Perhaps even more important than how you apply to your schools of choice is how you choose those schools. When I was formulating my school list, I did what many of you probably did or are doing – I dug up the U.S. News and World Report, and compared the rankings of schools I had heard of or vaguely heard of to the number of supplemental essays they required.

However, looking back, I realize just how haphazard and uninformed my determining measures were. The media and colleges themselves (darn you, beautiful personalized pamphlets) do a great job of selling you a dream that where you go to undergrad is the most important decision you’ll ever make in your life.

Three years in, I can tell you definitively that it’s not.

Thus, here’s how I would choose differently if I could apply to schools all over again.

1. Be methodical: know what you want, and go after it.

Image courtesy of KeepCalm-o-Matic.com

Image courtesy of KeepCalm-o-Matic.com

My older sister had applied to seven schools, and was rejected by two – Stanford and UPenn. I remember my dad looking me in the eye, and saying very seriously, “Erika, you need to avenge your sister. Apply to UPenn.” And just like that, the University of Pennsylvania was added to my list of schools.

I vacillated heavily over where I would apply, because I honestly just wanted to get into a “good school” (whatever that meant). I hemmed and hawed, and eventually arbitrarily cut schools that were in undesirable physical locations (bye, Dartmouth), too “culturally” different (see ya, UCLA), or whose supplemental essays were plain too cumbersome to accommodate (UChicago, why you do dis).

In the end, I went with the why-the-heck-not approach, applying to sixteen regular schools and four BS/MD programs (which also involved applications to their undergraduate schools). I was methodical with my selection of BS/MD programs – namely, would I choose to attend that program over, say, Duke or Columbia? If the answer was no, then I didn’t apply.

However, my elimination – or lack thereof – of regular undergraduate institutions was far more haphazard. In addition to the aforementioned scientifically rigorous process of arbitrarily evaluating schools for “fit” (whatever that means) by stalking online blogs and listening to friends about location and school culture, I also took the U.S. News and World Report rankings and financial aid into consideration.

As you can imagine, none of these measures were really accurate indicators of “fit” – moreover, I probably inadvertently eliminated many schools at which I would have thrived, and applied to many schools at which I would have been miserable. In the end, I ended up with Northwestern University’s BS/MD program (HPME), and that has been a rocky road that I may not have traversed if I’d put more thought into where I would have been truly happy.

Thus, if I could do it all over again, I would have rigorously pursued not only my application to schools, but also the process of selecting which schools I would actually apply to. I would incorporate more measures than rankings and hearsay – I would be methodical in my evaluation of what mattered to me: medium sized, urban, not pre-professional, non-competitive and happy.

2. Be choosy: you’re entering into a contractual relationship, so treat it like one.

Image courtesy of www.khsta.org

Image courtesy of www.khsta.org

As I mentioned, I ended up applying to around 20 schools in all – 24, if you count the medical schools. That was a staggering number, and I know of those who have applied to even more.

Many people were boggled as to why I even bothered. I had Early Actioned to Harvard, and received my acceptance sometime late November or early December (I honestly can’t recall). I didn’t broadcast it at my high school or via social media platforms, but word got out eventually. There was a lot of resentment; people wondered – why is this girl still trying?

However, the truth was simply that I couldn’t decide. I felt the need to spread myself thin and cover all my bases, terrified of making the wrong move that would send me to a school where I’d be miserable and unable to escape. I treated application season like Black Friday for schools – buy as many as you can, and return the unwanted ones later.

As any good businessperson will tell you, however, covering your bases isn’t necessarily the best strategy for getting what you truly want. You’re either left with a ton of offers on the table, amongst which you can’t decide within the time frame given to you (my situation), or you’re left with no offers because you weren’t able to put forth the necessary effort into each application.

If I could do it all over again, I would be incredibly choosy. I would only apply to schools (after my methodical breakdowns and evaluations for fit) that I really wanted to apply to, and that I was interested in. I realized that if you methodically break your school list down, you usually learn new things about the schools you were evaluating, which could change your decision about whether or not to apply.

What many people – especially those who apply Early Decision and regret it later – is that college is a contract. When you agree to go to a school, it’s difficult to rescind that without some sort of professional or financial consequence. Thus, I would have been choosier determining where I would apply, because hasty decisions are rarely good ones. I would only apply to schools and programs I really, really wanted to attend, and where I would be fairly certain I’d be happy.

3. Be pragmatic: money is an issue, and treating college decisions like it isn’t is incredibly unwise.

Image courtesy of artvent.blogspot.com

Image courtesy of artvent.blogspot.com

I hail from Washington State, where there are only 2 state schools– the University of Washington, and Washington State. Washington State was in eastern Washington – not somewhere I wanted to be. Thus, I applied to UW with every intention not to go there. It was, after all, fifteen minutes away from my house, and I wanted something fresh and exciting out of college.

Thus, I applied to only one in-state school, and one out-of-state public school (the University of Michigan). The other schools were all private, and aside from the Case Western BS/MD programs, not exactly known for their generous scholarships.

My family was also in the weird situation of being middle-class – not a huge annual income, but plenty of savings (what can I say, my parents are Chinese immigrants). Thus, I knew that whatever aid package I garnered would likely be a modest one – colleges even take how much your family’s car is worth into consideration (like, what do they expect your parents to do? Sell their means of transportation and their house to pay your tuition?).

If I could do it over again, I would definitely take merit scholarships into account. Applying without a thought to the financial implications of your choice is definitely a luxury few can afford, and definitely not one my family or I had.

4. Be status-blind: it’s a trap. Really.

You don't need to be like them to be happy. Image courtesy of cambridge.com

You don’t need to be like them to be happy. Image courtesy of cambridge.com

I had worked hard in high school. I was a straight-A student, valedictorian of my class, full IB diploma, and had self-studied several AP’s. I had perfect scores on my IB and AP tests, the SAT, as well as all the SAT II subject tests I attempted.

I had worked relatively hard to attain those things. Thus, when it came time to apply to schools, I felt the need to validate my work via as many acceptances to as many prestigious schools as I possessed a vague interest in. I applied to Princeton, which I had very little interest in attending, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and others.

However, in the back of my mind, I knew I was privileged enough to have a state school offering me a full scholarship – the University of Washington – that was one of the best research universities in the world. My need for validation, for a “reward” for all the hard work I had put into high school, so to speak, and my own ego superseded this logic, however.

And so when the time came to assemble my school list, it was dotted with Ivy League universities and highly ranked private institutions. I was feral in my need for status.

I realize now that private institutions feed off of this need to continue to hold rankings and prestige that’s almost entirely arbitrary. They are funded through students’ desire to feel special, to have their hard work pay off, and to attend a prestigious institution. Private colleges get most of their money from students’ tuition and the generosity of alums, so they really try hard to sell their schools to you; it’s essentially a business.

Thus, if I could do it over again, I would most likely limit the applications that were purely for ego’s sake to one or two. I would realize that ultimately, status isn’t terribly meaningful in terms of where I go to school.

5. Have perspective: none of this will matter in 20 years.

Image courtesy of loisevans.org

Image courtesy of loisevans.org

More and more students are attending graduate school after their undergraduate education, whether to attain their JD, MBA, MD, masters, or PhD. Thus, an expensive undergraduate degree is not worth what it once was, because many graduate school admissions offices don’t have the same view of prestige that employers do.

Thus, investing a quarter of a million dollars in an undergraduate degree where your GPA might be lower than at your local state school would actually be disadvantageous towards your financial and academic future.

I wish I had realized that when I was assembling my list of schools. I failed to keep the long game in mind – that is, ask myself whether where I obtained my degree from would really matter when I was a practicing professional in my chosen vocation. Although there are a few exceptions, for the most part, the answer is “not really.”

If I could do it over again, I would ease my frantic search and keep my perspective broad.

Although I’m now in my junior year of college, it’s been a bumpy ride. Those who’ve had a smooth transition are definitely in the minority. I’m happy where I’m at – I have great friends, a familiarity with the surrounding environment, a lake view whenever I want it, and while I’ll never get used to the biting Chicago winter, I’ve come to terms with it. However, I can’t help but think that if I’d attended a different school, one that was less pre-professional and more liberal artsy, less Greek-oriented and more accepting, less white and more diverse, I might have had a smoother transition. Ultimately, I think most people end up making college work, but ideally, colleges should make you work.

Erika Sun

Erika Sun is a member of Northwestern University's class of 2018 enrolled in the Honors Program in Medical Education. She is currently double majoring in Psychology and Biology, although she's seriously considering throwing in the towel and living in a van by the river. She grew up in Seattle, Washington, and consequently feels bereft without mountains, the ocean, skiing, hiking, and surfing – none of which are viable options in Chicago. Thus, she instead makes it her mission to eat her way through the Chi-town foodie scene and pack on the Freshman 50...as a junior. Each admissions season brings with it fresh waves of cold sweat, and memories of the many tubs of Ben & Jerry's ice cream consumed while crafting the perfect personal statement.