The college application process reminds me of trying to buy a toothbrush. You walk down the aisle and look at the wall of colorful brushes. They have different brands, different advertisements. Some are big, some are small, some are round, some are automatic. Some are cheap and some cost over a hundred dollars. How do you know which one to choose? How can you know, without trying all of them?

Of course, applying to college is a bit more complicated, because college applications are a two-way street. Not only do you have to pick a college, the college has to pick you too. It’s as if you were trying to find a toothbrush, finally landed on the perfect choice, and then the toothbrush shouted, “Hey not so fast! How’s your breath smell? Do you have braces? How much candy do you eat? Can I get a recommendation from your dentist?”

So what are all the components of the college application, and how do you make sense of this crazy process? A good place to start with any big project is by breaking it down into its parts.


Choosing your list:

The first step to applying to college is making a list. Again, college applications are a two-way street. While colleges have a right to select the applicants that will yield the best incoming class, you have just as much of a right to be selective in your college search.

Learn about your options. Don’t just take every advertisement at its word. Do some deep research, ask questions of current students. Come up with a list of places that feels right for you, not just the list that a magazine prints out.


Setting the stage:

Once you have your college list (or while it’s still a work-in-progress) it’s time to build your application profile. I like to think of this step as compiling all your Evidence of Awesomeness. Imagine you’re going into a trial to prove how great you are. Sure, you could stand up and make an eloquent speech about your aptitude for learning and your leadership skills, but if you don’t have any evidence to back up your claims, they won’t hold much weight.

There are four primary categories of “evidence” when it comes to college applications: Standardized Testing, Extracurriculars, Grades, and Recommendations. Being strong in a single area won’t guarantee acceptance to your dream school. It’s best to have a well-balanced portfolio.


The Essay:

The essay is your opportunity to tie all your evidence together. This is where you get to tell your story. It’s the difference between dumping a stack of disparate pages onto a college’s doorstep, and handing them a fully-bound book with your name on the cover.

Be clear and concise. Try not to over-tell. They’ll get all the details out of the rest of your profile. Your goal with the essay is to arrange everything into a smooth narrative. Make it easy for colleges to use your application material to get a sense of who you are.

Now that you know what you have to do, how do you go about doing all that?


1. Start Early

The earlier you start your college application process, the easier it will be to hit sent. Work hard to get good grades beginning freshman year. Take classes that interest and challenge you. Choose extra curricular activities that complement and/or enrich your academic interests. Start studying for your SATs before your junior year.

It may seem like a drag at first, but junior year when your friends start complaining to you about how stressed they are, you’ll be grateful for how far you’ve already come.


2. Get Help

It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Just the opposite. Particularly in a process so daunting and complicated as college application, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to seek outside help.

This could be a tutor for that infamous AP Government class, or an essay-writing coach, or a mentor to help you set goals and achieve them. One excellent resource is CollegeVine! We provide services to help with standardized test preparation, application writing, and mentorship beginning as early as freshman year.

Take advantage of the opportunities that are at your disposal. After all, a load that’s heavy for one person isn’t so bad when it’s spread over several.


3. Get Rest

The college application process, and high school in general, can be incredibly tiring. Take breaks. Hang out with your friends. Go see a movie. Sleep for 15 hours. Remember, getting into college isn’t the end of the road. You have at least four more years of education ahead of you, plus jobs or graduate school. The last thing you want is to get so wrapped up in preparing for your future, that you burn out before you even get there.

Though applying to colleges can look daunting at first, if you take it piece-by-piece and come up with a plan to tackle each part of the process individually, the entire thing doesn’t seem so bad. Likewise, all you need to do to pick the perfect toothbrush is break it down into bite-size chunks. And you never know, maybe that toothbrush will even help get you into school! It doesn’t hurt to go into college interviews with a sparkly white smile.

Rebecca Shapiro

Rebecca Shapiro

Becca Shapiro is a student at Duke University in the class of 2019 studying Mathematics and Creative Writing. Becca is interested in exploring the power of interdisciplinary study, in particular the mutually beneficial impacts of combining STEM fields and the arts. After graduation, Becca intends to become a high school mathematics teacher and a novelist. In her free time, Becca enjoys long runs, funk concerts, and the combination of good food with better conversation.
Rebecca Shapiro

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