Op-Ed: College Application Advice Just for Teens, From a Recent Graduate

Earlier this week, we published college application advice for parents and students from a former admissions director, and we also shared tips on college interviews from a Rice University interviewer. In this companion piece, recent Rice graduate Sarah Craig shares some big-picture advice for students currently applying to college.

Hi, seniors. How’s that college application thing going? Are you tired of fielding questions about it from relatives and family friends? Are you tired of all the how-to guides and articles your parents are telling you to read? Well, even if you are, don’t skip this one – please? Because this article isn’t going to tell you the ten things you absolutely must include in your essay, or how to make the most of your interview, or anything like that. Nope. Instead, it’s going to tell you all the things I wish people had mentioned to my friends and me when we were applying to college, the things your parents and guidance counselors might not say. Starting with…

1. If you have multiple interests, try to pick schools with good programs in all of them.

Did you know that about 75% of college students change their major at least once? Statistically speaking, the thing you want to study now isn’t going to be the thing you wind up with a degree in. (Or perhaps you’ll stick to your original major and add another one on – many people do, although it tends to create extra stress.)

So if there’s an area outside your intended major that you find interesting, check out the relevant departments at your prospective colleges. Do they offer the kind of classes you want? Do they have professors you might want to do research with? Do they even exist? If they don’t, consider it a point against that school. Because during college, you will change. You will meet new people and do new things, and you might just realize that your life is going in a completely different direction than you had thought. And if that happens, you want to leave yourself as many options as possible. You don’t want to wake up halfway through sophomore year and discover that you actually want to be an archaeologist, only to find that your school offers a grand total of three classes in archaeology. You can always transfer to a school with a better program, of course, but you could save yourself the trouble by keeping your bases covered from the outset.

2. Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone and go out of state.

Now, there are plenty of valid reasons to stay close to home for college. You might prefer to live at home, or you might want to take advantage of in-state tuition, or you might have your heart set on a specific school like UT, A&M, or Rice. All of those are great reasons to stay in Texas.

But, if you’re looking at an out-of-state school that seems like a great match for you, and you’re hesitant to apply because the distance scares you, apply anyway. Just do it. Trust me.

As previously mentioned, people grow and change a lot during their college years, and you will, too. A lot of those changes come from the independence and responsibility that college students experience. For most people, college represents the beginning of adulthood – for the first time in your life, you’re living apart from your parents, and you get to worry about things like buying food and doing laundry and remembering to buy more shampoo when you’re running low. (If you’re living off-campus, you even get to worry about things like rent and bills! Yay…?)

Another important source of personal growth during college is the social component of college life – specifically, the fact that you have to make new friends. In K-12, it’s easy to be friends with the kids who sit next to you in all of your classes and play on the same sports teams. But in college, it isn’t always that easy – if you’re not involved in extracurriculars that generate close-knit social groups, you’ll have to go out of your way to get to know people besides your roommate (assuming you and your roommate get along). Additionally, many people feel that it’s easier to make friends in undergrad than it is later on – so learning to start your social group from scratch during college can help to prepare you for the challenges of your post-graduation social life.

So how does this relate to going to school out of state? It’s a matter of comfort zone. If you go to school in your hometown, you will know that your parents are there to bail you out – they might occasionally cook you dinner if you’re low on money, and they might even do your laundry if you bring it home on weekends. And on the social front, if you go to UT, you probably won’t have to worry as much about making new friends – there should be plenty of your old high school classmates to hang out with.

In some ways, going to school in state is playing college on easy mode. You’ll still learn and grow, but you won’t be challenged to do so in the same way that you would be at a further-away university. So if you’re looking at an out-of-state school that would provide you with the same or better academic opportunities as your in-state prospects, don’t let fear stop you from applying. If you do, you may well be robbing yourself of the opportunity to become a more fully developed, well-adjusted adult.

During my own college selection process, I came this close to attending my hometown university. I had put down the housing deposit for the dorm and everything. Then I got an unexpectedly good offer from Rice, which I knew had an amazing program for what I wanted to study. I agonized over the decision, because Houston is a thousand miles from my hometown, and I would be leaving my family and all of my friends behind. But in the end, I chose to go to Rice – and I’m glad I did.

3. Don’t (but seriously, please don’t) apply only to the school your boyfriend/girlfriend wants to go to.

If this doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip this section – it’s whatever. But if this does apply to you, please hear me out. I know your parents have probably given you plenty of reasons already, and I know those conversations were probably not pleasant. But I’m not going to judge, and I’m not going to presume to understand your specific situation. I’m just going to give you some friendly advice based on the experiences of people I’ve known.

As I’ve already mentioned a couple of times, people change in college. And I mean a lot. You will develop into a more mature, more responsible, and generally different version of yourself. The same thing will happen to your significant other. Maybe you’ll grow together and grow stronger in your relationship; but maybe you’ll grow apart, becoming incompatible as you mature into your adult selves. And there’s really no way to tell which of those will happen. I know people who are now happily married to their high school sweethearts; I also know plenty of people who were totally blindsided when their significant other dumped them more or less immediately after starting college. Realistically, no matter how strongly you believe that you can make it work, there’s a serious possibility that the relationship won’t survive college.

And if it doesn’t work out, where does that leave you? Very, very alone. People who come into college together, as couples, generally make friends as couples – or fail to make friends, as the case may be. It’s easy not to bother meeting new people when you’re spending all of your time with your boyfriend or girlfriend, whom you conveniently already know. (Easy mode!) And if he or she already has friends there – if you’re a year younger, say, and your s.o. has a head start on getting a social life – then it can be very hard to make friends outside of that circle. When your entire social life is linked to a relationship, and that relationship falls apart, you have no support network of friends to fall back on. I’ve seen this happen surprisingly often, with people who start dating at the beginning of freshman year as well as people who come to college with their high school sweethearts. Usually, in the aftermath of the breakup, the party who manages to keep the social circle is okay, but the other is totally destroyed. Some people transfer, or simply drop out; even those who don’t usually take months to recover. It’s a situation you really, really don’t want to be in, is what I’m saying.

Importantly, though, I’m not saying you have to choose between the college that’s right for you and your significant other. I’m saying you shouldn’t follow him or her to college; I’m not saying you should break up. I mentioned earlier that I know several people who are happily married to their high school sweethearts. Well, about half of them went to college separately and maintained long-distance relationships. It really can be done, I promise. Going to a different college does not doom your relationship. Sure, it’s true that long-distance relationships are harder to maintain, but during the college years, at least, the most likely cause of their failure is that the people involved grow apart as they develop into adults. A relationship that fails for this reason will fail regardless of whether the couple attend the same university.

One last note. If the idea of going long-distance scares you because you’re afraid you’ll lose your significant other – if you feel like going to the same university is the only way you’ll be able to stay together – you should take some time to think seriously about your assessment of the relationship. Because if you’re scared that your significant other will leave you if you don’t follow him or her, or you’re scared that you would be tempted to leave, then maybe it’s not worth taking extreme measures to try to make it work. Choosing a college is a big decision, and it would be unwise to base that decision on a relationship in which you have little confidence.

4. Absolutely apply to Ivy League schools – if you’re doing it for the right reasons.

I was one of two valedictorians at my high school. I went to Rice; the other one went to Harvard, and one of our salutatorians went to Yale. Had I applied to all of the Ivies, I’m confident I would have been accepted to at least one of them. But I didn’t, and I have never once regretted it.

I’m not anti-Ivy; it’s just that Rice was better for me. Sure, it isn’t ranked as highly as Harvard or Yale – but rankings don’t matter as much as you might think. Rankings reflect factors like graduation rates, the scholarly prestige of faculty, and the selectivity of the school. In general, they can serve as indicators of the quality of academic peers and academic opportunities you can expect at a given school. But depending on your major (and your academic performance), your school’s ranking may or may not have any impact on your employment prospects. And more importantly, rankings tell you nothing about whether a university would be a good fit for you.

An important but often-overlooked fact of college rankings is that they reflect the academic strength of the institution overall, but not of individual departments. So depending on your interests, a given Ivy League school may or may not have a strong program for what you want to study. If you’re looking toward a career in academia, you may find that some of the great names in your field teach at Ivies, but others teach at private universities and state schools. If you want to do research with the top scholar in your field, and it turns out that that person isn’t at an Ivy League school, why would you want to go to an Ivy instead? You’d be missing out on that opportunity. Not to mention that there are plenty of career interests for which Ivies are virtually never the best option. If you want to be a petroleum engineer, say, or a nurse, you would be much better served by a school that offers a degree relevant to your career path.

Even if the academic opportunities at the Ivies fit with your career interests, there’s another important factor to consider: the culture. When considering any school, you should learn as much about student life as you can – visit, if possible, and in lieu of that, make the most of Facebook and Twitter and any connections you may have there. Because different colleges have different cultures, and the degree to which you fit in to your school’s culture can have a huge impact on your college experience. You will spend (on average) four years of your life in college, four formative years that will help to shape who you grow up to be. If you spend those years in an environment where you fit in and can make friends easily, then you will be happy and thrive. But if you spend those years in an environment where you feel isolated and out of place, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the social and academic opportunities your school has to offer. So it’s vital that you choose a school where the culture is a fit. If you feel like you would fit in at the Ivy League school of your choice, then by all means, go for it; but if you visit and hate it, don’t feel obliged to apply anyway because it’s an Ivy League. Don’t trade your happiness for academic prestige. (Really, this applies to all “good schools.”)

Of course, if an Ivy League school is a good fit for your career interests and personality, then you should absolutely apply there. Ivies are prestigious for a reason; they tend to have excellent scholars and courses in a variety of fields, and peers who will encourage intellectual stimulation and growth. While they don’t have a monopoly on these traits, they do have a long history of excellence in these areas, and they can provide a wide range of enriching experiences as a result.

5. Most importantly – and I know it sounds counterintuitive – don’t stress about this too much.

Right now, it feels like this decision is the most important one you will ever make. But really, it isn’t. Yes, these are going to be four of the most formative years of your life, not to mention (hopefully) four of the best. But no matter where you go to college, you will learn and change and grow, and to a certain extent, it really is true that you bloom where you’re planted. Will the decision to attend one college rather than another impact your future career and perhaps your entire life trajectory? Quite possibly. But would going to that other college have been better for you? Would your life have been better if you had chosen the other path? Different, yes – but not necessarily better.

Fundamentally, the deciding factor in your life isn’t your choice of college – it’s you. Your willingness to grow determines how your college experience will shape your development. Your academic performance will shape how your choice of college affects your employment prospects. And really, your work ethic will have a much greater impact long-term than the university name on your degree. Once you’ve gotten your first job, hard work and dedication will be rewarded, and slacking off will be punished, regardless of where you went to school. Not to mention that your choice of college has no impact whatsoever on your ability to have happy and loving relationships with family and friends. In the end, the choice of one college over another is unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on your ability to lead a fulfilling life.

So as you’re choosing where to go to college, remember this: pick a school that will let you study what you love in an environment where you feel happy. And if you don’t pick a school that meets those criteria, you can always transfer. And even if you don’t, as long as you work hard and stay positive, it’ll all work out in the end. So don’t worry about it.

Sarah Craig is a regular contributor to Thesis Magazine. She graduated from Rice University in 2014. If you are a senior and you have questions and concerns that weren’t covered in this article, you can ask them below in the comments, and she will probably respond.

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