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Practical College Application Advice From an Accepted Student

Deciding where to apply to college can be difficult. Narrow your search and optimize your time with advice from a student who's been there and done that!

When I set out to apply for colleges, I wasn't really sure the path I should follow. As the eldest child of my family, I had no siblings to guide me. No one in my family had ever attended an Ivy League or top-tier university, either.  Given these challenges, I had to spend hours researching my options. I researched enough to fill binders, my internet bookmarks, and several notebooks. Decision day arrived, and with much anticipation, I was accepted to several top universities and Ivy League schools. My final decision was Stanford University. Along the arduous mountain-peak-trek and long, wide valley of waiting that led to decision day, I learned a lot. Here’s my advice to students deciding on a college. While much of it is geared toward acceptance into selective universities, it can be applied to all sorts of situations, no matter what type of student you might be.

Determine your goals

I have a challenge for you: write down as many words you associate with your future as quickly as you can. These goals and words can be general ideas, like what type of college you'd like to attend; as specific as memories that are valuable to you and that you'd like college to evoke; or even the job title you hope to see on your office door in 30 years. I find writing such notes by hand to be better because the mind works differently when it's in pen-across-paper mode. The faster you write the better—you might surprise yourself with some of your ideas when you don't have enough time to judge them first. This is a great way to probe your subconscious and the gut feelings you already hold about your future. What really matters to you is often instinctive.

Related: 30 Questions You Need to Ask Before Choosing a College

Balance where you apply

On one side of this search lies your wildest dreams. On the other stands the realistic part of you, the piece that forms decisions on your own past experiences and present circumstances. I think it's important to teeter the middle line carefully. By all means, apply wherever you like. Apply to your highest reach school, the one that you think you need a step-ladder on top of stacked chairs to reach. But when you do, give yourself the parachute of a match school you love so that precarious perch doesn't bring you down with it. This is also where it's important to talk about the concept of having a "dream school." It's okay to not have one—and it might be more beneficial for you to keep your options open and be really excited about several places.

Don't sweat your test scores

Colleges always release statistics on their incoming classes. Sometimes this information seems about as daunting as watching a pirate ship slowly approach your boat. The median score is a 34? you ask yourself, almost in disbelief. But colleges reject thousands of students with perfect scores every year. For example, years ago, Harvard rejected more than a thousand students with perfect Math SAT scores. That was a long time ago, and thousands more since then have been rejected. More and more, colleges realized that test scores don’t define a person. Retaking the ACT 10 times to try and get that 36 might actually be worse for you than sticking with your second time score of 32. While it's still important to take these tests and try your best, colleges care much more about grades and what you’ve done to improve your community and school than one test.

Related: The Future of the SAT and ACT During COVID-19 

Don't stress over sticker prices

The sticker price. It's the opposite of an item on clearance: many top universities show costs of tuition and housing as over $60,000 a year. Unless your family is wealthy, chances are you won't be paying all of that. This article gives a good overview of how the Ivy Leagues and Stanford offer financial aid, and many of the other top-20 schools offer similar packages. Also, while many colleges have net price calculators, these can be either very high or very low, and it's often difficult to determine which until you’ve been accepted. After all, as I heard one Stanford financial aid officer say, "The hardest part should be getting into Stanford, not paying for it."

Find what makes you stand out

One of the most common pieces of advice I heard when I was starting to apply was that being well-rounded is important. For most people, I would say this is ineffective. Top colleges want to create an incoming class that is well-rounded, meaning that it's primarily composed of people who are, individually, masters or very skilled in one or two areas. Universities often tell you to talk about your passions, and this is where you want to truly express the one or two things you're good at. Start by organizing your skills into, say, apples and oranges. Under apples, you put all your awards, leadership activities, and extracurricular activities that fall under "music" together. Under oranges, you gather all the pageants or talent shows that you've performed in together. In this case, you could actually combine apples and oranges to form an even stronger category: persimmons, let's say. How many incoming students will have such a strong concentration in a related area? How many students will have skills like persimmons? 

Demonstrate interest

The more demonstrated interest you show in a college, the more likely you will be admitted. Colleges want to have higher yield rates, or the number of students who attend after their acceptances, so knowing more definitely that a student will attend if accepted can turn a close admissions decision into a "yes." How you demonstrate interest in a college depends somewhat on which college and how much time you have. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs a program called MITES during the summer before a student's senior year of high school where students come to campus for a rigorous six-week program. I attended MITES, and nearly 40% of my MITES peers went to MIT. Sometimes attending the college summer programs (especially if it’s a selective program like MITES, RIT, YYGS, or others), can help in the admission process. Many of these top programs are free or almost free. You can also show demonstrated interest by participating in a college fly-in or other program intended to increase diversity in an incoming freshman class, or just by taking a tour of the college.

Related: How to Use Demonstrated Interest to Your Benefit

Go on admission interviews

If the school includes an interview component with its application, this is another great way to demonstrate your interest. While some schools look at interviews merely as a way for you to learn more about the school, some consider them an important part of determining whether you’ll be a good fit for that school. In these interviews, try to mention unique components of the university. Research beyond just the obvious: does the school offer a unique research opportunity in its labs? Is one of the professors someone you really admire who has experience in a niche field you’re interested in? Having answers to questions like these means the question of “Why this school?” will be much more memorable to interviewers. Vloggers like Cath In College for Stanford can provide some of these special insights that distinguish select universities from each other. Another small tip for interviews: don’t go into it with the mindset of trying to impress someone or list off all your achievements but as an opportunity to learn and meet someone who is interesting. Remember to pitch yourself—turn a few questions about you into why a certain trait makes you a strong fit for that college if you can.

After the application

Once everything is submitted, you might have a few moments of panic. Then again, it might feel like the storm has passed—and it should be a relief. The next steps are myriad, but here are a few you might find helpful:

  • Do your best on AP Tests for classes that matter. This means the ones you'll earn credit for at whichever university you decide to attend. Researching is important as not every college has the same policy on accepting AP credits.
  • Scholarship hunt like mad! I applied for 82 scholarships, fellowships, awards, and leadership positions between November and March of my senior year.
  • Relax a little. Senior year doesn’t have to be the most stressful period in your life.
  • Keep your grades up. No matter how tempting it is to kick back with “senioritis,” and that second-semester slump, colleges will reject students with too much of a grade drop between the semesters. One or two “B’s” might be okay if that’s similar to the way you performed for most of high school, but many universities will ask you to submit a letter of explanation for dropping grades as well.
  • Spend time with your friends and family. If you’ve neglected the people you care about a little, make sure to spend time with them! It won’t be long until you’re off to college and won’t see them as much again.

Related: 7 Things to Do While Waiting for Admission Decisions

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to make for a smoother college application process, and while this isn’t a comprehensive list of all the great advice to help you, it’s a great place to start to put your mind at ease and release some of the stress of the process. Good luck!

If you want more valuable guidance on applying to college, check out Our Best Advice for Tackling Your College Applications—featuring everything you need to know!

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About Faith Harron

Faith Harron studied in STEM at Stanford University after attending Century High School in North Dakota. She was also one of 80 students nationally to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MITES (Minority Introduction to Technology, Engineering, and Science) program for six weeks. When not doing theater, participating in the Science Olympiad, working for Gateway to Science, or at band practice, she can be found volunteering or writing novels on napkins, in thunderstorms, and virtually everywhere else. In her future, she intends to learn more languages, conquer mountains, and continue to teach and help others.


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