For the longest time, college apps were, to me, a distant destination – a worry of the future that I didn’t know or care to know much about. For the first two years of high school, I was too busy focusing on balancing my GPA and my extracurricular pursuits to even think about the future. But before I knew it, Junior year was upon me and ironically, right as I began to feel truly at home at the OHS, I got an email from Dr. Lips suggesting I sign up for the college-counseling course and begin considering schools. My first thought was, to be honest, meh. My junior-year course load was tough, and the last thing I needed was a bunch of college visits infringing upon my homework time. Confused and worried, I went to my parents for advice. Their words of wisdom were simple: make a plan, and we will help you see it through.
The first question that came to my mind when considering schools was what career path I wanted to choose. I don’t think anyone expects a sixteen-year-old in high school to be able to answer this question, and I think that this is where a lot of college-app stress comes from. The key is not to have an entire life plan worked out – no one expects that from you – but rather to have several paths of directed interest that could blossom into careers. For me, I synthesized my love of Chinese, music composition, and piano into three possible career paths: film-score composing, concert piano, and intellectual-property law dealing with music copyrights. Thus, I began to check out schools with 1) good music programs, 2) good English or Prelaw programs, and 3) good Asian Studies departments. In formulating my original list, I tried to pick five safety schools, five mid-level liberal-arts colleges, and five elite Ivy League and/or well respected liberal-arts colleges.
I decided to take an extra AP exam that spring – Music Theory – for a grand total of six from Freshman to Junior year. When choosing AP’s, I tried to demonstrate competence in a variety of challenging subjects. I approached the SAT subject tests with the same mentality. Many colleges require two, but some require three, so I took three, including Math Level II, which many people (myself included) would tell you is easier than Math I because the curve is more generous.
I see a large number of “chance me” posts on College Confidential, where posters ask strangers to assess how likely it is they’ll get into particular schools; in my opinion, these posters are just insecure students seeking approval from their peers. I don’t believe you need anyone to tell you what schools you can and can’t get into – I believe that this is information you can compile based on your own statistics. While not every student with a 4.0 GPA who is a world-class athlete/musician/debator, etc, with straight 5’s on all AP’s and a 2400 SAT, will get into Harvard, there’s a good chance that if this student applied to six Ivies he or she would get into one or two of them.
My plan, then, was simple. I came out of junior year with an X.X GPA, AP scores of X, and SAT Subject Scores of XXX, which gave me a good idea of which schools would be “long shots” and which ones would be “safeties.” I also asked for recommendation letters from one English and one Science teacher. I asked Headmistress Emerita Jan Keating to write my counselor recommendation because she and I had worked closely on leadership projects during my time at the school. It was a nice touch to my applications, I think, because she had known me since I was a freshman and Dr. Lips had only known me since Junior Year and had not been witness to my growth as a student. I was a bit worried, to be honest, because I had seen Ivies and similarly hard-to-get-into colleges reject every well qualified OHS’er who had applied to them in the past, so I knew I had to make my SAT score count.
I spent all summer self-studying for the SAT (I believe that those expensive tutoring courses are a waste of money), using the Direct Hits vocabulary books and the Princeton Review prep book to study, while taking practice tests from the College Board’s official book almost every weekend, all summer. This intense prep paid off. By the time Senior year rolled around, I had a good idea of my appeal as an applicant based on my stats. I can’t stress this enough: self-evaluation is the most effective way to narrow your college list, as long as you are honest with yourself.
At this point, my college list was significantly narrowed– five stretches, one safety, and one small liberal-arts school. In the month before senior year began, I visited these seven institutions and attended information sessions, confirming my interest in the schools. Finally, I returned home and for the two weeks before school started worked nonstop on my apps. I think that working on writing college apps before school starts is essential because there is less distraction and more time to focus completely and wholly on the all-too-difficult task of introspection. By August 31st, I had compiled my applications, supplements, and arts supplements (for me, this was a musical-composition portfolio and samples of my piano playing) and submitted everything. In writing my Common App essay, I tried to avoid self-evaluation and instead simply tell a story of a significant moment in my life, letting the story itself speak for the positive traits I wanted to exhibit in the essay. In my supplements, I tried to make the case to each school that that particular place was the right college for me.
As senior year commenced and the anxiety of actually doing the apps subsided in lieu of anxiety about getting accepted, I was happy to see the College-Counseling department working hard to improve the school’s name recognition and credibility among Ivy League and similar institutions. Because of this, I felt more confident about the class of 2013’s admission chances to these schools than I had at the end of Junior year. Soon enough, I was contacted for interviews. I won’t say much about those except for two simple pieces of advice: prepare a list of 10 questions to ask your interviewer about the school, and be yourself without bragging, letting your accomplishments speak for you.
Soon enough, April 1st rolled around. I got into two out of five of my stretches, my safety, and my liberal-arts college. Immediately, I was able to eliminate my safety and one of my stretches that I really didn’t care for all that much due to the extensive Greek Life. So it was down to my liberal-arts school – Williams College – and my first-choice stretch school – Columbia University in New York. It was obvious that the OHS’s efforts to increase legitimacy amongst the elite schools of the US was paying off. The stress was finally gone, the power of choice mine. I took a weekend and went up to Columbia and Williams for their admitted-student overnights, expecting to like Williams more due to its quiet serene atmosphere and intimate academic environment. But it was Columbia that felt like home as soon as I stepped through the gates. Visiting the schools and meeting my future classmates was essential to my final choice. I am so happy I picked Columbia.
Throughout this time, the OHS’s online format enabled me to visit schools for info sessions and overnights, and the great college-counseling department helped me with the submission of paperwork and transcripts. The entire process, while stressful, was seamless for me. I wish success upon all OHS’ers applying to college this year and next. My virtual door is always open if you would like additional advice.
Thomas Nielsen (OHS ’13) will be attending Columbia University in the fall of 2014. Mr. Nielsen formerly served as OHS Student Body President during the 2012-2013 school year.
The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of the “!” Student Newspaper.