The waiting begins for four Arlington high school seniors who have submitted their college applications due in early January. They discuss the college application process, the details, frustrations and strategies.
Matt Tornquist, a senior at Yorktown High School says he started college visits during the summer of 2014 but there were no students there at that time. He revisited in the fall so he could get a better picture — what were the students wearing, were they active outside, "and I always ate a meal there. And then this year during break I took a big road trip to eight schools."
Clifton Kubiak, senior at Yorktown, agreed. When he visited Belmont University all the kids were on break and he didn't get the vibe, but at Virginia Tech "all 35,000 students were there so it was more exciting."
Agnes Cheng, a senior at H-B Woodlawn said you should always check the library and the dining hall. "If there is silence and students are studying while they eat, it's not for me." Cheng added that it's important if you can find an alum to give you a more honest tour of the school. Otherwise all of the standard tours begin to sound alike. "When I went to Yale I stayed overnight with a friend which is a good idea." She said some schools track whether you have been there as a sign of interest.
Elana Filipos, a senior at Yorktown, said it is important to visit the schools where you apply. When she visited Boston College she found "there was just something about it, too bland." Cheng agreed that Boston College was similar to a lot of other colleges she had applied to, but when she visited, "it didn't fit my personality. And I'd heard that Johns Hopkins had a really competitive atmosphere and didn't think I would like it. But I did so I applied there.”
Tornquist said he thought Drexel sounded kind of interesting but when he got there he found it was "very urban, no grass anywhere and students lived in 20-story dorms. Not for me."
Cheng said it is also important to set up interviews or music performances early for your college visits. She said her friend had to go around hauling her harp for music auditions.
Tornquist said that he had six interviews, two with alumni locally, "which is easier because you don't have to travel to the school."
So how does a prospective college student decide where to apply? Kubiak said he knew he wanted to be in an urban area. "The smallest school I applied to was Belmont University in Nashville. I'm going to George Mason University but my parents are moving to Nashville." Kubiak has already been accepted through the early action process at George Mason where he plans to major in acting and directing stage and film.
Cheng says you have to do a lot of research on when to apply, and "it's kind of a game." At MIT, for instance, the early decision pool is small and so there is more competition than a regular submission in early January. In other schools it is to your advantage to apply early, and you have a better chance of acceptance. And if you apply for early acceptance at least you may know in November that you got in somewhere.
Cheng said, "I was all over the map in my applications. I am interested in science and engineering." But she applied at small, middle and bigger schools with the Northeast weather and culture the unifying theme in her choices.
Tornquist's parents both went to small liberal arts colleges. Since he is interested in engineering he visited UVA in September but didn't like the big school vibes. "But it's hard to find a good small school with engineering."
Filipos knew she liked a large school since her parents had both gone to the University of Maryland and she had been attending their football games since she was young. But she is also interested in Tulane University in New Orleans as well because they have an entire school devoted to her public health interest.
Cheng advised to start everything early because it is going to take longer than you can imagine to submit all of the pieces of paper. She had started her universal college essay in class in June.
Kubiak said, "I think it is as stressful as you make it," although he admitted that he put off the personal essay, the most daunting, until October and then hired a personal counselor to help get him through the process in time.
Filipos said, there are so many components — the transcripts, test scores, recommendations, the essay for the Common Application and then the individual questions that each school requires.
"There is a lot going on at once," Cheng said. "You have all of the tabs on your computer open at the same time." And Cheng added, "sometimes colleges lose stuff."
Filipos said they had lost her transcript and Kubiak said they'd lost his, too. Tornquist said each school has its own set of questions, usually asking why you want to come to their college but sometimes they ask something "like what is your favorite superpower?"
They agreed that it was challenging to try to distinguish themselves in their essay from every other applicant. Cheng said one of the colleges told her that no matter how much time you spend trying to create an impression that they had read every essay that could possibly be written. What they wanted was for you to personalize it and they want to see how you write. In addition, all four students agreed it is important to ask your teacher and counselor for recommendations early because the counselors get behind.
Tornquist said at Yorktown a counselor can have 50 students assigned to him, and Filipos said some counselors have a standard recommendation form and just plug in the student's name. "A college can tell and, that doesn't do any good."
But Cheng said at H-B Woodlawn her homeroom teacher is her counselor so that makes the process much easier for her.
In an attempt to distinguish themselves, students often pick up a bunch of clubs their junior year. But they say colleges can tell the pattern. Cheng has had the same art teacher since 7th grade and she feels that recommendation will show a long-standing interest which Cheng feels is important. Same with Kubiak who has had the same theatre teacher for four years and threw himself into what he was interested in." Tornquist said his approach is to be well rounded with sports, community service and art.
Cheng wrote her essay on her mother's cancer as her viewpoint changed from a child into adulthood. Filipos had a brother with special needs who is now 23. Her essay dealt with her attempts to cope and understand, especially as a child. Kubiak focused on the definition of intelligence which he views as warped and with no meaning. "Your GPA affects everything but if the definition instead was how well a person understood the world around them, it would enable change." Tornquist wrote about his summer counselor-in-training experiences and the impact that took him from childhood to adulthood and helped him get over his public speaking issues."
Now the countdown begins until the emails arrive in a few months followed by the large — or the small — envelopes from the schools.