The Common App has just gone live and for many, the reality of the college application process has finally struck. Everywhere, high school seniors are facing the seemingly endless process of writing essays, collecting letters of recommendation, and sending out SAT scores, and it all starts with the opening of that one application.
This period of my life is one I’m not entirely inclined to relive. For me, this was a time of stress, uncertainty, and utter, utter confusion. However, after forcing myself to look back on it, in the hopes that my past experiences can help to inform those of the future, I’ve found myself wondering how much of that worry was even warranted.
The fall of my senior year comes back to me as a series of unappealing snapshots characterized by anxiety and stress. There’s me, hunched over my computer, spending what was easily a good twenty minutes deciding which word to use in a single sentence in a college essay. There’s me again, biting my nails as I tried to figure out which teachers I would ask to write my letters of recommendation. I see me, losing sleep over my senior classes, and whether I should take a class I hated at the AP level, simply because it would add “rigor” to my schedule. Not a fun time.
But did it have to be this way? When I dig to the root of all that anxiety, I find it all comes down to me, trying to live up to a set of standards I imagined an admissions had lined up. When I labored over a single word in an essay, I was so indecisive, and so concerned, because I was focused on what would most appeal to an admissions officer. Should I say “hardworking” to describe myself, or would the word “industrious” sound more impressive? When I went about asking teachers for recommendation letters, I was operating under the mentality of what would look most attractive on a college application. True, my journalism teacher knew me quite well after working with me on the school newspaper, but wouldn’t it be much more noteworthy if the letter was written by my APUS History teacher? I forced myself to consider the intimidating prospect of taking an extremely challenging class that I wouldn’t enjoy, simply because it might make a better impression.
I fretted and induced headaches and bit my nails till they bled, and all because I was trying to create an altered identity for the sake of a college application. An identity that was based on my limited perception of what I thought an admissions officer might want.
It didn’t have to be this way. For the majority of this process, I took on the impossible task of trying to read a college admissions officer’s mind, when I could have taken on the much more feasible, much more practical, and much less stressful task of simply reading my own.
I could have decided on the word that best described me, not one an imaginary reader thought sounded best. I could have gone straight to the teacher that I had the best relationship with for my rec letter. I could have immediately decided to pour myself into the classes I relished; instead of overextending myself in classes I didn’t like anyway. I could have made all these decisions based on what would really portray who I was, as a student and as a person, and not based on this edited and adjusted person I wanted to appear on my applications.
As it happens, that’s all an admissions officer wants to see. They want to know you. They want to know who you are, and why you are the way you are, and how learning how to ride a bike had a lasting impact on you as a student, and the teachers who inspired you, and the math problems that didn’t, and who you want to be in the future, and how you plan on getting there. They want to know all those aspects of yourself that you’re probably already aware of, you might just need to do a little digging to get to know them, and then communicate them on an application. This is a much more attainable and enjoyable task than trying to make yourself into something you’re not, and then get it on paper.
That is all a college application is trying to do. The test scores, the essays, the letters of recommendation, these are not obstacles meant to make you squirm and stress, they are opportunities for you to allow a college to get to know you. Not the you you think an admissions officer wants to see, but what is truly, genuinely, sincerely, you.
What looks good on an application is a student who knows who they are, and likes that person, and is going to continue being that person the best way they know how. It is the student who has actively pursued their personal passions, who has done what they’ve enjoyed, who has excelled in the classes they like and still given their best effort in the classes they didn’t, and who has communicated all that through the combination of test scores, and GPA’s and resumes that is the college application. If you do a little self-examining, you’ll probably find that that student, is you.
So instead of spending all this time and energy trying to discover what an admissions officer wants, use this as an opportunity to discover yourself. Most likely you’ll be pretty pleased with what you find. What’s more, I’m willing to bet that there is a college out there who will be equally pleased at the prospect of having you as a student.
~Victoria, Class of 2016