On The College Application Process

(Epistemic status: Really not my usual fare, more a reflection on a thing)

The date is December 30, 2017. I’m frantically writing a pretentious essay about hypnosis to impress admissions officers. I’m poking everybody who’s even slightly good at writing desperately hoping they have 15 minutes to spare to read my bullshit. I finally consider it acceptably reviewed and upload it – I click submit on the Common Application and breathe a sigh of relief. Sure, technically I had 30 hours left but I had already run far closer to the deadline than I ever should have. But with that final click, half of my college applications are taken care of – the other half aren’t due until March.

The above was the least stressful day of this entire quagmire.

College applications are hard – or at least, prestige college applications are. What was initially a hypomanic plan, almost a joke that was supposed to take 10 minutes, became this wild and crazy rabbit hole into the insane standards that high school students are held to for college applications these days. I am not a high school student, so in some ways it was a little easier, but in other ways it was immeasurably harder. Harvard and MIT are not particularly open to nontraditional students, so to speak – their application process is pretty tailored to the best of the best type A crazy overachiever type. I decided I’d apply anyway in a fit of pique, because the idea was that I basically had nothing to lose besides the application fee and it’d be hilarious if some cobbled together application got me in.   The first thing I ran into was the fact I apparently needed to take standardized tests. Now, if you’ve never actually taken either of the SAT or the ACT (I hadn’t, actually, before this), it turns out they’re pretty mindnumbing. You get up at 0800 on a bloody Saturday, shuffle about in a crowded high school that has no right being open on a Saturday, and eventually sit down in too tiny desks, and fill in bubbles. But you can’t fill them in too fast, you see – they have to walk you through each step or there might be an Irregularity, which is a Very Serious Issue and you don’t want that to happen. Once they finish teaching Bubble Filling 101 with your demographics and various numbers to identify your test, they let you loose on the actual material which is largely just endless questions verifying yes, you CAN in fact read, do arithmetic, and if it’s a REALLY good day, write. You sit there for 4 hours, being watched the entire time to make sure you don’t do anything Untoward like Cheating on this Very Meaningful Test, and after your hand has fully cramped up from the Bubble Filling Final, you finally get released into the glorious sunlight. Now, like, apparently classes are taught in these Bubble Filling rooms normally so geez do I feel bad for kids these days. No idea how they deal with it.

Anyway, that was the first sign that these applications might take more than 10 minutes – I in fact lost 4 Saturdays to all these Very Meaningful Tests. Next was the demographics information. This should have been easy, but it turns out prestige schools are not just interested in you, but also your family. So I had to dig back in the family tree and see exactly how colleged my immediate relations were. This wasn’t too hard, exactly, but it was an unexpected barrier. It only got worse from there – I had to dig out my high school transcript, because that is Clearly The Most Relevant Thing to someone who has been out of high school for some time and is largely leaning on community college grades. I then had to figure out what exactly in my crazy, amazing, and novelty seeking life pattern matches to Extracurricular Activities – fortunately, between improv, parkour, and hypnosis I cobbled together something that actually looked cool. Overall, this section was busy work and storytelling checks – not the worst of it, probably only took 2-3 hours total.

The worst of it was recommendations. While the schools were happy to accept recommendations from my teachers at the community college, they were just fascinated to find out more about my high school years – so it’s like November and I’m realizing that, hey, wait, maybe I should actually contact my high school about this. It turns out that high school counselors actually help people through the college application process as part of their jobs. Weird, I know. So I get in touch with a counselor I’ve never met, find out almost every teacher I had doesn’t actually work at my high school anymore, and more or less beg for even the slightest lead to pull a high school rec for the schools I’m applying to. I somehow manage, by December, to get a rec from a high school teacher as well as get all the various high school reports; I’m still not sure how this actually worked but I am grateful for everyone at the high school who worked with me on this. Now, you’d think by November I’d have learned that “Hey, maybe I should use those structures that are in place to help people apply to colleges” is a good plan – except I didn’t contact my community college advisor until December. Turns out she had a wealth of information for doing exactly what I was trying to do and could provide additional reports and transcripts to reflect the proper part of my academic career. Fortunately, with her help, I was able to pull together the rest of my external documentation to fulfill the requirements of these applications – total time spent making calls and sending emails and having meetings was probably a good solid 4-6 hours.

Lastly, of course, I’m sure you all are wondering where I talk about the essays. The essays were both very easy and also the most elusive and frustrating part for me. It turns out a personal essay just feels awkward to write – I’m facing both a word limit and a sense that I’m telling a story to someone who’s aesthetic I don’t know. It’s a blind shot at resonance in a way that’s almost alienating. Pouring your heart out to the impersonal void of admissions, more or less. In a way, the practice I’ve gotten writing this blog made the essays I wrote possible – without being used to having a certain voice, I would have been a lot more stressed about how to write. Even with the experience I’ve accumulated, it just felt…awkward. Overall, the personal essays and MIT short answers probably took me about 10-15 hours, between reviews, rewrites, and time spent pondering how to tell a consistent story.

So, that was my college application adventure – I think the most depressing part is my plan was to do some social engineering and also do an additional supplement to make my application stand out further. It turned out I flat did not have the time to play these cards properly between work, college, and my existing social life. All those extracurriculars I listed got in the way of some possible optimizations paths. I did end up going on a few college tours which was fun because I was literally the only person asking questions on my own behalf – and frequently the first one to even ask questions (another 4 hours). I got into some interesting social scenes (I’m not going to count this time, I would have done it even if I weren’t trying to drastically alter my life course). Overall? A process that was supposed to take 15, maybe 30 minutes, be a funny joke, and be forgotten about after ended up taking up around 40 hours of my life.

Now here’s the thing I’m not mentioning with that hard number of 40ish hours. This process wrecked my Cognitive Credit Line. Almost every hour, idle thoughts would go to how I was handling part of my applications. Every conversation would inevitably turn into a progress report on my college apps. I was in a sea of advice on how to approach various things (for which I’m thankful – seriously, all my friends reading this, you were invaluable in your support and advice on this). I had probably 20-30% of my cognition spent on the hard problem of getting into a prestige school – and I’m not even done yet. I’d idly research What A Good Score On The Very Meaningful Test looks like, I’d look at sample essays, I’d run numbers on my odds, I’d stress myself out over something that was basically a whim. This wasn’t efficient – it might pay off big, but it wasn’t efficient.

Still, there’s an upside to all this – I learned a lot during this process – on the object level, I understand the college process way, way better than I ever did before. I know who to talk to about what things and how to get around weird situations (of which I had several just by being a nontraditional student). I also have the fulfilled feeling of having Completed A Project which I didn’t expect to get (I’m still technically not done but, like, at this point my other 3 applications will be a breeze. The hard part was building the process – I’m basically just iterating that process at this point.) I got to explore the concept of conversational refinement – talking to people in succession and basically having my ideas/approach refined by additional information and pitching the new versions to people. I managed to pull off the applications while working, schooling, and socializing. That’s actually much harder than I thought it would be. Overall? I feel like I grew, but it was costly.

The lessons I’d take from the college application ordeal are largely:

  • Know when to stop. Know when you aren’t going to make things better by fretting more about them. My essays were more or less fine after two or three rewrites but I still ran them by way more people than I needed to because I was fretting. I also worried way too much about Very Meaningful Test scores when there was nothing I could realistically do about them after I took the tests.
  • Know your dependencies – I didn’t take the high school reports being requested seriously, and I didn’t line up my rec letters until the last minute. I also didn’t leave myself time for an SAT Subject Test retake (this was probably one of my biggest errors).
  • Know how to take risks – I think I could have gotten a 5-10% boost to my odds by making a good pitch to an existing faculty member at any institution I applied to – I may still want to do this; what I fixated on, however, was the risk of blowing my shot by being too awkward around someone way more academically high status than I am and it somehow impacting my application.
  • Know who you are – I learned a lot about what approaches are aligned with who I think of myself as, and which ones weren’t. I tried several kind of awkward things that would have worked in the hands of a different person.

So, college applications these days are largely a slog – I have no idea how high school students do them but I respect them all the more for dealing with this ridiculous stress. More concerningly, I think it just gets worse from here – college is an increasingly broken institution and the applications are mostly just a symptom. I don’t know how to fix it…but hey, maybe after 4 years in the system I’ll have a solution.


Discussion Questions: If you are in college or applying to college, what aspects of the process were toughest for you? Which ones were easiest? Do you think you’ve managed to learn any useful lessons going through this? How would you change the process so that people are better matched to a college that would lead to their thriving?

3 thoughts on “On The College Application Process

  1. Well. All I can say is thank god I live in Australia. It’s all much less stressful here (At least, going out of high-school is. You fill out one web form, listing basic information and what degrees you want to do, and if your grades are high enough (As calculated by a complex system, the back-end of which I am convinced nobody on the continent truly understands), you get in.

    The hardest part is having your entire academic performance reduced to a single number ranked against every other high-school student who graduates at the same time as you, according to arcane criterion they are unwilling to explain in any easy-to-understand manner, and for which a reference point for how you are doing is like hens teeth. (But at least it happens automatically).


  2. Yeah, this probably would have screwed me over worse than I already am – because when I was in high school, I did not have the ability to pull out all my potential in a legible way like some high school students can. I’m much better at it now, but I expect that having a system like that that is so legible and simple means being outside that system is probably an even more difficult situation.

    …I wonder if there’s something to complexity as a way to help people who fall through the cracks – the drawback is it increases overhead for all involved and wastes a lot of people’s time, but I feel like complexity increases ability to catch edge cases. Something to think about.


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