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Looking back on my college application process, I don’t exactly want to say that I “winged” it… But I definitely didn’t… not wing it? Let’s just say that there were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, the most important one being whether I should even ask some of those very questions!
Looking back now, there was a lot of support around me that I was too proud, or too scared, or too uninformed to take advantage of; I just guessed that I would “figure it out.” And figuring things out for yourself is great, but I really could have benefited from asking some of these questions.
How much time should I actually spend on my admissions essay?
It’s a piece of writing unlike any you might produce in your lifetime. Job applications are similar, but much more formally structured; the essays you’ll write in class will have to be just as elegant, but less personal. But your college essay has to somehow communicate not just your very essence, but how that essence will contribute to the atmosphere of a given institution.
I had a guidance counselor in high school. He was a resource for students like me who were confused about the application process and wondered how best to approach various components of that process. But I was afraid that I would look stupid or lazy if I asked how much time to spend on it or how early to start it.
The truth is, all of my friends were doing things their own way, and every piece of advice on the internet will tell you something different. Some people had had drafts of their essays ready for months in the advance of the Common Application’s launch. Various online outlets advised me to go through at least six drafts of my essay before I called it good enough.
But what if I didn’t need six drafts? What if I wanted to think for a little longer before putting my thoughts into words? (What if I wanted to think so long that I didn’t finish my essay until three minutes before it was due? Not that I’m advocating that…)
The reason I should have asked the question of how much time I should actually spend on my essay is not so that I could have found an answer; it’s so that I could have gotten more input from people who are knowledgeable about the subject but nonetheless would encourage me to follow my own process.
Yes, you should spend as much time on your essay as you deem necessary, whether that means one draft or fifty – but in order to make an educated judgment of that necessity, you should seek support without shame. It can seem like you’re expected to be an expert on applying to college, to intuitively know how to approach the unique challenges it poses, but that just isn’t fair.
You’re expected to ask for help. So at 11:57pm the night before your application is due, be sure to call your guidance counselor, your family, and all your friends and ask them whether they think you have time for another rewrite. (Just kidding. Please do not.)
Should I consider the colleges my friends are applying to?
I thought that I would be looked on as immature and unfit to attend college if I factored my friends’ college choices into my decision, so I just didn’t discuss or think about it very much. But you aren’t just a number, a set of statistics, an eloquent and poignant admissions essay – you’re a person. You have human needs. You can let them breathe.
Talk to your friends. See where they’re at emotionally; acknowledge the difficult transition you’re about to undergo, and what you each want for your futures.
And talk to your parents and teachers! Chances are, they’ve gone through exactly what you’re going through. Maybe they applied to college with a group of their friends like seventh-grade girls making a group trip to the bathroom (if the presence of friends is necessary there, it should definitely be considered when applying for college).
You also don’t need to be shy about making elaborate hypothetical plans about your college experience with friends potentially going to different colleges. Google Map it – could you visit them a few weekends out of the semester?
You don’t need to base your decision on these considerations, but it can be a nice mental health break to imaging going through the college experience with the friends who have shared so many others with you.
How many colleges should I apply to?
I applied to one. One of my friends applied to over a dozen. Many online forums and even guidance counselors will tell you to apply to a certain number of reach, target, and safety schools. You can determine, with help, which of these categories each school of interest falls into.
But then what? What if you decide to apply to a lot and don’t get accepted by any? It’s probably better to get rejected by one than fifty, right? But if you apply to fifty you have a better chance of getting accepted to one…
Unless. (Gasp.) Unless filling out too many applications stretches you too thin and dilutes the quality of the individual applications. So where’s the sweet spot? How can you balance between applying to enough schools to increase your base probability of an acceptance but not so many schools that you forget how to write your own name on the application?
There really is no formula for this. Go with your gut, but get advice along the way. Ask the people in your life how your list looks to them; fresh eyes can be a godsend. They’ll tell you things like, “I see you’re applying to seventeen regional liberal arts colleges with an acceptance rate in the 30s,” or “Do you really need to apply to all the UC/SUNY schools/Ivies/what-have-yous?”
The bottom line is that you should do what makes you feel comfortable. But your comfort should be founded in informedness. Ask your guidance counselor how many schools students typically apply to. Ask if your chances would be better applying to more or fewer schools with certain stats or programs.
Basically, if you wonder about anything, ask.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of different college experiences?
This is a question that you can easily Google and receive thousands of different answers, most based on the personal experience of the people giving the advice.
If you want an answer that’s actually helpful, though, talk to a guidance counselor, or a college admissions counselor at a few of the schools on your list. Don’t be afraid to ask this question and to want an in-depth answer to it.
There are so many dimensions both to life and to the college experience. Does “brand recognition” in colleges matter? Is it better to attend a big school or a small school for a certain degree? Is it worth the cheaper tuition to attend school in-state? Is college even worth it at all?
These are questions that can be answered by the professional people in your life whose job it is to help you make your decision by providing you with as much relevant information as possible. Use these resources.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid of asking dumb questions, or ambiguous questions, or asking the same question twice. College application season is about you figuring out what you want, and you deserve to make the most informed decision possible about your preferences and your future.
Asking questions, and getting concrete answers that may or may not change your mind, can make you feel a bit like you’re sacrificing some of your independence. But what you’re really ensuring is that you become an independent person down the road who is capable of navigating the opaque landscape of decision-making. Asking questions helps you do what’s best for yourself.
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