August 14, 2014

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.

2. Don't go overboard or jump the gun
One of the rules I wish I had followed (or at least somewhat acknowledged) was the 2:3:2 ratio--2 safeties, 3 matches, 2 reaches. I was close to adhering with my 8 schools (OSU, Case Western, Emory, WashU, Vanderbilt, Amherst, Harvard, Princeton), but after being deferred by Princeton SCEA, that went completely out the window. I felt insecure about my options, so I proceeded to add 4 more.

I'll be completely honest: it was not an effective use of my time. I didn't know the last four schools well enough, and my hasty applications were far from polished. Furthermore, I submitted extremely close to the deadlines, and schools can tell when you're tossing in applications just for the heck of it; they monitor who visits and when you apply. (Also don't apply to schools just because they have no supplements or there's no submission fee, unless you've demonstrated genuine interest).

It's completely unnecessary to apply to more than 10 schools. It may be daunting to whittle down to the suggested 7 with thousands of options, but I promise you: not many schools will be best-fits. When you consider size, location, weather, activities, financial aid, programs, and many other important factors, your list should've shrunk dramatically; if not, you need to be more selective. Furthermore, quality supplements take quality time to write, and it's much easier to focus on 7 supplements than 12. If you're having trouble deciding, some of the most useful resources were Big FutureCollege Prowler, and College Confidential.

After you've created your concrete list and are completing apps, I also suggest not submitting the Common App to each school until you've finished its supplement. That way, if you run out of time, you don't lose the submission fee.

3. Keep financial aid in mind
If cost is essential in your ability to attend college, please consider the percent financial need your college meets and whether it's no-loan before applying. After receiving decisions last spring, I had to eliminate two acceptances immediately because of insufficient financial aid; there is nothing worse than laboring over applications to receive offers that you can't even consider. For a list of schools that meet 100% need without loans, read this article here. Also, be sure to check if your college is need-blind, meaning your financial need will not affect your admissions decision. Schools that are need-aware may be more hesitant to accept students who need financial aid.

I would also be extremely wary of average financial aid package stats. They're often misleading, because students who receive full rides inflate the numbers. Even if you consider yourself a member of the middle class, there's no guarantee that you'll receive the average financial aid package. For an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), visit the College Board's Net Price Calculator; for me, it was extremely accurate.

Basically, be sure to apply to at least one financial safety school--a college where you'll likely be admitted and would be happy to attend, but also a place that you can definitely afford without loans.  
4. Brace yourself for an emotional roller coaster
The college admissions process can easily resemble a tumultuous relationship: people fall in love with schools  (the initial visit) that lead them on (being deferred or waitlisted) and then break their hearts (being rejected). It doesn't happen to everyone, but it's certainly not uncommon. Don't become too attached to a certain school, because it may blind you from truly seeing other options. 

You will sometimes want to bawl and you will sometimes want to happy dance. It's completely normal. After a few highs and lows, you may even become tolerant of plunges. A deferral, rejection, or waitlist is nothing personal, and certainly not a reflection of your value as a person. Remember that, keep your chin up, and do your best to enjoy the ride. 

5. Use social media judiciously
The summer before senior year, I vowed not to make a peep on social media until I committed to a school. Too often is the college search about bragging rights than true fit--it doesn't really matter where you're accepted; it matters where you end up. You may just be genuinely excited about your acceptance, but pause and remember that not everyone may be experiencing the same joy. If you wait until late spring, most emotions should be in check, and your plans should be solid. ED acceptances are an exception since you'll for sure be attending that school, but please do your best to be considerate; the internet is not the place to celebrate excessively.

6. Have others proofread
For essays, this tip is commonplace. For the actual Common App, perhaps not so much. What makes sense to you about your activities or achievements may not be clear to an admissions officer. Before you submit, be sure to have a counselor, friend, or parent read your application details and point out any parts that need clarification. They may also catch mistakes--for example, I always thought that National Honor Society had an "s" on the "Honor," so in my apps, I listed "National Honors Society" as an achievement. While this typo may seem petty, it was easily preventable, and the more polished the app, the better.
7. Organize and backup
You'll be dealing with a lot of information, so make sure you can find what you need easily. While I was still polishing my college list, I created a chart (above left) as an easy visual for which schools fit me best. The horizontal axis features possible schools, while the vertical axis displays characteristics that I sought, such as specific programs and activities. Underneath the chart is the notebook I used to take notes on specific colleges; when you visit campus, be sure to jot down details such as how you feel, what the admissions officers say, and any unique qualities. You can later use this notebook to brainstorm interview questions and take notes during accepted students visits.

As you're writing essays, I also suggest backing up all files; I've seen the horror story of losing your document after polishing it actually occur. Rather than carry a physical USB with me everywhere, I opted to upload each draft onto Google Docs. On Google Docs, you can also create folders to organize your drafts and final essays so you don't have 10 different versions of "Common App Essay" lying around. (Oops!)

You will also encounter multiple username and password combos for each college website. Requirements may vary and some may even prompt you to change passwords every 90 days. Using the same password for every site may not fly--so in order to keep track of all my info, I created an email draft listing my username by school and cue words to help me remember each password. If you haven't already, I'd also create an email account solely for college admissions. Keep it professional, and afterwards, you can even use it for job/intern searching or more formal correspondence.

8. Remember that nothing is guaranteed
You cannot predict admissions. Exhibit A: I was waitlisted by one of my safety schools, which has a 40% acceptance rate (in comparison, the school I'll be attending has an 11% RD acceptance rate). Exhibit B: Students who were accepted by Stanford, UPenn, Dartmouth, Caltech, or other extremely selective schools were also waitlisted. 

As I mentioned earlier, schools aim for the highest yield possible, so some will waitlist qualified applicants who they think will enroll elsewhere; others do it to shed their image as a safety school. This is known as Tufts Syndrome. But also remember that admissions officers are looking for fit, so it's possible that they believe qualified waitlisted students aren't exactly the right match. Regardless of admissions offices' intentions, don't expect to be accepted by a school just because you have the credentials--there are plenty of well-qualified applicants who just may be a better fit. In the end, it's no one's loss; the school selects a distinctive community, and you end up happier elsewhere.

9. Enjoy senior year
As crazy and stressful as it is, it's quite possibly the best year of high school. So live it up! Two of my favorite parts of senior year were new activities--going to cross country camp and joining my city's youth orchestra--and both were so meaningful that they weaseled their way into my essays. 

You'll no doubt be busy, but make time for friends and new adventures. College apps or no college apps, life is still life--savor it. The end of high school and your familiar routine is closer than it feels; soon enough, you'll be hugging your friends and family goodbye before embarking on your next greatly-anticipated voyage: college.

I refrained from including too much personal info in this post, such as stats and admissions decisions, but if you'd like them for reference, feel free to email me at [email protected] You may also print this article if you so wish here. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have needs for clarification or further questions about my experiences--I'd be happy to help. 

All in all, college admissions is a learning process that uncannily resembles life; it's not always fair, it's not always fun, but rest assured that it is what you've made of your previous opportunities and what you make of the ones to come.
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Join the conversation!

  1. Blimey Lily!!! You put a lot of work into that. The US system sounds a lot more complicated than the UK one.
    What ARE the tests you have to do at the end of high school? How much is compulsory and how much is optional? What grades can you get?

    I found this fascinating, complicated and bewildering as a Brit but I imagine hugely useful as a us student. Ooh off to read your essay because I'm just nosy!!


  2. Just read your essay-TOTALLY different from the UK essay, which is a personal statement about you, your skills and ambitions. Very well written though. I am laughing at the fact you wrote about pooing on your app!!! X

  3. This post is packed with useful information! Great job dear!
    Coco et La vie en rose / Bloglovin / Facebook

  4. Hey Boo! It's Kanyin!
    This was brilliant! And even though I've already gone through the process, I still was able to learn things about the college application process. I'll be proud to share this with other incoming seniors.

  5. what a system, wow! after high school I chose only one university (the best one in Estonia/also decent in whole Europe and known in the whole world actually since students from all over the world come there). I only needed good exam results to get in and those I luckily had so that was it, I was in and just had to find a place where to live during those 3 years while studying environmental technology. oh, I moved 50 km from home so not very far but Estonia is small anyway, hehe. now I'm back in my hometown and working since 2008! but to you I wish all the luck and I'm already looking forward to reading all your college stories (I myself was a crazy party girl during those years and by crazy I mean too crazy, haha).

    Maikeni blogi - part of me

  6. Oh gosh what a system there you had! I remember when I about to enter university I pass the paper and health test then I get in. Not that easy thou but not as complicated as this... (or maybe it only just because I think it is?). I'm on the top of the year, which means that our class is the oldest in our university already lol. can't believe that finally I'll graduate next year (hopefully, amen), feels like I just get in. Enjoy the ups and down! wishing you a lot of luck!


  7. Your advice is well appreciated and helpful to others looking to break into the college realm. As a blogging friend, I wish you the absolute best in your collegiate adventures. Your positive spirit and energy will see you through almost any challenge or endeavor yet to come in your life. Make the most of each day and show that enduring spirit. I know you're a distance runner, but college will feel more like a triathlon in terms of grueling and unforgiving situations. I know you can do it regardless. Do your best!


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