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Countdown to college: Lessons learned during the process

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

I asked some students how they felt about the entire college admissions process, now that their final decisions are behind them. I wondered what lessons they learned and what they would be eager to share with rising seniors now that they had passed to the other side.

What struck me was how similar their responses were to what college admissions representatives have been saying for a long time.

One of my students from Hickory, N.C., found the process of making a final decision to be the most stressful. She was in the pleasant position of having lots of interesting choices, but she found it hard to choose.

“One may be a great option financially or logistically, but the other one might be your dream," she said. "If you’re lucky, you’ll find a school that fits both. If not, I would have to say that you should go to the school that you just can’t stop thinking about. I did, and I’ve never looked back on my decision.”

She ended up turning down a full-tuition offer from the University of Pittsburgh. She liked the school, but after visiting twice, she decided that she liked some of her other options more.

“It was hard not to allow the financial incentives to seal the deal," she said, "but in my heart I knew there were other colleges that were much better fits for me academically and socially.”

She also turned down Cornell, UCLA, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because Notre Dame captured her heart and mind.

“There is something indescribable about Notre Dame," she said. "I got it. I got the feeling every student wants to get when they walk on a college campus. You know, that feeling that you belong here. I just knew Notre Dame was home.”


She said the essays were the most challenging part of the process: “There are so many different essay prompts, and you need to share different facets of your personality in each essay. It was particularly challenging because so many of the colleges I applied to had such early deadlines.”

When I asked her and many other students what advice they have for rising seniors, they were quick to recommend starting early and not underestimating the amount of time needed to work on essays.

My student from Hickory also offered the following advice:

“Admissions counselors read numerous applications and essays every day. At some point, they all begin to sound alike. If you want your essay to stand out, you don’t need to use huge words or make up anything spectacular. Your essay simply needs to come across as being authentically you.”

The most important messages seniors want their younger counterparts to hear are: (1) focus on fit, (2) start early, and (3) use the essay to set yourself apart.

It’s funny how much that advice sounds exactly like what colleges tell their applicants.

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