I spent a weekend in the hallways of Harvard University. I eavesdropped on conversations regarding the sanctity of gay marriage and slavery, heard the music of several scientists-turned-musicians, worked in the library and ate in the dining halls brimming with humor and positivity. This experience solidified my hypothesis on the college application process, and then the pathway after that. For those of you nearing the end of the early application deadlines for applying to colleges this year, I have some words of advice.
Those top 25 universities always express "record breaking applicants" and simultaneously say that they are a "holistic experience" but the pessimism of competitive communities is that "it's all just a numbers game." Regardless if these declarations are out of frustration or out of first-hand experiences where the declarer receives confirmation by the admissions office, you have to believe in the college admissions process. If you realize that no college is there to spite you or your community, then applying becomes (mentally) that much easier. Here is my insight into what colleges mean by wanting well-rounded individuals and that they actually abide by their holistic evaluation process.
Disclaimer, I didn't meet with the admissions office, but this is article is compiled from a series of observations after spending weekends at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, USC, NYU and Stanford.
First, the sad and unfortunate observation is that sometimes colleges want to pick students who will accept their invitation to attend their school in the fall, and who will begin making positive impacts and return as potential donors to the school. Running universities is a lucrative business and each student a college takes on is an 'investment' of which they look forward to seeing a 'return on investment' on, regardless of the time frame in which it may happen and in what form that return is received. But there are significant efforts to change this notion, and don't let that hamper or damper your decision to apply to college. If you do all that you can to get admission into a university, then the odds are "ever in your favor."
Understand that each school is unique in the type of environment they breed, and they all achieve similar results like graduates earning five to six figure incomes straight of their schools, small class sizes depending on the class and subject, study abroad programs and more. Every college and university will tell you that you have the power to shape your college experience into any form you want to. I fundamentally disagree. I believe that you're experience will be different from your counterparts at different universities but will be similar to the demographic of your university (e.g. a Yale student's experience will be entirely different from that of a UCLA student's but will be a Yale experience nonetheless that has similar nuances that his fellow Yale peers have experienced in some way, shape or form). With all this in mind then, how do you apply to college?
When colleges say, "do your homework," they don't mean memorize all the statistics that come in the welcome packet brochures. They mean understand the sentiment that each campus tries to cultivate and understand if you match. Do you want some hints? Harvard breeds intellectual curiosity; USC has some of your favorite sport fanatics with business intentions; Georgetown's political atmosphere has some of the most social-impact minded students I have ever met; and yes, it sounds like you have to see if you fit the school's most generic stereotype, right?
Yes, each school has a stereotype, but seeing as you haven't spent four years at the universities before, it's fair of you to understand the stereotype and evaluate whether you'll disrupt it, stick with it's norm or challenge it. In your essays, identify whether you're a disruptor, whether you identify with the norm or you're challenging the institutional values because of experiences you've had that have pivoted your ambitions. There is no right answer to what the school wants, because the universities themselves don't know! They just want to read the best argument they can, and they'll evaluate it on that merit.
Be candid in your essay statements. There is no trick to "tell us an experience that really changed your perspective" essay prompts. Harvard, NYU, Berkeley, CMU...they all want to see what is behind your competitive demeanor, and your most candid self is the person that they want to accept. You have to remember, these universities have decades, maybe even centuries, of data on the types of essays that they read to the type of students these applicants become. They have also read almost every kind of essay. Whether it's a cup of customizable hot chocolate being a metaphor for your sweet personality, to the soccer match where you scored a goal in your own team's net, they have read it before. What they haven't read is how it changed you, especially if that experience led on to you starting a coffee shop or your creation of your school's first ever co-ed soccer team. The impacts are what changes between each person and that is what the college looks to understand out of your essay.
Maintain a relationship with the universities that you really care about (you can only really care about one or two colleges maximum, anyways). In college, you'll learn the value of networking but to be frank, it all starts now, the moment you decide that you're going to college. Keeping a good relationship with your high school, your admissions representative, your intended college of choice, in the best way you can. You'd be surprised that despite you being on top of your game, something can go wrong, and the relationships you forge can come in to save you (AKA your vice principal calling the admissions office and fixing it for you, or your college admissions representative following up to make sure everything is taken care of). Plus, when it comes time to read your application, they might remember you (in a positive manner because you should be maintaining POSITIVE relationships -networking101).
Don't try to apply to more than 15-20 schools. Your range of focus narrows tremendously with every school you add, and the chance of you copying-and-pasting your essay increases even more so, meaning that you aren't going to take the time to tailor the application. Colleges are picky, and they want to see the customization and effort in the application because it reflects a hardworking person to some extent. So don't put in half the effort to apply to 1.5 times more schools than you were intending. Instead, focus on the 1 school you know you'll get into, "safety," the one school you think you can achieve but is iffy, "target," and the one school you truly believe is your calling and goal, "reach." Do your homework as early as you can, reach out to alumni in your area, try to understand your fit in that school's environment.
Above all, stress that you love to learn. Like how Chef Gusteau in Ratatouille, stressed to protagonist, Remy, "food always come to those who love to cook," in that same regard, jobs/work/money always come to those who love to learn, and no one knows that better than colleges do. The expectations out of your college experience that you pen down in the application change incredibly and the students who accept the changes from expectation to the reality they face are the ones who love to learn, and are learning from their everyday encounters. Colleges also know that learning doesn't necessarily mean sitting at a desk and reading a textbook, but it means doing and pursuing your ambitions. These are all metrics of how much effort you are willing to put in, and how much you'll give back.
What happens after you hit submit on the Common Application is no longer in your control, but doing all that you can BEFORE hitting submit can make a difference in how this journey plays out for you. Remember that there are always technical difficulties the night the application is due, so aim to send it in the night before so the site doesn't crash, make sure you get confirmation emails that the application was received and know that you've made an incredible decision to attend college that will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Congrats and good luck!
**To those who ask "what about dropping out of college, and working instead"-- wait for part two**