So Many Schools, So Little Time, Part I: Approaching How You Approach Applying

For the next several weeks (I’m looking at a weeklyish post schedule), I’m going to be walking you readers through the college application process. (Sorry for the long post title. I tend to be long-winded, as you can probably tell already.)

So! You’re a starry-eyed senior/junior/underclassman/middle schooler (jeez, calm down) looking at colleges. You’re not sure what you want, but you know you want a good school. You want a school that can give you everything you need and deserve. You want a school that you will not regret going to. You want a school that accepts you for who you are and truly cares for you…

Oh, wait, that’s a future spouse.

But to tell you the truth, the two are analogous. And now, in this vein, I will address several misconceptions or thoughts you may have about finding a school. (This isn’t all of them, but it’s a few important ones I thought of just now.)

1. “I will not be happy unless I go to ________. I will therefore only apply there.”
Translation: “I will not be happy unless I marry ________. Therefore, I will turn down ALL OTHER SUITORS until he/she proposes that we wed.”
SO: You can clearly see how insane this idea is. So, NO. Stop. Just… stop. Take a deep breath. It’s very nice to have a dream school, and it’s fine to have a #1 pick, but if your list stops at #1 you have problems. If that school is very highly selective, for example, you could (gasp) be rejected. And then what? You’ve built up your #1 school so much in your head that any other college is a letdown (which is very sad because that other college could be the perfect fit for you, but you don’t realize it yet; you could also miss part of what your chosen college has to offer while pining after your ‘ideal’ college).
Or, better but not by much, you attend your dream school but find that your expectations are so high that it’s not really the paradise of rainbows and unicorns you expected (which is very sad because you are unhappy with what you had been wanting for a very long time). So just let go of those absolutes and just go with the flow, you know? (Sorry.)

2. “I want to go to ________, because it’s the best.” (This is similar to #1 but not identical.)
Translation: “I’m going to marry ________, because he/she is the best.”
SO: See above. However… I made another point similar to #1 because of my views on applying to a college simply because of its rankings and reputation.
First of all, you may wish to apply to a school like – for example – Caltech, because it’s the #1 school in the world. And heaven forbid you go to Berkeley*, because in that very list it’s #11 (clearly, double digits are not okay). I just want to say that this is an absolutely idiotic idea that you should reject immediately. What on earth do rankings even mean? They’re just a set of numbers attempting to quantify the totally subjective “goodness” of a school. Caltech may be ranked #1, but you might be happier at a #4 or a #42 or a #whatever. A school being called the “best” by one source doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you, which is the crucial part. Let me repeat: Do not apply to a school simply because of its rankings.
On a related note, do not apply to a school because of how “good” it sounds. The “look guys, I’m going to Harvard/Stanford/whatever” factor should not be pivotal in why you wish to go to a school. The fact that it’s internationally recognized wasn’t why I decided to go to Stanford (though I will admit that it was a reason, however small). In fact, as I mentioned earlier, I was seriously considering Harvey Mudd, which is virtually unknown in suburban Minnesota (though come to think of it, where I live even Stanford isn’t that well-known – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I’m an Ivy Leaguer or heading off to the East Coast).
But I digress – if you’re applying to Stanford because, well, it’s Stanford, you’re going to be disappointed. The academics and reputation of the school make it stand out, but it isn’t why I – or many other people – decided to commit. Many people committed after talking to the people on the Facebook group, or after visiting campus for themselves. It’s that intangible “I feel like I belong here” factor (which you can have with Stanford, Harvey Mudd, or any other school on the planet) that makes a school truly good for you. If you don’t feel like a school is good for you, you will be unhappy, no matter how highly that school is ranked.
This has been a long section, and it might have been somewhat incoherent, but the point of the matter is that what other people think about your school should factor into how you feel about your school as little as possible. So stop looking at the US News rankings and stop asking other people what they think sounds good. Do your own research for yourself. It’s your education, after all.

* – There are a multitude of other reasons to not go to Kal, but that’s another post.

SO: Oh, dear. How can I begin to approach this…
Well, first, I direct you to #1. You can’t even “decide” on a school if you haven’t applied.
You do NOT have to decide on a school immediately. You are under no obligation whatsoever to decide a school before the typical May 1st deadline. Got that? So if all of your classmates are all planning for a college, and they haven’t heard back from their school, they are A) being presumptuous in thinking that that school will definitely accept them, and B) kind of being jerks. (If they’ve already been accepted to their school and you’re still waiting for your decision, please resist the urge to strangle them; they’re just excited.)
Bottom line: You don’t have to – and, in fact, can’t – make any decisions if you haven’t been accepted to any schools. If you’re even before the application stage, then all you need to do right now is make a list of schools that interest you. And that is only done through research and visiting schools (the latter of which is for another post).

4. “Aw gee, I have to have ________ as my safety school, don’t I? Boo, I don’t want to go there.”
Translation: “Aw gee, I have to marry ________ if ________ doesn’t propose, don’t I? Boo, I don’t want to marry him/her.” (…That one’s a bit of a stretch.)
SO: Don’t apply to a school if you don’t want to go there. It’s as simple as that!
However, you do have to have a backup plan if plan A doesn’t work. Whatever that backup plan is – gap year, safety school, found a multibillion dollar startup – you have to be happy with it. If you’ll only be happy with plan A, well, you should lower your expectations and be a little more realistic.
In other words, don’t be a brat. If plan A doesn’t work, don’t stamp your feet and scream. Have a productive backup plan that you’ll be happy with.

5. “I think I’ll apply to 18 colleges. Well, at least 12.”
Translation: “I think I’m going to date at least twelve people at once.” (…Er, okay, maybe this isn’t working.)
SO: I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep your options open. Keeping your options open, especially for college, is a good thing! Having to decide between ten colleges who have all accepted you is a good problem to have, no matter how frustrating it may be at the time.
On the other hand, be reasonable. Would you be happy going to every single one of those 18 (or however many) schools? Like I said, don’t apply to a school if you don’t want to go there. If you’ve done your research, you should know which schools you like and which you don’t. Don’t thrust yourself into months of application nightmare unnecessarily.
HOWEVER. If you are absolutely certain you want to apply to however many schools, and “however many” means at least a dozen, start early and keep at it. As I was waiting for my Stanford decision (which was supposed to be out December 15th but wound up being released December 9th), I filled out other applications (though I held off on submitting them until I heard back from Stanford, which turned out to be a good idea). You want to make each and every one of your applications high-quality. Doing fourteen applications halfway isn’t really a good idea. It’s better to do seven, really good, applications.
ALSO. Make sure to rank the schools in order of how much you want to go there, even vaguely, so that you at least have a game plan if you get into multiple colleges. I was planning to apply to 14 colleges and had a very strict rank of which ones I preferred over others. If you’re accepted to multiple colleges, you don’t want to be saying “but I want to go to all of themwhile whimpering and eating ice cream in the corner.

Well, my metaphor kind of fell apart, but the point is that I tried to make those comprehensive discussions on five thoughts you may have about college applications, and I hope I succeeded! Please leave a comment if you found this helpful; I’m also taking suggestions on what to discuss next (like I said, I’m trying to walk through the application process chronologically).

It’s also my birthday today! Happy birthday to me.


This entry was posted in Applying, Applying and Admission, College, Samantha. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to So Many Schools, So Little Time, Part I: Approaching How You Approach Applying

  1. Linda Ge says:

    All of y'all are GREAT. I've been creeping your blog for a while (rising senior hellooo stress) and every morning I look forward to seeing new posts! Keep it up!

  2. Linda Ge says:

    PS – HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Cheers all around!

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