Guess what, guys? I finally finished my college apps!! (Yayyyyyy).
After six arduous months of drafting essays, writing activity descriptions, and getting those letters of recommendation in time, it is all finally over. I’ve pressed submit on my final application in the Common App and wrote my last scholarship essay. (Okay, so technically I still have interviews and whatnot left, but those barely count.)
But now that the process is over, I realize that there were quite a lot of things that I wasn’t expecting or didn’t take into account when first starting to plan out my college application process. So in order to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes I did, here are the things I wish I knew before I applied to college.
1. Don’t ask too many teachers for letters of recommendations.
Oh man, this was the first mistake I made. I asked 4 teachers for letters of rec (LORs), presuming that I would need that many or that I would be able to use them to highlight my different strengths both academically and extracurricularly. But in the end, I ended up with 2 letters I actually wanted to use, 1 letter that I knew was good but would not be as good as the other two, and another one that even if I knew it was going to be good, I really didn’t have a purpose for it.
This is a case where more might not always be better, and you need to be careful when assessing which LORs you really need and which ones will help you the most in your application process for the specific schools you hope to attend. That means you have to start thinking about where you’re applying by the time you start asking for letters so that you can ask the right teachers. If you really don’t know, there’s nothing wrong with asking for more LORs just to be safe, but don’t feel pressured to use those letters in the end - you want to give yourself the best possible chance to succeed and sometimes that means not using a letter.
So, moral of the story: Only ask for as many letters as you need - 2 to 3 academic letters will do it.
2. It is difficult to assign LORs.
On the Common App, after you invite all of your recommenders to the portal, you can pick and choose which letters to include in your application for each college. For example, you can put Teachers A and B for Princeton but Teachers B and C for UPenn.
Usually, this part is not that difficult. Most people have 2 LORs and most colleges require only 2, so you assign both recommenders to each college.
The process gets more complicated the more LORs you have. Ideally, you would only submit 2 LORs per school (even if submitting more is optional) because no admissions officer needs to deal with more paperwork than necessary.
In this case, you need to pick which teachers you want for each college and this can get really tricky if you overthink it. For me, I roughly knew what each of my letters was going to focus on, whether it was my leadership or my maturity or my academic excellence. Depending on that, I was trying to assign the letters in a way that they “fit” the mission of the school (for Brandeis, where they emphasize service, I chose the letter most likely to mention my extracurriculars related to that). Or, I was assigning them based on what I wrote/was planning to write for the supplements (if my supplement was about my love for languages, I included my foreign language LOR).
I also didn’t want to use the same teacher for a lot of colleges and I didn’t want to use one teacher for only one college and come off as not caring about their letter. And let me tell you right now to NOT DO THAT. Don’t put an ounce of thought into what your recommenders might think of the colleges you have assigned them to or the number of colleges. They don’t care - you should just do whatever you think will optimize your chances of getting in that school and they understand that.
Even though this way might have worked out in the end, it was after much deliberation and exasperation and time spent. And I ended up using the same 2 LORs for most of my schools anyway.
Moral of the story: Don’t overthink which LORs to assign to each college, just use your 2 best overall unless the school or your essays emphasizes a very specific area.
3. Your parents (and other adults) really should read your essays.
Even though I drafted my Common App personal statement way back in the summer, I was hesitant to let my parents read it. (Partially because of the essay, partially just because of who I am as a person.) In fact, I didn’t have them read it until I was submitting my first application, in October.
I know most of you are probably thinking what person doesn’t give their essays to their parents to read, but those people exist. To everyone, I encourage you to get as many adults, especially the ones that know you best, to read and look over your essay to offer some insight.
Even if those adults don’t really understand the nuances of essay writing (and sometimes it can be frustrating when they’re giving you unsubstantiated advice), they do know you well and will be able to tell if you are being genuine and true to yourself.
Moral of the story: Get adults, especially parents, to read and edit your essays.
4. Going to campus actually can make a difference in how you view a university.
I was always in consensus with the idea that all universities have the same bad food, the same bad dorms, the same old lecture halls, and that the so-called “culture” of the university will not have an impact on my desire to attend. And for that reason, I put off visiting the majority of my colleges (except Princeton) until senior year. I fit in a couple visits right before school started and some others on weekends during September/October. (For more on questions to ask during a campus visit, click here.)
I never really expected my opinion of the schools to change after the visit - I was still going to apply there - but the visiting was more like something to cross off a checklist and show “demonstrated interest”. And so when I pulled up to a particular campus and found that I didn’t really like it (or on the other hand, I completely fell in love with it - like U of Rochester), I was surprised to say the least. In the end, the “feeling” of the campus was still not enough for me to take any university off of my final list (although I seriously considered it), but it definitely changed my view and my internal ranking of these schools.
And what I saw at campus was less of what influenced me - as in, it wasn’t necessarily the material or layout or architectural things or anything like that. I honestly could not care less if the dorms were bigger or the dining hall food was better. But when people talk about that “gut feeling,” they’re not lying. I never believed in it, but after visiting schools, I can attest to the fact that it more than exists, it can be a deciding factor in where you decide to go.
Moral of the story: Go and visit the prospective universities on your list and take your enteric nervous system seriously. (Sorry for the nerd joke.)
5. Fit is not fake.
This one sort of goes hand in hand with number 4. For a long time, I thought regardless of whatever “fit” was supposed to be taken into account when looking at colleges, especially top schools, it didn’t apply to me - I would be able to fit in anywhere. Visiting colleges and attending info sessions really gives you an understanding of the campus culture and the values that the school has. If you are not excited about the things that the school is excited about, it will be really hard for you to express your “fit” in your admissions essays and even harder for you to spend the next 4 years of your life there.
The most jarring experience I’ve had with this is with Columbia University. As some of you may know, I go to Columbia every Saturday to take classes there (more on that here) and absolutely fell in love with the university. It wasn’t on the original list I made in the summer but I added because of the supremely positive “gut feeling” I had about the college. No kidding, Saturdays are my favorite days just cause I get to go there, even if it means waking up at 7 am.
But then… I attended an information session at Columbia and found out one of the core principles of their academic structure was a very extensive Core Curriculum (basically, a set of courses all Columbia College students take). A Common Core was the last thing I was looking for in a college (in fact, I applied to as many “open curriculum” schools as I possibly could - ones that have no general education requirements). That honestly really threw me off, especially because of how much I loved the campus.
I still ended up applying, because why not, I still love the school, but quite honestly, even if by some miracle I get in, it’s going to be tough convincing myself to spend the next 4 years there.
Moral of the story: Consider your values and your priorities and compare them to the schools you are applying to - no matter how good the school is, sometimes it just will not work for you - and that’s okay.
6. Make sure you would actually go to the school if you get accepted before you decide to apply.
Before my actual college search and when I was just starting to form my list, I was just slapping schools on there based on what I heard about them, based on their rankings, based on my limited knowledge of them. This is not the way to create a school list. (This is the right way to create a school list.)
A lot of the schools I originally had on this list I actually ended up taking off during the process of my college research. They were removed because of a combination of realizing they were nowhere near what I had imagined them to be in my head and of realizing that if given the chance, I would not go there anyway.
When you apply, don’t apply just for the sake of applying, especially to those big-name colleges that everyone seems to apply to. (Or even to random safeties where you know you will not be able to live for the next 4 years but are just looking for that scholarship money). It may seem like you’re giving yourself options by applying to more schools, and yes, that is true, it is good to apply broadly. But the problem is when you apply to a school that is completely wrong for you, has different values than you do, and doesn’t have the support system you need - and then in March you open up that financial aid package or fancy acceptance letter all starry-eyed and end up making a decision that you will regret in the future.
By not applying to schools that you know you will not attend, you get rid of the risk of choosing a school you will not thrive in just based on the name or financial aid package after an acceptance. You can get back money, but you can never get back time - don’t let the next four years of your life be spent in a way you won’t enjoy.
Moral of the story: Make sure every school you are applying to is a school you would genuinely attend.
7. Your parents are both smarter and dumber than you think.
Yes, that sentence contradicts itself, but it is the truth.
As much as you might not want to get your parents too heavily involved in the college search process (or is that just me?), your parents are arguably the people that know you best and know what is good for you, even if you think they don’t. Take their advice seriously and consider their suggestions, it will help open your mind to new possibilities that you might fall in love with in the future.
But at the same time, a lot of parents also don’t know the ins and outs of college applications, and some of their advice is coming from their neighborhood gossip group or office water jug and is so clearly wrong or out of the times. (Which happens especially for first-gen students or even students whose parents went to college in a different country.) Just remember, even when your parents tell you to write about how your grandmother’s death made you a better student (please don’t be cliche), they are genuinely trying to help and are working in your best interests. So try not to get too frustrated and remember that considering their advice doesn’t always mean following it.
For me, I felt that I had done so much research on colleges and on the application process, both through general research and research for articles for this blog, that my parents just didn’t understand the process as well as I did, and I was hesitant to take their advice. But now looking back on it, my parents have a lot more life experience than I do and know me much better than I know myself, and I wish I would’ve included them more in the application process.
Moral of the story: Involve your parents, be open-minded to their advice and concerns, but remember you always have the final say.
8. Getting accepted is less and more exciting than you may think.
The first college decision I received this application cycle was actually a college I added to my list pretty late (thanks to my parents convincing me to apply). Because of their rolling admissions, the University of Pittsburgh accepted me even before Princeton deferred me.
When I first got the acceptance email, I was on the bus and opened a very cryptic video that I eventually figured out meant I was accepted. I sorta remarked, “hey, I think I just got into college” to my bus and that was that - I went back to our conversation about complaining about our teachers, pretty much forgetting about the acceptance and actually forgetting to tell my parents.
When I first envisioned getting accepted to college, I thought it would come with a little more fanfare than an off-hand remark, that I would be uber excited and celebrate and whatnot. But it’s more of an “okay, that happened”. As the weeks wore on, I got a little more excited about it, because it finally started hitting me that “hey, I just got into college” (and I got that sweet, sweet scholarship package in the mail).
And some people are the opposite - they feel the excitement in a big blast in the beginning and the novelty slowly wears off until it just becomes another thought in the back of your mind. Regardless of what type of person you are (which I’m sure also depends on the school you get into - you can bet I would be over-the-moon for the first few days if I got into Princeton), the process of getting that acceptance is not going to be what you think it is, the real life-changing event is when you commit to a university.
Moral of the story: Getting your first acceptance is not the end of the college application road and sometimes it won’t match up with your expectations - but be happy, you just got accepted!
9. How much College Confidential can be a (tentative) resource.
I have very strong opinions concerning College Confidential (which you can read more about here) and so I was really hesitant to use it at first to seek advice or for a reference when completing my applications. I actually only got into CC around the time Princeton early admissions decisions were going to come out so I would feel better about not being the only one very stressed. (I actually got incredibly addicted the closer it was to D-Day and would check it like every other hour - it was bad.)
But after snooping around some threads, and especially threads from previous years, I found information that would have helped (even if only marginally) while filling out the application - pointers on short answer questions and specifics about the application and things like that. And if you have a question about the application itself while filling it out, there’s a good chance someone on CC either had the same question that someone else answered, or that someone will have the ability to answer the question for you.
But as always, be incredibly careful when navigating the tunnels of the internet, especially because anonymity is a dark mask that makes the internet not indicative of reality. You can use CC for some background info and advice here and there, but always supplement it with your own research - and always take what anyone says with a grain of salt.
Moral of the story: If used correctly and not obsessed over, College Confidential can be a resource during your application process.
10. You are competing against a lot more people than you think you are.
For the entirety of your high school life, you have been competing with a couple hundred kids (even fewer if you go to a tiny school like I do). And that might seem like a lot to you right now, but it’s not even a drop in the bucket when you consider the immense number of high schoolers applying for college admissions.
Let’s think about it: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 3.3 million students graduate high school every year. About 70% of them then enroll in a university after graduation. Even more apply to college. So that means that conservatively, there are almost 2.5 million students applying to college each year.
You - yes, you - are competing against 2,499,999 other people. (Give or take.)
Sure, sure, countless other factors go into where someone applies to college, but it’s always gonna be a heck of a lot more than just the kids in your high school graduating class.
When I started applying, it was hard to remember that I shouldn’t only compare myself to my friends or my peers. Whenever I did, it would either give me a false sense of confidence or completely upset me because I knew they were a better applicant than me. But in the end, the Internet and forums helped me realize that there are way more fish out there in the sea than just the ones in my tiny little pond.
Moral of the story: Don’t compare yourself to only the kids in your school, there are a heck of a lot more people out there that you know nothing about that are also applying to college.
11. You need to know all of the deadlines, especially the financial aid ones.
You might think, “How hard can it be to remember a couple of dates, especially when almost all of them are Jan 1st?” Believe me, it has been done.
It’s really easy to get lost in all the bustle and forget to submit an application in time - maybe not for the main college application deadline but the other little deadlines surrounding it, like the deadline for the honors college/program application or the deadline for a specific scholarship.
Another easy deadline to forget or to assume comes later is the financial aid one. Most colleges require financial aid information (the FAFSA/CSS Profile/etc) by Feb 1st, but a select few have deadlines earlier than that. If your parents are filling out the majority of your financial aid applications, it is even harder to keep track of. And if you miss the financial aid deadline, your scholarships/merit awards/need-based awards could be substantially decreased.
This happened to me, actually. I might have effed myself over by not realizing that a college had a Jan 1st financial aid deadline and submitting my materials late, possibly reducing my chance of receiving institutional aid (merit aid). Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Have all of your deadlines in a calendar long before they come around to make sure you stay on top of things. (For more on deadlines, click here.)
Moral of the story: Don’t forget about all of the little deadlines here and there, they can make a big difference if you miss one of them.
12. There are a lot more scholarships out there than you think (and I wish I had actually applied to some).
And I sincerely regret not applying to any. I even wrote an entire article on Scholarships for Seniors and didn’t apply to a single one. Smh.
These scholarships range from a couple hundred bucks to several thousands to full tuition and are all easily available to apply to online. There are scholarships for everything, from being left-handed to being extremely tall to working in a specific company to having a specific skill like knitting. Even if you don’t apply to the smaller, private ones, apply to the large corporation ones, like the Burger King Scholarship or the Ronald McDonald House scholarships. Even though it is a selective process, there’s no point if you don’t even give yourself the chance. And scholarships like these could be life-changing for someone not otherwise able to afford their education.
I was so focused on applying to the colleges themselves and their institutional scholarships and financial aid that I completely forgot/was too lazy to apply to these other private scholarships. This is also why it’s important to finish your college applications earlier, so you have time to apply for these outside scholarships.
Moral of the story: Don’t forget to apply for outside scholarships and don’t be afraid to go hunting for some really weird ones that you might have a better chance of receiving.
13. The ridiculous amount of money you have to pay to apply to college.
College isn’t cheap. You’re paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and room and board each year to your university. Turns out, colleges aren’t satiated with only tuition. No, they must also feed on the wallets of wide-eyed high schoolers who just want go to their institution, want to live out their dreams.
Applying to college is goddamn expensive. Each application can cost almost $100 when you combine the application fee, sending your standardized test scores fee, and applying for financial aid fee. (For more on what goes into the fees of applying and how to maybe save some money, click here.)
But depending on the number of colleges you’re applying to, the cost can rise very quickly. If you’re paying for them yourself, don’t forget to budget for them, especially for those colleges you randomly decide to apply to 2 hours before the deadline.
Moral of the story: Just applying to college costs a lot, don’t forget to take those costs into account.
14. You might have to convince your parents to let you not apply to certain places.
Unless you’re paying your college application fees yourself (good for you if you are!) your parents will want to at least know where you are applying so that when they get their credit card bill and see you’ve spent $100 applying to Kalamazoo University, they at least know why. And this is a good thing - talking over your possible college choices will give you more insight into where you want to apply and where you might want to attend.
But the problem arises when your mom sees a message on the WhatsApp neighborhood gossip group that someone’s son is a “shoe-in” to get into Harvard and therefore you - her must-be-smarter-than-the-woman’s-son daughter - must apply as well.
And then you spend two hours convincing your mom that applying to Harvard is a waste of $100 and that you don’t even want to go there and please don’t make me write more supplementsssss.
But this is a recurring problem in my household, where my parents are trying to convince me to apply to the likes of MIT and Yale and 7-year med programs (which I have strong opinions concerning) and me trying to valiantly fend off their efforts to force me to spend their money on places I do not want to apply to and would not attend if accepted.
Moral of the story: trying to tell someone you don’t want to apply to a certain school can be tougher than you think, but never waste money or time on places you will 100% not attend.
15. Building a narrative around the entirety of your application is very important.
Before I started writing my personal statement for the Common App, I did a heck of a lot of research on what you should write about, what you shouldn’t, how important it is, what makes you stand out, and whatnot. The most important thing I found was that your personal statement is the only place you have to completely tie your application together - like the bow on a present. (Except this is a present to admissions offices and sometimes the present is not good enough for them and they cruelly reject you, but I digress.)
Your personal statement is a take on your “narrative” - the story you have built of yourself throughout the other parts of your application. I discovered this idea of a narrative only when I was writing my essays, and when I tried to build a narrative, I realized that my activities and my interests and my accomplishments were sort of all over the place. There were no one or two clear focuses, like arts or public service or journalism or student government. I had nothing that inherently made me unique, even though I might have had a few unique activities.
I ended up being able to tie the rest of my app together loosely with my personal statement and I do like how it turned out, but I still wish I had grasped the idea of an application narrative earlier so I wouldn’t have wasted my time on activities I was only doing because they were resume boosters or because I thought there was some arbitrary requirement. I also would’ve found a way to incorporate my activities into each other, instead of them being so choppy and all over the place.
Moral of the story: Having your entire application flow together like a narrative will help you not only help the admissions officers better understand who you are, but allow you to stand out amongst the rest of the cookie-cutter applicants.
16. Some colleges take supplements to the next level.
And I’m talking Next. Level. Like when you’re on your 11th supplement for a college and slowly give up to the point where your answers devolve into some version of “I love you, please take me.”
I guess some colleges really want to make sure that you love them, and the way they do that is by making you profess that love in a dozen different ways. Supplements can range from another entire 650-750 word essay (sorta like another personal statement), a 500-word or one-page essay, multiple 150-250 word short essays, and those seems-like-they’ll-be-easy-but-are-actually-incredibly-difficult-to-write 50-word responses. And of course, who can forget about the extremely short 1 word or phrase answers. (Or the million lists that Columbia makes you write.)
And if this seems like a lot to you, you’re right, it’s a lot. Some schools, especially less selective ones, try to limit the length of the applications they will have to read and scrap the supplement all together. But then you have your Columbias and Princetons that want to know every single little last detail about your life.
Personally, I really enjoyed answering Princeton’s prompts (but duh, I love them, so how could I not) and the supplement writing process will generally not be as difficult if you actually like the school. But don’t get caught off guard by the number of essays you will have to write, it’s all just part of the process.
Moral of the story: Supplements are real and really exhausting, so if you want to avoid writing fatigue, start writing them well before they’re due! And don’t get discouraged when you can see no end - there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
17. Don’t let other people judge your list.
Everyone and their mom is going to be nosy when application season rolls around. Everyone wants to know where you’re applying, where you got accepted, how much money you got. And with that nosiness comes judgment. Judgment on where you decide to apply, where you decide to go, what colleges you like, what colleges you don’t like. Judgment all around.
The important part of this is to not let other people’s opinions change your view on your college list. They are not the ones going to college, you are. In the end, it’s up to you to decide and choose where you apply and where you end up.
For me, my parents are those Indian parents who think rankings are king and anytime I suggested liking a school outside of the Top-20 they were like “What? No, you can’t go there, that’s not a good school.” (Yes, kms.) But you have to remember, that whatever other people say, don’t let them judge your happiness.
It’s also important to remember the flipside of this coin - don’t judge other people’s lists either. I’ve been guilty of this, but I hope I realized early enough that I was able to change my behavior and stop being so goddamn condescending (I have that problem). If you don’t want to be judged, don’t judge anyone else.
Moral of the story: Judgment is not welcome. You do you.
18. You will fall in love with a school that you never thought you would.
I’m sure everyone has this school. The school that was on the backburner for most of the college search process, or maybe it wasn’t even on your list to begin with, but as you start to discover more and more about it, maybe visit it, you realize that yes. This is it. This is the one. I can commit to a long-term relationship with this one. I can pop the question, “Will you please accept me?”
You never see it coming, but are incredibly happy when it does come. It might not be your dream school or your first love, but it sure as heck is amazing and you never for a minute thought you would fall in love like this.
Make sure to embrace this. Finding a school like this, a school that is this perfect of a fit is something to celebrate. Even if you were not expecting it (and it is likely you weren’t) take the bull by the horns and put all your effort into applying to this school.
For me, this school was undoubtedly the University of Rochester. In the beginning, I had written them off because I thought their neuroscience major was just a biology concentration and not a major at all (a neuro major is a hard limit for me). But thankfully, somehow I decided to give it another look and realized that no, Rochester literally runs on neuroscience, it has so many different neuro opportunities. And Rochester was the only school I had that visceral “this is the one” reaction to. And it feels amazing. My love for Rochester knows no bounds. Everything is so perfect about that school, but more importantly, it's so perfect for me. (And that is the goal of this process, to find a school that - even if it is or isn't perfect to others - is perfect for you.) Rochester is my undergraduate soulmate. And it felt effing amazing when I got accepted. (Hopefully I'll actually be able to afford it.)
Moral of the story: Keep an open mind concerning colleges, you never know which one will unexpectedly sweep you off of your feet.
19. You will second-guess yourself as soon as you press submit.
There is nothing like the sigh of relief after you finally hit that maroon “Submit” button on the Common App. Believe me, I know.
But there is also nothing like the immediate panic that sets in approximately 0.00002 seconds after that sigh when you think you forgot to change the name of the college on your supplement (even though you checked it 500 times) or accidentally applied to Stamford University in Connecticut instead of Stanford University in California (it happens to the best of us). Or you’ll start worrying about how maybe your answers were too risky or you should’ve written about something else for that essay.
That fretting and second-guessing are inevitable, but remember that you spent forever and more on these applications and checked them over again and again - you can rest in peace knowing that it is out of your hands.
Moral of the story: Expect that short panic attack you have after you press submit, but know that it will all be okay.
20. The grind doesn’t stop after you press submit.
You might think it’s all over after you press that submit button and pay your last application fee and send in your last FAFSA application.
But spoiler alert! It’s not.
You still have to get out of bed tomorrow, still have to go to school, still have to keep on living life. More than just dealing with the motions, you might still have financial aid forms to fill out, scholarships to apply to, research grants to write proposals for. The endless stream of paperwork seems to never end when it comes to applying, and even as you continue applying you will begin to receive admissions decisions and before you know it, you’ll be deciding whether the $60k price tag is really worth an Ivy League education.
And remember, you’re still in high school. Still taking classes and still expected to pass them. Just cause now you are done applying to college doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been accepted yet, you will still send in your mid-year and final-year reports to colleges. Please don’t fall off the cliff and let senioritis consume you. It never ends well.
Moral of the story: Constant vigilance!
Hope this helps! For more on college admissions, read How College Admissions Actually Works.
And as always, thanks for reading!