Tuesday, April 1, 2014

College App Advice, pt. 1: Pre-work

College admissions season is now finished. I keep having nostalgic flashbacks to this time last year, when I was just starting to think about college, when my mind felt as though it would cave in from the stress of studying for AP tests, when the seniors around me one by one found out where they would spend the next four years of their lives.

Now I am one of those seniors, and I am proud and excited and half-dazed to say that it's my turn to decide now, and that I get to decide between Caltech and Stanford. Now all of a sudden I think I'm qualified to give advice on the college app process, so here we go.

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The main idea: do your own research.

Getting Organzied:

Researching colleges is a miserable business, because there are tons and tons of universities, all with their own specialties, all with opportunities for an enterprising young person to take to launch themself to future success. You can never exhaust the font of information.

In general, everything about the college application/admissions process is a slog. You don't want to look up schools. You don't want to make a calendar of dates. You don't want to make checklists for yourself. You don't want to write essays.

Recently I've been setting aside dedicated "debriefing" time for myself every week, when I just sit down and get done as many unpleasant-but-necessary tasks as I can. It's not much fun, but I would have benefited immensely had I begun doing this last year. An hour, an hour and a half a week, two hours, just to look up schools and--as mentioned above--make calendars, checklists. I didn't do enough system maintenance, enough list-making, and so there were days when I panicked because something important hadn't gotten done earlier and had slipped between the cracks.

Remember: this is your future. Get organized. I highly recommend spreadsheets. Just have a few columns: school name, required materials with deadlines, and so on. Keep it up to date, color code if that will help, it doesn't matter what system you put in place for yourself as long as you have one.

This quote from Julien Smith's blog In Over Your Head applies to almost any situation:
Preparing for a tornado is a good idea. You don’t just ignore it, because doing so would be stupid. You plan and work with best practices. You ask what others have done. This is normal.

If you are ever panicking before something you see as cataclysmic, it’s probably cataclysmic because you haven’t thought it through, or planned, or worked on it enough.

If you have planned enough, you should be significantly calmer.

-"Tornado"
Maintaining a reasonable mental state is damned difficult at this time. Help yourself out.

Making a List:

How important is it to have a solid list of schools? Hella.

Of course, building your list can seem a futile task, because if you get accepted to *one* great school, then none of the others will matter. But working off the assumption that things are going to go spectacularly well probably isn't going to work long-term.

Parroting the usual advice: the bulk of your schools should be targets, with some safeties and some reach schools.

My addition is that you want every single school on your list to be one that you could actually see yourself going to. Even your safeties, yes. The definition of a safety school is sometimes given as a school that sucks but has a high acceptance rate.

I'm going to say that this viewpoint is counterproductive. What's the point of getting accepted somewhere if you won't want to go there under any circumstances? I'm lucky because in my major, civil engineering, a lot of the top programs are at public schools with high overall admissions rates. For others, applying to less selective universities might indeed involve accepting an inferior program.

But choose safeties that will still let you do what you want in the future.

Target schools: ask your counselor (at school) for a fair assessment of where a student with your numbers could reasonably expect to get accepted. Or do research. These should be the majority of items on your list.

Reach schools: I know, I know, it's tempting to load them on. But select only the schools that would really help you do what you want. For example, my reach schools were Caltech, MIT, and Stanford, and no Ivies, because as I mentioned, I'm applying under engineering and the Ivy League schools have different strengths. Somehow I got lucky at two of the three...but working from the assumption that this will happen is no good, because luck is definitely a factor in admissions at the super-selective schools.

Advice from a MIT admissions counselor whom I once heard speak:
Don't fall in love with a school until you have their acceptance letter in your hand.

I didn't quite follow this sagacious advice, but you can. Don't set your heart on one school. Don't think that your future will be ruined if you don't get into that one school. You're going to be fine.

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