In the years leading up to my applications for college, I was given constant advice. Show improvement and growth in your grades. Do lots of extracurriculars, but not too many. Start writing your essays over the summer, so you’re not swamped in the fall of senior year.
There’s one thing no one ever told me, though: the college application process is long. The Common Application opens on August 1 every year; after everything, most students won’t arrive on campus until more than a year later. A couple could literally meet the day the Common Application is released and have a bouncing, three-month old baby by the time you arrive at college.
The pitfalls of that long, all-consuming application process aren’t boredom or even elongated periods of high stress. In between applying and arriving on campus, there is still a life to be led, so getting to college is not consuming your every waking moment. Once the applications are submitted, a lot of the stress dissipates until you have to choose a school. No, the real pitfall of that lengthy college application process is simple: a year is a long time. And, in a year, a lot can change.
In May of junior year, I was set. I had two great teachers willing to write glowing recommendations. I had a roster of leadership positions in the fall. I had a plan for the summer, which would keep me busy and keep my brain high-functioning. Best of all, I knew where I wanted to apply to college.
My criteria were simple and, in retrospect, hilariously vague: more than 5,000 students but less than 50,000, a research university, in a large city, co-ed, with the stereotypical massive lecture halls and noisy, dirty dorms built in the 1970s. Even better, I lived ten minutes from a college I was fairly certain I could get into, so all of my applications would be reaches or whimsy.
Keeping in mind that I had a great backup, I filled out my list with more casualness than was probably normal. I applied to schools because they had big names, because I visited and liked a brunch place across the street, because a famous person I liked went there, because there wasn’t an application fee and I was bored. Most of the schools fit my broad criteria; if they didn’t, I wasn’t applying to them seriously anyway.
I wrote my essays, filled out the personal information sections and submitted thirteen applications. Then I lived my life. In February, one of the schools I’d applied to because of their lack of application fee surprisingly let me in a month before the official decision date; I was excited, but shrugged. It didn’t fit any of my criteria and I hadn’t applied seriously. However, they kept sending me materials in the mail, including a t-shirt, which I wore to bed for a few months. They weren’t the only ones; another school I had applied to for its famous alumni and free application, Wellesley College, sent me at least one letter per month and emailed even more frequently.
Come April, I found myself with three options: the school which had accepted me early, the school ten minutes from my house and Wellesley. The first, I nixed; I had been active in the Facebook group and didn’t vibe with the other prospective students in the way I wanted to. Wellesley, however, was surprising. Wellesley fit almost none of my junior year criteria. It had less than 5,000 students, was a liberal arts school, in the suburbs of Boston, a women’s college and class size averaged in the teens. But, something felt right. The barrage of mail they had sent me had done its work. After a great visit, I submitted my deposit and turned my back on everything I thought I wanted.
I’ve spent the last few months grappling with why Wellesley was the right choice when my junior year self applied to it on a whim. Did I just not know what I wanted? Was I in denial? Or, am I just a different person than I was a year ago? Regardless, looking back, there’s a lot I would have changed about my college application process. The problem is, there is so much value in retrospection. The things I would have changed are only valuable because of what I’ve learned in the year since I applied. The attributes I should have sought in colleges are things that I considered last summer and decided I didn’t want. There’s no way to predict who you will be or what you want when you eventually start freshman year. All you can do is take a leap of faith and hope that you end up right where you need to be.
Lead Image Credit: Tim Guow via Unsplash