- letters of recommendation
- the common app
- choosing schools
- mental health + healthy mindset
- supplementals & beyond
- financial aid
- deferrals + waitlists
- words from a fellow senior
- final reflection
1 │ introduction
Hello, junior/rising senior! Welcome to this (extremely) simplified guide to the college application process, made mainly to consolidate my thoughts on the process and hopefully provide some helpful advice to prospective applicants.
If you’re not currently a junior or rising senior, the only advice I have for you is to keep your grades/GPA up, invest time into your community, and pursue your passions. That’s it! You don’t need to be worrying about college applications for now. Enjoy high school, and avoid reading this guide until the beginning of senior summer. Don’t worry, your time will come too.
Juniors/rising seniors, you will likely have many questions about the process ahead of you. This guide is not meant to be treated like the gospel on the college application process, but it does organize some crucial insights that I have gained throughout my application process—from choosing schools, writing essays, and applying to receiving decisions and committing—as well as from extensive time spent on the subreddit A2C. (Fair warning, it is both very stressful/toxic and incredibly helpful/motivating.)
I am no expert on the process, nor do I claim to be. But there were numerous things I wish I had known and properly considered with the application process, especially as applicant pools only increase over the years and admissions grow even more competitive. You will find many (but certainly not all) of the tips that helped me, as well as those that I wish I knew. Please take all of this advice with a grain of salt, and most importantly, do not sacrifice your mental health for this process. In the end, you are trying to find a place that will make you truly happy and driven, not a hyperprestigious school that you choose simply for its name or reputation.
With those disclaimers out of the way, I hope you find advice that will help your college application process proceed both more smoothly and more successfully. Bon voyage, and happy reading!
2 │ essays
Where to begin? Well, for starters, most colleges use the Common App, so you will be required to write a ‘main’ essay on one of seven prompts. The prompts change from year to year, but not by much. Additionally, the seventh and last prompt is somewhat of a freewrite—you can write on just about anything and “fulfill” the prompt’s requirement.
But the most important part of the essay is exhibiting some sort of personal growth, and giving the admissions officer a deeper look into who you are. This should be something they can’t get from the rest of your application. The essay isn’t necessarily a space to brag about your achievements, but more of a space to humanize yourself beyond being a set of test scores or transcripts. There are plenty of books and courses you can purchase to help you write ‘the perfect essay,’ but in the end, the essay should be something that speaks to the depth of your soul, and conveys the most vibrant and human shred of who you are to the admissions officers. Overcoming hardship, personal growth, and gratitude are common themes in most personal essays, so take a moment to think about instances in your life that you might be able to repurpose into an essay topic.
A lot of graduating seniors have criticized the process as desensitizing, and in all honesty, it somewhat is. A lot of applicants feel pressured to revisit their own trauma as essay material, and here is where you should draw the line: If it is causing you emotional discomfort or pain, and you do not feel comfortable baring yourself to an AO, do not share it. This process was never made to hurt you (although admittedly it does, in many ways). If you feel like sharing a story, share it. If it’s too painful, then don’t. I’ve read plenty of essays that have nothing to do with trauma and instead focus on the happiest or proudest moments of people’s lives. Those essays turn out equally well.
There are many resources available to you for writing the perfect essay, but below I have compiled some essay tips (by category!) in order to consolidate my strongest pieces of advice:
❧ TIMING (+ procrastinating)
I truly feel as though this is the advice that every senior gives, but no junior listens to. The funny thing is, this might be the most important piece of advice regarding the entire application process:
DON’T PROCRASTINATE! START EARLY!
Alright, my friend, time for some tough love. If you don’t start your essays early – you’re screwed. No, seriously. It is not worth the mental and physical stress to procrastinate on your essays and wait until the deadline. This is not the type of thing where you work well under pressure! I don’t care how well-adapted you think you are to writing in a timed setting, you will not produce a solid final essay without dozens of hours of writing and revision! (I know that sounds intimidating, but if you space it out over August through October, you will be fine.)
Start in early August. The Common App comes out in August, but the last prompt, as I mentioned previously, is always a ‘freewrite.’ You should have a solid, usable draft going into your first senior day in September. It may not be the best, but you should be able to submit it and feel alright about it.
Most English classes here at Ridge provide in-class opportunities to work on your essay and conference with teachers. Anecdotally, many of my peers ended up writing different essays for the in-class assignment, but I ended up gaining extremely valuable feedback on my essay that helped me solidify the overall theme and direction of the piece. Take at least thirty minutes every day to revise your essay. It will add up in the long run, and as you get closer and closer to the final product, you will be more motivated to finish it.
The word limit can be troublesome, and you may feel as though you can’t trim any more from your essay without detracting from its substance, but trust me – you can! You just need time to do it. I sometimes spent thirty minutes on my essay just to delete two words. That’s okay – it’s all part of the process. Take it one day at a time, and give your essay some love and attention every day.
Doubtlessly, this is one of the most trying areas of writing your essay. You may find additional resources in the form of books, virtual seminars, etc., but below I have linked some A2C posts that I find incredibly helpful to the overall process. (It may be overwhelming, so only look if you have not started your essay yet.) If any of the schools you are applying to publishes essays “that worked,” take a look at those for inspiration (for example, Johns Hopkins publishes successful essays year by year). Keep in mind that you do not know whether those essays were the main factors that got students into the school – but your personal essay is one of your biggest opportunities to establish and humanize yourself beyond the rest of your application.
A2C Posts + Resources
- Hack the College Essay – This PDF has great tips if you haven’t started writing yet!
- Masterpost of Common App Resources! : r/ApplyingToCollege – This post has links to almost all of the other Reddit Common App essay posts that I could find! I highly recommend it.
- The worst essays you can write : r/ApplyingToCollege – Besides being hilarious, this post is painfully true. Please don’t write any of these essays. (Look to the comments for more examples.)
As a final reminder: Don’t assume that a specific essay got someone into a specific college. The essay, while important, is only one aspect of your application. You can’t know whether someone got into a college “based” on their essay. If anything, maybe their essay was trash and the AO just really liked their GPA and academic courseload. Just don’t assume anything. When it comes to applications, assumptions are dangerous!
❧ PEER/FAMILY REVIEWS
You will hear mixed advice from family, friends, teachers, and mentors regarding your essay. Just know that you don’t have to accommodate everyone’s feedback – trust me, everyone and their mom will have an opinion on your essay. The most important thing is that you write something that speaks to who you are, something that feels like an echo of your soul. I know that sounds dramatic, but you’ll know it when you write it.
That being said, most of the people in your life will, more than likely, be happy to review your essay! Don’t hesitate to get a variety of opinions. If you hear a common theme in their feedback, whether it be positive or negative, strongly consider incorporating it into your essay. Don’t hesitate to take your essay to your guidance counselor as well; they’ve likely read many essays over the years, and are primed to give you the most effective feedback!
❧ COALITION (honestly why)
The only thing you really need to worry about for schools that use the Coalition App (which is way too obscure to keep existing at this point) is trimming your essay. I believe the word limit for the Coalition essay is 550 words, whereas for the Common App it’s 650 words. The only school I applied to that exclusively used Coalition was Rutgers, which I considered a strong safety, so I didn’t feel the need to go in with a fine-tooth comb and really polish my 550-word essay (though it wasn’t bad by any standard). Just be careful and keep it in mind if you do end up applying to a school through the Coalition App.
3 │ letters of recommendation
Let me start off by saying this: not all teachers who write you letters of recommendation will have stellar things to say. This is rare, but it does happen. I won’t link it here, but there are plenty of anecdotes to be found on Reddit and elsewhere.
That being said, find teachers with whom you’ve developed a true personal connection! You want a glowing recc letter that genuinely lifts you up in the eyes of AOs, not bland clipped paragraphs that have probably gone through a recc letter decompressor for all of the kids that your recommender has written for. Invest in developing deep relationships with your teachers and mentors; this is a great thing to do beyond college apps and recc letters in general. You want your recommender to be someone who knows you beyond simply being a student. Have you attended their office hours? Have you ever had a purely recreational conversation with them? If the answer to either of these questions is no, maybe reconsider your choice of recommender.
There is something of a timeline when it comes to recc letters, which I’ve detailed below, but as always – try and start early!
❧ END OF JUNIOR YEAR
Start thinking about who you’d like to ask! I ended up asking my recommenders super early (in March) and I had no problems going from there, except for some issues getting a letter to Penn State (since one of my recommenders had moved to a different school after my junior year). Other people approached their recommenders into the early summer and beginning of senior year. My advice is to confirm your recommenders by the end of junior year, at the latest, because you want your recommenders to write your letters while you’re still fresh in their mind.
It’s not wise to take your chances with getting a recommendation during senior year, because one of two things can happen: Your junior year teachers may not remember you as well, or your senior year teachers simply won’t know you well enough to write you a letter. Confirm your recommenders sooner rather than later, and provide them with any information they may request. Compiling a ‘brag sheet’ of your talents and propensities, especially in their class, will be of great help to both you and your recommender.
**IMPORTANT: More letters of recommendation does not necessarily mean better! Most colleges have a limit for letters that they accept, the minimum I’ve seen being 2 and the maximum 4. Additionally, you don’t want your AO to waste time reading recc letters that say essentially the same thing and lose time to review the rest of your application.
❧ BEGINNING OF SENIOR YEAR
Now is a great time to check in with your recommenders! They typically ask for a deadline for writing the letter, which I provided as June/July just to make sure I had enough time to iron out any issues before application season. Many high schools, Ridge included, use Naviance, which is an online college portal that will help you track your letters of recommendation. Make it a priority to meet with your guidance counselor and recommenders to check on your recc letters’ progress – don’t wait until the last minute for this confirmation. Additionally, make sure you’re able to send your letters of recommendation off to your colleges without issue. I ran into repeated problems getting my recc letters to Penn State, and it took about a week of combined effort from myself, my recommenders and their admissions office to actually receive the letters.
Once you complete the Common App (which we will get into in the next chapter), you will be asked to sign off on a FERPA waiver. This essentially waives your rights to view, discuss or alter your letters of recommendation. This is very important: SIGN OFF ON THE WAIVER! If you don’t, admissions committees will likely question whether you tampered with the recc letters. There is absolutely no point in giving them that doubt. It reflects poorly on your character, and your recommenders should (given you requested the right ones) be writing good things about you anyway.
❧ WINTER + 2nd SEMESTER OF SENIOR YEAR
You should be all set with your recc letters, but if you do end up getting deferred or waitlisted at a school (the details of which are for another chapter), consider requesting another teacher or close mentor for an additional letter of recommendation. This can really enhance your application for consideration if you are truly invested in attending the school. Most schools will not consider waitlisted applicants who do not demonstrate extended interest, so this is a great way to reaffirm your interest in the school.
4 │ the common app
This will be a relatively brief section with a set of pointers, but the Common App profile is essentially a huge dossier on you. It has all of your ethnic, racial, and demographic information, your Social Security number, details on your education, your passions, your hobbies, your family – essentially, everything there is to know about you. (I imagine the FBI have a similar profile of you sitting somewhere on a shelf.)
Again, the greatest piece of advice I can give you is this: START EARLY! The Common App profile takes several hours to complete, but give yourself more time to fill it out in case you need to retrieve any important documents for your reference (SS number, birth certificate, etc.).
Below I’ve listed some advice based on my own experience, including technical difficulties and whether you should or should not include certain information in your profile:
- If you have completed a section, it will show up with a green checkmark. If that checkmark isn’t there, you haven’t completed something. It sometimes took me dozens of minutes to find what wasn’t complete, but there was always something. If you’re certain you’ve completed everything and it’s still not showing up correctly, consider contacting Common App’s tech support.
- Include only your most important extracurriculars in your activities section, and likewise, do not simply add filler activities! Colleges will be able to tell what you are and are not passionate about. There is no point in fluffing things up to fill 10 boxes.
- National Merit and other honors are worth including in the honors section, no matter how “common” or “unimpressive” you may think they are. Many applicants with subpar honors have gotten into great schools. The important point is that you don’t mistakenly cheat yourself out of an extra boost to your application.
- Reach out to your guidance counselor to acquire all information regarding GPA, class size, and grade-related stats. The Ridge guidance office publishes detailed information on this every year on the Ridge website, so be sure to use it when filling out your Common App!
- Do not write any essays/information directly into the Common App! Always type it out on a separate document. You can and will lose information that is not kept in another place. (I can’t emphasize this enough!!)
- Finally, and most importantly of all: Do not fabricate information. A.k.a., don’t lie or make things up on your application. I’ve heard many stories about kids getting their admissions offers rescinded for lying on their applications. Not only that, it’s likely that that college will share that information wherever else you applied, so let me tell you now: It’s not worth it. Sure, have kids gotten into college by lying? Yes. But they stole seats from deserving applicants much like yourself. Play this game fairly. If you don’t, the consequences are disastrous, and frankly, you’d be a crappy person. Again: Don’t be that person. Yes, you can fluff yourself up on your resume to make your activity sound more formal. But at the end of the day, all of it should be objective fact.
5 │ choosing schools
This is definitely going to be one of the more tedious sections, but at the end of the day, it’s also the most important. I want to also preface this section by telling it to you straight: I am no expert, and this is obviously not all of the information you will reference throughout your college search. However, I will be offering what I think is my best insight on this process, and I will try to make it as brief and concise as possible
❧ STARTING YOUR SEARCH
Many people start off with what they’ve heard most of; Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Cornell, MIT. Maybe even Stanford? Or Harvard? You could maybe possibly potentially get in, right?
I’m not going to tell you that it’s impossible, because it’s not. However, you have to recognize where your strengths lie and acknowledge that these colleges are extremely selective. In my application cycle alone, all of the above schools had acceptance rates below 5%. Yes, it’s that ridiculous at this point. So you need to be realistic about creating a college list that is well-balanced and actually suits your interests.
Think about what you want to major in, or what passions you’d like to pursue in college. State flagship schools are always great places to start—my safeties were TCNJ, Rutgers, and Penn State, all of which were state schools. I mainly chose those three over other state schools because they were in-state or very close to home, which was a priority for me. In addition, they had strong programs in my area of interest. Think about whether you’d want to be closer to or farther from home, and look into colleges in that area.
If you do apply to a state school, strongly consider applying to the honors college. It has vastly different resources and academic rigor as compared to the normal college, and often will give you a lot of aid. Some schools also have special programs; for example, TCNJ has a well-renowned 7-year program for both medicine and nursing. Consider applying to these as well if you can. Remember, though, most of these selective programs and honors colleges have earlier deadlines, typically in November or even as early as late October.
Look into liberal arts colleges (LACs) if you’re more interested in humanities and smaller school environments. Consider the cities and resources in close proximity to your college, whether you like the campus or not, and whether you could see yourself living and studying there for the next four years of your life.
❧ WHERE TO LOOK
A small list of (some but not all) helpful resources for your college search:
- BigFuture (CollegeBoard)
- College websites
- College information sessions/tours
**These sites will give you information on anything from annual student tuition to the average GPA of the freshman class.
❧ CONSIDER THE ENVIRONMENT
More than anything, FIT IS IMPORTANT. Let me repeat this for the one kid in the back who is applying to all the Ivies only because they’re Ivies: FIT IS IMPORTANT!!! I can’t emphasize this enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to the top-ranked college on the U.S. News list (screw that list by the way); none of that means shize if you don’t end up liking it. Rankings are too arbitrary, random, and rigged of a system to base the next four years of your life on.
Ask yourself these questions: Do you like the city or not? Would you be more comfortable in a smaller or larger campus? Do you like party culture? Are you interested in joining a frat or sorority house? What sort of dining options will be available to you on- and off-campus? What type of weather do you prefer? Does this college have a good program for your major? How many graduates place in their field after graduation? Are you interested in doing research? Do you want to attend a college that is more “laidback”? Do you thrive in competitive, cutthroat environments? Do you want to attend college close to home or not?
Colleges can tell when you really like them, and when you really don’t. (It shows in your supplements, to be honest.) You have to consider whether the college is a good fit for you, and whether you’d be a good fit for them. They base a lot of their acceptances on that. Sure, Applicant A might have god-tier standardized testing scores and a based GPA, but if Applicant B expresses connections to the college and its programs, as well as expresses compatible values through their essays, guess who’s getting in? Applicant B, simple as that. Don’t try to fake liking a college—not even your safeties, which you should like for a different reason too, but we’ll get into that later. You could be perfectly happy at X State University and downright miserable at Harvard. It’s happened before (look no further than throwaway Harvard accounts on Reddit).
Choose what will truly make you happy, because that is what matters!
❧ WHAT DO YOU WANT TO STUDY?
Schools are ranked incredibly differently for different programs and majors, so make sure you consider your chosen major when choosing where to apply!
For example, we might think of the Ivies and places like Stanford, MIT, and Duke as top places of study. Yes, they are—but did you know that Carnegie Mellon ranks highest for computer science? Or that UC Berkeley pulls in at #3 for best engineering schools?
Choose colleges that have the best programs for your major. In the end, this will be one of the largest factors to consider in your college search. Be careful, however; just because a school is ranked highly for a specific major, that doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for you. Take Johns Hopkins, for example, where I was rejected last fall. I cried then, but now I’m able to see the silver lining of that rejection. Besides Baltimore being extremely sketchy (I’m sorry Baltimore), over 60% of the kids at JHU are premed majors. This means incredible competition for research, internships, and other opportunities and positions, as well as an extremely cutthroat environment.
TLDR; While you should choose a school that’s good for your major, be careful to examine fit as well. It will be incredibly stress-relieving to interact with peers who aren’t in your major, and subsequently people you won’t feel as competitive or stressed with.
❧ SAFETIES, TARGETS, REACHES—HOW MANY?
A2C has too many memes about kids applying to 1 safety and 19 reaches. Yes, it’s funny, but you don’t want to be that kid. No, really, you don’t.
Your college list needs to be, first and foremost, balanced, as all things should be. (Repetitive, but I couldn’t resist the Thanos meme since we’re already on the topic.) Have a good amount of safeties, targets, and reaches. I’d say the golden ratio is something like 1:2:1 for safeties, targets, and reaches respectively. If you have 3 safeties, for example, make sure to have 4-6 matches, and 2-3 reaches. Don’t cheat yourself out of applying to elite universities if you truly believe you have a shot; just don’t delude yourself with the idea that if you apply to all twenty of the T20s, you’ll get into one. (People have done that and gotten rejections from all of their schools. Talk about nightmarish.)
Application cycles can be absolutely crazy. This year, I applied to 9 schools—on the lower side, yes, but I wasn’t going to apply to schools I had little to no interest in. I got into all 3 of my safeties, with a scholarship from TCNJ, and was rejected from all 2 of my target schools. Yes, hypocritical regarding what I said about the golden ratio, but some of the schools classified as “reaches” on my list were very low reaches in terms of my stats and other information—I classified them as reaches, though, due to their selectivity. (And before you say I sound pretentious, I apologize in advance. But these nuances are good things to consider in your list, as long as you don’t demote high reaches to easy targets.)
I ended up getting into 1 out of 4 of my reaches, and waitlisted at my dream school, Swarthmore. I received all three of those rejections first, so I was positive I wasn’t going to get into my final reach. But I did, in the craziest twist of fate. More on that in my final reflection later, but my point is this: while my cycle pulled through, it was unexpected and harsh in many ways. I cried for hours upon getting waitlisted at Swarthmore. (More on why you shouldn’t fall in love with any school in our next section.) But getting into one of my reaches—which so happened to be my second favorite school—made me happier than I can express.
One of my fellow incoming freshmen at this reach told me about how he only applied to elite universities and one safety. Yes, he was that guy from the example. Want to guess what happened?
He got rejected from all of those reaches, except for the one he and I are now attending. It was about to be very bad for him, especially as he didn’t even like the safety he got into. The point is, don’t make his mistake. Your future is too precious to be wagered on an overinflated ego and a nearly random admissions process.
❧ KEEP IN MIND!
To wrap up this section, here’s a few tips and reiterations to keep you in the right headspace, some of which will be expounded upon in the next section:
- Love your safeties!
- Use the golden ratio of 1:2:1 for safeties, targets, and reaches.
- Don’t get hung up on Ivies/T20s/Ivy+—it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health!!
- No one likes prestige chasers… so consider that if you want to go to a specific college just to name drop it at dinner twenty-five years later. (*cough* Harvard *cough*)
- Put in the time and effort to research. It’ll show.
- Take all aspects of fit into consideration when making your choice. There will be a fair share of pros and cons per college, but it’s up to you which ones carry more weight.
- Did I already say love your safeties?
- Love! Your! Safeties!
Finally: You are not too good for any school, and no school is too good for you. It’s a two-way street. Don’t be cocky, but don’t undersell yourself, either.
6 │ mental health + healthy mindset
Let me start off with this: There is proof out there to substantiate everything I’m about to tell you. I will include some of that evidence, and omit others. Why? Senioritis. But also because I want to deliver the heart of this section to you without doing myself in with citations.
This cycle has the capacity to break you, in every sense. College applications are a daunting time. Your whole high school career has led up to this. You’re still functioning under the mindset that where you go will define you. You think that your merit will open every door for you, regardless of luck or not.
Let’s stop right there. Take a step back. Breathe.
I’m going to break this down into sections, each to debunk a specific college application myth and give you a timeline for dealing with applications. Again, there are sources out there to prove this, but I need you to keep this in mind: Your college does not determine your worth. One more time, for the people in the back.
Your college does not determine your worth.
People who invest in the mindset that it does are not only heavily disillusioned, but sorely mistaken. You can succeed anywhere. You are the make or break factor in all of this, not your college. And that’s just a fact. Remember it!
❧ THE FIRST ACCEPTANCE
Your first acceptance is always the most relieving. Phew, you are going to college. You have a failsafe in case anything goes wrong, whether it’s one of your top choices or not.
This first acceptance does wonders for your peace of mind, so I highly encourage you to apply Early Action (EA) to all schools that offer it. Once you know you have somewhere to go, the rest of the cycle will become significantly less stressful. My first acceptance was from TCNJ with a Presidential Scholarship, so I was more than relieved. If your safeties come out first, there’s a high chance you will get a scholarship or some other sort of merit aid.
❧ THE PRESTIGE GAME—T20’s, IVIES, AND MORE
Maybe you’re gunning for the big leagues, taking your chances with some of the most selective colleges in the country. That’s great! Take your shot. But don’t get hung up on them—for a lot of reasons.
T20’s are overrated. There, I said it. They’re great schools, yes, but so are the other schools you’ll be applying to. Yes, they have top facilities and financial aid, but the name-drop isn’t going to serve you much except to annoy/impress (or both) future dinner party guests. Most other schools have education and facilities that will serve you equally well. And the environment at T20’s may not be for you. You will have your share of rich, conceited kids there, as well as an elitist culture that, besides being extremely tiring, is telling of the kids who participate in it. (Did I mention that not everybody at a T20 is not an a-hole? Admissions officers aren’t all-knowing by any measure.)
While we’re at it, U.S. News sucks. Yeah, I said that too. It may be tempting to base your perceptions of different colleges on arbitrary rankings, but consider this: those rankings haven’t changed in years, despite the massive renovations and improvements occurring in colleges across the country, and there is most certainly under-the-table stuff going on to keep certain schools up in the ranks. Don’t be miffed by clueless adults using the site to justify or demerit your colleges. Also, the rankings are exactly that: arbitrary. Once you learn to stop buying into them, the happier you’ll be. Chances are, if you choose a college that is less prestigious but fits you much better, you’ll be happier and more satisfied/motivated than the kid who chose Columbia just because it was “famous.”
You also have to realize that in the long run, it’s not going to matter. There are countless studies showing that employers consider an applicant’s attended college as significantly less important than their demonstrated achievements. When you go on to start a successful business, practice, or career, barely anyone is going to know (or care) where you attended college. What matters is fit for you, and whether you love where you’re going. Don’t blow your happiness on an institution or on the opinions of people that just won’t care four years from now. This is just a stepping stone for your future.
And screw what adults think. They have little to no idea what the college admissions process is like these days, from the extreme selectivity to near-random success. I have had infuriating encounters with people like this before, and let me make this loud and clear: Their opinions have nothing to do with you. They are misled, and often insecure. The more you focus on YOU, the happier you’ll be.
Blame the media for name-drop prestige. Do you ever hear kids in movies going to Rutgers University or the University of Virginia? No. Even though these are amazing colleges by all standards, there’s a formulaic and rather tiring set of colleges that is always in the screenwriting arsenal: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth, UPenn, you get it. The Ivies, the Ivy+ League, the whole deal. (Remember when Elle Evans got into Harvard and UC Berkeley? Yeah, we’re basically living in a fever dream now.) I can’t explain how frustrating and honestly stupid this is. The fact is, people have heard more about these colleges, so movies name drop them to feel “relatable” (though I’m not sure what exactly is relatable about getting into Harvard). The vicious cycle continues, and we are consequently left with a gross media underrepresentation of the vast majority of good schools in the country.
Your personal worth has nothing to do with it. Let me elaborate: a Harvard AO once admitted that 85% of the applicants in a previous cycle (within the past 10 years) were qualified to get in. But they didn’t. Why? Fit, demonstrated need, pure luck. It’s not up to you, in the end. You won’t ever know why you got accepted or rejected.
You think a single 650-word essay can sum up your entire being to an AO? Heck no. And you shouldn’t expect it to. Go into college with the mindset that that college who rejected you would be lucky to have you. They missed out, big-time. Not only that, but A2C can help you quite a bit with this: Make a post titled “Why X College is terrible,” and you’ll get plenty of great (and valid!) responses. It helps to ease the sting of rejection, while also showing you that no college is perfect.
I’d say something like 50% of applicants to T20s are qualified to get in. I like to remember something that plenty of top school AOs reference, time and time again: They could throw out the whole accepted class, and make an equally good one out of the rejected applicants. They could do that once. Or twice. Or thrice, probably. The point is, you have no idea what went on in that admissions room. Maybe someone got a bitter coffee by accident that day, or reviewed your application right before their lunch break. It’s just not up to you. And while that may suck, it should reaffirm your own belief in yourself. (And if you ever feel bad about it, just remember that you are far more accomplished than these AOs have been or will ever be. Sorry AOs, I don’t make the rules.)
They’re also expensive as all hell. Unless you’re filthy rich or extremely poor, chances are you won’t get a whole lot of aid, unless you have extenuating circumstances (e.g. deceased parents, divorced parents, etc.). It’s not worth it being mired in debt once you graduate. You have to live your life, not sell it to attend an overrated institution for what will eventually be a blip in your entire lifespan.
Also worthy of mentioning, plenty of people don’t get in by merit. It sucks, I know. (Varsity Blues scandal, anyone?) I spoke over the phone with someone who’s a current student at the university I’ll be attending this fall, and she admitted that only something like 50% of the students there were probably admitted by merit. To give you a rough estimate of the other 50%, it’s about 20% legacies, 20% athletes, and 10% straight-up adolescent millionaires. People pull a lot of strings to get their kids into top schools. The point is, while those kids may not have the skillset to have gotten in by themselves, you do. And that’ll serve you much more than anything else. Studies have shown time and time again that intelligence is not the main factor in success; perseverance is.
T20 does not automatically equal success. Look no further than Reddit for proof of this, and the infographic linked here: Where each US House Member received their undergraduate degree
Perhaps the most underrated factor of all can be the most detrimental: Imposter Syndrome. Don’t underestimate it. Plenty of people have had their college experiences ruined by cutthroat environments, a constant game to determine who’s better, smarter, or more qualified, and simply being surrounded by peers they perceive as richer, prettier, and having more assets. (See Ivy/Ivy+ throwaway accounts on Reddit for more on this.) It’s a real thing, and most students attending “top” institutions feel it intensely, even if they may not show it. It’s difficult to feel like you don’t belong, especially in a place you may have been initially so happy to get into.
Finally, fate always has its plan. Things happen. All sorts of shize hits the fan. Trust that wherever you end up, you will get where you need to go. Fate has a funny tendency to work out that way. And if you don’t believe in fate, just know that you will get opportunities at your chosen college that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. Sure, the same goes for colleges that you may not be attending, but you are on this road now. There is no going back. Your success is worthy of celebration, and you should take the time to savor the full extent of that.
❧ LOVE YOUR SAFETIES!
I touched on this briefly in the last section, but this is so, so important: Apply only to safeties that you love, and that you’d be perfectly content with attending. Many people assume that they won’t end up attending their safeties, but the admissions process is just too unpredictable. If you do end up there, be humble about it; your safety could be someone else’s dream school. Either way, people’s safeties are often much better than they give them credit for, so invest in finding schools with higher acceptance rates that fit you.
Again, this may be a short section, but I can’t stress this enough: LOVE YOUR SAFETIES!!!
❧ DON’T FALL IN LOVE WITH ANY SCHOOL!
It’s tempting, I know. The feeling is amazing—you love this school, you belong at this school, you just have to get in.
Let me step in and stop you right there.
Loving a school is a dangerous thing, and I only give you permission to do it at one time and one time only—after you’ve already gotten in. Much like breaking off an actual relationship, falling in love with a specific school and getting rejected from it will only end in heartbreak. Believe me, I know. Getting waitlisted from Swarthmore sent me spiraling into a depressive hole and crying my eyes out for hours. It’s not worth the pain to invest in a school you may not even get into.
I am, unfortunately, still lovesick for Swarthmore, but I am extremely excited to attend my chosen university in the fall, so I am okay. But you may not be. Don’t make my mistake—don’t fall into the linear thinking that loving = getting. It doesn’t. Only when you have an actual offer should you truly throw yourself into the campus, school spirit, and everything else.
❧ WHAT IF?
If you desperately want to apply somewhere, knowing you probably won’t get in but really wanting to nevertheless, here’s my advice: Do it. It’s not worth it to have any regrets about this process. Who knows, you may even get in. (Crazier things have happened.)
In my experience, I applied to Princeton knowing that I wasn’t going to get in (they typically only accept 1 student per year from my school, and of the two kids that got in, one was a triple-legacy ED admit. Yeah, based stats be damned.) But even though I got rejected, I’m still happy I applied. It gives me an incredible peace of mind, and I highly encourage you to apply to one or two colleges you really want to regardless of their high reach status. It’s better to get rejected than be left wondering What if? for the rest of your life. (Also, not to be a broken record of the Marvel show.)
Again, apply if you really want to, but I also don’t advise shotgunning every T20 just because What if? Trust me, you could be spending those application fees on something much nicer. New shoes, movie tickets. Spend it to enjoy your life instead of feeding the tyrannical money-mongering overlord that is College Board. Here’s a good song to get you in the mood of that: OneRepublic – I Ain’t Worried (From “Top Gun: Maverick”) [Official Music Video] (It’s a great summer vibe in general. I may be biased because I like the movie too much, but it’s a great feel-good song too.)
❧ FINAL WORD OF ADVICE…
College applications are stressful. They’re tedious. They’re exacting. Your head will be cluttered with ideas for meta essays and the tiny details of GPA, SAT, ACT, what have you. But if there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s this:
College is just one phase of your life, and it, too, will pass.
This process doesn’t have to break you. Heck, it doesn’t have to be anything. You could apply to three schools and be perfectly fine. You could apply to twenty and have a meltdown. Like your college career and the successes and failures you will face in future, it all comes down to one thing: you.
Take your time. Spend an hour a day working on applications, or at least half an hour. Go outside. Touch some grass. Smell the flowers. (Or the snow. Actually, scratch that, don’t smell the snow.) Pet your bunny. Hug your dog. Play with your cat. Or read a book. Watch a movie. Take a hot shower. Journal whatever comes to mind. Listen to some music. (It doesn’t have to be I Ain’t Worried, though you’d make me happy if it is.) Wear a fluffy bathrobe. Play some video games. Spend time with your brother or sister or mom or dad or grandparent(s). Do something for you, and realize that what really matters in life is right in front of you. The rest of this is secondary.
7 │ supplementals & beyond
You’ve finished your personal essay, and oof, now for an especially daunting part: the supplementals. Here are some of the top tricks and tips I have for you to make this process easier:
- RECYCLE YOUR ESSAYS! Keep them in a folder in your Drive, and reuse them. Trust me, you will be able to. There’s no point in wasting extra hours of your life in creating entirely original supplements for each application. (Go audition for the American Psycho remake if you have that kind of time.) Caltech isn’t going to know you wrote about your 24×24 Rubik’s cube for your Stanford supplement as well.
- DO YOUR RESEARCH!! Colleges can tell whether you’ve invested time into actually looking into their programs and extracurricular offerings based on your writing. A great way to get a condensed version of their website is to attend a virtual information tour; screenshot any slides you think are useful, and take notes during the presentation. Trust me, it will be supremely helpful when you’re writing your supplementals. The university I am now attending specifically included a paragraph appreciating my expressed connection to my major and its related programs in an email regarding further opportunities once I had enrolled. (It might have been generic, but that only further stresses the importance of being thorough with your research!) College websites are also a great place to look.
- BE FORMAL, BUT NOT TOO FORMAL. You don’t want to sound like William James in a psychology textbook, but you also don’t want to be pouring out your life story like a rambling ten-year-old with no prerequisite for sophistication or grace. Write true to your heart, but also with a clear focus and professionalism. You’re selling an image of yourself to these colleges. Market that image wisely.
- EXPAND UPON YOUR APPLICATION. Tie in interests that are apparent on your application and resume within your essays. Expound upon specific ones that pertain to the topic of the essay. This will allow you to provide depth to your experience and convey the intricacies of your passions.
- TOUCH ON THINGS YOU DIDN’T INCLUDE IN THE REST OF YOUR APP. Supplemental essays can also be a good opportunity to mention circumstances or other details that you didn’t necessarily include elsewhere. Remember, each aspect of your application is meant to provide depth to you as a human being beyond just numbers and letters on a piece of paper.
- MANAGE YOUR TIME! Supplements are a lot more time-consuming than people give them credit for. Start early, and most importantly, be organized about your work!
- FINALLY: Same as with the personal essay, keep your supplements in Google documents. Do not type them directly into the provided boxes on the application. You can and will lose them!
8 │ scholarships
There is only one major piece of advice I have to give you for scholarships and it is this:
Treat them like Pokémon.
What the heck do I mean by that?
You’ve got to catch—or in this case, apply to—them all!
You will qualify for dozens of scholarships that you probably don’t even know about. Use Naviance, the College Board scholarship search feature, and trusted external websites linked through Naviance. (I advise against using others; at best, they will be a waste of your time, and at worst, they will be a scam.)
Whether or not you shotgun your applications, you should most definitely shotgun scholarship applications. Yes, it’ll be somewhat time-consuming, but there are plenty of no-essay scholarships. Do whatever you can. In the end, the more money you receive, the more money you can put towards college, whether it’s a sizable amount or only a drop in the ocean.
9 │ financial aid
Financial aid policies differ by college, but in general, top schools generally give more generous need-based aid (being that they have a crap ton more money to spend). There are two main forms, though, that you should be filling out: the FAFSA, and the CSS Profile. The former will qualify you for federal loans, while the latter will qualify you for need-based aid and grants. If you have any questions or concerns regarding either, reach out to your guidance counselor or the corresponding financial aid office at your chosen college. It never hurts to be proactive.
If you apply ED to an expensive school and get in with less offered need than you expected, you can extend your enrollment date to seek out other more financially feasible options. DO NOT withdraw your RD applications if you find yourself in this situation. However, if you’ve gotten into a school ED and have no issues with the offered aid, withdraw your RD applications! I can’t stress the importance of this. Kids have gotten their ED admissions rescinded when their colleges found out that their other applications were still active.
Beyond financial aid itself, you will likely benefit by working part-time jobs before and during college. Make plans if you need to take out loans, and make sure to pay them off aggressively in the first few years post-college.
If you feel as though you deserve more aid, it never hurts to appeal to the financial aid office for more aid, given you have good reasons for doing so. The worst they can say is no—don’t cheat yourself out of extra aid just because you weren’t bold enough to ask!
10 │ deferrals & waitlists
Deferrals occur during ED application rounds, where your application is scheduled to be reviewed once more during RD application rounds. Waitlists occur during RD rounds, where your application will be reconsidered after May 1st. At that point, the college can evaluate how many accepted students have actually enrolled, and whether they have space for further admissions. Keep in mind, colleges accept more students than they can actually enroll. This is to account for sub-100% yield rates, and results in few to sometimes no waitlisted students accepted off the waitlist.
If you do receive a deferral or a waitlist: Take a deep breath.
Yes, it is massively disappointing, not to mention disheartening. I was waitlisted at my dream school, so I understand how you’re feeling. I cried for several hours and fell into a depressed state for about two days. But more importantly, I was able to take that energy and be more proactive about my application. There are a few first steps all waitlisted/deferred applicants should take, but before that, I want to emphasize this:
Demonstrated interest is important!
One more time, for the people in the back: DEMONSTRATED INTEREST IS IMPORTANT!!
Colleges often do not consider waitlisted applicants that have not shown further interest in the college. Cornell University has openly admitted to this, and many colleges have admission policies that depend heavily on demonstrated interest. (Before receiving any decisions, you should still email your schools with updates on awards, accomplishments, and your continued interest in the college. It goes a long way.)
Firstly, indicate in your college portal that you’d like to stay on their waitlist. Then, look into emailing them with any updates that you have added to your resume. Consider visiting the school if you haven’t already—it will be added to your record—and keep reaching out. Don’t hesitate to leverage any connections if you have any—in my case, one of my mother’s patient’s sons was a Swarthmore alumnus that had connections to the admissions board, and he agreed to put in a good word on my behalf. When it comes to something as big as college, every action counts. (And I’m saying this just in case… but no, you should not be bribing or lying to anyone! Be honest and have integrity about this process.)
In my case, I scheduled a visit to Swarthmore, updated them several times, attended an additional information session with an admissions dean, made several connections with on-campus staff, and acquired an additional letter of recommendation from a longtime writing mentor of mine. (If the college accepts it, another glowing recc letter can help push the odds in your favor.)
In general, you will have less time to be sad if you are actively demonstrating interest and making a point to stand out amongst the other waitlisted applicants. Yes, acceptance rates from the waitlist are quite low, but if you give your best, I promise that it will be worth it. Half of waitlisted applicants opt to be taken off the list, and a vast majority of them do not follow up in any way. Even if you do not get into the college off their waitlist, you can rest easy knowing you gave your best.
Sometimes, colleges accept an incredibly meager number of students off their waitlist. Sometimes, they accept none at all. (Swarthmore’s class of 2026 was so over-enrolled that they closed their waitlist mid-May, which is extremely rare in terms of college admissions.) The point is, again, these logistics do not define you. Waitlists or deferrals can seem torturous, but it tells you for a fact that you did qualify for the college and were only waitlisted/deferred due to limited space in the class. If the college accepts you off the waitlist, that’s amazing! If they don’t, it’s their loss. They recognize that you could have been a valuable member of their class, but now you are off to bigger and better things without them. Trust that you will end up where you need to be. And that’s not just sentimental BS—in many cases, it turns out to be true.
11 │ committing
Whew, now you have all (if not most) of your college decisions back! The most difficult part of the process is over; but you still have to commit! When choosing where to enroll, there are several important factors to consider:
❧ FINANCIAL AID / AFFORDABILITY
This is one of the most important factors—if not the most important factor—to consider. The affordability of your education can make the difference between graduating financially secure or drowning in debt. (Those of you going to med school like me… we’ll be in debt either way, so this is even more important!)
If you’ve received a significant scholarship or amount of financial aid from a specific school, give them strong consideration. That money isn’t given lightly, and you should take it very seriously. Asides from alleviating financial burden on both you and your parents, you will make a better investment in your future (unless a different college offers something specific that you cannot find elsewhere). If your parents are financially stable enough to be more flexible with your college options, then that’s great. However, keep in mind that college is an investment, and you may have to spend anywhere from several to a dozen years paying for it. Again, make sure to look into as many scholarships as possible. Anything from $100 to $10,000 is worth applying for! Reach out to your counselor or the college’s financial aid office if you have additional questions or concerns.
You likely took this into account when applying, but now that you have several options, it’s important to examine your interests again. What type of climate/geographical location are you most eager to spend the next four years in? Would you prefer to be closer to home, or farther? What types of opportunities will you have in the town/city/areas surrounding your college? You may find that you don’t want to spend an extra few hundred dollars flying to and from home, or that you’d much rather prefer to go to school in sunny California than frigid upstate New York. (*cough* Ithaca… *cough*)
❧ HOW’S YOUR MAJOR PROGRAM, COMPARATIVELY?
The college matters, yes, but people often tend to underrate the major program, which will have a very strong influence on your overall college experience. You also want to look into which college has more renowned/advanced programs, and if you’re looking to go to graduate school, make sure to check admissions rates per program/subschool in the college.
❧ ANECDOTAL INFO
Take this with a grain of salt. The reason I include it is that it can help make the difference between two equally worthy options. Did your sibling or friend have a great experience at a certain college? Are students generally happy there? What sorts of opportunities and/or experiences will be available to you?
Remember, none of these may apply to your experience specifically, but anecdotes may help if you’re still on the fence about one or more colleges.
❧ FINALLY: ARE YOU EXCITED TO ATTEND?
Many people underestimate the power of optimism, but I strongly believe that how you feel about your college can set you on either the right or wrong foot. A lot of people who dislike the college they commit to do end up loving their school, but going into your college experience with a happy and opportunistic mindset is huge for beginning your experience positively.
Are you already feeling the school spirit? Would you be able to press that enroll button without any qualms? Are you simply excited to step foot on campus as a student? If the answer to these questions is yes, you might have a clear choice! This is especially important if the colleges are equally attractive and/or expensive cost-wise.
A few thoughts to finish up this section:
- Do not save committing to your college until the May 1st deadline! You do not want to be screwed in case something goes wrong technically or you have second thoughts.
- Discuss with your parents! Your parents will be your main financial contributors throughout this process, so it’s important they know what they’re paying for unless you’re in an extenuating situation. Additionally, they may have some insights that you may not have considered when making your decision.
- Indicate your enrollment on the form and submit your deposit. Technicalities, yes, but important!
- Buy some merch! Walk into school on May 1st with a healthy dose of school pride. It’s like a facial feedback loop; wearing merch by itself can and will make you more excited to attend. It’s also a fun way to commemorate the whole college application process and how hard you’ve worked through all of this.
Committing is both an exciting and nerve-wracking process, but trust your gut and think over every option carefully. It’s normal to think of the what if’s and have a few lingering regrets, but overall, your excitement and the opportunities/aid you’ll receive should outweigh those regrets.
12 │ words from a fellow senior
I have invited a fellow graduating senior to share her thoughts and insights on the process as well! Without further ado, here is her reflection:
❧ I started the college process in the spring of my sophomore year. It was the peak of quarantine, and there was nothing better to do than go on roadtrips and explore new places. I thought it was too early to begin, but looking back I could not be more grateful that I began to explore at this point. If I were to give my freshman year self a list of the schools I ended up applying to, she wouldn’t think it was real.
I went into the college process thinking I knew what I wanted. I researched all the small liberal arts colleges on the east coast, thinking I could find a hidden gem that would have everything that I wanted. As I began to visit these colleges, however, I realized that I was missing something. It began to dawn on me that despite the picturesque exterior and close-knit community of these smaller colleges, I could not see myself there for the next four years. I felt suffocated.
All of the sudden, my college list transformed from some of the smallest colleges on the east coast to larger city schools all across the country. I knew that if I wanted to feel as though I had made the right choice, I needed to go to a school that made me feel like I was somewhere. This is not a jab at small liberal arts colleges by any means (I think they are easily some of the most beautiful colleges in the world); rather it is proof that the college process can take you in surprising directions. What matters is that you start early and keep an open mind as your choices evolve.
Another vital piece of advice is to make sure you are not limiting yourself. I applied early decision to New York University, thinking I had a better chance of getting in there than I did at my dream school. Fortunately (though I didn’t feel so fortunate at the time), I was rejected. I ended up getting into my dream school a few months later. Had I been accepted to NYU, I never would have known that it was possible to get into the school of my dreams. It may seem like a long shot, but it never hurts to try.
I would be lying if I said the process was easy. There were many nights where I would stress myself out thinking that what I had done throughout my high school career wasn’t enough. However, it worked out for me and it will for you as well. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, just know that you are not alone and you will get through this. And on the positive side, you’re definitely going to be learning a lot about yourself along the way. As a result of all the reflective essays and important decisions, you will gain a much stronger sense of self. This will take you much farther in life than getting into a T20.
Good luck, and happy trails! Also, please make sure to look around and appreciate those beside you. As I prepare to go off to school, I can’t help but think about how much I will miss the people and the places I’m leaving behind. Treasure what you have, and get excited about your next adventure!
A Graduating Senior
13 │ final reflection
I want to reiterate: This is a very condensed version of whatever wisdom I have to give on this process, most of which I have gained through personal experience, extensive research, and A2C. (Shoutout A2C!) I hope this guide has helped, and also that it has eased your nerves about this whole process. College applications aren’t easy by any stretch, but they’re manageable if you take it day by day. (You got this, I believe in you.)
A lot of the resources I’ve linked are very helpful, but there’s plenty of other informational and/or cathartic posts and articles out there. Do your own research too, and remember to be kind to yourself. It’s not your fault the college system is screwed over, and we’re all just playing this game. But someday, your college education will elevate you to higher spheres of learning and achieving. Make the most of it.
I only applied to nine colleges, which I believe is a reasonable number, but I will caution you (as I mentioned before) that people have gotten rejected from all fifteen colleges they applied to. (Value your safeties, people.) Even then, remember, it’s not the end of the world! Plenty of people have gotten where they needed to be without college.
I got accepted to five schools (with a presidential scholarship from one of my favorite schools, TCNJ) and waitlisted at my dream school, Swarthmore. (Yes, I cried copiously.) But I rolled with the punches and got back up. When I found out about my acceptance to the college I have now committed to, I nearly screamed. This cycle wasn’t perfect by any means, but I ended up exactly where I needed to be. In the end, you will only be attending one college, so just one acceptance can make all the difference.
Throughout this whole process, though, I realized that I attached so much of my self-worth to the colleges I got into. It was unhealthy, to say the least, and seriously taxed my mental health. I swung between extreme self-deprecation and overzealous confidence. College admissions is so damn random, and the flipping insane state of admissions these days is not making it any easier or more predictable. In the end, realize that this is just a stepping stone. You’re not going to be at college for the rest of your life. And honestly, people who name drop their colleges for no reason? Fricking lame. If I hear one more Harvard prick brag about where he went for undergrad, I will say, absolutely deadpan, “What the hell is Harvard?” (So should you. You know, for the meme.)(Also Harvard food is notoriously bad, so count yourself lucky.)
It’s hard to do this, I know. But people who hated the colleges they got into have ended up attending and absolutely loving them. I can’t tell you how many of these wonderful stories I’ve read over the past year or so. T-whatever doesn’t mean crap later on in life. You have so much ahead of you. Let me tell you, admissions officers aren’t God when it comes to deciding your worth. I mean, Stanford admitted TheKathPath, so there has got to be something wrong. (I’m sorry, that girl can’t write essays for crap. You can tell I’m running out of minced oaths, can’t you?) The Duke commencement speaker from this year (2022) literally copied a speech from Harvard’s commencement speaker, and got found out. (And it was worse than the Harvard speech.) Bottom line is, college has absolutely nothing to do with who you are. The Unabomber literally went to Harvard. Yes, the guy who went on to domestically terrorize America and literally blow people up. (Good freaking riddance.) A prestigious college does not translate to success. Neither does your IQ or SAT or ACT score. (If you’re flexing it, you are also lame, just an FYI. But don’t worry, you can change.)
I got into an amazing college that I’m thrilled to attend. My mother’s bank account is not as thrilled, of course, but we will get through it, and fortunately, my mom fully financially supports me. I am also planning on appealing for more aid (as should all of you!). As a side note, when I found out about the college’s admit rate for this year, I immediately developed Imposter Syndrome, and that just speaks to how random the process is and how plenty of deserving applicants do get turned away. The number was intimidating. But I have since learned to accept that I deserve to be where I am today; a simple number shouldn’t take away my happiness either.
Gap year students and the overall increasing selectivity of every college screwed us ’26 kids over, to say the least. But either way, I know what I’m going to do this summer: Focus on my happiness, and not let anyone tell me what that should mean. People will harp about Ivy Leagues and MIT and Duke and all these other places. They’re ignorant to the current college culture climate and wouldn’t know better. But in the end, this journey is about you. It’s for you. So rise up and claim your place. Be the big fish in the small pond. No matter where you end up, trust your gut and work hard. The only worst thing you can do is give up.
A Graduating Senior
(P.S. Go listen to this (do it)(and while you’re at it, watch the movie if you haven’t already):