Nov 19, 2007
Paul’s Top Ten Common-Sense College Application Tips
Posted in: Freshman Applicants
Some point back in April, after all the decisions had come in, my mom suggested that I should write a book on college applications. Although I'm pretty sure she was joking, for some reason the idea stuck with me. Over the summer, I had ample opportunity to compile what may (someday) be the first drafts of just such a book. Now that the admissions season is fully upon us, I'm proud to present you with - drum roll please - my very first post of completely unsolicited application advice!
Before I dive into the list, though, I do have a few quick things to say. For starters, I truly believe that college admissions should be as uncomplicated, honest, and open as possible. That's why I tend to believe that most of the so-called "secrets" behind a good application are simply common sense. But back when I was applying, I realized that talking to another person - whether it's a parent, a counselor, or even just some random blogger like me - really can help you get a new perspective on the application process. I don't expect my advice to be earth-shattering, I'm just hoping that my own experiences applying to college will enable you to see your own experiences this year from a slightly different angle.
However, keep in mind that you are not me, nor should you be! What I found worked for me may not be ideal for you. Always balance other people's advice with your own instincts. Remember, at the end of the day, you're still the one actually writing the application.
On a more personal note, throughout the admissions process last year, I was lucky enough to always have my own personal fountain of amazing advice and assistance: my parents. From August until December, my mom was the one who proofread my essays, reminded me to meet my deadlines, boosted my spirits and my confidence when I felt overwhelmed. She knew my writing style, she knew my passions - she knew me, basically. My dad, for his part, was always willing to just sit down and talk when I needed suggestions or direction. I didn't always make it easy for them, but I'm so grateful they never gave up on me.
And with no further ado, here's what you've all been waiting for.
Use at your own risk. Your mileage may vary. Patent pending.
- Always be honest. This one's first for a reason. Simply put, be yourself...not who you think some admissions committee wants you to be. Admittedly, students at MIT share a lot of common traits - resourcefulness, ingenuity, creativity, an off-beat sense of humor, to name a few - but if you're at all drawn to MIT, odds are you probably already have a bunch of these qualities already. Basiclly, write about the things in your life that are cool and unique. Don't be afraid to be different!
- Show a little passion. I'm always hesitant about using the word passion, simply because it comes up so often when talking about college apps. Just the same, having passion for something - excitement, fervor, a fire in the belly, whatever you want to call it - is still really important. Personally, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue two years of research in high school, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I wrote about it at length for every single college application I submitted. Yes, every single one. (I know I'm a nerd, okay? You don't have to rub it in.) The bottom line is, don't be afraid to reveal what truly gets you excited.
- Keep it consistent. Think of your application as a fine meal. I know that's a strange comparison, but play along with me here. In any good meal, all the courses are different - but at the same time, the different dishes complement and reinforce one another to create a truly extravagant banquet. Similarly, each part of your application - essays, short answers, extracurriculars, grades, scores, recommendations, and all the rest - should work and flow together to create one coherent image of you. You should certainly include everything you believe is relevant on your application, but take extra care to emphasize the aspects of your life that are most important to you.
- Embrace your mistakes. I can't make too many specific statements about this, simply because every applicant is different, but the general message is this: you really don't have to be valedictorian, have a perfect GPA with all-honors courses, and have done a gazillion APs to get into MIT. Most people who apply to schools like MIT have taken very demanding classes, and it's okay to struggle. Sometimes, simply refusing to give up or showing consistent improvement can speak volumes.
- Be confident, not arrogant. A college application is, by its very nature, an invitation for you to highlight your accomplishments without being haughty about them. Admittedly, walking the line between self-confidence and arrogance is hard - my personal opinion is that, on college applications, you're supposed to brag about yourself without it sounding too much like bragging - if that makes any sense. If you're truly worried that you come across as arrogant, just run your application by a parent or a guidance counselor and see what they think. One last note: no matter how good you feel about your high school career, don't rest on your laurels! Colleges like MIT are looking for students who are excited about the opportunities ahead of them, not just what they've accomplished so far.
- Buy some white-out. Trust me, you will make mistakes. Thanks to computers, it's not so hard to correct things these days, so perhaps the white-out I'm referring to is metaphorical. Just the same, don't be afraid to scrap a draft (or even a complete essay!) and start over if it's just not working for you. Although I'd recommend saving the original draft just in case you change your mind later. :)
- Leave it short and sweet. Remember, no matter how awesome you are, you're just one application among many. Short answers are meant to be short, and there's a good reason MIT's application only has space for five extra-curriculars. Strong language is key here - powerful verbs, that perfect adjective, maybe a profound metaphor. You want to give someone who reads your application a good, solid impression of the real you without any extraneous material. If you're bad at knowing when to stop talking, like I am, your parents or teachers can probably help you figure out what's truly important and what's just verbal baggage. However, don't get me wrong - you should by all means fill out every question you feel like, including the optional ones if you can give a strong response to them.
- Immerse yourself. Every school has its own culture, and MIT is no different. Although you don't have to know the whole history of each school you apply to, I think it helps to at least know a little about the institutions you're applying to besides their name and reputation. Interestingly, as the world gets more digital, so does the process of immersion. These blogs are living proof of that fact. Even so, I am still 100% in favor of the traditional information-session/campus-tour combination...especially because my own first visit to MIT was the final, crucial factor that caused me to fall shamelessly in love with the 'Tute. Take it from me: for any school, simply being on campus is a great way to figure out whether or not you might want to spend the next four years of your life there.
- Beat the deadlines. I know I wouldn't have wanted to hear this it when I was applying, which is why I saved it for the end. Fact is, most applications aren't due until December 31, and I know exactly how tempting it is to put things off...but look at this way: do you really want to still be working on applications after Christmas? Deadlines are especially important for your teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, since you basically have no control over when they'll be completed. I'd suggest talking to your teachers about recommendations as soon as you've finalized your list of schools - the earlier the better.
- Stay classy. Between college applications, classes, extra-curriculars, and everything else, senior year is very stressful. I understand, because I've been there. Ultimately, even though sometimes you may want to tear your hair out over this, that, and the other - I can promise you that, by the end of this year, most of those small dramas won't seem to matter much at all. Even when the going gets tough, refuse to give up on what matters most to you. Cherish your friends. Don't forget to tell your parents you appreciate them - and maybe even say the L-word every now and then. And once you've finally hit that "Submit" button, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to something special. You deserve it. Just don't forget to finish all your other applications as well. ;)
That's all I've got, folks. Thanks for reading!