Applying to colleges is not something that you do or don’t do. Rather it is a process that is more effective the earlier you begin it. The process involves first getting to know and addressing your interests, your strengths, and your areas of need. It also involves researching schools, majors, and experiences you might want to pursue in the future. Unfortunately, it’s also a process that creates tremendous anxiety among students and families. While the stakes seem high and the competition steep, it’s never too late to do personal and college research that will improve your chances of success in college admissions. To exemplify this truth, let me tell you a story about Adam.
Adam walked into my office as a very confident sophomore. He had achieved academic and social success throughout his time in middle and high school, and was convinced his prosperity would continue. Since classes had been relatively easy for him, he was investing his energy in improving what interested him most: his athletic prowess. His efforts paid off, and he achieved acclaim in sports as an underclassman. He developed solid relationships with peers and teammates, and spent a lot of time developing his character and his values. He was motivated to do well in school, have a fulfilling social life, and to avoid the stress and tension he experienced at home.
As I do when I meet all new students, I got to know Adam and introduced him to “the college application process.” Adam didn’t really get what I was talking about, and sort of dismissed the whole idea. Submitting college applications is something you do or do not do, he thought, so why is it called a process? He thought he was doing everything right: attending school, building skills and content knowledge, and studying material at an increasingly complex level. He was in SAT class, strategically preparing for and taking the appropriate standardized tests. What else did he need to do?
When I met him, there were many things about the future that Adam hadn’t considered. He hadn’t asked how he could challenge himself early, particularly with mathematics, in a way that would open options of an advanced course load in high school? (By the end of high school he was interested in business, and a more advanced math course-load would have given him an advantage.) Beyond basketball, he hadn’t investigated which activities, in or out of school, that he could participate in to identify, deepen his knowledge of, engagement with, and fluency discussing his interests. He hadn’t examined his strengths and areas of need to determine how he could grow the former and overcome the latter.
Fortunately Adam and I were able to tackle some of those hard questions together, and he joined summer programs and school clubs related to his interest in business. Asking the right questions can help anyone prioritize with an eye toward the future. Even still, Adam didn’t anticipate that as he got older and progressed in school, things in class and in sports would get so much harder for him. Once the star of the JV team, he was riding the bench on varsity by mid-junior year. Once a straight-A student in honors classes, he was a B student in AP classes. Had Adam focused earlier on building his strengths while also prioritizing recognizing and overcoming his areas of needs, he might have faced fewer challenges in 11th and 12th grade. But no one can go back, and as senior year approached, Adam and his dad started freaking out about his choices for college. Thankfully, though Adam was not at the top of his class or keeping pace with his most diligent friends, he still had many options for influencing his future.
Adam’s dad wanted him to apply only to top 10 business programs, and to spend all of his time studying relentlessly for the SAT and his AP classes. Adam still wanted to do his best, but recognized that he could not compete with his peers at the top of his class. It was only after high-anxiety kicked in that Adam started taking the college application process more seriously. When he expressed nervousness that he wouldn’t have any options for colleges, I encouraged him to start researching. I helped him research schools and majors, admission rates, student perspectives, and strong programs within less strong schools. Then he started researching themes and topics related to his own interests—he read current events about sports, research articles about leadership, and course catalogues of schools. By the end of junior year, Adam had an unweighted GPA of 3.7 and an 1800 on his SAT. More importantly, though, by the start of his senior year Adam also had done sufficient research to make informed and appropriate decisions for his college applications.
Even if you (like Adam) don’t really start thinking about college until your junior year of high school, there are still ways you can improve your chances of admission. In particular: RESEARCH! Perhaps the biggest challenge my students face is that they do not know enough about enough colleges and universities. Most students—like Adam and his dad—have heard of the biggest and most famous schools, which makes sense: they’re the biggest and most famous schools. But just because you (or your parents’ friends) are not familiar with a school doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. Forbes Magazine has repeatedly ranked Pomona College as one of the top five colleges in the country, but many people on the east coast have never heard of it—perhaps this has something to do with the fact that its enrollment is just 1,650. Indiana University, Bloomington is ranked #75 by US News and World Report, but their undergraduate business school is ranked #7. If you limit your judgments of schools to only what you’ve heard and already know, you’re also severely limiting your chances of access to great schools and programs.
Research is one of the most essential and oft ignored components of the college application process, but it is 100% the reason why Adam was so successful in his college admissions. Too many students consider only the limited number of schools and majors they’ve heard of, or only apply to schools or majors recommended to them by adults. Although adult recommendations can be useful, ultimately it is students who must be willing and excited to attend a college and study a discipline. If all schools offer career counseling, a wide array of majors, study abroad options, alumni networks, and seemingly unlimited clubs and activities, how can you decide which schools are right for you? Research. If you can major in Economics, Psychology, and Chemistry at just about any school in the country, how can you decide to pick one over the other? Research. Many of the colleges you apply to will ask why you want to attend and what you want to study; your answers to these questions include some of the most important information in your application! If colleges don’t really believe you, why would they accept you? How can you learn the most about why you and a college are compatible? Research.
Armed with loads of information that Adam and I had found together, he was able to convince his father to allow him to apply to a range of schools that were appropriate for him; the list included a few reach schools and a few safety schools, but mostly schools that were a good fit for his profile and interests. When it came time to write his essays describing himself, he was able to synthesize different areas of interest he had reflected on and researched. To compose his “why this school?” and “why this major?” essays, he drew from ample notes he had taken from poring over college websites, reaching out to alumni, and exploring blogs and articles about colleges. His efforts were bold and focused, and resulted in his admission to all of his safety schools and a couple of his targets, as well as positions on the waitlist of some of his targets and reach schools. One of the reach schools where he was waitlisted was also his dream school: University of California, Berkeley.
So Adam did what he had already learned to do well: he started researching. He read the school’s mission statement and historical documents. He went through all the majors and minors that he had ever had any related interest to. He investigated school clubs, organizations, and current events. And when he sat down to write his waitlist essay, he was able to identify all the ways he and Berkeley are compatible, including specific and substantiated details. Adam was so well prepared to write this essay that it was almost like a labor of love. With an SAT score 80 points below the lowest average, a high school GPA lower than 85% of students, and an essay that truly exemplified why he wanted to go to Berkeley and would be an asset to the community, Adam was accepted.
Learn from Adam. Instead of dwelling on what you haven’t done in the past, focus on what you can do in the future. Don’t expect that you can or should know everything from the start, but rather invest in your knowledge, information, skills, and talents through research and reflection. Embrace the college application process, and give yourself the choices you want.
Bridge Education Senior Counselor