There isn’t much a person any age, with any level of experience, can accurately say without sounding completely cliché, like a record machine playing the same song over and over again. If you go to a high school like I did, it’s the blueprint for every college application process ever to exist. Location: suburbia. Ethnicity: white. Socio-Economic Status: upper-middle class, with some fringe. College admissions dominates our everyday life from the moment we learn to understand the phrase up until the summer we pack up and leave for our prestigious, sprawling universities. However, if I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that clichés can only exist if they have truth to them.
This is a story thousands of communities can relate to. The pressure seems unbearable, the classes insufferable, and the extracurriculars are exactly that — so extra. I moved from a rural Midwestern community to a high stress Philadelphia suburb in the middle of seventh grade. I consider myself lucky to not have grown up around the crazed parents and pushy school counselors from that tender age. Upon entering high school, that world got real very quickly. Every conversation with my friends seemed to center around our list of colleges, separated into “safety”, “target”, and, of course, “reach.” At thirteen years old, I was at home stressing about study abroad at my target schools.
By Junior year, that unbelievable and unnecessary focus on the four years after high school became unavoidable. Scheduling my days down to the minute, I had an impeccable balancing act — school, sports (I played soccer and rowed for the crew team), familial responsibilities, clubs, volunteering, and a tiny shred of a social life.
I did one thing right throughout my high school experience. While I do regret getting as caught up in the college admissions process as I did, I feel confident in the ways I chose to spend my time. I refused to allow outside pressure to determine what activities, classes, and sports I participated in. I took classes I was genuinely interested in — some happened to be AP courses, some were honors, and some were just regular classes. I played the sports I loved playing and I enjoyed every minute of it. As for my other extracurriculars — I devoted time to acting as founder and President of a club supporting out local hospital, I regularly volunteered for a youth running organization, and I stepped up at our American Legion Auxiliary as a youth director. These were all choices I made based upon my sincere interests, not based upon what I thought college admissions officers would like to see on my application.
I was mostly an A-/B+ student in high school with some leadership positions. I did well on the SAT, which, I’ll be completely honest, was partly thanks to my private tutor. I am aware of the privilege I have, especially since I have previously lived in places where none of these opportunities are possible. Throughout my college application process, I remained sensitive to the knowledge of my past. The little town in southern Indiana, where I grew up, can not keep up with the rigor and high standards of the East coast. I kept myself conscious of all my friends and family who would never get to be in the position I was in. As a result, I developed a deep appreciation of all opportunities that presented themselves during a journey that can sometimes seem so dark and hopeless.
As a Midwesterner, a lot of colleges I applied to were located there. My type tended to be middle/big state schools; the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin were two that I applied to and ultimately were accepted to through the Early Action plan. Both applications included a variety of essay topics that gave me the opportunity to express who I am as a human being — not as just a student, or just an athlete, but as a complete person. To me, that’s the secret of getting into college. If you can share your story (and everyone has one!) in a way that is compelling and obviously genuine, you will end up at the college you belong.
So many of my friends, both my age and older, got waitlisted or denied from the colleges they deemed their “dream schools.” It’s heartbreaking, and that rejection can sometimes make teenagers feel as if they’re not enough or as if they aren’t whole. If I’ve learned one thing from this process, it’s that everyone ends up where they belong. It might not be your original first choice, or your second choice, or even your third choice. Maybe you end up going down a path you never imagined for yourself. I have seen it time and time again; with a positive attitude and constant self-confidence, you can be happy anywhere you go. Someday, you won’t even care that you didn’t get accepted to that top ten university.
You have to believe that you will be successful even if you go to your safety school or even your last choice. Sure, the name and “brand” of your college could make it easier for you down the road, but the very foundation of any success you have is made of the work you put in. It’s not a product of the college name on your degree. During the college admission process, it’s just as much about you choosing a college as it is a college choosing you — higher education is a two-way street. You choose the college, the college has to choose you back, and then you have to choose them again. Having confidence that you will be successful regardless of what college you go to is the step forward that will truly set you free in the college application process. It’s a complicated, messy tango of emotion, work, logic, and desire for something new that can lead to growth and development for the student going through it if they do it right.
I applied to Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism, as my Early Decision school and I was accepted on December 13, 2018. I thought it was the right school for me because, like me, it is well-rounded. It had the academic and athletic components I needed, and the location was perfect for me. Its ranking didn’t play a role in my choice — I chose Northwestern because I knew that it would fit me and that I would be happy in Evanston. Although I can’t know for sure, I believe that it was my essays and my interview (all Early candidates had an interview opportunity) that gave me a leg up in the admissions process because in those situations I could most clearly convey my personality and my past. At the end of the day, the cliché advice is tried and true: just be yourself. Don’t let yourself fall for the drama and the superficial expectations. We deal with the consequences of our decisions — don’t wait until graduation to realize that you used your time on things you didn’t care about. Make choices for yourself and you’ll leave for college feeling confident and secure in the knowledge that while you were doing everything you could for your future, you were enjoying the ride too. Take a deep breath and block out the noise, because nothing is as difficult as it appears when you are following the compass that is your values, interests, and passions.