Building a college list
Being a junior going into twelfth grade, summer is less about fun and more about having to think about the colleges that I want to apply to next year. There are tens of thousands of universities in the world and even in the U.S, there are still over 4,000 schools to choose from. So how exactly do you narrow down that 4,000 to 7-15 schools? That’s what I’m here to help you with!
For me, the process of narrowing down my college list was overwhelming, to say the least. I had no idea how to start and felt as if the decisions I made during this process could either make or break my entire future. Talking to my counsellor and some of my friends that had already applied to college was very helpful for me. After having gone through the long process and finally limiting my options to 20 schools, I believe I learned many great tips regarding how to compile a college list best suitable for you. So, here is how to get started on narrowing down your college list:
1. Get to know yourself - What are your preferences and interests?
College can be a huge investment and to get the most out of your college experience, it is important to make sure that you are going somewhere that meets your needs and wants. Considering the fact that college is where you will most likely be spending four years of your life, think about even the smallest things. For example, here are some questions that you can think about as you start the process.
2. Research, Research, Research
Once you have figured out what you want, it is time to see which schools will be able to meet those needs and wants. The easiest way is to search up: “Best schools for intended major.” However, make sure that you look beyond just the academic rankings. Instead, look for lists of schools that are most diverse, have the best sports programs, have the happiest students, have the most school spirit, or whatever else is important to you.
Going to college fairs, watching YouTube videos, and talking to your high school alumnus are a few other ways to find colleges to look into. Once you have a rough list of schools that you are interested in, whether that be 30 or 60 schools, it is time to do in-depth research into each of the schools. This definitely took me a long time, but you do not have to do it all in one day, and being thorough here will definitely be helpful later on. Here are a few ways to do your research:
As I did research, I started eliminating schools that didn’t fit what I wanted and was able to narrow down my list.
3. Split the colleges you are interested in to reach, safety, and target schools.
While I am not a professional on college admissions it is recommended that you have a list of around 8-15 schools with around 2-3 safety schools, 3-6 target schools, and 3-6 reach schools. Safety schools are schools that you have a good chance of getting into, target schools are those that you have a 50-50% chance of getting into, and reach schools are those that you do not have a good chance of getting into. So, how exactly do you know which colleges fit into which category? Here is what my own counsellor recommended:
I know that coming up with a college list can seem daunting, and I definitely felt worried and unprepared myself as I started the process. However, the more I did research, the more confident I became in knowing what I wanted and whether or not a school is a good fit for me. Your college list will evolve over time and you do not need to do it all in one day. So, don’t worry too much and I know that you got this!!
Have a great day,
If you’re getting started on writing your college apps, especially for schools in the United States, one major part of the application process that probably is going to take up the majority of your effort is the essay portions. Between the Common App, UC Personal Insight Questions, and thousands of schools’ supplemental essays, you’ve got quite a bit of writing ahead of you. Actually, that’s somewhat of a lie; most college app essays are only around 500 words, so it’s not much at all. And that’s all you get to convince these schools why you deserve a spot over thousands of other applicants. Sounds daunting? It can be.
I remember the amount of effort I put into writing my college apps, and boy am I glad that part of my life is over. I found so much advice for how to write the best college applications, and yet I still struggled to get started. 17 years of life experiences flooded my mind, and I couldn’t sort through it all. That’s because I had no idea what I should be writing about.
Deciding on what topic to write about is the most important part of the college app essay. The rest is just applying general writing skills and finding the right tone, but the story you tell is what the admission officers will focus on - because that story will represent you. Despite that, there’s not a lot of information about how to select a topic for each essay. Some prompts are hyper-specific, especially if it is a supplement for a specific school, that point directly to what you should be writing about. Others are as vague as “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.” That’s literally a prompt on the Common App (one of seven, and you only select one).
For anyone who is stuck on this decision process, I’ve been there. You might have the instinct to just think of something that fits and dive right in- try to fight that. Chances are, you won’t go deep enough into the prompt or the experiences you come up with, and shallow essays can break an application. Don’t let that happen to you. This article is a long one, but hopefully it will guide you to figure out what exactly to write about for each essay.
WHAT COLLEGES WANT
Before you even start to think about how to answer a prompt, you should first try to understand why schools are asking that prompt to begin with. What even is the point of these essays, anyways? Simply put, you are more than your report card and résumé, and schools want to see the rest of you that they can’t get from anywhere else but your own words. They want to see who you are, what your values are, what drives you, how you think, and how you move through life. Sounds deep? Yup. That’s the point.
Schools rarely use the essay to measure your intellect as a student. Instead, they want to see you as a person. There are some questions that statistics cannot answer. Will you be a good fit for the school? How do you get along with other people? What is it that you care most about? How do you react to challenges in your life? What else interests you aside from what is on your résumé? What do you love to learn about? Why do you want to go to college? How do you think, and how do you learn? Why do you think you deserve a spot at that school? There are many other questions like these, and I won’t list them all because there is no official list. However, you probably now have a slightly better time understanding what UChicago is really asking for with the prompt, “what can actually be divided by zero?”
Most importantly, colleges want to know how you see yourself. What do you think is the most important thing about who you are? Some prompts explicitly ask for this, others don’t. The key is to not choose a topic based on what you think will impress an admission officer. Back in 2019, I attended an event with Exploring College Options, a cohort of top-tier schools that do undergraduate recruitment and fairs together. One admission officer reminded people to not write to impress: the essay that he remembers the most is one he read several years prior about a tree that a student had planted with his family as a boy and how the student has grown along with the tree. It is a simple concept and relatively unimpressive in terms of what would be on a résumé, but the student wrote from the heart and it showed.
Now that you hopefully have a clearer idea of the goal for these essays, it’s time to start thinking about the topics. You may feel you have too many ideas, or not enough, but it is always good to find a variety of experiences and activities you can draw from to answer any number of prompts and ensure that your application reflects who you are. You will want to start evaluating your life in terms of what activities take up the most of your time, special interests, specific memories-both good and bad, but also evaluate yourself in terms of qualities that you think transcend these moments in your life. Below is a brainstorm similar to my old notes from when I was going through the process for myself.
*I swam competitively from ages 8-11, then started again when I was 16.
With these in mind, the next thing you will want to do is unpack some of the specific examples you have listed out. Your goal is to see how they have shaped you as a person, what you have learned from them, and how they highlight who you are as a person. Focus on experiences that are relatively recent, as colleges want to see who you are now, not who you were years ago. Go deep, and let yourself go on tangents. You’ll find some dead ends, but that’s okay. Never erase anything. The goal for this exercise is to explore the full value of these experiences, not to try to write the essay.
LOOKING AT THE PROMPTS
Only once you have clear ideas of what you could write on your applications should you zero in on the prompts. Prompts can be tricky because they may not always show what a college is truly asking for from you. It’s your job to figure out why the schools are asking those specific questions, or giving those exact prompts. Rarely is there one right answer only. Sometimes, your gut reaction of how to answer a prompt may actually show colleges the exact opposite of what they want. For example, one PIQ asks “What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?” The trick to this prompt is that the talent or skill you mention is less important to the admissions officers than how you have developed and utilized it throughout your life. The point is not to brag about what you can do. It is to show how you make the most of what you’ve got.
As you start to understand the prompts better, you’ll see that some of the topics you’ve brainstormed won’t really fit well for any of them. I personally had wanted to write about my family, but I knew my words were limited. I knew that there was not a whole lot I could share about my family experiences that would truly show to colleges what I know they want to learn about me, so I left the idea behind, along with several others. You may find yourself leaving behind over half of your brainstorm, and that is okay. The point of brainstorming is to just find your options and explore different ideas.
Chances are, some colleges will be reading multiple essays from you. Even if this is not the case for any of the schools you are applying to, it is vital to balance your application. Every school will have some form of a resume, and the essays will merely supplement it. What does your resume show about you, and what is missing? My resume highlighted my academics, so I focused more on my extracurriculars and non-written achievements for my essays. You want your application to show a complete picture of who you are and will be as a college student - in courses and the community. Your essays will fill out the rest of the picture that cannot be taken from anything else on paper. Therefore, if you have multiple essays to the same school, try to make sure they are not too similar. With limited words, you want to show as much of yourself as possible.
Finally, you may find that some topics fall under multiple prompts! Keep these topics in mind. If they are central to your identity, make sure you write something about it. However, sometimes the ideas we brainstorm are not as deep as we originally thought. For me, I found that though writing about my experiences with swimming could work for many of the prompts I was given, I simply would not have enough to say. Make sure you have enough to say on a topic. Most prompts give a word range - always aim for the upper bound.
SELECTING THE TOPICS
By this point, you’ve already done a lot of the work. You know what colleges are looking for. You understand the prompts. You know yourself and what stories about yourself you can tell. At this point, all that is left is to simply decide what topic to write about for each prompt. Sounds easy, right? But be careful - most people rush through this step without realizing, even if they prepared well for this step. Remember, it is okay to change your mind. Nothing is finalized until you hit the submit button, so keep an open mind even once you’ve made these decisions. I myself shifted several of my essays around. After writing out a full essay to answer a prompt about improving my community, I shifted it to answer a different prompt about an academic subject that inspires me. I had to write some more to frame the story properly and make some edits to passages that I enjoyed, but that is alright. I think I wrote at least ten times as many words through my various drafts than what was actually submitted to schools.
Keep the following in mind as you start to commit to your essay prompts:
Hopefully, this article helped you build a process to select what you want to write about for your college applications. With the brainstorming and the first drafts, just write it all out. Don’t try to get it perfect or succinct just yet, just put everything on the page. Narrowing down the topic and editing are quite similar processes and are probably the two most important steps to writing a stellar college application essay. If you get stuck in the brainstorming process or struggle to express yourself on the page, turn to those that know you best. The application is supposed to reflect your own introspection, but you can also find inspiration from the way others describe you.
When I was in high school, my college counselor was not very helpful at any stage of the application essay process. However, there is one thing she said that is very important - someone who knows you should be able to read your essay and identify it as your voice, your identity, and your experiences, not anyone else’s. Part of this comes down to editing and word choice, but mostly it comes from choosing a story that is unique to you. You need to get to the heart of your identity and expose yourself. Some topics require you to show your flaws, and that is okay. Colleges are not expecting perfect people, so don’t try to be one. Just make sure that whatever flaws you describe are countered with related positive qualities.
For essays that are around only 500 words each, the process is long and may seem arduous. Yet without doing this work, those short essays go from being the deciding factor for admissions officers letting you into the school of your dreams to the reason you failed to stand out at any school at all. So please take time with this process. Don’t do it all at once, but a little bit day-by-day or week-by-week. That way, over time, you can change your mind as needed or slowly build to the best possible essay you can write.
Best of luck,
Are you unsure what you want to do in the future?? It is okay, we’ve all been there. Maybe you’re really indecisive like me, maybe you have a vague idea or maybe you are just completely lost. No matter which one you relate to I’m here to help, by telling you about my experience.
So, I was certain after binge watching all of 'Gilmore Girls' plus the revival that I wanted to be a journalist, just like Rory (one of the main characters). Which is why I started my blog as a way to build up a portfolio of my writing. I even started up a school newspaper in my highschool and then later joined my college’s student magazine. I showed that much enthusiasm towards it that I am now in line to be the chief editor next year. But speaking of college, I even suited my chosen courses around this idea of being a journalist, I mean I chose English and media (two obvious ones but my favourites) and sociology which is what I wanted to be my niche.
However, I recently had a review day where me and my teachers sat down to talk about how I’m getting on in their courses and how I can improve in advance of our summer progression tests. The grades we get in these tests decide if we continue our courses into the second year. In my meetings there was a unanimous trend that my writing wasn’t enough and that I wasn’t fully answering the exam questions. So, as a way to improve I was set the tasks of doing practice essays at home and attending an “Academic Writing Course” during my free periods in college.
Then when I got back home from college I told my Dad, and that's when we came to the realisation that maybe journalism isn’t right for me. I mean there is one journalist apprenticeship in my local area.On top of that it is a highly competitive field and I am having to take an extra course to work on improving the main skill required for this job. Which is how I came to the conclusion that maybe college isn’t right for me. That’s okay, there is a lot of speculation around being a college drop out and it is certainly seen as inferior. But I realised that an apprenticeship could be a better option for me.
My advice is to weigh up your options. Originally I thought that college was the only way and it is not. If you have any further questions I would love to help out, and if you have some advice why not help out??
If you’re applying to university, you will need to write a personal statement. If you’re applying through the university itself, they may ask for a variation of a personal statement or one itself, often with a word limit. If you’re applying through UCAS, you’ll need a personal statement with your application and there’s a character limit of 4000 words or 47 lines. This can seem intimidating, but it isn’t as daunting as you may think.
A personal statement is an introduction to you. It’s your first impression to the places you’re applying to. It’s an important part of your application, but it isn’t talked about much. There aren’t many tips on how to make one, especially to make one stand out, so here are my tips on how to make a personal statement.
I applied to university last year, both through UCAS and through university websites. Making a personal statement for UCAS can seem scary due to the character limit and their advised limit of 500 words. Of everyone in my class, none of us thought we could get to 500 words, most of us claiming we weren’t exciting enough for that many words. I can guarantee you, everyone’s exciting enough for 500 words, even if you don’t feel it.
One place I applied to split the personal statement up, asking specific questions such as ‘why do you want to study here?’, or ‘What’s something interesting about you?’, each having a very strict character limit of 250. That’s why I would say to have your UCAS personal statement easy at all times so you can adapt it to those kinds of applications.
Here are some things I found helpful about the structure-
The first paragraph should be a brief introduction to you. How did you get into the subject? Be as passionate as you can while keeping this brief. My best advice is keep it to four lines, maximum.
The second paragraph should be about your current education. If you’re in college, write about your experience on the subject based on your college experience and what achievements you’ve completed in college, all relevant to your subject. If you’re in sixth form, write about your subject and your relevant achievements you’ve gained throughout sixth form. For example, I wrote about the shows I worked on in college and what I gained from those experiences.
The third paragraph should be your experiences and achievements about the subject outside of education. If you don’t have any, don’t worry about this, just skip this step. For this section, I wrote about theatre experiences I had outside of college, even if they were from before I started college, I put them in. Big up yourself. Show off what you’ve done.
The fourth paragraph should be about you. Do you have any hobbies? Put them in. They have subliminal messages, so keep that in mind. Do you like running? It shows you’re active. Do you like writing? It’s seen as you can keep up with work. Put it in. Tailor them to your subject. For a production arts course, I put in that I run, I write, that I play piano and do grades. It showed that I’m active, I’m creative and do work, and I can read sheet music. Be smart about what you put in, because they will look for the messages your hobbies give. Put in experiences you’ve had outside of your subject. You went to a club? Put it in. It shows you keep busy.
The fifth chapter should be a summary. Try to be as passionate as possible. Say why you want to study your subject in higher education, but keep it brief. Four lines maximum.
With that structure, here are some things to remember:
This is what I learnt about personal statements. I hope that this has helped, even just a little! It’s a tricky thing to do, but remember that the most important part is to be you. Hype yourself up but stay true to yourself. Being patient is especially important. It’s hard. Be patient. You’ll get it perfect in no time. Through my experience, it took me three months to get it right, but it worked. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, as long as you get it in before the deadline, it’s perfectly okay. Rushing it won’t get it perfect. Being authentically you is the best thing to do when writing a personal statement.
Along with a large number of students, I am about to become a university graduate; something that both excites and terrifies me. After speaking to a lot of my university friends I have realised that this seems to be a universal feeling, especially brought on by attempting to navigate graduate life whilst still in the swings of a global pandemic. To go from living independently for a minimum of three years with people in a similar age group to you, whose priorities are extremely similar to your own, to potentially moving back into your family home can be an overwhelming idea to process. However, it can be just as overwhelming to make the decision to continue to live independently and attempt to get a graduate job. Therefore, I thought I would not only share my experience but also some of the advice that my fellow university students have imparted on me as the process of leaving university begins.
Take a break
Ask anyone close to me and they would be able to tell you that I have never been particularly good at taking breaks, even when I’m at work I’m not a massive fan of sitting around. However, the long nights of studying and writing my dissertation took a toll on me so when I completed studying I crashed. This was not healthy, something that I can admit now, but what it allowed me to do was rest my body and my mind to the point that I felt comfortable moving away from university work and turning to a new adventure. Giving yourself time to rest is necessary, not even necessarily after university. Allowing yourself to sit and process any big achievement in your life is important, even if the emotions you have surrounding this are not always positive. If you feel like you’re struggling with processing leaving university, make sure to speak to someone. Whether this is a parent, a friend or even a GP, talking through your emotions is vital to keep up a good physical, emotional and mental health.
Learn a new skill or hobby
With the addition of free time from not having to write a 10,000 word dissertation, it can be difficult to know what to do. For the first couple of weeks after I finished all my coursework I definitely felt like this which meant I turned to Netflix and other streaming services to catch up on all the programmes that I’d missed. However, this didn’t make me feel like I’d accomplished anything in a day. In order to combat this I made the decision to spend a couple of hours a day doing something new. Recently I’ve taken up learning a new language, I will admit that I’m not great at it but it’s a learning curve, as well as taking up scrapbooking seeing as I seem to have collected a lot of memory driven objects from my time at university. Doing something new might not even be necessary, maybe you used to have a hobby that you haven’t taken up in a while because of the focus towards studying.
Try not to compare yourself
Although learning about what your fellow classmates or housemates are doing when they go back home can be exciting, it can also be extremely daunting. It can often feel like you should be doing exactly the same thing as your friends in relation to getting work experience, interviews and eventually a job. This was definitely something that I struggled with at first. Making the decision to take a year out to work before going back to do my master’s degree is what is best for me, something I acknowledge now, but was difficult to come to terms with. Understanding and learning that going with the crowd is not always the best just in order to conform is difficult. It feels like the standard, however, in the current climate there is no standard. There never has been, students do different things after they graduate, it happened in high school and it will continue to happen in all forms of education. To not compare yourself is difficult but if the path that you take after you graduate makes you happy, that is what is most important.
I hope that this was helpful to my fellow soon-to-be university graduates and that some of the advice that I’ve shared has eased your anxieties about what is next for you. Remember that not everyone is at the same stage in their process but that does not mean you are any less successful than your friends. Take some time to breathe and rest, after three years of hard work, we all deserve it!
ACT vs SAT
The ACT and SAT are created by The College Board - the people who create the heartbreaking AP exams - and The ACT, respectively. These exams test your knowledge obtained in grade school overall, but the scores do not define you. Many colleges use scores for admission, but colleges also take in account of GPA, activities on-school/after-school and more to determine if you are granted admission. Not everyone is a good test taker and that is okay.
The ACT has more areas like science and social studies and does not rely on math or english that much, but rather reading.The breakdown for the ACT: a 35-minute reading test, 45-minute English test, 60-minute math section and 35-minute science test. The SAT is more math and english: grammar orientated. The breakdown for the SAT: 65 minutes reading test, a 35-minute writing and language test and an 80-minute math section. The math section in the SAT is divided in two: one with a calculator and another with no calculator. Both are timed around equal times but the cool thing is that there is no punishment for guessing on these tests. It is better to mark down an answer if you don’t have one since you have a ¼ chance of it being right.
The ACT and the SAT are both stressful since you are timed, for each question you have about 1 minute and sometimes second, but there are some strengths to both of the tests that might help you. I actually took the ACT in 7th grade and the PSAT in my 8-10 grade so I have taken these exams for the last 3-4 years. The PSAT is a smaller version of the SAT that many Americans take throughout high school. If you like the PSAT, then the SAT is the right choice for you. Additionally, the SAT may be your best bet if you are good at math or you could take the ACT if you are not math oriented and more of a science-based person. For either one, I recommend studying and taking practice tests a couple months before and not on the day of the test. Procrastination is not the key for trying to do well on your college admission tests.
You can decide which score to give your college if the first time wasn’t your best score. Both tests have essays but it is up to your future college if you need to take it. Plus you have resources to actually practice and prepare yourself. It is good to see how you do on a practice test to give you a heads up on your mistakes and problems before-hand.
Take time to pick your exam and maybe even take both to see for yourself if you just do not know. The differences allow for students to have different experiences with each exam like me. You got this!
Here are resources to practice the ACT and/or SAT.
319.337. 1270. ACT Helpline if you have more questions
1 (866) 630-9305. SAT Helpline if you have more questions
1 (800) 273-8439 Princeton Review. For help on both exams