For the past three weeks, I've had the privilege of being a summer RA for USC Summer Programs, a month-long academic program for high school students. Most of the residents I've met are on the brink of beginning their senior year, meaning that college applications are just around the corner. Being around these bright-eyed, ambitious individuals has given me vivid flashbacks to when I was in their shoes. As I look back, I realize it's only fair for me to share my advice with whatever other frazzled seniors may need it.
The SAT and ACT do not spell out your doom.
This was a huge concern for me in high school, as I wasn't the best test taker. Standardized tests do a less than perfect job of measuring your aptitude for critical thinking and academic success, which explains why more colleges are now opting for test-optional admission. In any case, colleges look at applications holistically, meaning they won't throw your application to the side if you don't exceed a certain SAT and ACT score. Some colleges have higher averages and ranges of scores than others, but I promise that these statistics aren't the be-all end-all. Do your best on tests, but know that other parts of your application can set you apart if you highlight them with effort and confidence.
The essay is more important than you think.
Write something that no one else could write-- something that captures your essence right off the page. This sounds daunting, but with enough thought, it will come more easily than you think. When it comes to essay-writing, the most common mistake you can make is to write an essay that is cliche, disingenuous, or both. The sophistication and clarity of your writing style is something you should think of as a given rather than a factor that will make you stand out. From a technical standpoint, thousands of applicants to your dream school will be strong writers. What sets you apart is the ability to clearly use your own voice in order to tell your specific story. Let the admissions officers get to know who you are and what you would contribute to their environment. The essay is your chance to confide something qualitatively different than what is shown on the rest of your application; rehashing your accomplishments is redundant.
Once you have your topic, write multiple drafts. Show your essay to as many outside eyes as you can. Get insight from your teachers, counselors, and friends. One thing in particular that motivated me was to have essay-writing days with friends. Swapping and editing essays with them made the process feel faster and more fun.
Keep an open mind.
Apply to schools you would genuinely love to attend, regardless of whether they have the highest ranking. This is a great starting point when it comes to narrowing down your list and pinpointing what qualities you prioritize in a school.
On the flip side, know that you may not end up where you expected. I always envisioned myself attending a small liberal arts college in the northeast, and I ended up at a large research university out west. I knew these schools all had qualities I liked, but it took opening my mind to realize that USC was a better fit than what had been my ideal for so long.
Become comfortable talking about yourself.
Opening up is hard. As an introvert, I still struggle with this sometimes. However, I'm more comfortable talking about myself now that I've undergone so many college interviews, which almost always begin with the dreaded "tell me about yourself." It's broad, so take it and run. Own who you are and what you want to highlight about yourself in the short time you can. Come with questions you genuinely want answered, and be yourself. It will not be scary in the slightest.
Don’t forget to enjoy your senior year.
Fall semester of senior year, my mental health was horrendous. I didn't sleep, I skipped lunches to go to the library or college counselor's office, I didn't live in the moment, and I didn't enjoy a lot of things I could've with a better mindset. I was so set on striving for perfection and applying to a million schools that I didn't take care of myself. Work hard, but don't let the stress of college prep eat away at you every day. You're allowed to feel good about yourself and put some trust in the unknown.