My College Application Experience/Advice


Juan Ledesma and Jane Albano, my freshman Math and English teachers have supported me from the beginning. They had been anticipating the news for nearly four years after I made my declaration of wanting to attend Stanford to them in ninth grade. When I submitted my application and opened up my acceptance (both in Ms. Albano’s room), she and Mr. Ledesma were among the first to know.

December is rolling around and with that comes millions of seniors wrapping up their college applications. Many all across the country have to go through this exact process of checking boxes, checking writing, and indeed, checking their stress. With many having to deal with early decision deadlines, and virtually everyone filling out financial aid forms, it is very easy to succumb to your worries. 

I know the journey was tough for me. I applied to a vast number of schools through Questbridge, an organization that helps low-income students get into top schools (if you are a current junior, be sure to visit for more information). Some of these schools include the likes of MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, and Caltech. Although I did apply to various UCs and CSUs, I focused on private universities, which can have different admission requirements. 

Nonetheless, much of my experience and advice is and will be applicable to most students, especially first-generation, low-income students. Now, most of this isn’t directed to my fellow ‘23 seniors out there, but rather more so the underclassmen. Still, I hope to get rid of that anxiety that has or may come, and share what future generations of Alisal can do to make their own journey smoother. Now, without ado, let’s start with my lucky number ‘7’ pieces of advice. 

No 1. Don’t think too hard about it. I remember during my online sophomore year I was flooded with anxiety about going to college. How can I possibly go to college when all activities have been shut down due to COVID? How will I ever make my parents proud? You’ve probably thought about that question too, right? Whether it’s been lingering at the back of your mind, or been one of your main stresses, I want to help you put that worry to rest.  

  • If you’re a freshman, please forget anything college related and focus on yourself and what YOU want to do. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Join clubs, sports, or anything you believe you might place true dedication to, like MESA or AVID. Connect with people, because it will be mostly with the adults that you’ll discover grand opportunities. 
  • If you’re a sophomore, see if you can narrow down your activities towards something you believe you can make an impact in. For me, it was Math, Science, and Education through activities like tutoring and the Mathletics Club. Now, by no means am I a college admissions expert, but the general consensus is that colleges don’t want you to be well-rounded, they want a well-rounded CLASS, and you can help form that by showing that you’re a star in a couple of niche areas (though you should still practice applying sideways, i.e doing stuff you enjoy). 
  • If you’re a junior, begin taking serious leadership in any groups you might find yourself a part of and start brainstorming and possibly journaling ideas for a personal statement or any other essays in the spring/summer. 
  • As a senior, you’ll need to know yourself through and through for what’s about to come. 

No 2. Start early. Okay, you’re a senior now. As you’re overwhelmed with dozens of checkboxes and text boxes you might not even know where to start. At least, that was how I felt at first and it is perfectly fine if you feel this way too. That being said, you’re also taking classes on top of applying to college, so although I do not want to pressure you too much, get started as soon as you can. If you’re taking AP classes, then I want to stress this heavily; these teachers can’t afford to slow down for you. Fill out your coursework, your activities, and financial aid sections; read the writing prompts that any colleges have released in August, September, or October; or ask your teachers for letters of recommendation. Whatever it is, get started early.

No 3. Writing your essays. Now you’re confronted with being told to tell your life story all in just a few pages. I know the first time I started I was hesitant on writing anything that could identify me at all. I was going in the application pile as a complete mannequin. However, I want to advocate for the exact opposite of that by sharing who you are and showing your uniqueness loud and clear. While colleges do want smart people, they want smart people that are fun to have around. Brainstorm any ideas you have, any moments you found special or difficult, figure out how they shaped you as a person, and write them down. If you start having an identity crisis, that’s actually a good sign that you’re being thoroughly introspective in constructing your life story. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, an entire page, whatever. But just write and show the world who you are. You can always cut down any excess, but you can’t work with nothing on the table.

No 4. Getting help. Whether it be your teacher, a counselor, or the Internet, be sure to reach out. Your essays will be far from perfect the first time around, or you’ll probably be confused by some of the checkboxes colleges ask you to fill out. Whatever it is, don’t think that because you ask for help you’re a fool. Because in the end, it is the ones who concede they have limits that eventually become the best in our world. 

No 5. Don’t be afraid to start over. I remember turning in my personal statement to my English teacher, Mr. Mendez, and being confronted with the recommendation to scrap half of it. To put it simply, I was hurt after pouring out my struggles in 700 words. Nonetheless, I accepted the fact of having to go back to the drawing board. Indeed, you might cry after reading your essays and feeling not good enough, or it might simply be that you forgot to save your essays and find that your application is now blank. Whatever it is, accept the process of starting over, as it won’t be your first nor certainly last time doing so.

No 6. Just clicking that button. Oh boy, I know I had trouble doing this myself. After all, I spent months perfecting my writing for all of the schools I had dreamed of attending! However, I will shamefully admit that all of the colleges that I was applying to early received my application on the very last day before their deadlines: November 1st. That said, you must let go of your prized pieces of writing and indeed, just click that button to submit. There is only so much you can do with one or two more days so why not just have them completely off to relax? Please, learn to let go not just for your sanity, but to make the final step of this experience easier.

7. Forgetting about it. This is just an extension of the last step but now broadened to the bigger picture. Time had slowed almost to a stop the week decisions came out because I couldn’t let go, and so let my mistake be your lesson. Let go of not just your writing, but the entire process altogether. Let go of the idea that high school is four years to prepare for an acceptance. Let go of the one or two spelling mistakes you made on your essays and let go of the decision date and scouring the internet for what time applications are released. It is perfectly fine to think about these things, but just remember that when that status update does come, you’ll be successful no matter what. Do not revolve your life around an acceptance letter and with that said, enjoy the rest of your senior year! After all, you only have a few months left, so make the most out of every second here, as you’ve got a long journey up ahead.

Now, I want to end this on one more positive note and demonstrate that the advice I have advocated for has, at least in one case, been proven to work. Those of you who recognize me already know this, but with all that being said, I am proud to have found an end to my college application journey with a full ride to Stanford University. Words can not express how grateful I am to all the people that have helped me. However, I want to reiterate that even following what I have laid out will not guarantee the same for you. There is no single extracurricular that will get you into Stanford, Harvard, or any other school of your dreams. What I can guarantee is that by following this advice, you can improve your odds of getting into the school that you seek. Hopefully I’ve motivated you to simply do your best in high school and achieve your dreams, instead of always being weary of what’s approaching for you and your life. Because if there is one thing to remember, it’s this; college should serve you, you should not serve your college. Take what you will out of that, and good luck.