5 Lessons from the College Application Process

As June approaches quickly and the May 1 decision day is in the rearview mirror, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the incredible ride that was applying to college. It was able to illicit almost every possible emotion from me: self doubt to jubilation to terror. Ultimately, the result was positive. I’m going to be attending an incredible school, Wellesley College, that truly feels like the perfect spot for me. That said, there were more than a couple times that I was positively convinced that I would sooner die before reaching May 1, 2017.

1. Have a vision. Be okay when you re-write it.

When I began my college applications process, I was convinced that I wanted to be in an urban campus in the Washington, D.C. are or an Ivy League school. Initially, not a single small liberal arts school snuck its way onto my college list. I had a binder full of page protectors and labels for each institution and pages of essay drafts. Of all of those schools, I only applied to four of them by the end of my college process, and only 2 were even a fleeting consideration as deadlines inched closer. When the proverbial cookie began to crumble, I was primarily stuck between two small liberal arts schools. I was admitted to an Ivy League school, but a year of soul searching that spawned from all of those college essays made me realize that the cutthroat competition and party atmosphere paled in comparison to a warm, supportive, small academic environment. Wellesley, my dream school at age 11, became my dream once again in late November and I haven’t looked back since.

All of this is to say that plans change. The applications process is frequently as much self-discovery as it is presentations of yourself to an admissions counselor. Ultimately, you have to live wherever you decide to go. Be open to the process, not locked into some contrived idea of what you think the process ought to be.

2. Talk it out.

For the past year, I have been entirely unable to shut up about college, much to the chagrin of my family, friends, and acquaintances. Many of those conversations occurred in an anxious haze as I fretted about this deadline or that form. Essay questions are rough. Financial aid paperwork is rough. Managing classes as a senior is rough. At 17, you’re being asked to make incredibly consequential decisions about the rest of your life with information that is incomplete at best. That is an immense amount of stress to find yourself under, and it’s ok to struggle with it. Talking through the options with people who I know and care about is the only way I was able to sort through all of the data being tossed at me all of the time. Seek advice, but remember that you will receive a lot of it, and not all of it is good for you. Discussing options is as much a forum for advice as it is for processing of your own feelings about the matter. Listen to and truly consider the tips you receive, but pay just as close attention to how those conversations make you feel. Often, my biggest realizations about what I wanted came when I realized that the advice I was receiving just didn’t sit quite right with me.

3. Deadlines matter.

This is a short one. You will be less stressed if you plan ahead and don’t procrastinate.

You will still procrastinate. When you do, I recommend Starbucks VIA instant coffee. It tastes surprisingly good, gives the caffeine rush you need to stay up until 3 am, and requires the bare minimum effort. You’re welcome.

4. You’re not perfect. Stop trying to be.

I think the single worst piece of college advice I see popping around the internet is the idea of the “Perfect College Essay”. Encapsulated in this is the idea that there is some sort of formula for college admissions—if you can simply combine this activity with this sport and this line in your essay, you will get into college and ride off into some happy sunset. I’m sure this has worked for some people, but the reality is that admissions committees are groups of people who sit around a table and read thousands of essays and test scores. In reality, authenticity is the most important thing you can present in your application. The importance of this is twofold:

  1. They will inevitably be bored out of their wits. The 400th essay about learning from failure is going to start looking a lot like the previous 399. Trying to be perfect is fitting trying to fit into someone else’s idealized conception, and so is everyone else. Uniformity is not your friend.
  2. You are a real and interesting person with real and interesting life experiences. Do yourself a favor and talk about them. Make the admissions committee see who you really are and what you’ve really overcome to get to the point where you are.

So here’s a better version of how to write the Perfect College Essay:

Answer the question.

Act as though you were talking to a friend and really consider what the question is seeking to discover about you. Select a story that represents that. When you get ideas down, bring it to the teacher or adult in your life who can edit it for clarity and organization. More importantly, make sure that adult knows your voice. Let your essay read like a conversation and remind the admissions office that you are in fact a real human being.

5. Rejections are a gift, even if they don’t feel like one.

Unless you are very, very lucky, you will open up a far too small envelope from a college and feel the cold slap of college admission rejection. It will be awful, and you absolutely have the right to do the appropriate amount of moping. Of course, the time-tested advice rings true: you will find a community at any place you end up, and the destination is truly what you make it.

That’s not the point I want to make, though.

The truth of the matter is that college admissions are as much about a college evaluating itself as it is a college evaluating you. If you truly and authentically present yourself in your application, then it is not a reflection of your worth if you are rejected from a school. Rather, it’s a school evaluating itself and deciding whether you would fit into that community. No matter how much research you do, the institution knows itself and its students best. If they don’t accept you, it’s probably because you wouldn’t be a good fit for them. If that’s the case, then why would you want to attend in the first place?

I hope some of these musings prove helpful for the next cohort of seniors who embark on this odyssey, or cathartic to my fellow Class of 2017 graduates who are finally breathing a sigh of relief and moving on to the next step of life.

Au revoir,



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