I remember when I first started the college application process I felt like everyone had advice for me. I was told by one person that it’s a waste of money to apply to more than three schools while someone else told me I wouldn’t get in anywhere unless I applied to fifteen or more. Every conversation about college ended with people having put a few more schools on my radar to “check out” – regardless of whether they actually had the majors I was thinking about. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure whether any of the advice I was getting was good. Both of my parents were first-gen to college, and neither of them nor any of my close family members attended a highly selective institution. I was left feeling overwhelmed and not sure who to trust. And I imagine it is even more difficult if you’re the first in your family to attend college or go to a high school where you barely get to see your guidance counselor. So I have three steps to make sure you are able to sift through the advice you are getting and get to the good stuff.
Don’t close off options too soon – One of the biggest pieces of advice I wished I had received was to make sure to apply to schools with a variety of financial aid policies. I ended up applying almost entirely to schools that met 100% of demonstrated need (like Tufts) and while I’m very pleased with my eventual decision, it would have been nice to be able to compare aid packages. With that in mind, I think it’s important to consider a variety of schools. So if you go to a smaller high school and know several people who have gone to much larger colleges and felt lost, don’t give up on big schools yet! Go, visit, check it out for yourself and see how it feels. Maybe you feel lost too, and then you can start crossing big schools off your list. But maybe you feel invigorated by the huge community and resources available, and then you should probably apply to a few big schools.
Go with your gut – Your gut is there for a reason, and you should often trust it. If you’re getting conflicting advice or advice that just feels wrong, start with your gut. Now, of course, your gut isn’t always right (just yesterday, my gut told me that salt and vinegar chips would be a good breakfast choice – that is clearly the wrong choice). So when your uncle tells you it’s waste of time and money to apply to more than 3 schools, your gut may send up some red flags. It may be time for a second opinion. And how do you do that? Well read on…
Find a few sources who are experienced – While the internet (and blogs like these!) can certainly be a good source of help, it can also go pretty off the rails pretty quickly. It’s usually easier to find a few people who are or were recently immersed in the admissions process and talk to them. I would suggest having three points of contact. The first should be someone who works helping people get into college – it could be your guidance counselor if they’re available, someone who works with a college access organization like Questbridge or College Possible, or somebody you happen to know who used to do one of those jobs. Second can be someone who just went through the process, like a sibling/friend/cousin/friend’s sibling who applied to and got into similar colleges to the ones you’re thinking of applying to. Right after the process people often have solid 20/20 hindsight, and can tell you how they wish they had done the process differently. Third, talk to an admissions counselor (like me!). There’s a reason we have the word “counselor” in our job title – part of what we do is give advice. We know the admissions process in and out – we live it year to year – and can definitely answer questions you have about our school’s process or just the process overall.
The running theme here is that people like to present advice as universal – this is what worked for me, and so this is what works for everyone. But this process is about YOU. Your situation isn’t the same as everyone else’s and so advice that works for some may not be the best for you. Advice tends to work best when context is applied – meaning you can talk back, ask questions, and explain your situation to someone who has done something similar. So get out there, ask some questions, and get ready to make this college process your own!