I gave a talk to the senior class at Palos Verdes High School's "College Day" on Wednesday. Here were some of the tips I shared.
1. Don't let anybody else care about your college applications more than you do.
You're going to college, not your parents, not your counselors, and not your teachers. Don't wait for one of them to take charge and drive the process. Yes, they can help you. And when you need help, you should ask for it. But if anybody else has to push you to fill out your applications and do a good job, you're putting your college future in the hands of someone else, and that's never a good idea.
2. Don't apply to too many colleges.
All the bad news about getting into colleges today makes some seniors apply to too many. The thinking is, "If I apply to 15, or 20 or 25 colleges, my chances of getting into one are better." But odds don't work like that in college admissions. Applying to too many colleges just dilutes the quality of your applications. No student is equally interested in 20 different schools. No student is as energetic on the 20th application as she was on the first five. And no teacher or counselor wants to do the work of completing letters of recommendation for 20 colleges, 15 of which are reach schools or schools you aren't sincerely interested in. Be smart with your college list. 6-8 colleges is reasonable. And have your counselor look over your list to make sure you have a good chance of getting into at least half to 2/3 of them. Don't play the college admissions lottery.
3. Start early.
Students who start (and finish) their applications early have a more manageable process. They're less stressed, they write better essays, and their chances of admission are stronger at schools who admit applicants on a rolling basis (where they evaluate and make decisions as soon as your admissions file is complete). But more importantly, students who finish college applications early can get on with enjoying their senior year. So don't make excuses. Don't claim that you work best under the pressure of a looming deadline. Start (and finish) early.
4. Remember that people writing your letters of rec are doing you a favor.
It's not actually your teacher's job to write letters of recommendation for your college applications. So it's important to remember that when a teacher agrees to do that for you, he or she is doing you a favor. Be mindful of that. Ask early–don't wait until a few days before the holiday break and force your teacher to make a choice whether or not to write letters over the holidays. Be nice. Give thanks and mean it. Write a thank-you note and be sincere about how much you appreciate the help. Most teachers are more than willing to help good kids, but that doesn't mean you should forget that they are in fact doing you a favor.
5. You're seventeen years old–it's OK to sound like it on your college applications.
Some students transform themselves into 50 year-old philosophers when they fill out college applications. They mention valuable life lessons they've learned on the wrestling team, how they were enchanted by the lush scenery during their travels, and the epiphany they experienced during a volunteer shift at the homeless shelter. You're seventeen (or maybe eighteen) years old. The colleges don't expect you to be anything but that. So if you wouldn't think or say those thoughts to a friend, don't express them in a college application. Don't try to sound like something you're not. I'm not suggesting you should write your essays the same way you would write a text message to a friend, but you're still allowed to see the world the way you really see it. Colleges will find you much more charming if you're honest than they will if you try to be something you're not.
6. Remember that it's all going to be OK.
A lot of seniors convince themselves that college admissions is an all-or-nothing proposition. They have one or two dream schools, and they believe that if both those schools deny them, it will be a college admissions tragedy. It's important to remember that nobody's life is made or broken by an admissions decision from a particular college. If a school you loved denies you, you're still going to college. You're still going to move into a dorm, meet more people than you've ever met, and have four years of fun and learning no matter where you go. Aim high, work hard, and treat the college admissions process with the respect it deserves. But remember that no matter what happens, it's all going to be OK.