Advice From Students Who Have Been Through It

by Caren Osten Gerszberg
The Choice
A blog about the college admissions process
New York Times

As Nicole and I walked down the long, narrow aisle of her high school auditorium one recent evening, she darted to sit with a friend while I went for a seat up close. It was College Night — a chance for all interested students and parents to get the lowdown directly from seven high school seniors — and I didn’t want to miss a word. Dressed in everything from sweatpants to skirts, the seniors dangled their Ugg- and Converse-clad feet over the edge of the wide stage. One by one, they passed a microphone down the line, openly sharing with the audience details of their personal college quests — how many colleges they’d each applied to, how they had come up with their lists, and where they stood in the admissions process. This would be one of the most informative nights of the year for juniors and their parents. The featured students were relaxed and refreshingly candid, and they didn’t all have good news to recount. One early decision (ED) acceptance, an ED rejection and a deferral, and the rest still waiting to hear. As a group, they’d applied to anywhere from two to 12 colleges. And when it came to devising a list, a few consulted their guidance counselors, while others credited their parents or alternative sources. “My mom read the Fiske Guide and paper-clipped about 300 schools,” said Luke, who eventually narrowed his list down to seven. Emma, who applied to four colleges, looked to the book, “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools You Should Know About Even If You’re Not a Straight-A Student,” for direction. Using it as a guide, she discovered and applied to both Beloit and Goucher. A major sports fan, Giancarlo proudly admitted to choosing his colleges based on football rankings, eventually applying to 12, including West Virginia, Marquette and Indiana. Visiting colleges in person was highly recommended by all of them, despite a few complaints. As Megan recounted that she went on way too many road trips with her mom, the others nodded their heads in agreement. Davey pointed out that while listening to his dad’s show tunes was grueling, he appreciated having a parent present. “It was helpful to have a voice reminding me to ask the right questions,” he said. “And not let me focus just on attractive women.” For Emily, spending an overnight at each of her top three choices enabled her to decide that Wesleyan was the one she would apply to early decision. “I was looking for a certain environment, one with individuality and learning for the sake of learning,” she said. While walking back from a concert at 2 a.m., Emily came across a male student playing his saxophone in the middle of an open field. “That’s when I knew this was the school for me,” she said. Interviews were also highly recommended by many of the seniors. For Emily, the person-to-person reaction was significant, as she explained that “it felt weird to present yourself on a piece of paper.” Luke sweated heavily, literally, through a three-and-a-half-hour interview at Skidmore, but he said it greatly opened up his mind to the college. And Emma had written off one college until her interview, when they asked her a particularly creative question (“What Disney princess do you most identify with?”), provoking her to reconsider applying there (The answer, by the way, is Pocahontas). On a general level, the seniors had these valuable words of wisdom to share with the younger students:

  • Remember that there is a school for everyone.
  • Start the process early.
  • Do not to stress about the SAT.
  • Put yourself in your application and essays.
  • Do not wait until Dec. 31 to file your applications.
  • Don’t waste high school just trying to get into college.

Lastly, it seemed that in retrospect, with the process either complete or winding down, the seniors advised the students in the audience to listen to — and be tolerant — of their parents. Naji, who applied to nine universities (a range including N.Y.U., Boston University, SUNY Stonybrook, U.C.L.A. and Brown), said it was her mother who often brought her back to reality. “She’d ask if I was sure I wanted a school in the middle of nowhere or where it’s really cold, hinting at things but letting me have the freedom to decide,” she said. The pinnacle of the evening for the older generation sprinkled throughout the auditorium was when Davey told students “not to freak out on your parents, because they love you and are really just trying to help.” I turned around to look for Nicole. She was sitting five rows behind me, and after a few seconds, she caught my eye. And smiled.