College Admissions: Advice from a College-Bound Freshman

August. For me, it means savoring the final weeks of summer and packing for college move-in. For high school seniors, however, the stakes are much higher. August for them means a scramble to finish neglected summer work, grueling mandatory sports practices, and perhaps most intimidating of all: the release of the Common Application

For them, college applications no longer rest at a comfortable distance in the future--they are real, they are here, and they are now. The application process is undoubtedly overwhelming, but it's completely manageable. There are a few things, however, that either I or my classmates wish we had known before embarking on this tumultuous journey. I'm definitely not an expert, but I've learned much from my own experiences and observations, and hope to help as much as I can. Below is a casual guide including my personal advice to make the next few months as smooth as possible. 

Note: In case you were wondering, I'll be attending Amherst College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts. I applied to multiple private colleges, many of which were selective, so these tips will likely be more relevant to students who plan to do the same. Also, this post does contrast greatly with my usual content, so if you're a regular blog reader, don't feel inclined to plow through this. I did include, however, links to a couple essays I had mentioned in earlier posts, so feel free to scroll down to the bottom of number 1 for those. See you soon with an outfit/ramblings post!

1. Know the basics
ED vs. EA vs. SCEA vs. RD vs. Rolling
So much confusion surrounds the types of applications that I'll actually cover this before types of schools. Below is a handy little chart I made using Google Draw that briefly explains the differences. If you'd like to print it, you can find the document here.
To remember the difference between ED and EA (most commonly confused), note that "decision" in ED indicates that you have already made your decision; you will attend that school if accepted. "Action" in EA, on the other hand, simply means that you're acting ahead of normal deadline time.

If a school offers ED, then it will not offer EA and vice versa. All the early applications, however, show interest and dedication to the school, which may increase likelihood of admission. But this is particularly true for ED, the binding option. Schools want to have as high a yield (percent that accept offer of admission) as possible, and agreeing to attend if accepted positively contributes to their stats.

ED, however, is not for everyone. Since you must withdraw all apps to other schools if you're accepted, you cannot compare or negotiate financial aid packages. If maximizing financial aid is important to you, it may be unwise to apply ED. Read up on your school's financial aid policies and see number 3 for more info.

To clarify, SCEA and Rolling admissions are both more obscure; you'll likely not encounter them unless you apply to the most prestigious Ivies (Harvard, Princeton, Yale), or large state schools (Alabama, Arizona), respectively. There is even a 6th type of app, which is EDII (basically a delayed ED with later deadlines and later notification dates) that I didn't even include in the chart, and schools such as Vanderbilt and Davidson offered this option last year. 

Two other terms you should know are deferrals and likely letters. They're completely unrelated, but they're two admissions notifications that I encountered and had to research. A deferral may occur if you apply ED, EA, or SCEA, but the school is unsure if your application is strong enough, so they move your app to the regular decision pool for further review. If this happens, you won't receive a decision until RD notification. Deferrals are less common for ED, but are definitely present for EA and SCEA; the prominent Ivies, for example, often defer the majority of their SCEA applicants (see here). 

Likely letters, on the other hand, indicate you're a strong applicant who has caught the school's attention; you will be accepted if no outstanding changes to your candidacy occur. They're usually sent a month or two in advance of RD notification to make more time for you to visit campus or to invite you to participate in a recruitment program. For example, I received a likely letter from Vanderbilt in early February that invited me to an on-campus diversity weekend in mid-March. 

Research university vs. LAC:
The biggest difference is size--research universities are often much larger than liberal arts colleges. This is partially because research universities include both graduate students and undergrads, while liberal arts colleges have only undergrads; if you subtract the grads, however, a research university is often still larger than an LAC. At a research university, you'll likely find larger lectures but perhaps more opportunities (emphasis on professor research, graduate classes, more programs). At a liberal arts college, you'll likely find fewer programs, but much more attention in class. If you plan to go to grad school, liberal arts may be a wise choice because professor recommendations will usually be more personal. Either way, it really comes down to personal preference--it is very possible to go to a prestigious grad school from a research university and it's just as possible to research at a liberal arts college.

SAT subject tests:
If you're considering more selective schools, please don't forget to check their testing requirements. For many, you must submit at least 2 SAT subject tests to be considered for admission. These tests are much less painful than the normal SAT; SAT subject tests are only an hour long and concentrate on one subject, such as Chem or Lit. If you plan to apply ED, EA, or SCEA, be sure to sign up for the October test date. 

Ask early (now, if you haven't yet); you should give at least a month in advance, but earlier is even better to beat the rush. Teachers you've had in your upperclassmen years are preferable, and if you need two, aim for ones of different subject areas, like English and Science. You may also need a counselor rec, and be sure to ask in advance as well; it's a crazier time than usual for them, and they take care of many students. On the Common App, waive your right to read these recs--it shows that you trust your teachers and counselor to speak of you positively. And once the craziness dies down, be sure to show your appreciation with a thank you card, and keep them updated on your search.

These are a time to reflect on what you've done and who you've become. You don't need to tell your entire life story for admissions officers to get a sense of who you are, and you don't need to be super formal and serious. Give them an insightful slice of your life and be yourself--if you were to drop your essay on the floor without a name, people should be able to decipher who wrote it. Since the Common App prompts haven't changed from last year, feel free to read my essay here. It's pretty unconventional, which is a testament that essays probably won't make or break your app. Aim for a well-written, personal piece and you're good to go.

As for supplements, one of the most common is "briefly describe or elaborate on an extracurricular activity" or "why [school]?" It's smart to recycle if your schools have the same prompts, and don't feel guilty for doing so (but please don't recycle for the "why [school]" prompt--that would be bad). You can take a look at my activities supplement here, and see how I edited it to adhere to word limits.

Relax, most of them are casual conversations. Dress up, but don't look overly formal; I suggest a sports team dress-up day outfit. Be ready to talk about your activities and answer questions such as "why did you apply to [school]" and "how do you see yourself contributing to [school]." Come prepared with your own questions--what was your favorite professor like? Why drew you to [school]? Best and worst part? Follow up with a thank you email.


Blazer, Kohl's | Dress, Kohl's | Oxfords, Forever 21 | Necklace, Macy's
Sifting through the stacks of dark-wash skinny jeans, I inspected the table display, methodically confirming that the sizes ascended in numerical order, then tucking tags into pockets. After a few switches and touchups on folding, I stepped back, observing the organized denim piles with satisfaction. 

The pieces draped over my arm, however, reminded me that I had more to do: run rejected fitting room items back. Glancing at the labels, I headed for the summery displays in the back. I never made it; upon spotting a trio of lost-looking Asian girls, I paused.

"Are you finding everything all right?"

Eyes wide, the tallest and oldest-looking girl seemed caught off guard. "We...ahh...are look..." she began, scrunching her eyebrows in concentration, " for"

The hesitation. The accent. The lanyards with name tags. They were foreigners, but I couldn't immediately deduce exact ethnicity.

So I responded accordingly. "Okay, dresses? Are you looking for formal ones, or more casual?"

They looked at each other for a moment. Then, as if suddenly understanding, they vehemently shook their heads. "No formal. No formal."

"Okay, let me take you to BP then, our teen department. The dresses on this side will be too formal and really expensive."

As we walked, I attempted to inconspicuously catch a glance at their name tags, hoping it would clue me in on their home nation. It was going to be a long search if we had to conduct our conversations in English, struggling to understand each other. 

I finally gave up and just asked. "So where are you guys from? I noticed your name tags."

They looked at each other again. The most petite girl caught on first. She held out her name tag; underneath her name, it read Shanghai, China. And as confirmation, I heard a resounding chorus of voices. "China!"
I felt both relief and adrenaline. "Oh, you guys came from Shanghai? I speak a little bit of Chinese. Here," I paused, wondering if my oral skills would suffice, but plunged in anyways, "Ni men zai zao shen me? What are you looking for?" I figured it was best to start from the beginning. 

The middle height girl chirped up. "Wo men zai zao qun zi, jiu shi, wo men bu yao tai zhen shi de. We're looking for dresses, but we don't want them to be too formal."

It took a moment, but I understood. "Ni men zai nar yao chuan zhe xie qun zi? Where will you wear these dresses?"

"Wo men lai mei guo can jia yi ge xia lin ying. Jing tian wan shang you ge wu hui. We came to America for a camp. Tonight there's a dance."

Somehow, I understood them. Somehow, they understood me. Somehow, they left the store with everything they needed in twenty minutes. 

Because that's all the time they had. The dance was that night, but they needed to meet their group at another store at 1:45. It was 1:20. With the aid of a BP salesperson and frantic translations, we dug up two dresses (the third girl declined, saying that one she already had sufficed), three bandeaus, one belt, and one pair of shoes. 

And I learned a little bit about them along the way. All of them were around high school freshman age, and they had traveled to an American college for a month-long camp to learn English. They were extremely sweet, and even tried to give me a tip as they left (which I politely declined). 

Bags in tow, the girls smiled gratefully, waving goodbye and calling a heartfelt "Xie xie! Thank you!"

I returned their smiles and waves, feeling a strange mixture of accomplishment, relief, and wistfulness. I watched them exit the doors into the summer sunshine, then returned to my department with a new bounce in my step.
Vest, Big Star | Dress, Abercrombie | Watch, Guess | Flip-flops, Bandolino
The girls told me that they wouldn't have been able to find anything without my help. I did wonder shortly after what would've happened if I hadn't reached out. If I hadn't been working that day. If I had never accepted a seasonal job at Nordstrom. None of my co-workers on the second floor that day spoke Chinese. Would they have left empty-handed?

Life is so circumstantial. One tiny detail can change a day, a week, a month, perhaps even years. I ponder this often, especially relative to people and activities--who would I be if I hadn't met my closest friends? What would I be doing if I hadn't picked up the violin? If I hadn't begun running?

It's intimidating, especially as a college-bound freshman. Some of my upcoming decisions will carry much weight. The activities I choose may define my college experiences. The friends I make may define my happiness. The courses I take may define my career path.
It's so easy to become overwhelmed and to over-analyze (who, me? overanalyze?). Those Chinese girls may have had more trouble finding their dresses if I hadn't been there, but the fact is that I was there. I may have led a completely disparate life with different friends and hobbies, but reality is the life I live and enjoy now. 

The curiousity of separate fates is natural and inevitable. It reminds me of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," in which the speaker contemplates two diverging paths in the woods that are equally appealing; he can only select one, knowing that he will likely not return once on his way. Life may not be a choose-you-own-adventure book--you cannot rewind time and redo--but you can change your direction in the present. If you wish you had picked a hobby up years ago, do it now. If you wish that you had known someone earlier, enjoy the time you do have with them. If you don't like the way things are going, find the courage to change them, and don't be afraid to seek guidance. This is especially reassuring for me.

I'm ready to tackle college. There may be detours and there will be roadblocks, but I'm well-equipped to face them. With the right attitude and a bit of luck, I hope and believe that everything will fall into place. 
Working was certainly valuable for me--I learned and experienced much more than I ever imagined. I feel wistful every now and then that I've finished my scheduled shifts, but know it's for the best (Nordstrom offered me a full-time sales job after my support job for the anniversary sale ended, but I had to decline because the hours were too hefty). It's August; summer is fleeting, like my job, and all other good things. It hit me today that I won't see my family, friends, and hometown for three months after I arrive on campus. 

So here's to maximizing what's left. From this photoshoot with my best friend Gabrielle (you last met her in this post here) to a 15-miler with my running buddy to carefree movie gatherings and all the adventures in between.

Here's to living.

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