My first question to Jacob was: “What do you wish you knew then that you know now?”
Jacob, after all, is officially a veteran of the college admissions process. While he is busily preparing for high school graduation, he is actually thinking much more about what his life will be like in three months when he moves into his college dorm.
For Jacob, it was a lengthy and sometimes stressful process. He started visiting colleges in his sophomore year. He took the most rigorous curriculum his high school offered, had stellar test scores, participated in a variety of clubs, held leadership roles, got involved in community service, played an instrument, won awards, immersed himself in a foreign culture during his summers; in short, he did everything right.
Here are some snippets of my conversation with Jacob:
Q. What did you do right?
A. I visited many colleges and applied to a good variety of schools: 3 safety, 1 to 2 target and 3 to 4 reach.
Q. What did you do wrong?
A. I didn’t start essays or ask for letters of recommendation early enough. It was hard to write essays in the fall and still keep up with all the work during first semester. Some teachers had fulfilled their quota of letters of recommendation before the end of junior year, so waiting to ask as a senior was too late and I had to scramble.
Q. Did you find any shortcuts or do you have any ideas to make the process run more smoothly for rising seniors?
A. I was able to reuse several essays for schools a few times, although I did have to make significant adaptations.
Q. Was it challenging at school with everyone asking where you’re applying?
A. Yes, especially with juniors. They think they understand everything about the application process and believe that holding many leadership positions and getting straight As in AP classes guarantees students a spot in the most prestigious schools. They don’t understand that even for the most qualified students, the admissions process is still incredibly random. Some students don’t understand when seniors don’t get into top schools. I regret sharing my list of schools with all of my friends and I eventually decided to put my acceptance/rejection decisions on “lockdown” in April.
Q. If you had high school to do all over again, what would you do differently?
A. I don’t have many major regrets about high school, but I wish I had been more involved in clubs freshman year and selected activities that I knew I could continue for four years. I would also focus more on a few select clubs and not join every honor society just to be able to put it on an application. I always agreed with the “depth not breadth” argument but my position was confirmed when I actually started applying.
As I began filling out applications, especially the Common Application, I realized how few spots there actually were to put extracurricular activities, so being superficially involved in a ton of activities truly doesn’t help at all.
Q. What was the biggest waste of time?
A. Visiting some schools over the summer, some schools were completely empty, so I didn’t get a good sense of the atmosphere; others still had students. Families should check with admissions to see what kind of campus life is going on during the summer.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website at www.CollegeAdmissionsStrategies.com.