Welcome to our Student Voices series! In this series, we give our students a chance to share their experiences, thoughts, and advice about everything from navigating the college admissions process to succeeding academically.
Charlie is a recent high school graduate who is heading off to his first year of college at UC Berkeley this fall. We invited Charlie to share his experience applying to college to give a first-hand account of what the process is like. Charlie worked with a college counselor, though he was not one of Academic Impact’s clients.
If you haven’t done so already, I recommend checking out my previous blog post (EXACTLY What to Expect on College Applications) before reading this, as this article will reference components of the application mentioned in that post.
Stress is caused by not having enough time, and emotion is caused by expectations. Therefore, you can minimize the stress and emotional impact of applying to colleges by giving yourself plenty of time to complete applications and eliminating mental expectations of where you’ll end up!
Of course, all of that is easier said than done. I definitely didn’t follow those two rules enough when I went through this process myself last fall, because I experienced plenty of stress and emotion. In fact, I’ll begin by describing how I personally experienced my first and last application decisions:
- Since I applied there under Early Action, Stanford was my first admission decision, and although I didn’t expect to be admitted (based on the odds), it was still always my #1 dream school. But since it was my first admission decision, I was ill-prepared to handle the anticipation– it was scheduled to come out at 3pm on Friday, and I was extremely antsy and tense during 6th period at school that day. My heart was racing by the time I checked the application portal for their decision, and while I didn’t get in, I quickly found comfort in the fact that all but one person from my school who applied there Early Action also got rejected.
- On the other hand, the last decision to come out for me was UC Berkeley. Since I knew the average test scores and GPAs of accepted applicants to that school, I was admittedly shocked at first that I found that I was put on the waiting list while other people I knew got in. And I think it hit harder due to the fact that it was my last admission decision, so unlike with other decisions, I couldn’t find comfort in knowing that there were more potential options in the future. But a month later, I got in off the waitlist, and I’m now excited to be going there this fall!
However, looking back on in it, there are definitely some things I realize I could have done differently. So for rising seniors getting ready to enter application season, here are some words of wisdom I can give:
- Don’t be set on attending any specific school. For me, that school was Stanford. I loved and wanted to go to Stanford ever since elementary school, even attending two summer camps there and rooting for them over Cal (where my own brother goes) in football. I also had a Stanford poster on my wall, a Stanford sweatshirt I liked to wear to school, and a few Stanford t-shirts. But contrary to popular belief, none of this stuff actually helps you get into Stanford. A school of Stanford’s prestige doesn’t care how much you really want to go there, because so does everyone else who applied. So try not to have a dream school that you imagine yourself going to, because that will just make the rejection hit a lot harder than it should. No school is perfect, no matter how much you think it is.
- Know why the school is a fit before starting the application. Like I said in my previous blog post, most private schools have short essay prompts that ask why their school is a fit for you. Every time I faced one of these prompts on an application, I had to do research on the school to come up with specific things to talk about (rather than stuff like “great academics” and “good student to faculty ratio”). This was a mistake, because this was all research I should have done before even choosing to apply to that school. If a school is really a fit for you, you shouldn’t be struggling to come up with things to say about it for that prompt– rather, you should be struggling to keep it all below the word limit because you have so many great unique things about the school you want to talk about.
Compile a list of all the essay prompts you’ll respond to. I didn’t actually do this, but I should have: before you even fill out your first application, create a document in which you copy and paste every prompt you’re going to write for every application (exclude the “why our school?” prompts and short response questions). After you do that, spend an hour or so simply choosing what topic you’re going to write on for each prompt. For example, just write “tennis” or “speech and debate” for one prompt and then move on to the next one. This will significantly reduce stress, because not only will it give you a full understanding of how many essays you’re going to have to write, but it will also eliminate the uncertainty of what you’re going to write on for each prompt.
- Brainstorm before even thinking about how you’re going to write an essay. Many times, I began writing an essay before I was finished brainstorming, assuming I would just think of things to say in the process of writing it. A better approach would have been to create a bullet list ahead of time where I wrote down every random thought I had, without consideration for relevance and in no particular order. This would have enabled me to get all my thinking out of the way before trying to put my ideas into sentences, so that when it was time to actually write the essay, I would only have to worry about which thoughts to use and how to insert them into the essay.
- Focus more on topic and message than writing style/grammar. I made this mistake when writing my Common App essay. Having proper spelling and grammar is essential, but a proofreader can help you with those things. However, what a proofreader can’t do is be you on paper. Only you can share your unique experiences and perspectives, so when writing an essay, focus much more on what topic you’re going to write on and what message you want to give to the reader– these two things are what will make him/her remember you. Having perfect writing style/grammar may be nice for the reader during the few seconds they spend reading your essay, but they’ll forgot about that by the end of the day. Instead, worry about about telling them something only you can tell them, because that’s what will make your essay stand out.
- Look at your application again at least a day later after finishing it. I found that I always view my writing differently if I wait at least a day before I look at it again. The same was true when filling out college apps. If you give yourself time to read each one with a fresh mindset, you’ll catch things that need editing that you wouldn’t see otherwise. This may be difficult to do at first, because it requires you to finish an application well in advance of the due date. However, it will surely guarantee you submit a better application.
- Accept that if a school doesn’t admit you, it wasn’t a fit for you anyway. I won’t pretend that this is easy to do, because it’s impossible to not feel an emotional attachment to a school you wanted to go to. But trying to have this mindset is crucial. A school is only the right place for you if they offer you admission after they’ve met you through your application. The sooner I came to accept this for each school I got rejected from, the easier it became to just shrug it off and forget about that school. For example, my first rejection from Stanford was rough, but after that that, handling rejections became easier and easier. To be fair, many of the schools I applied to were hyper-selective (admitting less than 20% of applicants), so I wasn’t heartbroken by any one school after that.
- If you get waitlisted, focus on going to another school in the meantime. Like I said, I was originally waitlisted at UC Berkeley (as well as UChicago), and one of the greatest pieces of advice my college counselor gave me was to forget about them– choose a school that I did already get into and start thinking about myself going there (for me, that was UCLA). This was a great bit of advice, because if I ended up not getting in off the waitlist at either of those schools, it wouldn’t have really mattered to me because I had already committed to going somewhere else. It’s smarter emotionally if you think of getting waitlisted as a probable rejection instead of a possible acceptance.
1, 7, and 8 focus on how to handle admission decisions emotionally, and 2-6 should help you deal with the stress involved in completing your applications.
While stress and emotion are unavoidable in the college application process, I do think that these recommendations can minimize them for you. Within only a few months, you will know where you’ll be going to school next year. And while not everyone gets into the place that was originally their dream school, 90% of the people I know were totally content with where they would be going to school within just a month after they received their last college decision letter!
Everyone has a place that’s right for them, and you’ll find yourself accepting your offer of admission to one of those places in only a few months.
For more about navigating the college admissions process: