Advice From a College Application Survivor

Lucy Stefani '21, Arts and Entertainment Editor

It’s January. We’re past the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and into a month of relatively little excitement. For seniors, this month feels particularly quiet. After a fall semester full of application deadlines, we’ve all hit “send” for the final time and now enter that delightful waiting period. Just like that, the big scary college application process that I’ve been nervously anticipating since freshman year has come and gone. And it turns out (as cliche as it sounds) that it wasn’t so big and scary after all. I have now come out of this process with a better understanding of myself, a more clear sense of direction, and most importantly, lots of wisdom to impart to all you future college applicants. Here are some of the things I learned from applying to college.

1. Don’t let fear get in your way.

When you first begin looking at schools in your sophomore or junior year, college is still a hypothetical idea. Every school you tour is just one possibility. Then, the Common App drops. Now applying to college is no longer theoretical. Your application is staring you in the face, and it’s time to take concrete steps toward your future. I don’t know about you, but when August 1 rolled around and it was time to start actually applying to college, I found myself paralyzed with an overwhelming sense of pressure. I remember sitting in front of my computer screen for the first couple days staring blankly at essay prompts, unable to write a word. What was wrong with me? I usually love writing. Why am I hesitant to type a single word now? I realized it was because I was hyper-aware of exactly who would be reading these essays. I couldn’t shake this feeling that every word I typed would be scrutinized and nitpicked. Here I was, about to open up to these strangers about who I am… only for them to judge and potentially reject me. These essays were going to determine my future, and I froze in the face of this mounting pressure.

After a few days of being my melodramatic self, I realized I was looking at it all wrong. The best way to approach college essays is to just start. Write something. Anything. It doesn’t have to be the most profound piece of writing the world has ever seen. You have months to edit and fine tune these essays. All you have to do is take a deep breath and type. I find it’s always easier to work on an essay once you’ve at least started. And I know this is easier said than done, but don’t put so much pressure on yourself. If you write from the heart, expressing your authentic voice, you’ll end up with a much better essay than you would if you write what you think colleges want to hear. And remember, this essay is just one of many aspects of yourself that colleges will get to see. You are so much more unique and special than any 650 could possibly capture.

2. Get lots of advice, but also trust yourself. 

When you’re applying to college, you’re going to hear lots of advice (whether you ask for it or not) on everything from where to apply, when to apply, and how to craft the perfect essay. Advice can be super helpful — sometimes passing your essay to a friend to read over is all it takes to find that magical mystery ingredient you’d been missing. But with so much advice coming from so many sources, you need to know how to sort through it all. At the end of the day, this is your college journey. You have to live with the decisions you make. That means it’s okay to be selective in what advice you follow. You don’t have to change your essay just because someone says you should. If you feel like your essay represents the best version of yourself, have confidence in that! Don’t let yourself be pressured into a decision that doesn’t feel right to you. 

Imagine you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet of advice (okay, stay with me on this). You have a big empty tray in front of you and rows and rows of people offering you guidance. Maybe you’ll take a little from your advisor, a heavy helping from your parents, a few scoops from your favorite teacher, and a side helping from a close friend, while others you might pass by altogether. What’s important is that you use the advice of others to create a college list and application that is right for you. You’re more capable than you think! Rely on the people around you, but also know when to trust your own judgement. And remember, your parents and teachers have your best interest at heart.

3. Remember what’s important.

The fall semester of senior year can be rough. It feels like your entire high school experience has been building to this moment. Suddenly you hear this little voice in your head telling you to keep going! Don’t take a break! Those 20 minutes you spent chatting with a friend are 20 minutes that could’ve been spent on college applications or homework. This voice can be very persuasive, but it’s important to take a step back every now and then and reorient yourself. Don’t lose sight of your relationships in the midst of all the chaos. The clock is ticking! Graduation is on its way, yet all we’re doing is focusing on where we’re going next instead of enjoying the time we have left together. Remember to spend time with your friends making memories before it’s too late. Friendships are what will get you through the stressful times. Sometimes a nice group venting session in the Senior Commons is all it takes to give me perspective. You’re not alone in this. Every senior feels these pressures and knows what you’re experiencing. Believe it or not, the college process is the thing that will bring your class together more than anything — especially when the waiting is over, and you get to celebrate your acceptances together! Whenever things feel like too much to handle, lean into your relationships for support. Don’t let yourself be so consumed by this crazy process that you lose sight of what really matters. In the words of Barbara Bush: “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not having closed one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”

The college application process will put you through every emotion — from self doubt and anxiety to excitement and inspiration. But in the end, whether you get into your dream school or not, I can guarantee you’ll come out of it as a more self-aware, mature, and capable person. By constantly describing yourself and your interests, you come to know yourself better by balancing applications with school and extracurriculars, and you gain confidence in yourself. Remember freshman year when you stood at the foot of a seemingly unclimbable mountain? Senior year seemed unattainable, with all the work it would take to get there. I remember looking at seniors who balanced AP classes on top of leadership positions and college applications and thinking how I could never do that. Now, I stand proudly at the top of this mountain as a young adult, made stronger by all the expectations and stress along the way. Even though some days it’s hard to believe, you will make it to the top someday too. And after these four years, there is no greater feeling on this earth than closing out the Common App tab on your computer for the final time, knowing that you put your best self forward. There’s a peace that comes with relinquishing control and letting fate take over. You’ve done everything you can do. Now, we wait. 

Lucy Stefani ‘21, Arts & Entertainment Editor

21lstefani@montroseschool.org