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Top Ten List of Things I Wish I Had Known About College Admissions

A high school senior headed to Harvard University dishes out what she wishes she had known going into the application process.

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Spring at last! Seniors have agonized over essay topics, ranted about the Collegeboard, visited the Common Application website far too many times, and finally made it through college applications. As I sent off my last Admissions Office-destined envelope, hindsight (and a dose of should have, could have, would haves) hit me straight on. Here is my Top Ten List of Things I Wish I Had Known About College Admissions.

  1. Keep a list of every book that you read: Some college applications will ask you for a list of books that you've read in the last 12 months, while others ask you to write about characters in literature that intrigued you or made you think. I somehow imagined that I would be able to remember all the books I read over the past four years. Learn from my mistake!
  2. Community Service: Service is a chance for you to give back to the community, helps you grow as a person, and keep things in perspective. If you need a more direct incentive, 90 hours of service are necessary to enter the National Honor Society (quiet a few of my fellow seniors this year didn't qualify solely because of this requirement). Many upperclassmen regret not doing more community service early on in high school. Key tips: Choose one major community service project or club and stick with it throughout high school. If you don't have time … make it! Log your service hours in a notebook (or on an online site like https://www.presidentialserviceawards.gov ), getting phone numbers and signatures of adult supervisors whenever you can (this is also required for National Honor Society and can be helpful in applying for scholarships). If you log at least 100 community service hours, you'll also be eligible for the President's Volunteer Service Award -- another excellent opportunity.
  3. Quality Not Quantity: Choose two or three clubs or activities and put in time and effort into them. Ninth grade is a great chance to try out many different clubs, but once you're in tenth grade, don't fall into the trap of trying to attend every club under the sun. This will sap you of energy and make you less eligible for leadership positions in the long run. The opposite extreme can be just as bad. Categorizing yourself as the "non-involved" type could come back to haunt you when you have to fill up nearly a half page on your favorite club on the common application. Lately, the school newspaper, Model UN, student government, debate, and community service clubs have been favorites with colleges and universities, since they show a student has leadership potential. Getting involved in a unique sport or instrument can help you stand out among other students. Instead of just tennis or track, try crew or fencing. And rather than signing up for piano or violin lessons, try the harp or sitar. I have a close friend who attributes his admission to Yale to his playing the bagpipes!
  4. College nights and college info sessions can be distractions: Talking with students at colleges (alumni from your school for starters) and doing research on the school's website can be a lot more useful than info-nights. If you do choose to go to a local college night, make a list of schools to look into with your guidance counselor beforehand. But, if you already have a definite list of schools that you are set on applying to, college night can just be an intimidating and awkward use of time, where you sign up for mailing lists you could have signed up for online. Sign-up early on; after you read mailings, you'll be more prepared to ask questions on college visits or even at your interview. However, at many town or high-school college nights, Ivy League schools send alumni instead of actual admissions representatives. I was pretty shocked to see my next door neighbor instead of an admissions official at the Stanford University table. So if you are hoping to make an impression on admissions, college night is probably not the place to do it.
  5. Visits: Visit schools in the spring of junior year. If you go earlier, you'll quickly forget what the school was like. During summer, classes won't be in session, so you won't get a true flavor of the campus. And senior year fall is already filled with so much that you won't want to pack in college visits. After the visit, write a quick index card (some of my friends used a postcard from the college) of your most memorable experiences and things you liked and disliked. This will come in useful when you are writing "Why (fill in college name here)" application essays on what inspired you to apply. The cards are also lifesavers when you are deciding between which schools to apply or to attend. Be careful of overnight visits. These are best saved for when you make the key decision on the early decision school you decide to apply to, or when you have already gotten into schools and are trying to select the one to attend. If you overnight in other situations, you risk getting your hopes up even higher if you absolutely love your visit.
  6. Beware of false lures: While being in the "Who's Who" book may be a bit of an ego boost, it's not really worth it (read: it's a money-making scheme). The college admissions process is difficult and plenty of people try to take advantage of your confusion. Trust a girl who has sat through one too many slide shows with "college-admission professionals" trying to push their product. The best advisor in this process is often a trusted teacher, an experienced guidance counselor, or your high school's college or career center staff.
  7. Instead of camp, consider getting a summer job: College applications have an entire section asking you about your employment during high school and the rule of thumb is to leave as few boxes on the application blank as possible. And yet, students are increasingly spending their summers on extremely expensive summer adventure or college-prep camps. Pre-college camps, specifically, are often a major waste of money. Parents, students spend almost no time in class at these camps! And students, while it is nice to dream, going to a college's camp often does not give you an edge in getting into the school! A summer job can teach you so much and earn you income (instead of dishing out a six-figure camp fee!). Also, a summer job can provide you with much more of a self-esteem boost, build up your street-smarts skills and show colleges your responsibility.
  8. Essays: Start off with making a list of qualities about yourself that you would like to show colleges and then think of examples and experiences that would back up these qualities. This approach will make sure that you cover your major traits and that your college essay is meaningful. Check for spelling errors many (many) times, and with the help of others, especially when you are submitting online. I definitely lost sleep over my misspelling "awarness"!
  9. The Interview: Plan out the key attributes about yourself that you were not able to communicate in your application. Also, have a couple of questions ready to ask your interviewer (eg. What was their personal experience like at the college? What surprised them most about the college?) A "Thank you" note to your interviewer sent within a day or so of your interview is definitely recommended. The note leaves a nice impression of you as they sit down to write their recommendation, which the admissions committee will read in evaluating your application.
  10. Passion: All this said, the best advice I have to offer is to avoid thinking too much about what might look good on your college application and just to be passionate about what you do!

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