Throughout high school, the college admission process gets more and more intense. Seniors are writing applications, finalizing college lists, retaking standardized tests, and generally worrying about whether and where they'll get in. Juniors are heading into the PSAT, first college visits, and what is made out to be the hardest year of their academic lives. Everyone is focused on meeting those college admission requirements. How do you maintain your sanity, put the process into perspective, and find your path?
College admission process is about what's right for you
First of all, remember that you are in control. The college admissions process should be about finding schools that fit you well and then doing your best to get in. Many people will tell you what is right for you and what you need to do to get into selective schools. Some of their advice is probably on target, so don't dismiss it outright. You have a lot to learn about new areas of study, new choices, and most likely the first major decision affecting your long-term independence which you have had to make.
People who know you well — friends, parents, teachers, advisers — will likely have valuable input, so don't be afraid to approach them for college admissions assistance.
Nevertheless, you should be in the driver's seat as you make decisions about classes, standardized tests, and colleges. If you succeed, you can take credit for your accomplishments. If you fail or choose unwisely, then you have only one person to blame. We find that students who develop control and build self-esteem through the college admission process are those most likely to be happy with the outcome. They are also more likely to be successful when they arrive at college.
College admission requirements should showcase who you are
Our second recommendation is simple: be yourself. We discourage students from doing things "just for college". Try to avoid putting on a mask in order to impress colleges. Keeping it real means trying to communicate to colleges — through your essays, interviews, e-mails, recommendation letters, and other college admissions requirements — who you really are as a person, as a learner, as a family member, and as a community member.
Colleges are most interested in hearing about what you are passionate about, what makes you different, what you will bring to campus. If you stop focusing on what you think this or that college wants you to be, and start focusing on who you are and what you want to be, you will find the right colleges for you — and have a better chance of meeting their college admissions requirements and getting in.
Some parts of the process are beyond your control
Thirdly, recognize that a lot of the college admissions process is not about you. There are many factors beyond your control, including the size of the talented applicant pool and the particular goals and constraints of each college. Keep your chances for admission in perspective. It helps if you can recognize which colleges might be too much of a stretch and be realistic. Reach for your dreams, but make sure to balance your list and avoid overconfidence about the odds at the tougher schools. Pay attention to every school on your list so that colleges consider you a serious applicant.
Keep things in perspective
Finally, try to keep the college admissions process in perspective. This will likely not be the most important decision you ever make. It might be one of the most important decisions you have made so far, but many colleges could work for you in many different ways. You are not choosing a soul mate for life, but rather the place to start your higher education.
If you don't get in to some of the colleges to which you apply, it is not the end of the world, and many of the colleges you might think unsuitable could work well and be a lot more challenging than you imagine. Keeping an open mind and adopting a long-term view will go a long way toward reducing your stress and uncertainty.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.