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5 Insightful Tips for Applying to College

1. The First Step for Applying to College

The first step is not preparing your college list or contacting any admissions offices.

The first step for applying to college is self-reflection.

Why do you need to reflect on yourself first? It’s because you must figure out what you want from your college experience first.

Looking for colleges and programs you want to apply to is like looking for dates on a dating website. You can’t just look for good-looking or popular people, because they could be very hard to get along with. So when you are looking for colleges, you can’t just focus on how prestigious or how famous a school is. Instead, you should look for compatibility, personality, and the best match. You must consider your strengths, weaknesses, personality, and the college experience that you are looking for.

Through self-reflection, you will discover more about yourself and understand exactly what you are looking for, which will impact how you prepare your college list and how you approach your college essays.

Here are some self-reflection questions that can help you figure out what you want:

  • How much does intellectual curiosity contribute to my reason for going to college? How about external factors such as parents and society?

  • What are the most important factors in my college experience? Do I value academic rigor, extracurricular activities, campus culture, student life, support services, location, social network, or affordability? What are my personal preferences and needs?

  • What topics do I love to discuss with others? What subjects do I always want to learn more about? Why?

  • How do I like to spend my time when I am not studying?

  • What qualities do I appreciate about myself? What am I naturally good at?

  • What qualities and skills do I want to develop when I go to college?

  • What are my long-term goals? Do I want to attend graduate school? Do I want to pursue a specific career or do I want to explore other options?

  • How do I think going to college will help me make the most of myself?

  • Who and what have inspired me so far? How am I going to inspire others after I go to college?

After you write down your answers and identify your priorities, you can start researching the colleges that match your interests, and contacting college representatives to learn more about their schools. If it's possible, you can visit several college campuses in person, attend a campus tour, sit in on a class, and talk to current students to learn more about what it's like to attend the college.

It's essential to reflect on yourself, ask questions, seek advice from others, and take your time to consider your options, so you can make an informed choice. In the future when you see the big picture of your life, you will realize that a college diploma is never a destination, it’s one of the stepping stones that can help you become self-actualized as a person.

2. The People Who Are Going to Read Your College Application

In the first stage of the process, the people who will read your college application might be an admissions officer (AO), a student essay reader or a part-time essay reader. They are trained readers to digest information quickly, so they know how to read your application carefully and efficiently. They will take notes of the most important information that they gathered from your application.

AOs will be assigned to a geographic region and they are responsible for recruiting high school students from the region, so they will know the basic information of your high school and your counselors. They will read your application and other students’ applications from the same region.

At most colleges, at least two people will read your application before the next stage of the process. They need to make sure whether you meet their standards or not, and they didn’t accidentally reject you in the first stage of the process. After they send your application to the committee, a group of AOs will get together and share their opinions on your application. The group will also consider the notes of the initial readers and the letters of recommendation.

Someone in the admissions office should advocate for your admission. They need reasons and evidence to advocate for you and they only have limited time. So if you want to stand out, you should make sure that your personal narrative is easy for AOs to understand and powerful enough for them to remember you.

AOs want the complete package of applicants because they are looking for students who show promise both inside and outside the classroom. You can use essays to show who you are, and use your activities list to show what kind of community member you will become.

Most AOs will look for reasons to accept you instead of rejecting you. However, every college has different institutional priorities, such as athletics, diversity, and first generation students. Many colleges also consider the size and selectivity of various majors. So this can explain why you might get rejected from one college but get accepted into an equally competitive school. This is not something you can control. But you can make your personal narrative more memorable and powerful, so your chance of getting accepted will be higher.

3. What Admissions Officers Are Looking For in Your Application

AOs are looking for a lot of things in your application. Here are the five most important factors:

The first factor is academics. AOs want to know if your grades improved each year or if your grades declined. Your eleventh and twelfth grade are particularly important because they give you the opportunity to show a positive upward trend in your grades. AOs also want to know if you challenged yourself in the context of your high school by taking AP classes and honors classes. If there was anything outside of your control that impacted your grades such as a family situation, you can explain it in the additional information section of the Common App.

The second factor is context. AOs know the important information about your high school such as your school curriculum, and how many AP classes are offered. So they know if you have made the most of the opportunities at your school. They will also consider your family situation, such as if you have to take care of siblings or if you are a first generation student.

The third factor is extracurriculars. AOs want to know how you influenced other people, and if you made any impact in your high school or your community. They are looking for your commitment to your family, school, or community, so they can imagine how you will fit into their college and influence other people as a community member.

The fourth factor is your essays. Your essays can help you humanize your college applications because you are more than just a transcript. Your essays can show people who you are and what has shaped you. No matter what topic you choose to write about, it has to be a gateway into reflection. Your self-awareness and your growth are the most important things to showcase in your essays.

The fifth factor is the letters of recommendation. AOs will know more about your character and personal qualities through the Common App Teacher Evaluation Form and the letters of recommendation submitted by your teachers.

4. The Value of Your Self-Initiated Projects

Before I explain why self-initiated projects can make a difference, I want to introduce the four quadrants of high school activities first. Your high school activities can be categorized into four quadrants:

The first quadrant: school activities that already exist, such as school clubs, groups, organizations, athletics, music, speech and debate.

The second quadrant: school activities that you invented, such as starting your own club or organization at your school.

The third quadrant: out of school activities that already exist, such as jobs, internships, volunteering, local or national sports teams.

The fourth quadrant: out of school activities that you invented, such as independent inventions, publications, creating a youtube channel to raise awareness of something. Activities in the fourth quadrant are usually self-initiated.

Most activities in your high school have a limit on how much they can help you stand out. Many students are doing very similar school activities like what you have been doing. So you and many students at your school have similar impact and autonomy.

It's very difficult to distinguish yourself through school related activities. This is why your self-initiated projects can make a difference if you want to stand out from a lot of overqualified applicants. The most competitive applicants have special and memorable engagement and contribution beyond their high school. Your self-initiated projects can help you become a more memorable applicant because through your projects, you created something that added value or you helped solve some problems. Your projects can also show a lot of things about you, such as your innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, your originality, your real passions, and character strengths.

Please don’t get stuck in the mindset that a great self-initiated project will take many years to develop. You can always start from a small project and add more features and resources over time.

5. Stop Shopping Around When Developing Your Activities List

It's completely unnecessary to add too many activities when you already have a lot of things going on, so stop shopping around when developing your activities list.

AOs are looking for dynamic and interesting human beings, not extracurricular machines. After all, it's not all about your achievements; it's about your personality and character. No matter what activities you choose to report, you need to demonstrate that you are able to adapt, cope, improve, and learn. Students that rise above their environments are the most capable to succeed in college and substantially contribute to the community.

When you report your activities on the Common App, you can only report ten most significant activities. You should report the most important and meaningful activities you have done, and you can rank them according to their importance. The rest of your activities will be on your resume.

The Common App website will ask you to choose a category for each activity you want to report. It has a drop-down menu and you will see the categories they have:

  • Academic

  • Art

  • Athletics: Club

  • Athletics: JV/Varsity

  • Career-Oriented

  • Community Service (Volunteer)

  • Computer/Technology

  • Cultural

  • Dance

  • Debate/Speech

  • Environmental

  • Family Responsibilities

  • Foreign Exchange

  • Journalism/Publication

  • Junior R.O.T.C. (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps)

  • LGBT

  • Music: Instrumental

  • Music: Vocal

  • Religious

  • Research

  • Robotics

  • School Spirit

  • Science/Math

  • Student Govt./Politics

  • Theater/Drama

  • Work (paid)

  • Other Club/Activity

Every category is equal, and there is no superiority or inferiority. Consistency is very important. AOs are trained to digest information quickly, so the categories can help them understand the big picture of your activities. AOs can tell if you were just adding random activities for college admissions, or if you focused on doing what you really care about.

The Common App website will also ask you to report how many hours you spent on each activity per week, and how many weeks per year. It’s better if you make it easier for AOs to discover the main themes of your activities, such as computer science and creative writing.

Also, when you report your activities, you should pick the right category for each one. If you find that a particular activity fits into multiple categories, you should choose the more specific one. For example, if it’s a math club, you should choose Science/Math instead of Academic.

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