Advice to Incoming Freshmen
It’s that time of the year: the air is crisper, the leaves are starting to change colors, the pumpkin spice latte is back at Starbucks, and, if you listen closely, you might hear the sigh of a distressed senior. With college right around the corner, many of us are struggling jump headfirst into the application process. The endless questions, essays, recommendations, and transcripts have proven to be the slightest bit overwhelming, especially for those who pushed back the thought of going to college in the hopes of “dealing with it later”. Personally, I stand behind the idea that one can never start too early, which is why I have compiled my experiences with preparing for college and the advice I have received along the way, hoping it will reach incoming high school students meaningfully.
The first important piece of advice I have goes as such: recognize that high school is preparation for college. Of course, this is both obvious and usually easy for incoming freshmen to abide by, being intimidated by new environments and prompted to put effort into their work by the uncertainty of expectations demanded from unfamiliar teachers and classes. By sophomore year, however, everyone’s workload seems to dwindle, leaving students with mounds of free-time and nothing but entertainment to fill it. Unfortunately, while many of us wish that having a good time could be the sole purpose of our four years at Keystone Oaks, one would be mistaken in this belief. Ms. Chambers, speaking from years of experience warns one should “make the most out of these high school years.” My biggest regret in high school involves not taking more AP or higher level classes my sophomore year, instead wasting away my time napping or on social media. Come junior year, the sheer amount of AP courses some students take is staggering, as most are unaccustomed to the difficult workload and fraught with hours of homework each night. Taking advantage of free time sophomore year allows one to ease into the difficulty of AP classes and lessens workloads junior year, a year when one tends to focus more on acing standardized exams.
This brings me to my next point: take the SAT the fall of your junior year! Most students take the PSAT fall of sophomore year, and almost all retake it junior year, which is a waste of time, in my opinion, but Chambers adds it can “provide the opportunity for merit based scholarships.” While you may not be completely prepared to take the SAT October of your junior year, doing so gives a good gauge of where one stands intellectually and what one needs to work on, as well as what to expect the next time around. Taking the SAT in the spring leaves one scrambling to study the fall of senior year; why bother when a plethora of other college-related stresses await? The early SAT allowed me to recognize my strengths and weaknesses, giving me months to study, take tutoring, and prepare for the spring test, and ultimately evincing the option of taking Subject Tests in June, which more and more universities have begun to require. Because of this, I was finished with standardized testing before the summer after junior year, and could take the time to work on college applications, activity lists, and scholarships, as well as gathering recommendations from teachers, deciding which schools to visit, and developing an understanding of the programs each school had to offer.
As for the actual college application process, I cannot stress the importance of visiting schools enough. If at all possible, make sure you tour any schools you are interested in. Regardless of whether the school is accredited, prestigious, etc. the feel of the school plays a huge factor in dictating the four year, or more, living experience. One of my own dream schools, while selective and esteemed, was a significant letdown from my expectations. The people, area, faculty, and programs simply did not fit who I was as a person or what I wanted out of my college and post-college life. Remember that you don’t want your four years to be miserable, but rather you want to be able to develop connections in the university and learn in the most comfortable environment possible, getting the greatest return from the education awaiting you. I was fortunate enough to have Ms. Chambers warn me to be wary of this danger early enough, as she consistently reminded me, as well as others, to “do your research, and make sure the school has programs for you… don’t choose a school solely for other reasons.”
As for extracurricular activities, the clichés still stand: choose one or two activities you truly love and stick with them. Being a part of seven clubs and three sports prevents one from truly excelling in any one area, as it is simply humanly impossible to devote the time necessary to develop each of those talents. Universities love to see leadership, commitment, and accomplishment, standing by the idea that less is more. So, instead of joining Math Club, Cross Country, Yearbook, Pep Club, and Tennis, perhaps just stick to Cross Country and make it your goal to become captain or qualify for states by the end of senior year.
Community service, for me, was the least problematic area of my application. I, and many others, learned through word of mouth that each borough has a summer rec program for young children, and were encouraged to apply as counselors the summer before freshman year. Doing so fulfilled essentially all required community service hours before entering high school, freeing up opportunities for joining clubs and sports or completing homework and finding a job. If at all possible, I would suggest finishing community service requirements early on and eliminating the stress that could potentially be evoked by them.
Most application essays ask general questions about who you are as a person or what you can tell the school about yourself that they would not otherwise know. To make the essay-writing stage less of a burden, write one general essay relating to this topic, and alter it to include a conclusion on why your topic of discussion makes each school a good match for you as well as to fit word limits. Essay templates not only come in handy when applying to universities, but can are general enough to be used for most scholarships as well. You don’t need fifteen essays for fifteen prompts. You need one or two essays that you can add or subtract information from to fit a certain mold. That being said, the essays should be unique to your personality. Really take the time to think outside of the box and showcase who you are. Play with words, have fun, and try to start each off with a captivating thought that you think will stick with the person reading it. Remember, the person reading your essay will be reading thousands of others, so what you are saying should have a personal flair that won’t get lost in the sea of generic, average submissions.
In summary, the most important part of the college application process is staying on track and choosing the school that is right for what you want to do. Setting goals from the start and always keeping the end in mind will no doubt ensure your success, and so long as you are happy with the effort you put into your high school education, you will be rewarded no matter what your course levels were or the final grade you received. In the words of Ms. Vitenas “at the end, while all of that other stuff is important, it’s just you and a piece of paper, which is why you need to make sure you pick somewhere you fit in, and somewhere you can be happy and thrive”.