Having finally graduated from high school in June, I’ve also overcome a major milestone in my life — one that I’ll probably never have to go through again: the college admissions process. Here's a brief look into what I went through...
The past year has been filled with optimism and disappointment, euphoria and bitterness. Though there were definitely ups and downs, I’ll never forget how much the process forced me to compare myself to my peers and to evaluate my own self worth — it was not a good feeling.
But before I talk about my reflections of the process, I’d like to share my story: the time I put in, my crushed dreams, and the other dream come trues. I applied to 21 colleges, which many would consider far too many. I was accepted to 5. Waitlisted by 5. Rejected by 11.
Here’s some context to the background I came from. I attended a very competitive high school, where college has been at the forefront of everyone’s head since middle, or even elementary school.
During the essay writing season, I was honestly pretty addicted to the college admissions process. I’d check the online forums like the r/ApplyingToCollege (it's actually very helpful) subreddit much more often than I should have, just because learning about the admissions process became kind of a like a video game to me...weird, right?
Because I applied to so many schools, I had to put in a lot of time perfecting each application. From September to November, my local library and Starbucks became home, as they were where I spent countless hours, every day, churning out essays. On my days off from school, I’d get to the library at 9 am and stay until closing at 6, just writing and thinking. But surprisingly, it wasn’t as much of a grind as you’d expect it to be. College essays were something I actually enjoyed writing, especially the more expressive prompts like the Common Application essay and the UC prompts. I felt like I could tell my stories through my essays, kind of like I'm doing with this blog post. “Why essays” were always more boring, and I recycled them a lot my schools.
The night before December 13th, the day my Early Decision school, UPenn, would release their decisions, I dreamed of opening the portal and running wildly through my street, ecstatic and carefree. Day of, I remember waiting anxiously the whole school day, not being able to concentrate in my classes. I checked online college forums repeatedly, trying to relieve myself of some of the angst. Rushing home after class, I nervously sat still at my computer until 4 pm came by. I felt every heartbeat after clicking the “View Update” button and waiting for the obviously traffic strained portal to load.
The first thing I saw was a block of text. No congratulations video, no confetti, just one simple paragraph. Next thing I saw was a phrase I had been dreading for months: “I regret to inform you…” I set my expectations low from the beginning, but it was still a big kick in my gut. I spent the rest of the day sitting in my chair, crestfallen and unable to leave my room.
I added three more reach schools the following day, hoping I’d have more chances at getting into a top-tier university. For all you prospective applicants out there, this isn’t the best way to go about your own application process. It took a plethora of time to perfect the 6 new essays I had to write, and that really took a toll on me especially with the January 1st deadline so close. My winter break consisted of a lot of time spent in the library and Starbucks. I did so mostly as an emotional response to my rejection, as I was angry with myself while watching my peers get accepted to great schools. Being in the competitive high school I was in, I wanted to succeed like my peers did.
Few days later, my EA schools came out. UIUC, Northeastern, Purdue, UT Austin. Rejected by UIUC, waitlisted at Northeastern, accepted by Purdue, and rejected at UT. This series of decisions just made me feel worse about myself, like all the effort I put in was being wasted. I was rejected by nearly every UC school as well (bless UCSB), so you can imagine the state I was in. The University of Washington also really improved my morale, as it was my first acceptance in a while. What I realized, however, was that, over time, it became easier to deal with rejections. UPenn's decision hit REALLY hard, but it only got easier from there.
Then it came, the final week of March. By then, I had already been rejected by most of my colleges, and I still hadn’t gotten into a reach school. My expectations were at an all time low, and I went through each school day just thinking about all the wasted hours spent studying and working.
I lost faith in the system. I lost faith in hard work. It was a bad feeling, and it may have been the worst period of time in my life. Mid-March, I already gave up. I remember talking to a college freshman, one of my close friends from high school. The words he told me didn’t resonate with me at the time, because of how emotionally distraught I was — everything he said just sounded cliched and fake. Looking back with a clear conscience, I can tell he was giving the best advice one can give to a high school kid worried about his future.
I promise you, you will look back on everything in a year and realize how much you unnecessarily stressed yourself out, and then you'll have a good laugh about it. You'll think "I'm working hard and performing well wherever I am. I like my school, I'm in a good program, and I can get the job I want." And as cliche as it sounds, others gave me this same advice when I was in your/this position last year but I had to see it for myself to believe them. For example, I wanted to go to a different school and didn't get in. I'm at another school now, working much harder than I did in high school and performing well. If I keep it up, I'll be on track to get into a number of the programs that I'm aiming for. I can learn more and land a better job than many of the students from the school that was my top choice.
You probably don't believe me, but it's still true.
My final week of decisions came, and with it my final round of decisions. That entire week and the week prior, I couldn't stop thinking about how the rest of my life would be decided in the next few days. Clearly, it was an exaggerated assessment that stemmed from my crestfallen state of mind, but at the time it was at the forefront of my brain.
By the time that week was over, I found myself in a complete reversal. While I was rejected by most of my target schools, I ended up in shock as I'd been admitted to my top choice school, USC, on Sunday — last day of the week. Despite all the crushing experiences I had seeing rejection letter after rejection letter, one school came through, and that was more than enough for me.
My tips for the prospective applicants
Don’t get let down by rejections.
All you really need is one acceptance — just one, and you’ll be fine. If you’re rejected by a school you consider to be more of a safety or a target, don’t assume that the schools higher on your list will automatically reject you. It just doesn't work that way. Not everyone's admissions process ends with a storybook ending like mine, but while you're still in the middle of the process, keep your head up until the end. Halfway through March, I had been rejected by most of my target schools, and none of my reaches had been released yet. At that point, my faith in getting into a reach school really just ran out. I was hopeless, going to bed each night thinking about the “wasted” hours I put into studying and working throughout high school. After all, I was the kid who, when others were out partying, was at home doing some extra SAT prep, or learning a new skill. Like my friend said, no hours spent working hard are ever wasted. Each rejection will feel personal, like the admissions officers who read your application didn't think you were good enough. Yes, they will feel personal, but know that they really aren't. They don't determine your self worth, and they definitely don't determine the value of all your efforts. Because of parental and peer pressure, I was blinded by the same idea that I had to attend a top university to succeed in life. Looking back months later, I'm sure I would've done the same no matter where I went. After all, a school is just a place to call home. Your success is and always will be in your hands.
Solidify your list early, and try not to modify it later on.
One of my biggest regrets was adding in a couple more schools after I was rejected by my early decision school. It took a LOT of effort to grind out those additional essays in just three weeks. I recycled some past essays, but there were some originals that had to be written too, and those took my time and attention away from perfecting my other applications. And those were high high reach schools that I added, too. Putting in that much effort for schools that I had a 1% chance of getting into just wasn't worth it. Spreading yourself as thin as possible might end up screwing you over, as having 10 strong, solid applications is better than 25 sloppy ones. The earlier you start, the more schools you can apply to. Anyway, assemble your list as early as you can, and try not to make too many changes down the road.
When they say to show your voice in your essays, they mean it.
My advice would be to write the way you'd speak to your friends. Okay, maybe not that casually, but there’s no need to write your essays like Dickens or Hemingway; maintain a colloquial and conversational tone, unless you genuinely speak like a classical author. It'll keep your essay more personable and it'll definitely be much easier to write. Don't force your language, including using excessive complex terminology derived from thesaurus.com. (I'm guilty of it too, but in reality it doesn't make us sound as intelligent as we may think).
Keep in touch with admissions officers, and don’t be afraid to reach out.
This one's a big one. I spent a lot of time emailing my admissions officers, asking whatever questions I had. You should know that admissions officers do take the time to read every single email they receive — it's their job, after all. If you're concerned about anything or are looking to get a deeper perspective into the school, go ahead and shoot them an email. Chances are they might even remember you by name when they read your aplpication. That can only be a plus, right?
There really is no right or wrong thing to include on your application.
If you’re a speedcuber and haven’t won any competitions but simply love the activity, there’s nothing stopping you from using it as an essay topic or a field for your extracurriculars tab. More often than not, writing about the things you love doing will show who you really are, as opposed to forcing something into your application that you think would make you seem like a more qualified candidate. For my common application essay, I talked about basketball. I was never on the team nor did I consider myself good at the sport, but I loved playing basketball. So no more asking “is singing an extracurricular? I’ve done it for 10 years but just for fun.” Just go for it.
The why essay: conduct your research thoroughly
Yes, the "Why Essay" is probably the one that you'll be able to recycle the most. But that doesn't mean you don't need to do in-depth research on each school you're applying to. Here are some things in particular that I researched for every school I applied to.
- $$$ Price $$$
- Location, safety. Finding a school with a good location to suit your major is huge. Make sure your school has the influence to help you get connected in its community for future internships, jobs, and more.
- Class sizes and student population
- School resources for personal projects (grants, seed funding, mentorship programs, etc.)
- Campus vibe - unigo.com was an awesome resource I used to get student perspectives on school spirit, greek life, activism on campus, etc.
And that's a brief summary of my past year, and some things I learned along the way. I hope these tips and my story can help you prospective applicants, since I know how hectic this time can be in your life. It's a tricky process to navigate, but honestly, everyone turns out fine in the end. You probably don't believe me, but it's still true.