College application tips: Student edition

Seniors give their advice on college applications, ranging from community college to in-state colleges to selective universities.

A highlight of senior year is notably the college application process. While this process can be exhilarating and rewarding, it can also be a stressful and confusing one. WSS interviewed five seniors with various post-secondary plans to help guide students through this process.

Julia Bernat ’21 is attending Washington University in St. Louis this fall, with a plan to major in architecture. Before going into this process, she had the goal of finding a school that was the best fit for her. She ultimately decided to apply to a large array of schools due to the competitiveness of the program she was applying to.

Niyati Vyas ’21 is attending the University of California, Los Angeles later this year. Prior to applying, she was sure that she wanted a career in the medical field. When applying, she made sure to choose a major that would go with the premed requirements.

“When choosing a major, I wouldn’t stress too much. I already changed my major and it is really easy to do,” she said.

Sarah Dickens ’21 is going to the University of Iowa. She picked a major based on her previous experiences with the subject in past years.

“I’ve always been interested in how the brain works,” Dickens said. “But my AP Psychology class with Mr. Henderson really solidified that that’s what I was passionate about. My advice would be to go with your gut.”

Kaisa Whittaker ’21 is planning on going to Gustavus Adolphus College this fall. While she is currently undecided on her major, she wants incoming seniors to know that it is completely fine to not have a major in mind when applying.

Lillis Markey ’21 has plans to attend Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. She will be majoring in Diagnostic Assistance Radiology. Although she had previously wanted to be a therapist, she had a change of heart when applying to college.

“I would advise any incoming seniors when picking a major to not stress about it too much since you can always change it, but also try to think of your interests and pick a career based on that,” said Markey.

I would advise any incoming seniors when picking a major to not stress about it too much since you can always change it, but also try to think of your interests and pick a career based on that.”

— Lillis Markey

One of the first steps in the selective college application process is crafting a list of colleges a student is interested in. This should typically be done in the junior year of high school or the summer before senior year. It should consist of safety schools, target schools and reach schools. Whittaker crafted her college list through Niche and other college ranking websites based on possible majors, location and size.

Similar to Whittaker, Vyas created her college list based on factors that she considered to be important in a college experience. She has always had the goal of attending college in an urban setting. She also planned on attending a school that is academically strong with strong sports and great school spirit. She looked at schools that fit into those criteria when finalizing her college list.

Bernat had always enjoyed math and art, so finding a major that could integrate the two subjects was perfect for her. Due to this interest, she started looking into schools that had strong architecture programs.

“I think it’s important to consider what you value the most in a future school and use [those] criteria to start crafting your list,” said Bernat.

As schools remain test-optional this year, Dickens shared her support in submitting a test score as an opportunity to gain scholarships.

“It was actually my ACT that qualified me for my scholarship, but I would really recommend doing research [on scholarships] because there are so many good ones out there,” Dickens said.

While Bernat and Whittaker expressed their support for submitting standardized test scores, they weren’t as sure of its effect on gaining acceptances.

“I think it definitely strengthened my application and may have helped me receive merit awards from some schools, but ultimately I don’t believe it was a huge factor [in the acceptance] due to the test-optional policies,” Bernat said.

“I submitted both my SAT and my ACT, as both of them were helpful in securing academic scholarships. I think submitting my scores did make a difference, at least for a few colleges which offered me larger academic scholarships,” said Whittaker.

COVID-19 has also impacted many other aspects of the college application experience. Vyas and Whittaker were unable to visit schools and attend in-person campus tours, making finalizing their college list more difficult. Whittaker had to rely on virtual tours as an alternative but indicated her frustration with the inaccurate reflection of the school campuses.

For Markey, she thought that there was a lack of scholarship money from the school due to the pandemic budget cuts.

“Fill out the applications for those things as soon as you can so you have a better chance of early scholarships or getting financial aid,” she said. “Make sure you know things like your social security number too as you’ll need it a lot for college registration and applying for scholarships and aid.”

Writing supplements have always been crucial to a student’s application to the more selective schools in the nation. Whittaker indicates the importance of these essays, advising students to spend ample time on them.

“I think everyone tends to wait until the last minute to write their college application essays,” Whittaker said. “So I would recommend that students at least start thinking about topics more than a few weeks in advance. Also, get it peer-reviewed. Have as many people as possible read your essay. The feedback really helps.”

Bernat voiced a similar view on this aspect of the application.

“Write from the heart about something you’re truly passionate about because it will naturally come through in your writing. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your English teachers for help as they’re more than willing to give essay tips and revisions. Another piece of advice I have is to start your applications [particularly the essays] early— they take much longer than you’d think,” said Bernat.

Vyas also emphasized the importance of these essays for the University of California applications.

“[The schools] really just want to see who you are as a person, not just as a student,” Vyas said. “Be yourself and make sure your values and passions come through your essays.”

[The schools] really just want to see who you are as a person, not just as a student. Be yourself [and] make sure your values and passions come through your essays.”

— Niyati Vyas

When finally choosing to commit to a school, the majority of these students picked schools that emphasized the affordability aspect of college.

“I chose Kirkwood because it’s close to home and more affordable for classes similar to Iowa, and it’s also smaller than Iowa so you can get more personalized assistance from teachers and other staff,” stated Markey.

“Ultimately, I chose Iowa because I was offered a full-ride and couldn’t turn it down. Plus, almost all my friends are coming here,” said Dickens.

“I ultimately chose WashU for financial reasons. While it was one of my top five schools, none of my other top choices gave out merit awards, so this option was the most affordable for my family,” said Bernat.

However, for Whittaker and Vyas, they had a broader approach to committing to a school.

“The ultimate reason I decided to attend Gustavus was the atmosphere. You can get a good education almost anywhere, and so I really wanted a college with a prominent community aspect,” Whittaker said.

“I think UCLA just had everything I wanted in a school and it was just a perfect fit for me,” Vyas said.

After this experience, these students learned various lessons. “The biggest takeaway for me was that it was a good look into gaining my own responsibilities,” Markey said. “It felt like a very “adult” process as there were lots of papers and forms to fill out and so many things to register for. It’s not as overwhelming as you might think, but you should always ask your parents for help if you need it since some of the things get confusing, and you need to fill it all out accurately.”

“After experiencing a competitive admissions process, I’ve learned that acceptance/declines don’t define a person’s worth. I also believe that rankings aren’t everything; it’s really important to find the school that is the best fit for you, not necessarily the highest-ranked program in the country,” said Bernat.

After experiencing a competitive admissions process, I’ve learned that acceptance/declines don’t define a person’s worth. I also believe that rankings aren’t everything; it’s really important to find the school that is the best fit for you, not necessarily the highest-ranked program in the country.”

— Julia Bernat