In the Thick of It - College Admissions

written by Adeleine Halsey `21

The application process is many things - stressful, hectic, pressure-filled, and chaotic. Deadlines must be met. Revisions upon revisions must be made. Documents and transcripts and records must be gathered. I’m in the thick of it right now, but taking a break to share with you what today’s college application process looks like.

Before the application process begins, students, usually juniors, spend time narrowing down their applications list. Although this can be an overwhelming process, this was one of the least stressful steps for me. I geared my research towards programs specific to my major, rather than focusing on schools as a whole. This ultimately made it much easier to decide the schools that would make my list. My plan is to examine other important factors, such as campus and location, more closely after acceptance letters are released.  

October and November are the months seniors are submitting most of their Early Action applications. You write what feels like 2 dozen essays, answer basic informational questions, and fill out your grades and extracurriculars. Time to submit, right? Wrong. Now it’s time for the supplemental materials. Make your resume, apply for financial aid, submit anything and everything of your work that you take pride in. If you forget one piece of your required supplemental materials, your application is not accepted for that decision round. Like I said, stressful.

But hey, it’s okay, right? Ultimately, it will all pay off. You’re working hard, losing sleep, and fueling an intense caffeine addiction all because you’re going to be accepted to the school of your dreams! ….Wait….what do you mean “not necessarily”? It’s not definite? You mean, I might be rejected?? But what about all the work and attention to detail I put into my application?! What about all the nights throughout my high school career spent studying and doing homework until 2 am? What about the volunteering and activities and school committments I balanced while keeping up my GPA? How is that fair?

The answer is, it’s not. Unfortunately, seniors face the daunting possibility that we won’t be accepted into every school we apply to, regardless of how much we want it or how hard we’ve worked. Even when students think they’ve cracked the code to being accepted into competitive schools, they often face rejection. The general assumption is that maintaining a high GPA,  achieving strong test scores, and being active in your community and school are the accolades that lead to acceptance. The reality is that for every dream school we aspire to attend, there are thousands of other kids with identical credentials, who have also seemingly “cracked the code,” setting sights on the same schools. As a result, admissions officers sort through and toss aside stacks of applications that look exactly the same, and leave kids wondering what they could have done differently. 

I’ve watched video after video of kids enthusiastically detailing their journeys to acceptance at top tier schools, confessing they didn’t make straight A’s throughout their academic careers. I’ve seen valedictorians with perfect SAT scores receive rejection letters from the same schools. This begs the question - what IS the secret?

The answer is - there is no secret. There are too many factors to consider and too many logistics for there to be a perfect formula that leads to college acceptance. 

Now before you start feeling discouraged, thinking there’s no hope; it’s nothing but a lottery, and you’ll just have to cross your fingers after submission- don’t. Am I revealing the harsh realities of the application and admissions process? Yes. However, my goal is not to intimidate, but to help prepare others before the daunting process begins. 

There ARE ways to lessen the stress and chaos of the process, and even key details that can make a student’s application stand out from thousands of others with similar accolades. 

Work Ahead

Get the bulk of the work done before late October for Early Action, and before late December for Regular Decision (January 1st deadline), preferably in the summer. Don’t cram all the Early Decision applications into October, like me. Contrary to popular belief, senior year can be extremely academically challenging. Although I did get a headstart on some things in the summer, I would’ve and should’ve done more to lessen the workload for myself down the road. Essay-writing can feel like a full-time job. The summer before senior year, my strong recommendation is to start working on college essays. This is the most time-consuming part and will be most beneficial in the long run. 

Be Considerate

On a shorter but still important note, requesting letters of recommendation from teachers earlier rather than later is not only better for planning, but considerate for them, rather than asking a week or so before the application is due.

Use Your Skills and Passions

Lastly, doing what you’re passionate about and exemplifying it in all areas of your application is what schools want to see. Volunteering is great, and colleges like to see it. However, they would rather see you volunteering where you’re using your gifts and passions to make a difference than volunteering just to get hours. For example, going to a nursing home twice a week is a wonderful way to serve others, but if you love to play soccer, maybe volunteering as an assistant coach for a soccer club in an underprivileged area might be a better option. This shows schools that you’re being purposeful with the talents you have and are using them to better others. 

College admissions is a daunting process. It’s unbelievable to think that our future can be determined by an essay or two, a list of activities, and a GPA and test score. However, hard work and dedication pay off in the long run, regardless of what schools accept you. Getting a jumpstart on essays and applications will ease the stress of applications and lead to that moment when everything clicks like, “Wow, I’m finally here. This is really happening!” More kids and parents need to understand that often, it's not the school you’re accepted to that defines ultimate success, but the mindset and work ethic of the student. You can create opportunities for yourself wherever you go. Planning out your time and putting thought and effort into your application is just one step in the right direction.