Breaking Down the College Application
High schools have perfected the knack of ingraining the word college into your brain, from the moment you step in as a freshman in high school up until graduation day. College, more specifically the process to apply to college has become a major stress factor for most high schoolers alike. There are the standardized tests, keeping up your grades, being involved in extracurriculars; it seems that colleges expect you to be the perfect student to gain admission. Now, as senior fall rolls around comes the final step of putting it together in a neatly wrapped bow for the college admissions counselors.
Your college application serves as a summary of who you are, from what you’ve been working on to what you’ve been doing throughout your high school years. Needless to say, putting your 100% into the applications is crucial. Those who are most successful in the college process understand that your application is a way to put your most genuine, interesting self on display, not the version you believe the college admissions counselor wants to see.
I’ve written this guide in hopes of it being an organized, relatively comprehensive resource to your college applications. Most importantly, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who implemented (successfully, I’d like to believe) the theme of sustainability and interest in the environment within my application and is now pursuing a B.A in Environmental Policy.
Note: This article does not address one of, if not the, most important aspects of the college admissions process: where to apply. This topic is addressed in detail here.
Telling Your Story Through Your Application
Your college application should follow a theme, sometimes it’ll be more loosely held together, but nevertheless a theme. Don’t mindlessly choose random extracurriculars to place on your college application because it’s pretty transparent to college admission counselors that they’re random and have little interest to you personally and consequently, it weakens your application. From the electives you choose to take at school to the extracurriculars you do outside of school to your summer activities, high school is a time for personal growth and building your resume of activities will encourage you to pursue a certain interest or passion. Participating in a environmental leadership or sustainability-related coursework has already introduced a sustainability and environmental leadership aspect to your college application. Assuming that sustainability or environmental leadership may be an aspect of yourself that you’d like to highlight across your application, utilizing most of the components of your college application to tell your personal story relating to the environment is key.
Components of Your College Application
- Grades and Standardized Test Scores
- Extracurriculars/Activities List
- Recommendation Letters
- Common App Essay and Supplements
It’s easy to get caught up on your grades and standardized test scores to define what kind of student you are and gauge the chances you will get into a certain college. However, if you haven’t heard this already from your teachers, college counselor, or peers: grades are NOT everything! Grades are an easy numerical measure used by college admissions officers, but they are only a fraction of your application. The salutatorian of my graduating class, whose cumulative GPA was around a 99 did not receive an acceptance to University of Michigan, while some students with cumulative GPAs around 94 did. Why? College acceptances are based on the strength of your entire application. The extent to which grades and test scores will impact an admissions decision will vary, sometimes considerably, from institution to institution. In general, your high GPA will not be your saving grace when getting accepted to top colleges if other parts of your application are lacking.
I cannot stress enough the importance of extracurriculars to your college application. It’s simply not enough to get good grades or high test scores. Well-roundedness in your extracurricular list is key to strengthening your application. Furthermore, quality over quantity always matters: participating in a handful of extracurriculars related to your interests will always trump joining, but perhaps not fully engaging in multiple clubs for the sake of more extracurriculars on your application. Now, every single extracurricular does not need to contribute to your application’s theme, but should say something about you and what you enjoy doing. Participating in a team sport shows teamwork capabilities as well as significant time dedication, while an academic, maybe challenge-based club can display academic rigor in critical thinking and problem-solving outside of the classroom.
Furthermore, the summer is a perfect time to delve more deeply in some of your possible interests. You can volunteer or work at an organization with a mission you’re passionate about, explore your academic interests through pre-college programs that enrich you, not just your college application, or travel abroad through a program that’s suited to your interests and goals, not through a program that you believe college admissions counselors will like to see on your application. For students interested in sustainability and environmental issues, there are plenty of opportunities for you to volunteer, whether at a local non-profit campaign or working at your community farm.
Interviews can be very nerve racking! Checking to see if colleges on your list require an interview, whether on-campus or alumni, is important. If an interview is optional, knowing yourself and how well you perform on interviews is critical. If you feel like interviews are not your strong suit, I would suggest you take some time to practice interview questions with peers or parents, however awkward that may be. Interviews will continue to be a part of any rigorous application process, thus gaining those interview and personal skills will be vital in the future. College interviewers are not trying to trip you up or ask challenging questions; they simply want to get to know you and see if you will be a good fit for the school. A common question that’ll arise in a college interview will be along the lines of why do you think you’ll be a good fit for this school? Mentioning specific extracurriculars you hope to engage in or any academic departments you’re interested in will strengthen your response and show your interviewer how your personal interests align with your interest in the school.
Recommendation letters play an important role in the college admissions counselor getting to know you from another perspective, whether teacher, employer, or sometimes even peer. Choosing your recommendation letters is strategic: many believe that the teachers you’ve received the highest grades in their class is the way to go, but this is not necessarily true. The teachers that know you the best will always be able to write the best recommendation letter for you, whether you’ve had that teacher for multiple classes or as extracurriculars leader. You could choose a teacher whose class you’ve struggled in. Maybe struggling in that class has allowed your teacher to get to know you more, during office hours or getting extra help during or outside of class. If the stars align for you and your college application theme is about sustainability, then it most definitely wouldn’t hurt to have for example, your AP Environmental Science teacher write your recommendation letter. And don’t forget: always write your recommenders thank-you notes!
Essays and Supplements
Writing the Common App essay and supplements is the last leg of the application process, but is one of the most important, it’s the one that brings everything you’ve put on your application back home for you. Setting aside a lot of time for this step and not rushing through your writing will benefit you in the long run.
Have a look at a separate article I wrote on this important topic.
Overall, the college process can be rewarding and engaging: personally, it was one of the first steps for me take control of my life and make choices to define what my future will look like. Unfortunately for us young environmentalists, environmental education and sustainability curriculum can still be very limited in high school. Good news: that changes in college. From my Environmental Policy curriculum to the incredible speakers that my Environmental Studies department has brought in, I’ve never felt excited to be working towards environmental leadership during my undergraduate years and then through my future career.
Eana is an alumna of Sustainable Summer and a current undergraduate at Colby College.