Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Did someone call for Letterman?

Some point back in April, after all the college decisions had come in, my mom suggested that my twin sister and I should write a book on college applications. Although I'm pretty sure she was joking, for some reason the idea stuck with me. Hence, I am proud to present my very first post of utterly unsolicited college advice!

I truly believe that college admissions should be as uncomplicated, honest, and open as possible. That's why I tend to believe that most of the so-called "secrets" behind a good application are simply common sense. But I've also found that having a source of advice really can help you get a new perspective on things. So I'm hoping that my own experiences applying to college will enable you to do just that. But do keep in mind that you are not me, nor should you be! Always follow your own advice first and foremost - it'll work out better in the long run.

On a more personal note, throughout the admissions process last year, I was lucky enough to always have my own personal fountain of amazing advice and assistance: my mom. She's the one who proofread my essays, reminded me to meet my deadlines, boosted my spirits and my confidence when I felt overwhelmed. She knew my writing style, she knew my passions - she knew me, basically. I didn't always make it easy for her, but I'm so grateful she never gave up on me.

And with no further ado, here are Paul's Top Ten Common-Sense College Application Tips.

Use at your own risk. Your mileage may vary. Copyright protection pending.

  1. Always be honest. This one's first for a reason. Simply put, be yourself...not who you think some admissions committee wants you to be. Admittedly, students at MIT share a lot of common traits - but if you're at all drawn to MIT, odds are you probably already have a bunch of them already. Write about the things in your life that are cool and unique. And remember, cloning is still only for sheep, not humans - don't be afraid to be different! All the cool kids are doing it. ;)

  2. Show a little passion. I'm always hesitant about using the word passion, simply because it comes up so often when talking about college apps. These days, it seems like every potential applicant has some sort of "passion," which usually really means "hook." Just the same, having passion for something - excitement, fervor, a fire in the belly, whatever you want to call it - is still really important. Personally, I was fortunate enough to do two years of research in high school, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I wrote about it at length for every single college application I submitted. Yes, every single one. (I know I'm a nerd, okay? You don't have to rub it in.) The bottom line is, don't be afraid to reveal what truly gets you excited.

  3. Keep it consistent. Think of your application as a fine meal, or a particularly sexy outfit. I know that's a strange comparison, but play along with me here. In a great meal, all the courses are different, but they still go with one another. The different dishes complement and reinforce one another to create a truly extravagant banquet. In the same way, each part of your application - essays, short answers, extracurriculars, grades, scores, recommendations, etc. - should work and flow together to create one coherent image of you. Consistency isn't so much repeating yourself as setting up tiny little "echoes" within your application. For example, your dedication to your schoolwork is revealed primarily through your grades, but it'll also be echoed by your teachers in the way they write their recommendations.

  4. Embrace your mistakes. I can't be very specific about this, simply because every applicant is different, but the general message is this: you really don't have to be valedictorian, have a perfect GPA with all-honors courses, and have done a gazillion APs to get into MIT. Most people who apply to schools like MIT have taken very demanding classes, and it's okay to struggle. Sometimes, simply refusing to give up can mean an awful lot.

  5. Be confident, not arrogant. A college application is an invitation for you to highlight your accomplishments without being haughty about them. Walking the line between self-confidence and arrogance is hard - the way I see it, you 're pretty much supposed to be bragging about yourself without it sounding too much like bragging. If you're truly worried that you come across as arrogant, just run your application by a parent or a guidance counselor and see what they think. One last note: no matter how good you feel about your high school career, don't rest on your laurels! Colleges are looking for students who are excited about the opportunities ahead of them.

  6. Buy some white-out. Trust me, you will make mistakes. Thanks to computers, it's not so hard to correct things these days - but don't be afraid to scrap a draft (or even a complete essay!) and start over if it's just not working for you. Although I'd recommend saving the original draft just in case. :) Also, as my Calc teacher last year told me, the first application you write will probably be your worst - so filling out a state school's application early on can be good practice.

  7. Leave it short and sweet. Remember, no matter how awesome you are, you're just one application among many. Short answers are meant to be short, and there's a good reason MIT's application only has space for five extra-curriculars. Strong language is key here - powerful verbs, that perfect adjective, maybe a profound metaphor. You want to give someone who reads your application a good, solid impression of the real you without any extraneous material. If you're bad at knowing when to stop talking, like I am, your parents or teachers can probably help you figure out what's truly important and what's just verbal baggage. However, don't get me wrong - you should by all means fill out every question you feel like, including the optional ones if you can give a strong response to them.

  8. Immerse yourself. Every school has its own culture - its own particular feel and outlook - and MIT is no different. Although you don't have to know the whole history of each school you apply to, I think it helps to at least know a little about the institutions you're applying to besides their name and reputation. Interestingly, as the world gets more digital, so does the process of immersion. MIT in particular has done a very good job of using the Web to introduce prospective students to its culture and mission - I'm thinking about the blogs here, naturally. However, I am still 100% in favor of the traditional information-session/campus-tour combination...especially because my own first visit to MIT was the final, crucial factor that caused me to fall shamelessly in love with the 'Tute. Take it from me: for any school, simply being on campus is a great way to figure out whether or not you might want to spend the next four years of your life there.

  9. Double-check everything. There are plenty of horror stories about guidance departments/teachers/students accidentally messing up an application and not realizing it until it was too late. Don't let it happen to you! Although you don't have to everything by yourself, don't put all the burden on others - you have responsibilities as an applicant, as well. Chief among these is making sure that each little piece of your application gets to the right school, particularly your recommendations. Fortunately, this is much easier now that many schools offer online tracking of your application. And most admissions offices are really quite friendly if you call them about a missing piece of your application. (I had to call MIT about a late SAT score report that apparently got delayed by the College Board, and they were super-helpful and didn't make me feel like an idiot.)

  10. Beat the deadlines. This is a toughie, and I know I wouldn't have wanted to hear it when I was applying - that's why I saved it for last. Fact is, most applications aren't due until December 31, and I know exactly how tempting it is to put things off...but look at this way: do you really want to still be working on applications after Christmas? Deadlines are especially important for your teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, since you basically have no control over when they'll be completed. I'd suggest talking to your teachers about recommendations as soon as you've finalized your list of schools - the earlier the better.

...In retrospect, ten pieces of advice may have been a little too ambitious. Now this post is so long that no one's even going to bother reading it all the way through.



Shannon said...

Haha, it's all right. What else is there to do on a Wednesday night?

I used the most recent Common Data Set, which gives me as a female about a 22% chance of getting in. Then, since I'm in the top 25% for CR, Math, and ACT composite, I gave myself a little extra credit and decided that 29 was a good prime number- 31 sounded a little over confident. That, and admissions this year is going to be absolutely insane.

Congrats on Class of 2011, by the way. That's really awesome.

Paul said...

Haha, you mean apart from Facebook? :D

I see...nice thinking! Numbers aren't everything, especially when it comes to college admissions, but sometimes they can be reassuring. :)

Thanks, I appreciate that! Like I said, the Admissions Gods smiled on me. :D

By the way...just from reading your blog and getting a general picture of your extra-curriculars and personality, I'd say you're without a doubt going to have a very competitive application for next year. I have no doubt that you'll end up at the right school for you. Just remember to keep an open mind about it and always, always dream big.

Good luck!

Snively said...

Keep it consistent.

You could get rid of all the other pieces of advice and just use this one if you had to. The entire time I was workign on my application I was trying to figure out how to get the essays, activities, work experience, and other parts to mesh so that they all tied back into each other and made a complete picture. To anybody that's applying, DO THIS!

Shannon said...

Geez, Paul, we seem to be running into each other all over. (Uh, well, the MIT admissions site and blogs don't really count as all over, but still).

And of course I meant besides Facebook. That was a given.

You know the world is in a sad state when a 29% chance of something happening is "reassuring."

Paul said...

Heh, so we have - but I guess that's the way the blogosphere works. :)

Hah, actually, if you read my comment carefully, you'll notice that I didn't actually say that 29% was reassuring - I just said that numbers in general can be reassuring. So thre. :P

However, remember that I was holding the dreaded 10% in my mind when I applied...29% is quite a sight higher than that. :D

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the ten unsolicited college advice tidbits. I mean, holy crap! Applications are actually waiting (in a pile on my desk and in my computer) to be filled out! Where did all the time go?!

Anyway...I even had the patience to read the advice all the way through. :P

Thanks for the application tips!