Intro: a complete guide to college admissions

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Brinda Ambal

Navigating college admissions can be intimidating, but if I survived, you can too.

I don’t remember when exactly it was, but there was a moment when “oh, I’m a senior about to apply to college!” very quickly became “OH, I’M A SENIOR ABOUT TO APPLY TO COLLEGE!”

For me, the college application process was always something to watch older peers undertake while I thought to myself, “man, that looks awful. I’m glad I don’t have to do that yet.”

Then it was my turn — and I had no idea what I was doing.

Then a pandemic happened — and that…complicated things.

Then said pandemic resulted in more applicants vying for fewer spots — and that…made things worse. In fact, a former Stanford admissions officer dubbed 2020-21 “the most competitive year ever.”

College admissions is a game, one that is becoming more difficult to win with each passing year. Even worse, the vast majority of us are never really taught how to play. We’re just thrown into the deep end with a major life decision waiting on the other side.

I imagine this sounds terrifying. That’s because navigating college admissions can be intimidating, but if I survived, you can too. Most of what I knew about this process came from whatever tidbits I could find online. The r/ApplyingToCollege subreddit became a lifeline: if I had a question, there was a good chance that one of the many admissions officers, private consultants or students on the page had an answer. (It’s also a good place to visit if you want a sense of community with other people in the same boat or, more importantly, college admissions memes.) Much of what I found researching for this guide, some of which I wish I had known myself before applying, either came directly from that subreddit or is a source I found through there.

Nevertheless, I went into this process with trepidation and came out with acceptance letters from four top-30 ranked universities: Emory University, the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rice University, the school I chose to attend. With that in mind, here are a few notes about this guide:

  • Getting into a school does not make me an expert on how to get in. Most of what you’ll find in this guide is information I originally found from sources who know these waters better than I do, but be aware that there is an element of chance in college admissions. What worked for one person may not work for another. Thus, you should treat my advice as advice, not an objectively correct way of doing things.
  • Don’t mistake this guide as an endorsement that college is the best path for everyone. I’m not going to pretend to be qualified in handling that question, but there are, of course, people who lead happy, comfortable lives without needing college to get to where they want to be.
  • I’m a big proponent of prioritizing your wellness and happiness first. I’ll discuss this in more detail throughout the guide, but, to give you an example for now, I never took an all honors/AP course load. It was important to me that I created a guide discussing how to have a successful college application cycle while still enjoying your high school years and finding genuine fulfillment in what you do.
  • A good amount of what this guide discusses is most pertinent to highly-selective schools that use holistic admissions. (Don’t worry if you have no idea what that means. I have a section focusing on what that process looks like.) That said, much of this guide is universally applicable no matter where you’re applying. Some of it might not apply to you at all, so feel free to read whatever you need to read.
  • Building on that last note, there isn’t necessarily a chronological order you need to read these sections in. I would, however, recommend the “bigger picture” articles (i.e. the ones that deal with a broader topic or philosophical matter) before diving into the more specific pieces about, say, essay writing or interviewing.

Full list of articles

If you insist on an order, this is probably the one I would suggest:

1. Introduction (congrats, you’re already reading this!)

2. About me: an overview of my application

3. Revisiting my “Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal” article

4. How are the “best college” rankings made? Not well.

5. It’s all about fit: creating your college list (and deciding where to commit)

6. Understanding the types of admissions plans

7. Making college more affordable: financial aid and scholarships 101

8. How I stayed organized

9. Holistic review and what “well-rounded” really means

10. The ratings system and what goes on behind closed doors

11. Parts of the college application (with the following six installments)

1. A primer on letters of recommendation

2. A rundown on standardized test scores

3. Making the most of the honors and activities sections

4. The personal essay from start to finish

5. But wait, there’s more: a guide to supplemental essays

6. How to make college interviews less scary and more successful

12. So you were deferred or waitlisted…now what?

Wherever you may be in this process, I hope you find this guide helpful and I wish you the best of luck.

Thanks for reading!

-Tyler