I just finished the first week and a half of my freshman year of college, but it seems like I have been here so much longer. As I watch my friends who are current seniors in high school delve into the college application process head-first, it, too, seems like lifetimes ago that I was in the same position, even though it’s only been one year. That said, I definitely still remember how stressful and chaotic college application season was, so here are 10 reminders based on my own experience for everyone currently going through the process:
1. Start early
The biggest thing I told all of my friends was to do their best to finish drafts of at least some of their essays before the school year starts. The CommonApp opens on August 1st, but many universities have essay prompts that do not change colossally year-to-year and are available on their websites year-round. It’s best to get as much out of the way as possible before school starts back up and you start having more studying to do—don’t forget that you still need to keep your first semester grades up!
Even if you’re a current senior and your school year has already started, this tip still applies in that you should make sure not to procrastinate on your essays any further. Schoolwork is only going to continue building, and you won’t want to have to be dealing with all of that studying on top of rushing to finish your college applications. Finishing essays earlier additionally means that you can revisit them a couple of weeks after first writing them, and that time gap allows for invaluable reflection and editing. The work you produce will be much better this way!
2. Use essays to highlight what’s unique
If you think you’re not special or unique in some way, you’re wrong! Every college is going to get a number of applications from students with nearly identical grades, extracurriculars, and even recommendations. It’s therefore that much more important for you to use your essays to highlight what makes you different—whether it be "small" or "large," anything that makes you stand out from the rest. Also avoid repeating similar topics in multiple essays or supplements to the same school, and take advantage of every opportunity you get to highlight a new aspect of yourself! Before you start writing an essay, decide what characteristics of yourself you are trying to portray to the reader. When you’re done writing, go back and see if those characteristics come across in the narrative.
3. Apply to a variety of schools—but don’t over-apply!
Although I honestly hate this type of categorizing, make sure you apply to a good number of reach, match, and “safety” schools, for obvious reasons.
At the same time, however, do NOT over-apply! I know way too many people who have made that mistake (including myself!), so before you finalize your list of colleges, really think hard about each one again and decide whether you would actually want to go to that school if you got in. I applied to a ridiculous number of schools (like 20+), and my reasoning was that you can never really know where you’ll get in so I’d rather have more options than fewer, but honestly, it’s just a waste of money applying to that many. Almost every school has an application fee of $70-$90, and then you also have to factor in the cost of sending your SAT scores to each individual school via CollegeBoard, which brings it up to at least $100/school. With the ever-rising costs of college tuition, you don’t want to be wasting that money before you even get to school. I spent thousands on college apps, and I regret it quite a lot because there were some amazing schools that I got into but ultimately didn’t actually want to attend. Not to mention, you’re effectively taking that spot from someone who could have been dreaming of attending that school for years, and that’s pretty sad.
Applying to so many schools is also just a huge amount of unnecessary work—many schools have multiple supplemental essays, and I probably ended up writing over 50 or 60 different ones by the time I was done applying. Thinking back on it now, that sounds so ridiculous to me. If you’re writing a million essays, none of them are going to be as great as they could have been if you had more time to focus on each one of them.
4. Do your research—what kind of school do you want?
Take some time to figure out what kind of school you want to go to! Whether it be big or small, close by or far away, urban or suburban, you need to figure out what would suit you best. Make sure to also look at programs that various schools have for the field that you are interested in. Even if you are undecided in terms of your prospective major, researching the kinds of opportunities different schools offer will still give you a better idea of which school will best cater to your needs.
Research is also important for determining what colleges value most when considering applications. Some colleges really emphasize showing interest in them—for those schools, you want to make sure to take advantage of every opportunity you can to visit, stay overnight in a dorm, go to local information sessions, etc. You should also definitely try to visit as many of your schools as possible regardless, because you never really know how you feel about a school until you step onto the campus and really take it in. I’m a pretty flexible person so I kind of shrugged those suggestions off because I didn’t think that any campus visit would be impactful enough to make me take a school off my list, but there is a school I visited after getting in where I actually did not like the campus. That heavily contributed to me not going there, so don’t just make assumptions!
5. Don't look down on your state school
I cannot emphasize this enough. I went to a hyper-competitive high school in central New Jersey (I mean it—we were even featured in the New York Times for how stressed out our students are), and it was not at all uncommon for people to look down on Rutgers, our state university.
I ended up choosing to go to Rutgers, and I cannot tell you enough how much I love it here. Sure, I’m still working on overcoming the internal twinge when I tell someone I go to Rutgers and they say the classic, “Oh, okay,” as if I’m going to just Rutgers, but I am still incredibly proud of my university and also immensely confident that I made the right decision. A big state school like Rutgers can be overwhelming at first, but that also means that are quite literally endless opportunities and a network spanning the entire globe. Being a little closer to home really does have its perks as well, so don't look down on it for being close by.
Also avoid making the mistake of looking down on state schools academically. Within Rutgers, the Honors College is a program made up of the highest achieving applicants to Rutgers University and our average test scores come close to those of Ivy League students. The rest of Rutgers is immensely respectable as well, with many graduates going on to study at those ever-esteemed Ivy Leagues themselves. I’ve had actual conversations with people following my college decision in which they’ve made comments like, “Oh, so you must not have needed that high of an SAT-score to get into Rutgers, right?” Actually, I only got one question wrong on the entire SAT, with perfect and near-perfect scores on SAT subject tests—and don’t get me wrong, I definitely do not at all think that standardized test scores come remotely close to defining one’s intelligence, and I have immense issues with the system, but that still doesn’t make it fair to assume aspects of someone’s application or educational history based on them choosing to go to an in-state school. Yes, in-state schools tend to have higher acceptance rates, but the name of the school you attend does not define how you should be viewed—especially because so many people choose to attend state schools because of sheer cost.
If you end up deciding to attend a state school, don't let other people's unfounded stereotypes stop you from having the time of your life!
6. Acceptances don't define your intelligence
I will say this time and time again—the college application process is frankly a crapshoot. No matter how much research you do on what colleges do and do not care about in their applicants, you never actually know for sure, and it could be the tiniest feature that separates an accepted applicant to a rejected one. Some of the most genuinely intelligent people I know go to schools that aren’t considered the most prestigious in the world, but it doesn’t matter, because where you go does not change or determine how intelligent you are. What really matters is what you do once you get there—wherever “there” may be—and that you take advantage of the opportunities you are given to expand and grow. Once March and April roll around and the decision letters start coming in, I know it’s really easy for rejections to shed doubt on your self-worth, but try to believe me when I say that they truly don’t say anything about your adequacy or future success.
7. Interviews aren't usually game changers; don’t over-stress
To clarify, I’m not suggesting that you shrug off your college interviews or don't prepare. What I am saying is that people often think that the interviews matter a lot more than they actually do, so don’t stress yourself out too much about them. An awful interview could definitely bring you down a little, but there isn’t too much of a difference in the impacts of a good interview and an amazing one. The best interview in the world isn’t going to erase any significant lapse in another part of your application like your essay or high school grades, so while you should definitely prepare and watch a YouTube video or two with tips on answering the trickier questions, don’t panic about your interviews because they usually aren’t game changers. That being said, interviews with actual admissions staff at the University usually matter a little more than interviews conducted by a local alumni, and you should also definitely make sure you have a strong answer to the “why do you want to attend this school” question, but other than that, don’t stress yourself too much.
8. Use all your resources
Don’t be this guy—ask for help when have questions or need another opinion! Definitely don’t be stingy in approaching your guidance counselor with any questions or concerns you may have; it’s their job to help you and I promise you’re not bothering them as much as you think you are. Also, reach out to friends and family if you want opinions on your essays. English teachers are also often willing to read over essays if you ask and can have great advice. However, I would caution against getting too many thoughts on any essay—it should still be your work, and if you get too many perspectives, you’re going to end up overthinking and ultimately clouding your initial message.
Make sure you take advantage of online resources as well. Some universities, like Tufts, have numerous videos dedicated to giving you insight and tips on their application process. Reading student blogs from the college and connecting with other students can also be really helpful in determining if a school is a good fit for you as well as get a feel for what they are looking for in their student body.
This also goes for scholarships—you probably can't imagine doing an application for an external scholarship while also working on your actual college apps, but just note that some of the biggest scholarships are due in the fall. Look around online for different opportunities, because money is often a big factor in choosing where you ultimately go, and scholarships can greatly help you with that.
9. Don't forget to breathe!
The college application process can become really overwhelming very quickly, but try your best to not let it consume you. It’s also extremely important to continue to take care of yourself—don’t pull all-nighters to work on essays, make sure you’re eating properly and drinking enough water, all the basics. If you’re super stressed out or tired or anxious because you keep telling yourself that your entire future depends on this one application, the work you produce will not be your best! Seriously, take some time to breathe and take breaks; it’s more important than you might think. And remember, it may feel like you’re selling yourself to these institutions in your applications, but ultimately it is you who will be deciding where you attend and pretty soon they’ll be trying to get you to choose them!
10. It all works out in the end
It’s easy to feel like college is the end goal, and that where you go defines the entirety of your future. Instead, I challenge you to think of college as a beginning, rather than an ending—because that’s ultimately what it really is. Whether or not it’s your dream school, whichever college you end up attending will end up becoming your home pretty quickly. No matter where you go, if you work hard and put yourself out there, you are going to make amazing friends, find success in and out of the classroom, and learn more about both yourself and the world around you. I’ve only been here for a week but I’ve already learned that it’s true when people tell you that you will end up where you were meant to be, no matter how hard it is to believe that in the moment. Hang in there; I promise it will all work out.