By: Yara Oliveira
College applications may seem like something out of this world, but don’t worry, you got this! As a first generation college student, I had to do a lot of research on the application process. This meant more than just figuring out which colleges to apply to, but also learning how to clearly tell my story and trying out different organizational methods until I found one that worked. Now, I help mentor high school students who are going through the same process. The best piece of advice I got while applying came from my mom, she told me that it didn’t matter where I went to college, it mattered what I did once I got there. Applications can seem overwhelming and difficult to manage, but if you work hard and share your story, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be. These are some of my favorite tips to help you conquer the college application season.
- Start your applications early: Before college application season begins and the essay questions are released, you can create a common app or coalition account to fill in logistical details like activities and testing information. This way, when the applications open on August 1, you’re able to focus on the essays to make sure you’re sharing your story the best you can. I found that as time went on and I wrote more essays, I got better at them. For me, a strategy of several drafts is what worked best. You can also brainstorm for essays that typically appear on applications, like expanding on an extracurricular activity or talking about your greatest achievement, early on. Starting your applications, or at least brainstorming ideas for your essays as soon as you can, allows time to make mistakes and get better before the deadline.
- Get feedback on your essays, but also make sure to stay true to your voice: Having someone (or multiple people) look over your essays is a great idea. Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate your story and having an outsider point of view can help you understand what an admissions officer would get from reading your essay. However, you need to remember that it’s you applying to the school, not your teacher who’s reading over your essay. After having someone revise your essay, read over it and make sure it still sounds like you. It’s important that you don’t lose those quirks in your writing that make you unique, so accept constructive critism but don’t change your voice!
- Keep a notebook with all of the activities you did each year to make it easier when filling out the college application: This tip was the most useful when preparing for college applications! I kept a notebook (or you can keep a doc online) for all the activities I did during the school year and over the summer. This was so helpful when I started applying and was able to refer to that notebook instead of having to spend hours contemplating which activities I did freshman year. You can update this notebook as frequently as you would like (every semester worked well for me). Other great things to keep in this notebook are: organizations you created, jobs you’ve had, volunteer positions you’ve held, and some brainstorming ideas for college essays.
- Take advantage of opportunities given by your high school: My highschool had events in which admissions officers or representatives from the college visited to talk more about the school. As a low income first generation college student, this was one of the main ways I got to learn about different colleges. During a visit at my school, an admissions officer talked about some of UChicago’s traditions like milkshake Wednesdays. I later ended up writing about those traditions in my “Why UChicago?” as they were one of the reasons I chose to apply. If your school doesn’t already have visits with admissions officers, talk to your guidance counselor, they can get in touch with colleges to hold information sessions.
- Be organized: This is crucial for a seamless application season. You have to find what works for you, for me, I kept a folder on google docs for all my college applications. Within the folder I organized by schools that were finished, drafting, or needed to start. I also kept a spreadsheet for all the schools and what I liked about them (bonus points for color coding!). Doing this made it so easy to keep up with the schools and my essays. I also kept a binder full of school brochures and information I had in paper so that it would all be in one location. Staying organized can be difficult but I promise, it makes everything easier in the long run!
I know right now this process may seem overwhelming and scary, trust me I’ve been there. But remember there are always resources to help you out. For me, the college application process was a time of so much growth and self reflection. I was able to look back at the most important times in my life and share my story. I can only hope the same for you. Don’t worry, you’ll end up at the school you are meant to be in. Have fun and work hard, best of luck in the college process!