The college admissions process is something you’ve never experienced before—no matter who you are, or what you’ve done. As a senior who is graduating in a week, I just wanted to share some advice with current students and their parents—many of who are probably imagining what this day is going to be like for them, a day when classes are over and the most stressful thing is figuring out how to log onto your college portal.
There’s a few things that I think worked well for me during the college application process. In terms of finalizing my college list, my parents and I prioritized college visits before the beginning of senior year. I dedicated two weeks of my summer to visiting colleges, and I think attending tours and information sessions were the most important factor in deciding what schools I applied to, and what schools were a good “fit” for me.
I was never a very decisive person, and I remember ending junior year without a single clue as to what I was looking for in my “ideal college.” Reading college websites and seeing photos wasn’t helping me figure out my college list. However, after visiting colleges around the country, I discovered that I found my “top choice school” just by “feel.” It’s difficult to describe, but I think stepping onto a school’s campus, and just being physically present there, does wonders for helping you make the leap from “I think I want to apply to this school” to “I know I want to apply to this school.”
There’s something about seeing buildings in real life and meeting students who attend that helps paint a vivid picture of what the school is genuinely like. In fact, my final college list only had one school I didn’t visit. The other ten-or-so schools, I had visited, seen through my own eyes, and I knew I would be happy at them. Besides, what’s the point of applying to twenty schools and writing thirty more essays if you have lukewarm opinions towards ten of those schools campuses? The more colleges you visit, the more you’ll realize what “clicks” and what doesn’t. You’ll start to recognize patterns in the schools that you like, and you’ll start to be able to imagine yourself at a school (or imagine yourself running off the campus because you dislike it so much). I can personally vouch for the power of college visits. Do them. Go out there. And hey, a lot of colleges have some pretty awesome food joints, so at least college visits can be like a mini-vacation.
As for crafting the actual college application, I think the most important thing to understand is that writing essays is kind of like a muscle. The more college essays you write, the better you’ll get at writing them—but that also means it’s really difficult to produce something you like, especially in the beginning. I started my essays over the summer of senior year—and I would honestly recommend starting around that time too. I know kids who were terrified of running out of time in the fall, and finished their Common Application essays in junior year. But in my opinion, that’s way too early. Your “college-essay writing” muscles are barely existent—it makes more sense to write your essays once you have a good idea of what colleges you want to apply to.
Plus, have you ever re-read something that you wrote a year ago, only to cringe at how it sounds? If you write your essays too early, you’ll get a similar feeling the night before the early application deadline, re-reading your Common Application essay you wrote when you were procrastinating studying for an AP U.S. History test. Think about the quality of your college essays as a bell curve, with the quality of your essays on the y-axis and time on the x-axis (look, math!). If you start too early, you’ll have no idea what you’re writing about, and if you start too late, you’ll be so stressed that you’ll rush through your writing. Find that sweet spot—July to October, I personally think—where you know what you’re doing and have enough time to grammar-check your writing—and use that time wisely.
As for what I did last fall, I followed a pretty specific timeline to write my essays. Over the summer, I took a look at the Common Application prompts, and then I just wrote down as many stories as I could think of that related vaguely to the prompts. For the stories that I thought flowed well, I edited them (with help from the college counselors) until I found one that I felt was the strongest. For the stories that didn’t make the cut, I held onto them because I later used the same anecdotes for the myriad of school-specific essays. And by “stories,” I mean specific experiences I had in high school that I turned into personal narratives—stories with beginnings, middles, and ends.
From my experience, the more specific your stories are, the better. Admissions officers will tell you, again and again, that there’s no ideal topic to write your essays on. That’s true. As infuriatingly vague as that cliché is, the best advice I can personally give about the content of your essays is to write stories that only you can share. There’s no better way for you to demonstrate your personality to colleges than to tell them about specific experiences that you’ve had in the past—whether it’s situations in which you’ve achieved a milestone, come to a revelation, or pushed yourself to your best potential—all of these colorful moments can be turned into stories, which will help make your essay more vibrant. Anyone can write “I got first place in a competition,” but only you can describe what the scene of your specific competition was like, and how you felt during the competition.
Start your essays early, but not too early. And write stories!
Again, I have to reiterate that these pieces of advice—visiting colleges, refining your “college essay writing” muscles—come from my own experience with the college application process. It’s difficult to think of “blanket” tips to give to everyone, because everyone has a different set of standards for colleges they are interested in and things they want to write about on their application. However, last year, a graduating senior told me that the college application process helped her grow as a person; she was able to take pride in her accomplishments and realize what she truly cared about. And I found that to be wholeheartedly true for me as well. I really did learn more about myself, and I think that’s best part of the college application process: seeing yourself grow over the course of one school year, starting senior year off as a high-schooler and ending it as an incoming college freshman. But part of the journey is the end—isn’t it?
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