Featured image of post Advice to those Applying to University

Advice to those Applying to University

Tidbits from an unconventional experience

It looks like you’re going to start to apply to college soon. It’s going to be a rough ride, but there are a couple of tips I’d like to give you just so you can feel more confident about it. Some of this advice will primarily apply to students at Montgomery Blair, but feel free to look for the parts that apply to you.

First, a little bit of background. I applied to 13 colleges in total: 2 early decisions and 11 regular decisions. They were as follows.

Early Action:

  1. University of Maryland
  2. Stanford

Regular Decision:

  1. Carnegie Mellon
  2. Johns Hopkins
  3. Harvard
  4. Princeton
  5. University of Pennsylvania
  6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  7. Northwestern
  8. Brown
  9. Duke
  10. Columbia
  11. Cornell

There are quite a few reasons my list consists of these particular colleges. I will explain why, but don’t feel pressured to model yours off of it (you don’t know how qualified I am yet as most decisions are not out). Generally, most people would want a combination of safety schools, target schools, and reach schools (names are self-explanatory). Generally, if you have a safe school you’re comfortable going to, I advise that you only apply to one as it will not be worth the effort to apply to others. For most people in MoCo, UMD would be your pick for this one. It is one of the top-ranked public universities in the nation, nearby, and easy to get into (provided you are a semi-decent student). If you are in Blair, do not be worried, you’ll almost definitely get in if you’re reading this.

Target schools are those that you feel capable of getting into but are not guaranteed. Students with good GPAs and extracurriculars would probably aim towards mid to top-tier colleges, including schools like Georgia Tech and Northeastern. I did not apply to any target schools, so take my advice with a grain of salt. For most, I would advise applying to only a few target schools, enough so that you feel comfortable getting into one, but don’t dwell too much on it. UMD is already an excellent college, and honestly, it’s better than most mid-tier schools.

I find that most people spend their time on prestigious universities, but then again, my friend circle is brimming with hyper-accomplished students. Most people apply to quite a few. These universities are almost always reach schools, which probably means your acceptance is down to luck (for most students, that is). Schools include all your Ivies, MIT, Stanford, etc. There is quite a lot to choose from and a lot of research for you to do to see which ones you like.

Getting Started

So which schools should I apply to?

Well, it depends on who you are. I’ll lay out a few strategies and you can either take your pick or devise your own. If you are perfectly comfortable going to UMD and have a few reach schools that you’d consider, you probably don’t need to apply to that many. I know of some who just applied to ~5 colleges for that exact reason. If you’re set on making a top-tier college, I recommend UMD and a handful of top-tier colleges, and maybe a couple of targets if you don’t to go to UMD. I applied to 1 safety school and 12 reach schools because I am perfectly happy with going to UMD, and anything else is just extra. That’s why you don’t see any mid-tier or mid-to-top tier schools on my list. From what I’ve heard, most people in MoCo apply to 7-15 schools.

Schools specialize in different majors. If you are a stellar musician, you would probably not apply to the same schools as a prospective engineer. The schools you choose to apply to are based on what you would like to do. If you’re a diehard artist, then something like CalTech is not for you. You’re going to need to do a lot of research. I recommend accessing the university’s homepage, blogs of alumni, college subreddits, or online guides/lists (like USNews). If you have friends or family who went to or currently attends university, they can be an invaluable asset to your application process. Try to reach out as much as possible; it can’t hurt you.

I recommend Fiske’s Guide to Colleges for some basic research. It’s a comprehensive guide of all the universities in the United States. It will tell you about price ranges, general academic markers, and the specialties of each school. You can purchase it with the link or pirate it with Libgen. But I didn’t tell you about the latter.

Also, don’t just go off of what I have said. Ask other seniors or recent graduates as well. Talk to your parents and friends to get their perspective. After all, that’s where most of my information came from. Don’t stress too much about it; you’ll get the gist eventually.

The Mindset

I genuinely believe that having the mindset that you must go to a top-tier college is harmful. Most people don’t end up at the best schools and that’s okay. Being a hard worker at a lower-tier college can net you many benefits and may even be better suited towards you. However, it’s really hard not to have this mindset in Montgomery County due to the vast amount of accomplished individuals, and I am honestly part of the problem. I think the best thing to remember is that you will be okay. When you look back at yourself in 50 years, which college you went to won’t be in the top 10 most important events in your life.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for the top-tier colleges. If you’re capable, why not? Just note that it likely isn’t as important as others make it out to be. I rode the hype train and honestly, the only reason I want to make it into a top-tier college is just for my ego. I don’t necessarily think it will get me a better education overall. If even I think I will be fine, you should have confidence in yourself.

Early and Regular Decisions. What’s the difference?

So there are a couple of differences and I’ll try to explain it as best as I can, as there is often some confusion surrounding this topic. Early applications have an earlier deadline (around November 1st) and are split into two categories: Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA). ED schools are binding schools. If you apply and get in with the early decision, you are legally bound to that school and cannot go to another. They are usually your top pick, as you will not have the flexibility to choose another university if you get in. If you don’t…then you will have that flexibility. Early Action schools are also submitted early but are not binding. It’s just getting your decision earlier.

So what’s the benefit? Generally, ED and EA appear to give you a higher chance of admission, as you are showing high interest in the school. But don’t be fooled; the acceptance rate probably won’t be the deciding factor. Furthermore, you just get your decision way earlier, so you can determine how to proceed with the application process depending on whether you get in or not. You can only apply to one ED school, so be sure it’s your top choice. Most EA schools are restrictive, meaning you can also only apply to one, but private schools like MIT and Caltech and most public schools allow you to apply to more than one (just make sure the others are not restrictive). Note the difference between public and private universities. Restrictive EA for private universities means you can still EA to public universities. They are independent of one another. Most people will either pick EA or ED, but the possibility of applying to both may suit your needs. Many of my friends applied to 4+ schools early.

Regular Decisions have a later application deadline, usually due around January 1st. But check the school you are applying to, as some may have a deadline earlier or even much later. You can apply to everything else you didn’t apply to in ED/EA, with almost no restrictions. Since most ED/EA decisions are released before January 1st, make sure you modify your strategy accordingly. Say you got accepted into your ED school. There is no further need for you to apply to any other schools, as you cannot attend them anyway. Just be happy that you are done. If you get in EA, you can still apply to more schools, as it will give you more options later down the line if you do get into any of your RD schools. It is completely up to you whether you want to do that or not.

Most of my friends applied for EA as it gives you more flexibility. But if you really have that dream school and it is ED, go right on ahead. I believe in you. However, if you have the choice of EA or ED for the same school, EA is probably the way to go.

The Application Process: What is my timeline?

There are five key aspects of the application process:

  1. Planning
  2. Filling out Common App/other portals
  3. Essays and supplementals
  4. Teacher Recommendations
  5. Transcripts and Test Scores

Although the college process is quite simple, it can easily overwhelm you. Since essays will be the most difficult and time-consuming portion of your app, start with the others first. I recommend asking your teachers for recommendations as early as you can. If you can get it done before your junior year ends, that would be ideal. I requested my recommendations in August, which is still fine, but the earlier the better. They don’t have to fill them out until the deadline for your colleges, but make sure they know they are writing you one.

The next step is the planning process. You need to decide which colleges you want to apply to. I stress that you need to make sure you are willing to go to the schools you apply to. There is no reason for filler schools; it will only waste your time and money. After you decide on a rough list, highlight the ones you are definitely applying to and the schools you will apply to early. If you are unsure whether you will apply to a college, it’s fine. You will have time to decide.

Get started on your common app. Most schools will use the common app. You will need to fill in a lot of personal information, including your grades, academics, and honors. This shouldn’t take very long. You can update your achievements as you go, but fill out the trivial stuff as soon as you can. At this point, you should request transcripts for the schools you are set on. You can do it as you go, but make sure to submit the request on Naviance (for MoCo students) at least 20 days in advance. Make sure you know which schools require direct test scores for APs, SATs, ACTs, or whatnot because you will need to request scores from College Board (etc.) and have your scores sent to your schools. This will cost a bit of cash.

The steps above are quite easy but annoying. Just get them done early so you don’t have to panic about it as I did. Making a spreadsheet detailing your actions will help you greatly.

Essays of Death

The next step is your essays. The common app essay is the default BIG essay where you pour your heart into something especially important about yourself. It’s 650 words and will take a long time. You must make sure you have a unique and interesting idea. The prompts are here (for 2021-2022). The prompts are vague enough that you can literally talk about anything, so make sure it stands out. You can probably find better advice for how to write essays from other people, so I won’t go into the details here. Know that there will be a lot of editing and rewriting. Put yourself on a piece of paper and make it riveting.

Each school will have supplemental essays, which can range from just one to eight (thanks, Stanford) or more essays. Some will be short (50ish words) and some will be long (400-600 words). Common prompts include:

  • Why our school?
  • Name a contribution to your community
  • How will you integrate into our school’s community?
  • Describe your background.

Each essay will require a lot of brainstorming and a lot of writing, so be prepared for the long haul. Generally, you will want to work on one school at a time. You will be able to reuse essays and snippets across multiple schools, so plan out the most efficient path for you to conquer them all.

The bulk of your time will be editing your work. Use good rhetoric and use words that bring out your writing style. You will need to research colleges and learn a lot about them to write about them. For the “Why us” questions, read about clubs, the community, classes, and programs. Make a list of the things you liked and connect these ideas to who you are today and who you want to be. Again, I’m not going to include too many writing tips here, as there are plenty of resources at your fingertips. Good online resources include the CollegeEssayGuy and CollegeVine, but the best resources will likely be your friends, mentors, and family. Ask for help– it’ll indubitably save your ass some trouble.

I would like to reiterate that the essays are time-consuming. Try to start at least a month before your deadline. You will spend weeks polishing, writing, and refining. Doing things earlier will take the stress off your shoulders and help you stay calm as the deadlines approach. You want to feel like you have an uncessary amount of time to write and edit. If you have trouble getting started, ask a friend to help you brainstorm. Once you’re done with a school’s requirements, you will be able to submit. Save some time to look over your common app and fix the silly mistakes. Nervously chide yourself that you did everything correctly as you enter in your credit card information and click the submit button.

Remember, this guide is just a broad outline of things you will need to do. The content is only surface-level insight because most of your experience will be gained throughout the gruelling process itself. I will be here if you want to reach out, and I’d be happy to talk to you or even look at your essays. But I hope I can instill some confidence into you as these difficult months approach. Having an outline of what needs to be done can be greatly beneficial, and it’s something I wish I had. Planning will be your best friend. Putting the minute details on paper will greatly reduce the fog around you. You got this.

I did not do a great job during the college application process. I did not even begin writing my common app until three weeks before my first deadline, and I did not settle on a final idea until two before. I was extremely anxious and incredibly exhausted every day. For the first school I applied to, I was still writing on the last hour of the last day, watching the clock nervously as the seconds ticked by. After I finished my Early Action schools, I took too long of a break as I was tired beyond belief; a big blunder. For my Regular Decision applications, I turned everything in on the day it was due, less than an hour before the deadline. I had seldom time to polish my essays and relied on massive aid from my sister and her friend. Despite this, I believe I was able to crank out some solid essays, but they definitely could have been better if I allotted my time wisely. I believe you can learn from my mistakes.

After you finish applications, the bulk of the work is done. However, it’s not time to celebrate quite yet.


The last step is the interviews. Shortly after you apply to colleges, alumni of the schools you applied to will email you for an interview. This can take weeks, so be patient. Many schools will offer you the choice to opt out, but I don’t recommend it. Interviews are an opportunity for you to show the schools what you are like in real life, so you should use it to your advantage. The charming words on paper won’t masquerade you in front of another person, so be prepared. The interviewer will ask you questions and report back to the school with an essay about your conversation. Although it was over Zoom for my year, it will likely return to in-person meetings at a coffee shop or a restaurant next year. From what I’ve heard, most alumni do not know the scope the interview has on your decision. The general consensus among students is that a bad interview can screw you over and a good one will only confirm what the admission officer already knows. This is pure speculation, so take it with a colossal grain of salt. Nevertheless, you want to shine like a star. Brush up on the school’s interview policies because some schools don’t offer them or might not have space left to offer you one.

I highly recommend studying up on the school before your interview. Know how to answer the commonly asked questions, like “describe yourself” or “why did you apply to [this school]” or “what is your biggest weakness.” The conversation is usually more relaxed than you expect, so there’s no need to tense up. Try to act human; you don’t want the interviewer to see you as only stats on a piece of paper. Talk to them like you’re trying to impress your parents’ friends. The interviewer isn’t going to intentionally trip you up; he or she’s just trying to see if you’re a good fit for the school and whether they like you, so don’t spend the entire hour boasting about your achievements. I recommend memorizing a few memorable experiences or activities that show growth or something important about you. By doing this, you can direct any interview question towards one of these topics and engage the interviewer with meaningful and interesting stories. Look online and learn how to build rapport and be confident. One great YouTube channel for this is Charisma on Command, from whom I learned many tricks.

Try to stand out. Instead of saying “I’m doing well,” say “I’m doing fantastic” or something descriptive that most people wouldn’t say. You want to leave a good impression and have a nice conversation. Put yourself in a good mood before meeting your interviewers– it’ll go a long way, making you more confident and upbeat. Once you have finished, you’re essentially done. You can still submit an update to some schools about new achievements, but now it’s time to wait. I’m in that process now. You should find meaningful and interesting activities in the meantime, as it will be your last semester in high school. Your life is about your activities and relationships. Have some fun!

Closing Thoughts

Remember: the college application process isn’t complicated, it’s tedious. Doing things up front will reduce the stress for your future self. Being organized will make you confident that you are doing things correctly and efficiently. Feel free to email me at eric chen 314 at gmail dot com if you have any questions or would like some advice. I want to help you to do better than I did. If you want, I am willing to send you some essays I wrote for my schools. All you have to do is ask.

Best of luck!

Be okay with not knowing for sure what might come next but know that whatever it is… you will be okay.