What I Wish I Had Known about College Admissions

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What I Wish I Had Known about College Admissions

By Alexander Pralea, Editor-in-chief

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As a senior, I am thankfully finally (almost) done with the first semester, a period that has been my most difficult, stressful, and overwhelming in my high school chapter but arguably my most enriching and thought-provoking experience as of yet. Having been faced with looming deadlines, I was constantly forced to re-evaluate my priorities—what is important to me and what my career goals are, first and foremost. Therefore, my biggest advice is as follows: enjoy the experience.  You will hate it many, many, many times, but if you approach it as a time of intellectual and personal development, then you will better withstand the threat of applications due in mere hours (or minutes). Although my advice may not be personally relevant to everyone, I believe that my having drudged through the waters of more than forty essays and having conquered the mighty common application gives me the opportunity to offer some useful(ish) advice for soon-to-be seniors (and hopefully not, but inevitably, freshmen and sophomores who are reading this right now).

  1. First of all, you will receive a lot of useless advice from people who do not understand you. Don’t sweat it. While I hope my advice is helpful, no one but you (in tandem with your parents) can decide what college is for you. Just because Aunt Sue graduated from Princeton and Uncle Dave went to the University of Michigan does not mean you should even apply if those schools are not for you—you will nonetheless hear many tell you which schools to apply to. For example, despite my interests in pursuing the natural sciences in college, I believe that limiting myself to a technical institution like MIT and RPI would not allow me to explore the liberal arts, and in particular, my interests in Spanish and sociology, even though I had many friends and relatives encouraging me to apply to those excellent institutions This, in turn, leads to my second piece of advice: have a rough idea of your career goals.
  1. You aren’t expected to know where you will be in fifteen years, but you should at least have a rough idea of your career goals. For example, knowing which schools have the programs that match your area of study will enable you to choose the best college for you; if you are interested in art history, many small liberal arts colleges like Amherst offer prestigious programs. Additionally, if you plan on going to graduate school, the reputation of your undergraduate institution is not as important as it is for those intending to get a job right after college; therefore, it might be best to take that nice merit scholarship instead of possibly going into debt.
  1. Speaking of scholarships (I’m definitely nailing these transitions) and special programs, keep in mind that application deadlines can be deceiving. For many competitive merit scholarships, you must apply by an early deadline (often between November 1 and December 1) and write separate essays, even if you are applying regular decision. Especially if you are considering an out-of-state state school, be aware that financial aid opportunities are limited; therefore applying early and submitting that “optional” essay (optional essays should always be viewed as required) are often paramount. Additionally, I would actively research special programs, like combined admission into college and medical or law school, as well as early acceptance to graduate programs (like a combined BA/BS and MPH); important to note is that these programs are extremely competitive (you had better have near-perfect scores and a high GPA even if you want to reach the first round of consideration, as well as extensive experience in that field). Such programs may be for you if you are confident in your career options and wish to avoid the stress of dedicating your undergraduate experience to graduate school acceptance, and they are often even linked with merit scholarships as a benefit.
  1. Needless to say, scholarships are not the only financial issue to consider; also think about the sheer cost of applications in the first place. Application costs often approach $100, even before you send standardized test scores; therefore, it is important to research fee waivers and which schools let you self-report your standardized test scores on your application. Even transporting yourself for interviews may require overnight stays as well as an agreeing parent. I admittedly had not considered these hidden costs, and thus I ended up applying to fewer schools than I had initially anticipated because of it.
  1. This in turn leads to another issue: if you are planning on applying to ten schools or more, which is often the default if you are applying regular decision to highly competitive institutions with single-digit acceptance rates, start early on things not directly related to your application. Everyone will tell you to start early on the application itself; while I would recommend finishing your main common application essay by the summer and working on school-specific essays in August, chances are you will procrastinate. Nonetheless, please do not procrastinate with standardized tests. Even if you are thinking of mainly applying to test-optional institutions, be aware that schools like UCONN—which you will likely be applying to—still require scores. As stated earlier, highly competitive institutions, programs, and scholarships all want to see extremely high scores for those from privileged backgrounds; knowing this, you should start taking standardized tests by the beginning of your junior year. Personally, I took the ACT in September of my junior year and the SAT in October and December of my junior year; taking them so early enabled me to feel more comfortable about possible retakes and thus score higher. Additionally, even if they are only “recommended” at top institutions, subject tests are a must, unless your socioeconomic status precludes you from taking them; with this in mind, budget out May and June for subject tests related to your study of interest or the associated AP class you took. From my experience and that of friends, Xavier’s AP Chemistry and AP US History courses and its Fast-Track Precalculus course cover more than enough to earn high scores on the respective subject tests.

As you open decisions, you will receive your fair share of rejections, deferrals, and waitlists. Don’t take it personally. Many of the factors involved in capricious college acceptances—legacy or athletic status, geographic and racial diversity, and socioeconomic status—are outside of your control given that the entire process is anything but meritocratic. If it’s your top school (as it was for me), you will get very upset (pro tip: carbohydrates replenish your supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin and can make you feel better as a result), but know that there is no single school that you would be happy at. You will likely be happy at a wide range of colleges (even if they lack the all-important “name”). At the end of the day, your success comes down to what you put into it: regardless of whether you go to a “safety” or “reach,” you will still have to work hard to achieve what you want. Thus take advantage of the memories of senior year and realize that even in your darkest hours of college rejection letters, you will overcome these temporary setbacks and come back a stronger, more resilient person.