It’s that time of the year again, folks. The flowers are in bloom, rain is gently pouring outside our windows, and college decisions are being made. Even as I’m writing this, I still can’t believe that this time has finally come! In one way or another, I’ve been preparing for this moment since the beginning of high school, but now that it’s here, it just doesn’t seem real. But, as Carrie Bradshaw would say, “at some point, a girl just has to let go of the could’ve, should’ve, would’ve”.
At this point my list is down to three schools, and now it’s just going to be a series of calculated decisions from financial aid, to the program, and let’s be honest… location. I’m happy with my choices and where I’ve ended up, but with a hindsight vision of 20/20, some things went great and others I definitely would have done differently. Here’s some advice from someone who just finally clawed her way out of the worst and is now on the other side:
Others’ Successes Don’t Negate Your Own:
Let’s face it: high schools, especially private schools, are giant pressure cookers where everyone is fighting for their place. Chess, Debate, Newspaper, Student Council, APs, honors classes, GPA–it’s always going to feel like someone is doing more than you. I remember looking at the people in my classes and being awestruck by what they were accomplishing. Some were starting nonprofits; others were nationally ranked athletes or members of Student Council, and all seemed to have stellar GPAs. When you’re surrounded by so many intelligent and successful people, it’s easy to start questioning your own accomplishments. But I guarantee you, one person’s success doesn’t negate your own!
If we’re looking at this from a college-centered perspective, here’s something schools really don’t stress enough: colleges want a well-rounded class. This means that not every student has to excel at absolutely everything! For example, my strengths are in the humanities. I’ve always been good at English, foreign languages, and history. Most of my friends, however, are stronger in math and science, and we have all excelled in our respective fields. Our differences are actually what make us a better group because there’s always a difference in perspective and we’re able to help one another with both academic and social issues.
Find Your Niche:
Going back to what I said before, colleges want a well-rounded class. You don’t have to be in the same clubs as everyone else because you think it’s going to make you seem more well-rounded. It can, if you’re truly good at what you do, but a lot of the time it makes you look a little flat and indecisive. You don’t have to check every single box to be a good student and a strong college candidate. Find something you love and dive into it! For instance, I’m a writer and have therefore gotten involved in pretty much every club and activity on campus that involves writing. I’m in the school paper, write for this fashion magazine, and have both submitted and edited work for the school’s art journal. If you love nothing more than solving algebraic equations all day, then go be in the math club! There was even a guy in my class that founded his own spike-ball club, and it was really successful! Hats off to him!
Finding your niche has several advantages. You’re getting involved and meeting a bunch of amazing like-minded people who you might not have known otherwise, and you’re doing something that makes you happy! Colleges LOVE it when a student is clearly enthusiastic about something, and if they’re not, it’s going to show pretty quickly. Also, finding your niche is really going to help the first semester of your senior year when you have to write your Common App essay.
Choosing Between the SAT and ACT:
I started test prep relatively late by my school’s standards — at the start of my junior year— and had no idea what test I was even going to take in the coming months! So to help all of you still deciding between the two tests, I’ve made a quick breakdown of the SAT vs the ACT.
The SAT has two math sections and two English sections, along with an essay. While there are typically less questions per section, the test goes into topics on a much deeper level than the ACT and requires a lot more critical thinking. I’m by no means saying the ACT is easy, but you definitely have to know your stuff on this test.
The ACT is made up of two English sections (reading comprehension and mechanics/grammar), along with a math and a science section and lastly, an optional essay. Here’s a tip: even if you’re not an amazing writer, do the essay! Many colleges “strongly encourage” (aka basically require) it now. Furthemore, on the ACT, the subject sections cover much more material than the SAT but don’t go as deeply into each topic. Many people are turned off by the ACT because of the heinous science section that covers everything from basic chemistry to introductory quantum physics; when I first took a practice test, I had no clue what I was looking at! But one insider tip that’s super helpful is the science section, when it comes down to it, is simply reading and analyzing graphs! Pick out key numbers and information from the question (plus disregard all of the stuff that makes your brain feel like it might explode) and try to match it to the graphs.
Picking APs and Class Schedules:
I didn’t take my first AP classes until I was a junior and boy, was that not a good idea! It might have worked for someone else, but for me, the classes actually ended up tanking my GPA more than they would have raised it because I was simply not used to that level of difficulty. That, paired with a poorly planned out and overloaded class schedule led to a train wreck of a first semester and an overall exhausting junior year. If you can, take one AP class your freshman or sophomore year when your GPA can still take that hit, so you can get used to the level of difficulty and the course load. This way, by the time you’re a junior/senior and every single grade matters, you’re well-adjusted (more-or-less). Still, remember to not overdo it. Everything works best in moderation!
Moving on choosing classes, make sure you’re not overworking yourself! I took seven classes my junior year (one of which was during zero period) and continuously kicked myself for making that decision throughout the year. I thought taking more classes would somehow make me smarter and would give me an amazing GPA. But here’s the ugly truth… it didn’t. I was still the same person, but now I was stuck with an insane course load that worked against me. Additionally, make sure you’re choosing classes that you’re actually interested in! There’s nothing harder than trying to do well in a class that you hate, so do yourself a favor and build a schedule around what you want to do for the most part and not based on a vague perception of the “ideal student”.
No GPA is Worth Compromising Your Health (Emotional or Physical):
It’s 3 AM again. Your eyes feel like they have cinder blocks attached to them, but you..must..finish..the..bio..homework. You’re chugging down your third double-shot espresso and have come to terms with having to go another night without any sleep. Your throat is sore, and it feels like the room is getting hotter by the second. Yes, you’re sick and sleep deprived, but are you going to stay home and rest? No! You’re going to go to school because of that quiz, test, presentation or try-out that you simply can’t miss because if you do, that’ll be the end for you. Right? WRONG!
Of course, school is important, but so is taking care of yourself and staying healthy! So put down your pencil, shut your laptop, let your eyes finally close, and email your teacher in the morning saying you’re not coming and need to reschedule. They’re human; trust me, they’ll understand! No, you’re not being weak or lazy; you’re being proactive! If you keep pushing yourself and don’t allow time to recharge, you will eventually hit a burnout point, and it’s not going to be pretty… Also no one, NO ONE, performs their best while ill or exhausted, so you’re improving the quality of your work by giving yourself time to rest. Also, you’re being considerate and not passing on whatever you have to others, so extra bonus points for you!
Managing Your Mental Health:
It’s no secret that a person’s mental health is one of the first things to go when having to operate and survive in a continuously stressful situation. Ladies and gents, I’m no psychologist but I can tell you from personal experience that mental health is not something to be taken lightly. Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, OCD, Bipolar Disorder, etc. are very real, terrifying, and some of the worst and most difficult things a person will ever have to encounter. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the end of my sophomore year and am, for the most part, able to manage it through means such as meditation, talking to people I trust, and exercise, along with a few mental tricks. But, that definitely isn’t the case for everyone. If you feel that something is wrong, please, I am begging you, talk to someone! A friend, your family, a teacher, a school counselor or ideally, a therapist. You might feel all alone now, but I promise you that there’s someone in your life who loves you and cares about you and wants to see you get better. Not to get too spiritual, but I truly think everyone has been put here for a reason and that reason is not for you to suffer in silence. Your friends, family, and other loved ones would so much rather hear you tell them that something’s going on than to get that dreaded phone call one day that tells them you’re gone.
For anyone battling serious depression or suicidal thoughts, I’ve attached the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline here: 1 (800) 273 8255.
Dealing With Drama, Drama, Drama:
Fun to watch but super annoying to be in the middle of– am I right? In an ideal world drama wouldn’t exist, people wouldn’t be catty and everyone would get along great! I’d love to live in that world. But, sadly that’s not the case, especially in high school. Someone’s always talking smack or feeding the rumor mill. My best advice for you here is to remain Switzerland unless deemed absolutely necessary. Don’t get involved and mind your own business (or at least sit back and watch in order to learn something from it). You are under no obligation to choose sides or get involved in issues that don’t concern you. They’re a waste of your time and energy! If someone tries to start something with you, brush it off and keep it moving; that’s the ultimate power move because it shows that you have no time for anyone’s pettiness. You have more important things to worry about!
At this point you’re probably starting to think about where you want to apply. Honestly, if your parents are willing and able to pay the application fee, apply to as many places as you want/can! Of course, don’t just metaphorically shoot in a bucket— actually do some research on the schools you’re applying to. What programs do they have? Would you be happy in that town or city? What internship and study abroad opportunities are there? Do you want to go to a big school or a tiny liberal arts college? It’s all up to you!
My initial college list was eighteen schools, but I gradually whittled it down to eleven. For some that’s enormous and for others it’s barely a list, but at the time I thought applying to eleven schools was a great idea. I had a good balance of targets, reaches, and safeties and could take the time to carefully craft each application. Now, I wish I had applied to a couple more. My list was meticulously drafted given the information I had at the time, but in hindsight, there are definitely some schools I would have applied to had I known about them. Do your research people! I’m happy with my final three choices, but if I could go back and do this process all over again, my list might have been closer to thirteen or fourteen schools instead of eleven. But, that’s a matter of personal choice. This is not a universal rule of thumb for college apps.
One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this process is that college admissions are a gamble. Even if you think you have no chance of getting in somewhere, still apply. It honestly doesn’t hurt! Maybe they’re looking for someone exactly like you to round out their freshman class. Or, on the flip side, maybe you thought you for sure would get into some place, but end up getting deferred, waitlisted, or denied. That’s more than fine too. It just means you weren’t exactly what they were looking for that year, and that isn’t on you.
Filling Out Financial Aid and Scholarship Forms:
FAFSA and the CSS Profile are long and painful forms, but they can be a lifesaver when it comes to cutting down on costs for college. Unless you’re planning on attending an in-state school or a junior college, college is EXPENSIVE! There’s a reason why people are still paying off their student loans into their thirties! Even if you’re fortunate enough to not have to worry about the price tag on a college education, still apply for financial aid. It only helps you! You might also qualify for scholarships that you didn’t even know were available such as merit scholarships, athletic scholarships, and specific interest scholarships (although that’s more pre-med and STEM). Also, sign up for scholarship websites! You never know when you might get lucky and get an extra couple thousand dollars to help pay for your education. Just take advantage of every resource and opportunity you have!
To ED or Not to ED:
Early Decision is a binding contract you enter with one college (and only one) where you say that if that school admits you, you will retract your applications from all other colleges to go there. As someone with mild commitment issues, that wasn’t the route for me (side note: make sure you go on at least some tours before starting the application process). I applied Early Action to most of my schools and a few Regular Decision. If you’ve been dreaming about a college since middle school and have been to the campus and have enjoyed talking to current students and alumni, then Early Decision might be the perfect fit. If you’re interested, but still want to keep your options open, then Early Action is the way to go.
Where Are You Applying/Where Are You Going?
Some people like me have no problem sharing where they’re applying and where they’ve been accepted. Others guard their college list like it holds nuclear codes. And newsflash: either way is completely fine! Ultimately, the college process is a deeply personal thing and no two peoples’ experience will be the same. Just please, however you choose to approach it, be respectful of other people’s decisions! If you want to yell every submitted application or acceptance from the rooftops, be my guest! But don’t force others to do the same if they’re not comfortable with it. And, if your college list is guarded better than state secrets, that’s your choice. However, if someone else wants to share, let them!
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end— I’m so, so proud of you! These are just a few of my tips on how to survive the last two years of high school, and if I wrote any more, I have a feeling that people would start falling asleep. I guess this will have to do for now.
Remember, although it’s a long, painstaking journey, in the end, it’ll be worth it. You’ll end up somewhere great, and I promise you that you can be happy at many, many different schools. You’ve got this. I believe in you. Now go get ‘em!