I Applied to 11 Colleges: Here's What I Learned

Student Life

Yes, you read the title right: I did apply to 11 colleges. I spent so many countless hours searching for schools, touring campuses, writing supplemental essays, and perfecting my resume that my first semester of senior year honestly felt like a blur.

But despite the anxiety I felt, I can confidently say that I came out of the process as a more mature person who had a better understanding of myself and who I wanted to become. Through writing essays that reflected on my past 4 years of high school, I learned so many things about myself that I wouldn't have discovered until much later in life.

So if you're currently applying to colleges as a senior, or even if you're an underclassman who's just beginning to think about your future goals, I'm here to give you the inside scoop on everything you should know before you submit your application.

1. Start Working on Your Common App Before Senior Year Starts

Timing is everything in college applications, from when you start working on it to when you submit it. Ideally, you'll want to start working on your application before senior year starts, with mid-summer being a very popular time. My Common App (also known as a Personal Statement) essay alone took me 3 months to write and about 10 drafts, not to mention all the supplemental essays I had to write, resumes I had to make, and other random assortments of info I had to fill out.

You really don't want to rush something this important, so be sure to give yourself enough time. Personally, I set aside 1-2 days a week I would work on my application over the summer, and that schedule seemed to work for me. Things definitely picked up in the fall, but I got a nice head-start which made things less stressful overall.

2. Apply Early

For me, I applied early to college because I wanted to hear back before the holidays and enjoy my school vacation without having to worry. I've heard back from all of my schools, and it's such a nice feeling to already know where I'm going next year.

For some of the more competitive schools I applied to, applying early helped because the acceptance rates tend to be slightly higher than if I applied during the regular decision deadline. However, I think it's best to only apply early to a few of your top-choice schools because it can easily become overwhelming when trying to do it for all of them.

Also, applying early means you'll get first priority for things like merit scholarships and grants. For most colleges, non need-based aid is first-come-first-serve, so you'll want to send in your application early if you're looking for additional financial support that you'll never have to repay.

I'm a nursing major, which means that for most of my schools, I had to apply early due to the popularity of the program. While I was scrambling to get everything in on time, something I wished I would have known is that the only thing colleges need before the deadline is my application. All the supplemental materials like recommendation letters, SAT/ACT scores, and transcripts can arrive in the days following the deadline.

So don't stress; you have more time than you think!

3. Your Essay Matters A Lot

Colleges get so many applications (sometimes in the tens of thousands), with just a handful of admissions officers reading them. With so many students applying, test scores and GPAs start to look the same, and it becomes hard to find stand-out applicants.

However, your essay is a place where you can gain your reader's attention and set yourself apart from the sea of your peers. It gives them a glimpse into your life and how you're so much more than just a number.

Your essay doesn't have to be about some extravagant experience you've had, because you can make even a mundane experience into something compelling by using a unique writing style or perspective. Whatever story you want to tell, whether it's about traveling the world or how much you love Lay's potato chips, make sure you're revealing something unique about yourself that colleges can get invested in.

My best piece of advice about writing your Common App essay is to show not tell. In other words, you're showing your essay reader why it is you're passionate about something (rather than just saying it) by digging deep into why it engages you. Your reader has never met you, so make sure to be descriptive and provide plenty of details as to how and why something is important to you.

4. Learn to ask for help

You've probably never applied to college before, and so a lot of this is new to you. Doing new things are scary and hard, but it's going to help you learn and grow into a more independent person overtime. I pride myself on being independent with my work and school, but sometimes I needed a parent or friend to proof-read an essay or look over my resume.

You don't have to go through this process alone, and it's totally okay to ask for help sometimes. If you don't have anyone in your family who has gone through the college application process before, consult your guidance counselor or even your favorite teacher. I'm sure they'd be happy to help and answer any questions you might have.

5. Keep Your College List Short

I personally may have not listened to this piece of advice, but everything is clearer in hindsight, right? Applying to 11 schools was certainly overkill, and with so many options, it made it hard for me to decide where I wanted to go. If I were to apply to college again, I would aim for 5-7 schools. That way, I would have plenty of options but would not be as overwhelmed when it came time to decide.

Something I think was really helpful when deciding where I wanted to apply was making a spreadsheet that contained information like the size of the school, clubs I'd want to be involved in, majors I liked, and opportunities in the area. By using this method, it was easy for me to cross off schools that I didn't think would fit me but also get really invested in the ones I thought did.

6. Consistently Check Your Portal

This may seem like it goes without saying, but a lot of students hit the "submit" button on their application and then wait for the decisions to roll in. Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated than that, and you really should be checking your applicant portal weekly to make sure everything's in order.

Your portal is the place you can see if your high school transcripts have arrived, application fee has processed, and recommendation letters have been sent, among other materials. You don't want a missing document to be the thing standing in the way between you and your college acceptance, so make sure to be on top of the status of your application.

7. Don't Idolize the names of schools

As a high school senior in the northeast, I've been surrounded by big-name schools my whole life. For a while, I thought that attending a well-known school was equated to success in my career and life. But as I researched schools, I realized that Top-20 schools weren't the right fit for my learning style or personality type. I didn't like the intrinsically competitive and cut-throat nature of them, and wanted a school that takes pride in fostering a tight-knit, supportive community.

This lead me to finding small, liberal arts schools in my area that checked all my boxes. Even though people in other parts of the country might not know my school's name, it's where I'll be successful and achieve my personal, social, and professional goals. That's all that really matters in the end.

8. Connect with College Admissions Officers

I'm sure that you have lots of questions about the application process, financial aid, student-life, and academic offerings at the schools you're applying to. While their website probably has some really helpful information, it won't have the answers to everything you're wondering about. So if you're looking for added insight or have a nagging question, connect with one of your college admissions counselors; they'll be your best resource.

Most of the time, these admissions counselors were students themselves at the school you're looking to go to, so it's easy to get the inside scoop. If you're so inclined, try to reach out to an admissions counselor who had your major; that way, you'll get a really good idea of what's in store for you come next year.

Also, many colleges take note of students who demonstrate interest in their school (be it through a tour, info session, or just chatting with a counselor), so asking insightful questions and making connects could actually help boost your application.

9. Tour your schools

I can't stress enough how important it is to visit your school's campuses in-person. Sometimes, schools can look one way online, and be totally different once you've actually set foot on them. Through my school visits, I was able to reaffirm that "yes, this is where I want to apply", or "maybe this isn't the place for me."

While many school tours are canceled due to the pandemic, or you simply can't tour them because you live too far away, your next best bet is to go on a virtual tour offered on the school's website. This is a good way to get a feel for the school, but it can never really replace seeing it in-person. Sometimes, you've just got to go with your gut.

10. You'll make a mistake and that's okay

I re-read, and re-read, and re-read my Common App essay, but somehow, some pesky little grammar mistakes slipped through the cracks. While it may seem like just a small blunder, it's easy for your mind to go down a rabbit hole and worry about what the admissions officers might think about you using “to” instead of “too.”

Now, before you start to panic about a mistake on your already-submitted application, take a deep breath and relax. Admissions officers read so many applications a day and interact with tons of prospective students that they most likely didn't even notice or will not even remember 5 minutes later.

Even when you think you have done everything right, you’ve probably gotten something wrong, and that is completely okay. You're human, you make mistakes, and life will go on.

11. Learn to be patient

One of the most painful parts of the application process is the waiting game. Once you've submitted your application, it can take weeks or even months to get receive a decision. With all that waiting, it's easy to overthink things and get stressed about the future. If no one's told you yet, take time to relax and step away from your computer. Go for a walk outside, eat your favorite snack, or watch a feel-good movie. While you can't speed time up, you can definitely find enjoyable ways to fill it.

Final Remarks

I hope you've taken some helpful tips away, but at the very least, remember that this process only happens once in your life. Apply to your dream schools no matter how unattainable they may seem, celebrate all your acceptances with those you love the most, and look forward to the best four years of your life.

Happy application season!

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Norah Baldwin

Norah is a high school senior from Boston, MA. She currently works as an editor for various international student-run literary and science research journals in addition to The Teen Magazine. She will be attending nursing school next fall.