By Isabella Brady
Picking Out Colleges:
- Expenses —is this affordable? Have an honest discussion with your parents, and decide whether or not private, public or state colleges are a financial possibility for you. If not everything is an option then draft your list accordingly (either without those options or with a few to explore the scholarships and FAFSA you qualify for).
- Location (nearby, far away)
- A scale of acceptance rates: Make sure you have safeties, targets and reach schools on your list!
Use fee waivers (it’s basically guaranteed acceptance): essentially, if a school wants you this is their way of telling you. There’s no better way to ensure a safety school than the ones that offer you a free application (if it is not normally free.) Usually they will send you an email enclosing the details.
Apply for free!
With all the additional expenses that come with college application season, I recommend doing some research, there are a lot of colleges offering free applications, for instance Tulane, Reed, Colby and Wellesley (a more comprehensive list is a mere google search away, use it!)
Choose things that you are excited about!
Whether it is classes or extracurricular activities I recommend going for the things that bring you joy. Okay, so maybe writing that DBQ in APUSH isn’t necessarily making you jump up and down, I get it. These are the types of things you should ask yourself before committing to classes and activities: is the content interesting? Am I excited to learn more? Is this something that will always feel like work, or is it intriguing? Does time pass by quickly or slowly? If you are worried about not doing what everyone else is doing then stop and think about it. If your activities are identical to those of your peers it is difficult to stand out. If you’re miserable, it will be difficult to be exceptional or excited about that activity. Rather than thinking “Is this what colleges want to see?” Instead focus on “does this excite me?” When you are writing your activities list or essays colleges can tell when your activities are ones that genuinely interest you. Don’t be afraid to stray from activities/courses that don’t directly relate to your major and don’t be afraid to make admission counselors pause—in a good way! Inventing your own club or a unique interest makes you memorable, which is a good thing when there are thousands of applications being read and limited time to read them.
Be Your Own Advocate!
Another aspect which can bring a lot of uncertainty is if you are the first person in your family to go through the application process. As the oldest of a family whose parents attended community and local state colleges, it can feel like there is a lot of pressure and unknowns surrounding the application process because you have to be your own advocate. I advise taking a deep breath, doing some web searches and talking to your friends who are more versed in the process. The CommonApp and UC portal seemed daunting at first, but all it takes is a few minutes exploring to understand what is being asked of you and how to turn in all the required materials (don’t leave it to the end!). Also, use your school resources! I attended nearly all of the college application workshops hosted by the College and Career Center and these can be immensely helpful.
Feel comfortable with yourself:
When colleges are evaluating your application it is important to not only show them your best self but to also use this time for reflection. After nearly four years you’ve experienced a lot and changed a lot. A huge part of showing your ambitions is taking the time to reflect and know yourself.
Don’t overthink the topic!
Being unique is nice if you are being genuine to yourself. The topics you write about should feel natural and important to you. If not, you’re trying too hard. I spent an inordinate amount of time gauging whether or not my topics were “unique enough” when I should have been focusing on the things I am passionate about. If you choose an extraneous topic that while unique isn’t of huge importance in your life there won’t be much to write about. The UC PIQs that I ultimately selected took me under twenty minutes to write in their initial draft form. When the words flow when you’re writing you know you are on the right track.
That being said, if you choose to write about one of the really common topics (there are lists online for you to reference) try to discuss it outside of the traditional manner. Make unique connections and utilize it to illuminate different parts of your personality. In my case, some examples would be writing about Scouts BSA for the leadership essay, or my journalism class. Both of these are pretty common topics, but it took a lot of brainstorming for me to make it relevant to other parts of my personality and ambitions. If you need more help with this I highly recommend watching College Essay Guy’s videos on YouTube, they have been so helpful throughout my college application process.
Touring colleges (in person) provides a surprising amount of dimension to what would otherwise be an abstract place. Online you can see the professors, faculty, classes, traditions and clubs but in my experience it takes a walk around campus to feel the vibe it emanates. If you like the atmosphere and students attending it might just be the place for you!
After touring a myriad of colleges, I discovered getting in made it feel more real. When I toured UC Berkeley last spring, I told my parents “it’s nice but it’s not going to happen,” and that attitude significantly tainted how I perceived the environment or even the questions (or lack thereof) I asked. While touring, my advice is to have an open mind; it may not be as easy to revisit when the decision deadline is staring you in the face. Don’t put all of your energy into one school, but know yourself and feel confident when you’re walking around campus.
Many people say “I walked around and immediately knew it was for me!” While this is a great feeling, it isn’t accurate to everyone. Myself, I had some top choices I was deciding between and there can be a lot of “what ifs” surrounding the indecision. Realistically, I could see myself in a lot of places, but I didn’t see exactly what gave me this impression. Take a deep breath, and think back to what I discussed earlier; does this option excite you? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take advantage of the admitted students day. Try walking around campus by yourself—just you. Tell your friends you will meet them somewhere across campus and just walk. Admittedly, it may seem strange, but when you choose a school you should decide for yourself. Even a ten minute walk can tell you a lot about whether or not it is a good fit for you. Do you feel safe? Do you see yourself walking to classes this way? Does the campus feel overwhelming or like a vaguely familiar place you are curious to explore? Take a walk. If you applied to different majors, sometimes that major and the community will help you decide where to attend.
Don’t wait, start now!
Please, please, don’t be like me in this regard. I started on my UC essays early but waited until November/December to work on and perfect my CommonApp essay. This created so much stress and ultimately an essay I was less proud of. There is no time like the present to start brainstorming topics and writing. Even two hours a week over the summer accumulates into a lot. Trust me, once school gets into full swing college essays are the last thing you want to add to your stress!