Before we even begin diving into getting into a college you'd like to attend, I want to ask you to ask yourself:
Do you even want to go to college in the first place?
I mean that. Ask yourself seriously: "Do I want to go to college?"And then ask yourself some more questions:
- Do you want to be in school for 2-4 more years?
- Are in interested in academic learning? Are you interested in being mainly in a classroom for 2-4 more years?
- Do YOU want to go to college or do your parents want you to go to college?
- Is there another avenue/vocation that you are denying yourself because you think you must go to college? Do you want to work with your hands, be a carpenter, construction worker, wood-working? Do you want to start your own business that does not require college?
You do not have to have exact or full answers for any of these questions. Most 17-year-old folks in high school do not. Many college students and graduates still do not. And that is absolutely okay. But I want you to think about your answers before you engage in the application process because I think that many people just feel like they have to go to college. It’s a given. And so they do. Our world — specifically the United States — seems to tell us that there is no other way to succeed. But that isn’t true. There are so many other things that you can do in this world that are purposeful and impactful and do not require college. Some of the most successful people in the world did not go to or did not finish college (Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Gates, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, to name a few).
Many other countries have significant apprenticeship avenues for folks interested in other kinds of labor but the US has yet to normalize these options. I think the K-12 education system in this country fails so many kids who just don’t learn well in classrooms and were never meant to sit behind a desk. If you are someone like that, it might be worth considering another avenue that would be better suited to your skills and passions, and would make you feel both happier and more purposeful.
This also does NOT mean that college isn’t for you if you don’t know what to do. College can be great for helping you figure that out! A few reasons to go to college, even if you feel lost or unsure:
- College is a great place to meet new people, to learn from new folks, and to be exposed to more diversity than what you experienced in your hometown. The social learning many folks do in college is just as (if not more) valuable than the academic experience.
- If you don’t know what you want to do, college is a great place to experiment with academic vocations and skills. And, it’s a great place to try out other new hobbies — joining clubs, sports, social activist groups, etc.
- I learned a lot about myself in college — completely removed from academic exploration — and I think that’s invaluable.
All of this is to ask that you think critically about what is best for you. What do you want to do?
Alright. Now that you’ve gotten through all of that, here we go.
I am reluctant to suggest specific deliverables to folks nervous about college because, in the end, I think that the entire structure is messed up. So much socio-economic privilege and bias is involved. I hope that the structure is changing as the world changes, but we’re still at a place where certain kids (white, rich, privileged) are getting far more of a place at most colleges than any other demographic. That doesn’t mean you can’t get in if you aren’t rich or white — but it does mean the system needs to change. Beyond that, college applications are often a crap shoot and even folks who really should be accepted get rejected. So I think it is of utmost importance as you go through this process to remember a few things for your mental health:
- Where you go to college does not determine your worth. It does not determine whether or not you worked hard enough in high school or on your applications. Where you go to college does not determine your worth. Where you go to college does not determine your worth. Where you go to college does not determine your worth.
- Harvard, the Ivy League, and other “top” colleges are NOT for everyone. Do not kill yourself trying to get into a place that you don’t even want to go. Make sure that the colleges you’re applying to are places you could feel yourself actually enjoying and learning at. See “Choosing a College” for more.
- Like I said earlier, college applications are often a crap shoot and even the people who “should” get in, sometimes just don’t. So apply broadly and recognize that in the end, you’ll figure it out. Once you’ve submitted your applications, the only thing you can do is wait; in that space, you need to not tear yourself down. I think it’s easy to feel insecure and put a lot of pressure or hope into one school. Remember that transferring is also an option. I know a lot of people who went to one college for a year or even just a semester and it didn’t turn out to be the right fit so they transferred and loved their second place.
- Going to this or that college or is not going to decide the rest of your life for you. Yes, some colleges will award you different types of “reputations” that open doors and provide different privileges. But, again, so many folks have succeeded and done what they want in the world without going to their original Number 1 choice college. This is only a page or chapter in your story, you get to keep writing.
Ok. Now the specific deliverables that you’re probably looking for:
- Grades and Test scores. Doing well in school and, unfortunately, standardized testing are a good way to make sure that your application is closer to the top on the stacks. I will say, though, that at the top colleges, these matter less and less because everyone applying has 4.0+ GPAs and 1600/35 SAT/ACTs. Does that mean you can’t get into a top college without these? No. You can. But having good scores can never really hurt.
- Common App essay. This, in my opinion, is one of the most important parts of the application. This is where you can say something about yourself and how you are unique. Where you can stand out. This is where you get to market you and show the college that you are more than your test scores and GPA. I would invest quality time making sure this is a strong essay. Absolutely no grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Ensure you are clearly making the points you want to make. Have at least three people you trust to edit and review it.
- Teacher recommendations. Similar to the essay, this is something that can set you apart. Start talking to teachers during the spring of your junior year in high school (second to last year) about recommendations. If you’re past your junior year, that’s okay. Start talking to teachers now! In addition to a teacher writing something positive about you, you also want to find the teachers who know you well so they can write something more personal.
- Begin your applications as soon as the submission windows open. Begin preparing before that. You have the entire summer before the common app goes live (usually August 15).
- Begin your Common App essay even EARLIER. Do not begin it October 25th for ED/EA applications. Start writing as early as the spring of your junior year. The common app essay questions are always the same. See examples here. I wrote my first draft for an 11th-grade English class and then rewrote and refined it during the summer. You might need to run through several iterations — that’s okay. I’m pretty sure I wrote five significantly different versions before I settled on one that felt like it truly encapsulated what I wanted to convey.
- Do not submit your application the day it is due. Everyone does that and the Common App website is notorious for crashing on the days apps are due (November 1 and December 31, specifically.) So if the app is due November 1st by 11:59pm, I wouldn’t even submit it that week. Give yourself a mental/personal deadline of the week before, maybe October 25th. I submitted my applications on September 1st. That was a bit early, yes, but I had to because many of the schools to which I was getting recruited needed my finished applications before my official recruiting trips in September. Still, I would recommend just getting them done early because then you can relax and focus on enjoying your senior year.
Lastly, I would encourage everyone to take a gap year if possible. This is time for you to grow if you do not yet feel ready for college. I didn’t feel ready at all, and I needed to take time to prioritize my mental health so I took a gap year and it saved my life. I don’t know anyone who regretted taking a gap year. Additionally, most colleges are hugely supportive of gap years and will actually also encourage you to take one. Harvard’s acceptance package had my acceptance letter on one side of the folder and a “TAKE A GAP YEAR” pamphlet on the other side. I would apply your senior year in high school, still, as that is usually just logistically more simple, and then you can defer after you’ve been accepted.