No doubt, applying to college is a daunting prospect, partially because this four- or five-month long task is so incredibly complex. Aside from crafting your “perfect” essays, you are constantly juggling the ordeals of securing glowing rec letters, achieving impressive test scores, maintaining stellar academic records, acing interviews, bagging scholarship and financial aid applications, as well as strategically resolving the dilemma of where and when to send in your apps. However, the truth is that none of us could ever emerge from the other end of this Herculean journey without screwing up once or twice–because the college apps process isn’t really looking for pure perfection. But the system does reward those who are willing to be smart, strategic, and efficient in their dogged pursuit of that dream school admission.
With that said, here are five quick pointers on how to be smart and strategic in your college apps, and hopefully they can help make the obstacles standing in the way of your quest far less intimidating.
1. Build Your Jigsaw Piece.
Before I sent off any of my apps, I remember attending an information session at this really lofty, prestigious school, and the admissions officer (AO) present said something that stuck with me until now.
“College admissions is not about merit,” he proclaimed. “It’s about fit.”
Yes. That’s right. Colleges don’t siphon out their ideal applicants by way of a selection process based on unbending, meritocratic standards. In other words, the admissions panel isn’t looking for a class of great individuals. Rather, they are looking for individuals who can collectively make a great class. Individuals who can complement each other’s strengths, learn from each other’s diverse array of experiences, and share a common affinity for the school’s unique character. This means that instead of making the case of how impressive and extraordinary you are as a person, you need to craft a powerful argument about how you reflect the identity of the institution–how you can be an invaluable asset to the incoming freshman class.
You need to show the admissions officer how you are the missing jigsaw piece that they need to complete an unfinished puzzle. You need to prove that the academic rockstars and the sports champions lurking in the crowded applicant field don’t hold the jigsaw pieces that come in just the right shape and size. But you do.
2. “Just Be Yourself” is Bullsh*t Advice.
Okay. Maybe not. Inventing a glamorous fictional character devoid of flaws in your essays is definitely not going to work. What I mean is that while authenticity is integral to a good application, it certainly helps to probe into the nuances of the timeless adage of “being yourself.”
None of us are one-dimensional human beings whose identity can be squeezed into a 700-word essay that takes three minutes to read. We are far too complex, too multi-faceted, too dynamic to be adequately represented by a short file with a few achievements and some original writings sprinkled in. Perhaps that’s why the Greek maxim of “knowing thyself” is so elusive and unattainable.
Instead, you would be far better served by exhibiting a particular aspect of who you are–by curating select characteristics that reflect both your personality and the spirit of your target institution. This means that before hammering away on your keyboard ranting about how you saved orphans in the Congo, do some research about the college that you’re applying to. Dig through their website. Scroll through their Wikipedia page. Take a virtual tour. Then, reflect on how you can morph into the jigsaw piece that they sorely need to touch up their unfinished puzzle.
For example, when I applied to Brown, which boasts an “Open Curriculum” that encourages students to broaden their intellectual horizons, I eschewed giving the expected answer to the essay question about where I call home. Instead, I chose to explain my aspirations to become a cosmopolitan citizen who is connected to every corner of the world–an open-minded globetrotter who is willing to dabble in any field and brave any academic frontier. When applying to Dartmouth, I confessed to feeling a bit stuck in the monotone, gray, suburban landscape and expressed my desire to embrace the fresh blast of exhilaration upon stepping into the realm of mother nature. Finally, when applying to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, I decided to go full nerd-mode and ranted about the ideological incompatibility that pervades Sino-American diplomacy.
Having received admission into the three aforementioned schools, I’d like to think that faithfully adhering to the jigsaw-building technique gave me a helpful edge in the application process.
3. Get To Know Your Audience.
The person who plays the deciding role in whether your application deserves a second read isn’t some faceless, heartless entity locked up in a lofty ivory tower. Chances are, your AO is an approachable individual not too far removed from our generation–someone who will feel guilty about tossing an application to the trash pile, someone who really wants to help.
A writer needs to know their audience in order to produce masterpieces. The same case applies for aspiring undergrads–because it certainly doesn’t hurt to enjoy a firm handshake (off-limits in 2020) and a friendly chat with the person who holds so much sway over the application that you painstakingly crafted.
What’s more, getting on your AO’s good side isn’t even that hard. All you have to do is pay attention to any upcoming events that will feature your AO’s attendance–whether it’s a college fair at your school or a local information session. Then, make sure to put on a wrinkle-free shirt, attend the event, stop yourself from dozing off, and finally, go up to the AO after their remarks and ask a question that you can’t just pop into Google. While you’re at it, introduce yourself with your name and your high school so that you plant a stirring memory that will be reactivated once the AO opens your application a few months later.
(Note: since the world has gone virtual in recent months, opportunities such as those mentioned above are probably non-existent, but always be on the look-out for Zoom info sessions in which the AO would be present and always be attentive towards chances to make yourself heard).
Moreover, a courteous, concise email that lands in the AO’s inbox right after you’ve submitted the application could go a long way. In this crucial email, you could mention how you just sent off your application materials and how much this college means to you. You can also jolt the AO’s memory if you mention how much you enjoyed hearing them speak at so and so event. Curiously, the schools that replied to my emails were also the ones that threw confetti into my computer screen on the fateful days when decisions were released.
It’s important to note that this pointer is only effective in moderation. Knowing your reader isn’t the same as stalking your reader, so don’t hurl yourself over the bounds of what is considered socially acceptable, polite behavior. In the end, sending three emails a day to the AO is probably going to earn you an annoyed rejection.
4. Ignore the Common App Prompts.
The Common App essay is worlds away from your English class homework, where off-topic responses are strictly taboo. This 650-word self-portrait–the centerpiece of the entire Common App–is a partial yet profound reflection of your identity that should not be constrained by the boundaries of a short question.
In fact, Common App makes this loud and clear by adding the seventh prompt, which allows you to write an essay on “any topic of your choice.” Don’t be afraid to eschew the other six topics and jump straight to this one–because by purposefully making each prompt a sweeping query and by opening the floodgates to novel ideas, colleges are telling you to rack your creative brains and come up with something that shows off your flair, your passion, your eloquence, and your individuality. Your prospective readers would be pouring through prosaic clichés in the coming months, and they’d definitely appreciate an innovative perspective from a daring writer–an applicant who refuses to conform to the prescribed frameworks of thought that traps the majority of your fellow peers.
5. Don’t Procrastinate. DON’T PROCRASTINATE!!
We’ve all heard the horror stories of the kid who missed out on their dream school all because the application portal closed two seconds earlier. Not only does this piece of advice warn against being the protagonist of that regrettable tale, “don’t procrastinate” means being proactive in all aspects of the application process.
For example, by the end of summer, you would ideally have one or two drafts of the Common App essay. Even if you end up tossing these prototypes in the bin, you’ve at least made some serious strides in the direction of envisioning an eloquent finished product.
Additionally, from the moment that school starts, you should be planning to ask your teachers for recommendations. You don’t want to be the student who rocks up to your favorite teacher a day after they decided to stop taking rec letter requests.
Once you decide to become a proactive applicant, once you take the reins of your unforgettable senior year journey, you’ll realize that the seemingly daunting college application process isn’t so intimidating after all.
The bottom line is that time offers options–the option to scrap an unsatisfactory essay and start anew, the option to pick and choose which teachers you want recommendations from, and the option to kick back and enjoy the merry festivities on Christmas or New Year’s Eve while your peers are sitting wide-eyed in front of their computers, scrambling to pull their life together.
Ultimately, those options could be crucial building blocks that bridge the narrow gap between rejection and acceptance.