Applying to colleges: My experiences and tips

For high-school seniors all across the nation, it will soon be time to start applying for colleges. The college application process can be overwhelming, especially with heightened competition and increased pressure on students to gain acceptance into the top universities. It is easy for students to focus purely on the end goal of receiving an acceptance letter, but the college application process is a journey filled with many decisions and obstacles. My experience applying for college had its share of successes and regrets — lessons I hope might help others through this trying time.

Start early

Deadlines for most applications lurk around December and January, so it is important to start thinking about college before your senior year. Ask yourself basic questions such as, “Do I want to attend college away from home,” or, “Would I rather attend a large university or liberal arts college?”

Starting the actual application process as soon as you can is a great idea. The Common Application, which is used by many universities, as well as supplemental material specific to individual colleges are often released during the summer before your senior year. Start working on these applications early! I began working on my applications in August, a decision I am glad I made. The earlier you start, the more time you will have to polish your essays and check your personal information.

Do your research

For a first-time college applicant, the process itself can be confusing. Some high schools offer free discussion panels and tutorials for parents and students who might not know where to start. Take advantage of this help, but do your own research. My family and I sat down and discussed the process many times, talking to relatives and friends who completed the process already, doing our own individual research, and reading college forums.

Additionally, there are also early application processes available for students who want a faster decision. These are early action and early decision, depending on the college. Each has restrictions and requirements, which vary from school to school. Early application can be beneficial for those who are set on a particular college. By applying early, you might have a better chance of being accepted.

Have a game plan

Once you have completed your research and have compiled a list of colleges you wish to apply to, you need to get organizes. If you are planning on applying to multiple colleges, deadlines and various supplements can become jumbled. Deadlines for applications may overlap or be only a few days apart. To avoid missing a deadline (which unfortunately happens to far too many applicants), utilize checklists and schedules to keep track of all impending due dates. When I was applying for college, I created an spreadsheet that kept track of all of the colleges I was applying to, the required material, and deadlines, as well as my progress with each application. This strategy helped me manage my time and prioritize which application I needed to work on first.

Learn to sell yourself

Unfortunately, the college application process is not solely a merit-based system. Private universities want the best students, but they also look for applicants who can make unique contributions to their school. Hence, you need to sell whatever sets you apart from others. To decide how I wanted to present myself, I evaluated my talents and the activities I participated in, looking for passion and continuity. In the end, I presented myself as a writer, based on my experience as a columnist for this magazine and my success in writing contests.

Bear in mind, selling yourself to colleges doesn’t always entail emphasizing a talent or skill, as colleges and universities often look for cultural and economic diversity. At times, colleges may choose students based on socioeconomic class, first-generation college students, minorities, and students whose parents have attended the same school. Explore these options and use them to your advantage.

Do not lose sight of high school

One of the most common mistakes I have seen my peers make is overinvesting their time in the college application process. Remember that, while getting into college is your goal, your job is still a high-school student. Make sure that you continue to learn and put effort into your high-school classes. The knowledge you accumulate now will be a foundation for college.

Even after the acceptance letter arrives, do not lose sight of high school. The term “second term senior” is notorious, referring to students who have been admitted into college and do the bare minimum to complete high school. It is foolish to stop caring about school, in general, but senior grades can be important if you eventually chose to transfer to another college. So do not let your grades slide.

It is hard to believe that almost two years ago, I was in the same boat as high-school seniors are today. The experience applying for college was an eye-opener. My journey helped me discover my strengths, achievements, and passions, as well as my weaknesses and faults. In the end, I came out knowing not only what college I would be attending in the fall, but also more about the person that I was.

Aglaia Ho is a rising sophomore at Williams College and a native New Yorker.