In retrospect, I had no idea what I was doing. I took all the usual necessary precautions to ensure I’d find myself at a college I could love, but I wasn’t a bit less nervous by having done so. I had taken the SATs in 8th grade for a talent search program at Johns Hopkins. And the next year I visited a couple of college campuses “casually” with my parents. I was involved in countless activities both in and out of school and held a strong grip on my grades. No amount of preparation really calmed my fears though. Most of the time, I wasn’t prepared for what I would have to sacrifice for the entire process. And it’s no surprise that that was the case. The college admissions process is a daunting one, and unfortunately, it requires that we claim to know ourselves, our passions, and ambitions at a time when we’re at only at the eve of discovering these things. The truth is, however cruelly demanding it is of us, the process also asks each student to identify and believe in their strengths. And it’s that part of the process I would pay more attention to if I had to do it all over again.
Where Can I Get In?
My college search was as overwhelming for me as it was for most of my peers. College info sessions didn’t really address questions that prospective students wanted answers to, like “how will I fit in on campus here?” That work is left for the student to do. For me, I knew, subconsciously, that the college search would depend on rank; I couldn’t seem to shake that imperative off my parents’ list for me. But there were other factors which they were less concerned about that I had to consider. Size, location, dining options and rooming options were among them. Sadly, I was too clueless to realize that class sizes, faculty availability, and faculty prestige should have been considered (for which I got lucky with my choice of Columbia University). Luckily I didn’t have to add financial aid to that list of factors, but for many students, that was another heartache to mix into the equation. It’s a lot to consider. And ultimately, I was left to the whims of college “guidance” at my high school to manage it all. With a ratio of about 80 students to every 1 counselor at my school, I have to put myself on the relatively more “guided” side of the nation’s high school counseling experience. But that didn’t mean my counselor knew enough about me to accurately determine which campuses I would fit into the best. Again much of that work fell on my shoulders.
So the stress of college searches and applications began, along with the batches of SAT, SAT II, and AP tests, all mixed in with regular schoolwork, tennis, swimming, orchestra and extracurricular clubs. I was active in high school but with the onslaught of college prep, it seemed I couldn’t do everything I wanted. Writing essays, preparing for exams, filling out application after application – all of that added on top of my extracurriculars, and eventually I had to drop some of my activities. After tennis season in the fall, I realized swimming for the winter season was no longer an option if I wanted to keep any shred of sanity. A couple weeks later, I also stopped my private violin lessons and quit the New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS), choosing to continue with my less demanding high school orchestra. This isn’t to say I didn’t love swimming or the NJYS – these were activities I really enjoyed, but they had to take a backseat to my number one goal: get into my dream school. I lost quite a lot of sleep that year, studying for tests in a new era of online distractions.
At the end of it, those twelve months of preparation were some of the most challenging. Time management and prioritizing my life were critical and without the help of my parents, teachers and friends, doing it all was downright impossible. As an eighteen-year-old, did I know if anything I was doing was worth it? Of course not. I didn’t know if the sacrifice was at all worth it but I wasn’t going to let the fear that it might not be quell my drive. The stress, the tension, sleep-deprived nights – they drove me. My exam scores came back exceeding expectations. I finished out high school as captain and first singles of my varsity tennis team. I worked on nine college applications, yielding five different essays, endless short answer paragraphs and several self-questioning moments, came out sane and excited (even if it was in a nervous way) and what I have to say for it is just that I made it. And to every college hopeful reading this, you will too.
Things could have been different – I may have taken that nice scholarship at Rice and gone south for four years, or longer. Maybe if the admissions officer reading my application at Stanford were in a better mood, I would be in sunny California. But at Columbia, I could not ask for any more. What you get out is what you put in. The college admissions process is one of the most trying times in a young person’s life, but when you feel lost, reach out to those around you: they may surprise you with what they can offer. (And you’ll be surprised to find, they may know you better than you think.) At the end of the day, remember that it is not the name of your school that determines your future success. It is what you do with yourself. Go to a place where you feel comfortable but challenged and challenged but not exhausted. Learn from the people you meet and trust the connections you forge. Give it your all. The college admissions process is intense and one of the more difficult challenges a high school student will face up to that point in his or her life. It’s also one of the most satisfying and self-revealing periods, something that incites reflection, motivation and perhaps tears. Things worth getting won’t come easy, but rest assured, you will enjoy college if you proceed with an open mind and faith in yourself and your abilities. It works out in the end.