College application process lends itself to self-reflection

Illustration by Riley Gunderson

Illustration by Riley Gunderson

Abby Grant, co-opinions editor

On a late summer night, a canopy of twinkling Christmas lights hung above my family as they began sharing college stories at the outdoor dinner table. The exchange of stories ranged from “studying in Shanghai” to “venturing a new city with my college roommates” to “running around campus all night.”

The first thought these exciting stories brought to mind was, “Crap, it’s August and I still haven’t even looked at the Common App.” But after that brief interjection, my sense of alarm was tranquilized by the thought of embarking on this four year escapade that is referred to as ‘college.’

For those who plan to attend college, deciding where and how you can maximize the enjoyment of these upcoming four years is a difficult task. Generating the unique formula to incorporate every aspect you want in your college experience is almost as difficult as sitting down at your laptop and looking for the perfect school to fit these criteria.

Now that I’ve drowned in the deep end a few times (such as when I found myself writing my Common App essay for the fifth time or when I had 18 colleges on my list), I want to give juniors (and even underclassmen) the best opportunity to succeed by sharing some advice I’ve learned.

First and most importantly, it is imperative to understand the ‘best’ college isn’t necessarily the highest ranking university in terms of academics. If you aren’t already in this mindset, you, unfortunately, will probably adopt this false logic at some point, since it’s extremely contagious amidst the constant talk of college between seniors.

When I first generated my college list at the end of junior year, I constantly found myself researching the year’s ‘best’ undergraduate colleges on U.S. News.  Almost every college graduate I’ve asked about this phenomenon has explained that unless you attend the top 10-15 universities, you will be able to receive the same academic experience and reputation at any school, whether it be ranked 30th or 250th by U.S. News and World Report.

According to TIME Magazine author Michael Bernik, the place in which a student receives their degree is far less important than how well a student’s academic performance is throughout undergraduate studies. In a follow up to the study conducted by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale, the responses of 19,000 surveyed graduates concluded that job outcomes, in terms of earnings, were unaffected by the colleges where degrees were received.

This gives you all the more reason to consider more than just academics when creating a college list. I defined my ‘best’ school as one with a strong engineering program, an equally strong social scene, raging school spirit/ highly ranked football team and close proximity to a major city. If you have no idea what you want, tour some local colleges that each give off a different vibe, such as Northwestern (private and suburban) to U of I (public, Big Ten school and rural) to DePaul (urban).

Once you form your list, you’ll have to consider your essays. The best way to be compelling and avoid cliches in your college essay writing is to go soul surfing. Think of a spot that can engage all your senses to the rhythm of nature; is this at Lake Michigan, the forest preserve or somewhere tropical under the stars? Question your existence. Your purpose. Immersing yourself in a natural environment will allow you to reflect on who you are, something colleges look for beyond the transcript.

Lastly, colleges are looking for substance. Diversity in background and involvement. Leadership past the title. While intellectual merit is important, what is it without the leadership qualities necessary to revolutionize some aspect of society? These people of outstanding potential are the people whom colleges would like to move along in their conquest for innovation and advancement.

To the juniors, you are all capable and ready to take on this task in small doses as semester two approaches. When times become unbearably frustrating and you’re in your bedroom at 3 a.m. prying your eyelids open with every last bit of motivation as you complete homework or ACT prep or whatever, take a walk and let the excitement from the thought of college keep you going.

We have so much left to go in our education and we can only imagine how great those four years will be. To all my fellow seniors in the process now and juniors who will be starting shortly, I wish you the best in these endeavors!


  A College Applicant