Updated: Apr 29, 2022
By Maggie Mills
College application season during my senior year of high school were some of the most stressful months of my life. Not only did I have dozens of essays, interviews, and forms to complete, but I was gripped by an existential dread. What if I didn’t get into my dream school? What if I chose wrong? I felt that any misstep in the process would forever alter the course of my life. Now, as a second-year at the University of Chicago, I have a bit more perspective on the process. With perspective also came several realizations, below are a few things I wish I knew sooner.
1. There isn’t just one “right choice.”
It’s easy to become fixated on one school in particular. Perhaps it was your favorite tour, its programs seem the most robust, or it’s the number one school on your best friend’s list. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the college application process, it’s that there isn’t just one perfect-fit college for each person. By the time I applied for college, I had a list of five or six schools that all suited my interests. Their programs and campuses differed, but each had its strengths. Instead of judging schools based off of their standing, look at specific programs, majors, and internship or research opportunities.
2. Connections matter.
One incredibly important piece of college applications is letters of recommendation. Forging good relationships with your high school teachers, coaches, and administrators can open a multitude of doors. The better you get to know your teachers, the more they’ll have to write about when it comes time for letters of recommendation. Make sure that you’re attentive in class, get your work done on time, and let your personality shine. Coaches can vouch for your sportsmanship, ability to work in a team, and perseverance. School administrators and guidance counselors will be the ones who write your final letters of recommendation and send out your applications, so getting to know them allows for more personal letters.
Another incredibly important connection is each college’s admissions officer for your region. Attend information sessions and ask questions, send follow-up emails, and reach out to learn more about the school. Forging a connection with an admissions officer allows them to get to know your personality and put a face to your application, and it allows you to express interest in the college.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Oftentimes, the information presented in tours and college information sessions is very surface-level. The more granular details of student life, class size, club and internship opportunities, etc. are not always presented. Learning more about a school’s programs will not only inform your decision, but will also help you to write more specific and detailed application essays. Also, asking questions can inform you of any potential drawbacks of a school or program. For example, the computer science program might seem great on paper, but when you ask a current comp sci student about their experience, they might tell you that most of their classes are overcrowded and taught by teaching assistants rather than professors. Asking student tour guides about their personal experiences can give you a better idea of what day-to-day life at the university is like.
4. Essays are just as important as other elements of an application.
Throughout high school, I became fixated on crafting the perfect resume to impress my future college of choice. From admissions officers, guidance counselors, and older students, I was told that grades and extracurriculars are incredibly important when it comes to college applications. While it’s true that grades, extracurriculars, interview, and letters of recommendation are all critical elements of your application, your individual essays are arguably more important.
Firstly, your essays are the best way to help an admissions officer get to know you. Injecting humor, drawing from personal stories, and writing your essays with emotional integrity allow the person reviewing your application to get to know you on a personal level. Thousands of other students with perfect grades and exemplary extracurriculars are vying for the same spot, so your essays are the best way to distinguish yourself. While writing your essays, think about what motivates you or inspires you. Was there a person, event, or activity that shaped you into the person you are today? What are you passionate about?
Secondly, essays are the best way to demonstrate why you’re a good fit for each specific school on your list. You’ll be sending the same common application, resume, and transcript to every school, which is why most colleges require a supplemental essay. This essay is a chance to demonstrate interest (don’t be afraid to tell colleges that they’re your top choice!) and, more importantly, fit. Schools aren’t just looking for good students; they’re looking for students who will participate in class, make use of campus resources, and mesh well with the rest of the student body. Writing about what you would contribute to the campus community will help your application immensely.
5. Be yourself.
The college application process is scary and competitive, and it’s tempting to try to present a “perfect” version of yourself during interviews and in essays. However, being genuine throughout the process is a much better path. College representatives want to get to know you, and if you talk to them without worrying about presenting a particular image, you’ll leave a more memorable and authentic impression. Authentic conversations can also be a great indicator of whether a school is a good fit for you. Likewise, if you’re touring a college or speaking to current students, don’t force an unnatural conversation. If conversation is stilted, or if you don’t have much in common with students or faculty, that could be an indication that the school isn’t the best fit for you. Remember that the application process goes both ways. The primary goal is to receive admittance to a school, but the application process is also a good way to verify that a school is actually a good fit for you.
Maggie Mills is a second year political science major at the University of Chicago and proud alumni of Chagrin Falls High School.