story in your application — not what you think the admissions officer wants to read, not what you’ve heard is the best way to get into an elite school, and not what your friend who was admitted last year put in her application. There is no formula that tells you exactly how to combine extracurriculars, write your essays, and present your application. This may seem scary and uncertain, but it really gives you an incredible amount of freedom. Want to wow the admissions council with something brand new and completely unique? Go for it! Or, be honest about how much you love more common activities like band, debate, student council, or varsity athletics. What matters most is that you express what these activities mean to you — and you can only do that successfully if you enjoy what you do. Not only is this more effective on college applications than a resume loaded with empty extracurriculars, but you’ll have fun in high school! (Yes, that’s just as important as college applications.)

2. Don’t be intimidated by admissions officers

Admissions officers are nice people. They are also real people. They know you’re not superhuman and don’t expect you to have 15 extracurriculars, perfect test scores, 200 hours of community service, straight As, and a Nobel Prize. Admission officers don’t sit around a table solemnly discussing your fate like a collegiate Jedi Council. They are generally super approachable, and love to answer questions and get to know you outside of your application. Take advantage of this and reach out! Not only will you get your questions answered, you can actively demonstrate your interest in the college or one of its programs.

3. Apply for the right reasons

The only good reason to apply to a school is because you truly think you’ll be happy there. Not because of its name, or what other people think about it, or because slogging through four years of misery would result in the perfect degree. This advice would have saved me a lot of time narrowing down my college list. Take a moment to think about how you would feel attending the school. Can you picture yourself there? Would you be happy going through the daily grind of classes, extracurriculars, and social life there? College is ultimately about a relationship between you and the school community. If you don’t think you would enjoy your overall experience, don’t bother applying!

4. Give yourself lots of time to write

If there’s one thing you should focus on during the fall of your senior year, it’s writing. Aside from retaking the SAT or ACT, or taking SAT IIs, the most important part of your fall should be preparing your applications carefully. Students often underestimate how tricky and time-consuming the writing and revising process is. Give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts of your personal statement (I can testify to how important this is!) and individual supplements for each college. Remember, supplements should be unique to each school. You’ll need time to organize your thoughts and write effective essays so you’re not stuck copying-and-pasting supplements at the last minute. Don’t skimp on your essays or resort to cliches. Your writing is what sets you apart from other applicants, so take the time to get it right. Ask a college counselor for help, or try peer editing with your friends and classmates.

5. Apply and chill

College applicants put ridiculous pressure on themselves. I know I certainly did. You may feel like you’re deciding your destiny while you’re applying for colleges, but the life-and-death importance of the college application process fades fast. Once you’re in college and experiencing all the exciting new opportunities and responsibilities, you’ll quickly forget the details of where you didn’t get in and where you chose not to attend. If you’ve picked schools that fit you well, the odds of you having a happy and successful college career at any school on your list are very high. So, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride of your life!

About the author

Maya JumanMaya is our 2015 Top Ten List Scholarship winner. She attends Yale University, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, and is a fan of whales, baseball, and classic rock.

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