College application protips for the soon-to-be-senior: a series

I get a lot of questions from baby juniors (now seniors, but will always be my juniors) about the giant monstrosity known as college apps. I’ve been asked about everything ranging from schools to interviews to recommendations and essays. I may not have years of experience, but I just went through the same process last year + want you guys to do the best you can, so here’s some advice!

That brown paste box though

Over the next few months I’ll be writing a series of general protips–things that I didn’t know, things I’m frequently asked about, things that I thought were helpful–during my experiences with college apps. Take my advice with a grain of salt; certainly do not treat them as end-all**, which leads me to my first protip:

Protip #1: When making decisions, check your sources and be discerning: don’t treat all advice as equal

This is something that’s easier said than done. During the college admissions process, I gave more weight than I should have to some people’s advice, and didn’t realize that it was hindering me from making decisions that were good for me until much later. One good example was that I was on the fence about applying to a school. I decided to apply because a senior I was close to encouraged me to apply as she was currently attending said school. In the end I realized it wasn’t a place I’d want to attend, and dropped the application the day it was due. I wasted a lot of time messing with that set of essays that I could have spent writing other ones.

Remember to…

Check the credibility of who/what you’re getting advice from.

If your favorite color is red, why would you believe anyone who says that it’s green? On things that you like, you’re obviously the authority. The same principle applies here. Don’t just believe stuff someone because they say it. Verify it yourself. See if your source has the grounds to say it. For example, if someone tells you that UChicago has an engineering department, I don’t think you want to talk to them about UChicago…because it doesn’t (more on the nuances of that here).

If you’re reading stuff on the internet, obviously make sure to check whether it’s to-date/updated or not. A few days ago a friend showed me an article about university student opinions that was five years old; I pointed out that the student who wrote that article (and the student body it was about) would have graduated by now and that the general opinions of the population could have shifted since then. Some stuff will hold true throughout time (for example, that schools in the northeast are cold) but other stuff, like how good a certain department is within, can change within ten, five, and even two or three years (sometimes a department loses their best professors, sometimes there’s academic scandals, whatever).

Regarding parents and parents’ friends, I realize that it’s a common thing for mom and dad to have heard stuff from their friend’s son’s best friend’s sister, but remember to check the cred of what he/she said. Are they currently attending the school now, or did they graduate ten years ago? Did they study what you’re studying, or are they just talking vaguely about a friend who did? Parents are often they’re blindsided because they want the best for you, and they’ll believe anything they hear. Remind them to verify their sources before they relay “information” to you.

Advice that is good for someone else may not be good for you.

If you and your best friend are drawing a dog in art class, an art teacher might tell your best friend to make the tail longer, and you to make the eyes rounder. Does that mean that you need to make your dog’s tail bigger too? No, it just means that you have something different to fix. I see this happen all the time–A advises B, B mentions it to C, and C begins to worry if they need to do it too.

Say your parents think that Stanford is the place for you and your siblings, and it’s worked out splendidly for your older brother and sister. If you’ve committed your life, your soul, and your firstborn to studying music, you’re obviously still better off applying to places like Julliard, Berklee and other music schools/conservatories. I know that’s a silly example, but people blindly accept statements not too far off that all the time. Blanket statements like “x is the greatest school” or “y is the best school to attend based on US News rankings” aren’t going to be necessarily “correct” for you: it all depends on what you want to study and what you’re trying to get out of your college.

Know the biases of the people you’re talking to.

Your teacher may know a lot about biology, but they might not know much about the college admissions process aside from writing recommendations and seeing kids stress out. Your friends may be smart and talented, but they certainly don’t know everything, and they also may not tell you everything they know. Don’t take everything they say regarding schools or apps as instant truth. 

Someone who shouldn’t be too biased, though, is your college counselor. Your college counselor is going to be one of your best resources in the next year. They want you to succeed. They’re experienced, have connections, and have sent off years of kids. They can give you college pamphlets, tell you about the trend of things in the past years, put you in contact with people whom you need to ask questions, and more. They’ll be your advocate. They’re very important. Befriend them, be nice to them, and be inwardly & outwardly grateful to them.

As a side note…if you’ve taken stats, you should also be aware of bias/skewing with stats thanks to samples from a population. If you’re reading a poll or something of that nature, be aware.

Also, know that admissions is trying to sell you the best image of their school that they can. I didn’t I catch on until I did admissions for my school. They might tell you that they have 800 student organizations, but how many of those organizations actually do things, and more importantly, do the organizations you’re interested actually do things? They might tell you that there’s no “majority” racial group at the school and have pamphlets full of diversity, but the school could be comprised of 30% of one race and 25% of another. They may downplay things like not being able to switch majors/academic colleges. Yeah. Just learn to see through that.

I hate to say this, but your classmates might misinform or lie to you.

Realize that to some extent, talk is talk–your classmates have existed for 16, 17, 18 years?–they aren’t the most knowledgeable about schools.  They might lie about where they’re applying, what things are due, and when things are due–anything. Misinformation, intentional or not, can and will happen. I like to think the best of people, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are people and friends whom as soon as senior year hits, turn into unreliable sinkholes regarding the land of college apps. Why? Some people are paranoid about their chances and evade anything you ask of them like crazy. Other people view you and your completion of an application as threatening to them (though since there’s probably 50,000 other people applying to the same place and they should be focusing on making their app better and not screwing other people over). A select few (and hopefully no one you know) are downright malicious. Be careful whom you’re listening to.

In that vein: for heaven’s sake, stay off of College Confidential. That place is toxic and I’ve heard even from the mouths of college admissions officers that the information on that isn’t reliable. You never know who’s trying to misinform you, lead you astray, or just plain doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Additionally, there are many humblebraggers that will get you feeling down about yourself with their near-perfect/perfect scores, amazing internships/jobs, national awards, and 5 billion community service hours, leading you to the conclusion that you’re not good enough to apply to a school or have a shot at somewhere. You’re 100% the best at being you. No one else can do that. You have a chance. It might feel small, but you won’t know for sure until the results come back. (I can attest to this :3)

tl;dr: In short, seek out people who are unbiased and experienced, and can give you the good and the bad about a school (and more specifically, it’s programs) when you have questions. If you can’t find people like that, just keep bias in mind as you glean information. Try to ensure these people do not have a conflict of interest with you performing your best.

…so yeah, a lot of this post is common sense, but I’ve definitely run into a few of you guys who had doubts, needed a bit of clarity or just a gentle reminder. And I don’t blame you–senior year tends to be a time where you’re lucky if your head is even close to being on straight. Mine definitely wasn’t. I was the equivalent of a headless chicken.

My next post will be on ranks. Feel free to comment what you thought about this post down below or suggest topics for me to tackle in the future 🙂

**I can only give the best advice I know how. I don’t claim to be the best or the most experienced, because I’m not. I am not, nor have been, a college admissions officer. All I can and will say is that I’ve been through the most recent cycle of the college admissions process, and that I’m giving advice that I genuinely found helpful or wished I had taken more heed of. I can talk about schools I’ve applied to and things I’ve seen that have worked for me and people around me, but I can’t give you a guarantee to get in anywhere (nor will I; my advice is explicitly designed to give insights and not directions).


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