By Maya Abdel-Wadood

As a member of the Class of 2023, the ups and downs of the college application process are still fresh in my mind. Although applying to college can feel incredibly daunting, just remember that it is also a unique opportunity to learn more about yourself and your long-term goals. Filling out applications and writing a seemingly endless string of supplemental essays may seem futile at times, but there is an overarching and necessary purpose – to portray your whole self to colleges in the most effective way possible. It is easy to get lost in the little details and lose sight of the bigger picture, so I’ve compiled five of the most helpful tips I learned through my own experience.

  1. Take advantage of college tours and informational events.

I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which my college list transformed after visiting campuses. There are so many factors involved in picking the right school for you – many of which you only discover while touring the campus and  interacting with students and faculty. For instance, it wasn’t until I explored different campuses  that I realized how much I valued being in a big city, which resulted in me drastically adjusting my list. For those who are not able to physically visit, local information sessions and virtual tours can be just as valuable. Although I applied to multiple schools in California, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit them. I kept an eye out for local events, and ended up attending a UCLA information session at my school that was significantly more enlightening than just browsing the university’s website. These events are opportunities to look beyond a university’s reputation and published information. Broaden your research – do not solely rely on rankings and stereotypes when making a decision to apply to a school.

  1. If you can apply early, do it.

In retrospect, applying Early Decision was one of the best decisions I made during the application process. After touring and researching UPenn, I knew that it was my top choice and that I wanted to maximize my chances of admission. I was fortunately accepted in December, which lifted a significant burden off of my shoulders for the rest of the year. However, ED may not be the best decision for everyone – as it is a binding commitment. If you do not have a clear first-choice school (or your first choice doesn’t offer Early Decision!), are waiting to hear back about scholarships or financial aid, or are not prepared by the early deadline, it may be more harmful than beneficial. Instead, I would recommend just applying to at least one Early Action school, even if it is your safety. Getting decisions back early in your senior year truly makes all the difference to your stress levels!.

  1. Use a planner – and schedule time for yourself!

I cannot stress enough the importance of using some sort of planner to keep track of college-related work. Personally, I hung a whiteboard in my room and wrote out a master to-do list, which was extremely convenient and served as a constant visual reminder. I also used an application called Notion on my laptop to write out all of my tasks and assign dates to them. The more you hold yourself accountable, the less likely you are to feel like you are falling behind. At the same time, it is vital for both your productivity and mental health not to overbook yourself. Make time in your schedule to relax and do the things you love, uninterrupted. Not every essay needs to be written in one day, and you will find that it is much easier to get into a productive and creative flow when you are not continuously stressed and exhausted.

  1. The only competition you have is with yourself.

This period naturally breeds a lot of curiosity about other people – what their essays are about, where they were or weren’t accepted, and whether or not they are applying to the same schools you are. Despite this, you must remember that everyone is on their own journey and that comparison is the thief of joy. Resist the urge to undermine your own accomplishments by weighing them against someone else’s. Keep in mind that what is right for one person is not always right for another, and worrying about others is an additional strain during an already chaotic period.

  1. Be open-minded.

The college application process can be trying, rewarding, devastating, and, most of all, unpredictable. It is impossible to know the outcome of your applications, despite how often you may go over your list and subconsciously assign predictions to each school (trust me, I did this too). Applying too much pressure on one “dream school” while closing yourself off completely from other options frequently ends in disappointment. You may not get into your safety school. At the same time, you may be pleasantly surprised by a school you believed to be way out of reach. You may end up somewhere you did not at all expect. Take it from me – I had been committed to attending UPenn since December, yet a last-minute visa delay has driven me to take a gap year. Although unexpected and unplanned, I’ve learned to look at this year as a chance to grow and explore opportunities I had never even considered. 

Just take a deep breath, relax, and remember that you will end up where you are supposed to. Good luck to everyone going through the application process!