The Right Way to Apply to College

Fall is the busy time of year for educational consultants. While our seniors work feverishly through their applications (hopefully without running into unanticipated snags!), we also have new juniors coming on board to begin their college search process under our direction. It’s quite a balancing act to make sure that everyone gets what they need at the right time and we put in long hours to make sure that’s exactly what happens.

The contrast between the class years at this point is always stark and for some reason, this manages to catch me by surprise each year. It’s like working with a young horse after riding a schoolmaster for so many years – you forget that the buttons actually have to be installed; they didn’t just appear there. In the case of my students, it’s all about knowledge – whereas the seniors are by now a known entity to me and we’ve spent the past year or more working together to turn them into educated, prepared college applicants, the juniors are blank slates. It’s exciting because they bring with them a fresh enthusiasm and perspective for the journey ahead, but they don’t yet know how the process works – which is why they’ve come to me.

The first hurdle we must face?

Juniors want to get everything “right” in a process where that isn’t always possible.

To be fair, this desire for correctness is not only admirable, it’s also understandable. An admitted perfectionist myself (read: Dressage Queen), I hate to make mistakes and I want to have the right answers and make the right choices. I can’t help it. Thus, I completely understand where my students are coming from. For these high school juniors, however, their concept of “right” is based in the idea that having or finding the right answer is what’s expected of them because that’s what they’re accustomed to from their high school coursework. The math equation just needs to be solved or the answer to the history quiz is that President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Right or wrong is a straightforward concept in our test-heavy American educational system and therefore the most common line of questioning I get from juniors has to do with how to do the college search/build a resume/write an essay “the right way.”

So here’s what I tell them:

There really is no “right” way to do these things; there’s just your way.

(Cue the quizzical expressions.)

It’s true, though. Let me explain:

When you search for colleges to add to your list of prospects, there are about 150 ways to begin. You can meet with your school counselor or an educational consultant and ask him or her to make recommendations for you based on a list of criteria; you can conduct your own web search using the parameters you’ve set and keep a file or spreadsheet with the information you find; you can visit a local/regional college fair program and talk face to face with representatives from a variety of colleges and universities to learn about the programs they offer – the list of possible starting points goes on and on. The most important thing is to start your college search – the method by which you do so is far less so.

What about extracurricular activities? you ask. Certainly there must be some “right” ones to have on my resume when I send my applications next fall!

This is the most common question I receive and the answer is still that no, there is no “right” or “wrong” to be found here. The “best” resume items are truly dependent on the student’s own personal situation. Some students have no after school activities beyond their competitive equestrian careers (which can amount to practically a full-time job for the most die-hard individuals); others have a host of clubs and leadership roles and an after-school job in addition to their riding. Some will spend summer break following the show circuit across the country and others have no plans beyond studying for the SAT or ACT, some fun rides, and a planned family vacation.

If you’re looking for the “right” items to have on a resume, the answer is “all of the above.”

For the student who has dedicated him or herself fully to a riding career after school and on summer breaks, it seems ludicrous to let all of the time and training fall to the wayside so that he or she can run for student body president and join the prom committee simply to beef up a resume. Such a move isn’t in step with the path that student has trod since the beginning of freshman year and the shift in interest doesn’t ring true when stacked up against the rest of the student’s extracurricular activities; any admission counselor would likely question the veracity of the student’s interest in student government and the social life of the high school. A better solution for the equestrian student who wishes to demonstrate character and the skills acquired through time in the saddle is to build a skills-based resume that emphasizes the talents he or she has honed in the saddle, in the barn, and in the car in between school, home, and the barn. Items like organizational ability, time management, and reliability are among the hallmarks of such a student and should be emphasized.

And what of the student who keeps many irons in many fires during his or her high school years?

Embrace it! There are 24 hours in the day and the multifaceted commitments that such a student adheres to during a regular school week are evidence that he or she has many varied interests and has used high school as an opportunity to explore them; why worry about narrowing them down now when there are four undergraduate years ahead during which the student can begin to focus? In fact, a particularly savvy student might use the depth and breadth of his or her extracurricular activities to demonstrate the connections that exist between (for example) equestrian activities and the training strategies of the high school marching band or student government and an after-school theatre group. Perhaps during the summer, this student spends part of the time as a camp counselor for his or her trainer during the barn riding camp and then goes to a chemistry-focused camp at the nearby state university campus for the other part. Nothing wrong with that – both activities have something to offer the student and engaging in them can only build the resume further!

At the end of the day, the main lesson I want all of my juniors to learn right from the start is this:

You will apply to college as the best version of yourself – whomever that person may be. The right way to do so is not to reinvent yourself, but to reveal yourself.

And along the way, have some fun too. You’re a kid, after all!

(Need help in the college search? Contact me – I’m still accepting juniors! – or pick up a copy of my book.)

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