Senior year: A setting blurred by the flurry of nostalgia, extracurriculars and standardized tests, is where we set our stage. A 17-year-old girl shouldered with what seems like the most important decision of her life flips through a book of 400 schools, trying to find her future. And then there are 11 survivors that appear to fit the bill.
This girl was me one year ago. Because I was unsure of where I wanted to go, I applied to 11 completely different and diverse schools that left spectators baffled trying to spot the similarities.
Although it's important to "cast your net wide," there are some things that I now realize I should've evaluated before writing 11 applications and 15 essays. Here's a list of 11 things that you can do and consider before applying to college, that will narrow down your list to the best schools for you.
1. Size really does matter.
Some people will say that you'll find your community wherever you go to school. While this could be true, you need to consider how the size of the student body factors into your decision. A smaller school will ensure that you get much more individual attention. Your admissions officer might even remember the essay you wrote in your application. However, you'll also know A LOT about your peers. Are you alright with knowing your whole graduating class? On the other hand, a bigger school will bring more extracurriculars and opportunities, but your professors probably won't know your name. Again, consider how a large size will affect your relationships and interactions with other students.
Campus size also makes a big difference in other aspects. Do you want a sprawling campus? Will going to X school mean that you'll need to bring your bike? Do you want a traditional campus with a lawn or are you alright with a cramped, urban setting?
2. Location, location, location.
Along with size comes location. Being closer to a city means that there will be more networking opportunities and activities off campus. The alternative is a rural school that is extremely tight-knit, with more activities that are campus-centric. If you're thinking about a rural school, how efficient are opportunities like the career center and alumni network? Are you alright with being 45 minutes from a Walmart? On the other hand, how will the sounds of a city affect your sleep? How do you feel about the typical, mid-sized college town? In the future, what will moving off campus look like?
3. Limit your safety schools.
First off, make sure that you aren't ONLY applying to the school for safety. You do want to look into the opportunities and options to make sure that you would enjoy going there if it does come down to it. However, make sure that you aren't applying to a bunch of schools that are not as challenging. You want to make sure that all of the schools you apply to will challenge you intellectually, so focus on more match schools instead of wasting your energy on schools you know will accept you.
4. Ignore reputation.
Stop considering schools just because "it's X school." The reputation of a school does not mean that it will be a good fit for you. On a similar note, don't apply to a school just because your parents want you to. Ask yourself, "Why do my parents love this school so much?" A lot of the time it's due to the school's good reputation or elitism. Your parents just want what's best for you, so show them why the schools you're passionate about will be a good match and why they will give you the chance to succeed.
5. Be realistic about your reaches.
The truth is that schools with minuscule acceptance rates aren't in most of our futures. Look at GPA and SAT spreads, check out acceptance rates and be real with yourself. Six out of the 11 schools I applied to were reaches because everyone around me told me there was no harm in trying. But there was. I spent my Christmas break in Florida obsessing over essays that, in the end, wouldn't matter. There were also crushing blows of rejection after rejection that came in like a tsunami in April. Even being waitlisted stung. If the acceptance rate is under 20 percent, re-evaluate where you fit in the school's student body. Chances are if it's that hard to get into, you might not feel at home in the student body. Schools that are reaches tend to be much more competitive and cutthroat, which might not be an environment you'll grow in. Do you always want to be fighting over resources? I'm not saying to play it safe, but try to stick to a couple reaches that you love instead of "reaching for the moon."
6. Analyze extracurriculars.
All colleges try to boast about how many activities they have. Try to ignore the numbers and zoom in. Do they have a sport that you've always enjoyed or wanted to play? Chances are that a champion rower will hate being at a school in a midwestern desert. How involved is the student body in things you love? Does everyone come out for football games or is the attendance higher at the yearly Relay for Life? Are traditions important? Is Greek life popular?
Also, analyze how hard you'll need to work to get involved. Is there an activities fair at the beginning of the year? Does improv club require an application? How many acapella groups are there?
7. Consider what matters to you.
Applying to college requires a lot of reflection and introspection. What are your morals and values, and how will they change depending on where you'll spend the next four years? How important is religion to you, and does X school have a Muslim Student Association? Is diversity important to you? Gender equality? LGBTQ+ issues? Is the school made up of mostly one political party, and do you agree with them? How prevalent is sexual assault on campus and what is the school doing to prevent it? All of these things can greatly contribute to your college experience.
8. Check out what unbiased people say.
Most alums and current students will be very positive about their school, using plenty of flowery adjectives to try to convince you that their school is the BEST. Even college websites are geared to attract potential students. Odds are that most of the information that you get about any given college will be biased either toward or against the school, so it's important to find information that fairly judges the services of the school. Check out some independent websites that review colleges, such as Niche, which you can find here. These also host reviews from previous students and common stereotypes of certain schools.
9. Give schools the sneaker test.
There's no better way to judge your feeling about a school than to just go there. Nevertheless, when you tour, take everything that guides say with a grain of salt as they're trained to make you like the school. Make sure to take a look around on your own. Trust your gut feelings. Do you feel safe? Do students look happy? Can you see yourself living here? Bring a parent or friend to bounce your ideas and feelings off of, but make sure they're fairly neutral so they don't push you either way. While you're there, take a stop at the dining hall and grab some chow. Remember, this is what you could be eating for the next four years!
10. Chat with alums and current students.
If you know someone that does or did go to the school you're interested in, definitely utilize them as a resource. Ask them to be specific with stories so that their claims about their school are backed with anecdotal evidence. Even better, ask them to recall their least favorite things about their school and think about whether you'd be able to deal with them. Wrap up your mini-interview with any questions you have about campus life. Make sure to avoid questions you could simply google. Current students are the best source of information about drinking, hazing and, of course, academics.
You're going to have the best four years of your life WHEREVER YOU GO. You WILL find your people at any college, so relax and enjoy your last year of high school. College causes an immense amount of stress, and it starts with the admissions process. Don't let all of this get to your head! Use your friends and family to de-stress and discuss. Make sure to put away time to watch Netflix or grab lunch with friends. Don't let college apps take over your life and determine your self-worth.
And, most importantly, don't apply to 11 schools! You only want to apply to places that you know will help you succeed, because college is a time for you to learn and grow. Start crossing extras off your list now, before you end up like me, missing out on the gorgeous Florida sun to write excessive essays.
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