A senior’s advice on applying to college


Chelsea Nguyen

As I embark on my own adventure to Santa Clara University as a marketing major and communications minor, I wish you all the best on your own college journey.

While college is pushed as the ultimate end-goal at UPA, it can be a tough and rigorous journey to apply to one. As a graduating senior of the UPA class of 2020, I have come to the end of my college application journey, and soon it will be time to start the new (and admittedly daunting) journey of attending college.

As the 2019–2020 school year comes to a close, I hope my advice on applying to college, based on my personal experience, can help UPA students in the future.

Choosing which colleges to apply to can be difficult, as there are more 25,000 universities in the world you could apply to. 

  • A tool I used to help me find which colleges suited me best was the College Board’s Big Future College Search. It allows you to narrow down the specifics of what you want in a college, such as location, majors, sports and academic courses (GE requirements or electives outside your intended major).
  • Another great way to find out which colleges you want to apply to is the junior trip. On the junior trip, you get to visit various California colleges such as University of California Irvine (UCI), University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Loyola Marymount University (LMU), to name a few. By exploring some of these campuses, you might get an idea of what you want and do not want in a college (such as the location, the campus size and even the food at the college).
  • I also found YouTube videos on various students who vlog their daily lives on their campuses. They are usually honest about what life is like a particular school. A specific YouTuber I found helpful was Hafu Go, who creates short yet thorough and informative tours of various universities. 
  • I also liked to comb through the Instagram pages of colleges’ news publications. They usually report and photograph authentic student events at a college. However, some college’s Instagrams can have photos that make the college look perfect and idealistic. Remember, no college is perfect. 
  • The friends you have in high school are great, but I advise not applying to all the same colleges they apply to. Apply to a college that is best for you and only you because you might end up not liking a college you have chosen to go to just because your best friend decided to go there. If you and your best friends end up going to the same college because it somehow fits all of you, then that is great. 
  • It can feel overwhelming to have the people around you give you suggestions on where to apply for college. I used to feel pressured by my parents who would tell me to apply to certain colleges and certain majors, but ultimately the choice was up to me alone, and the same goes for you.
  • However, it could still be helpful to reach out to parents, teachers, older siblings, cousins or even UPA alumni. They could have experience with taking academic courses within and outside of their major, earning various financial aid packages to pay for costs of attendance at their colleges and finding alternative ways to pay for college such as work-study, choosing to join a fraternity or sorority or choosing to stay at home while attending college versus choosing to attend college hundreds of miles away from home.

Talk to UPA counselors and teachers. They are always open to helping you find the right college. Remember, they went to college too. 

  • You will want to choose one to three teachers to write your letter of recommendation. Some colleges might not need a letter of recommendation from your teachers, but some do. In junior Seminar, you start doing research on which colleges need letters of recommendation. 
  • If a letter of recommendation is required, choose the teachers you have the strongest relationships with or teachers who know your personal and academic strengths. 
  • Before you ask teachers to write you a letter of recommendation, compile a “Brag Sheet.” A brag sheet allows you to compile all your high school accomplishments such as academic and athletic awards, internships, jobs and community service involvement. Most college applications ask you to fill out an “extracurriculars/awards” section and this gives you the chance to show colleges the fruits of your hard work and dedication to your extracurricular activities throughout high school. 
  • Before a teacher writes you a letter of recommendation, you should write them a letter. Such letters often consist of asking teachers to give you the honor of receiving a letter of recommendation from them. You also attach your brag sheet to your letter so your teachers can mention a few of your listed accomplishments that speak to the character and strengths they have seen in you throughout the years. Now it is time for them to brag about you.
  • Make a spreadsheet of the colleges you are considering to narrow down which ones are actually worth applying to. List out all the statistics of the college, from the acceptance rate to how popular your intended major is in a college. You should also make note of the college’s tuition and cost of attendance (the total cost of tuition, room and board and books). Private universities tend to have more expensive tuition and costs of attendance than state universities, but they can give more need-based financial aid. The cost of a university should not deter you from applying, as you could qualify for need-based and merit-based financial aid. However, it is still helpful to consider the costs of university when it comes to choosing to apply to two similar universities.

If you do not know what you want to major in college yet, do not worry. You can choose the “undecided” major. For example, if you want to pursue an engineering major (which is usually a competitive major in universities), but your high school GPA is not strong, you can choose an “undecided” major and take math and science GE courses in your first year of university that specifically focus on the STEM field. You are not alone in being “undecided;” 20–50% of college freshmen enter college as “undecided,” according to studybreaks.com. Even if you pick a major and end up not liking it in college, it is OK to change your major. 

  • According to The Ohio State University, almost 50–70% of undergraduate students in any university change their major at least once before earning a degree. 
  • You can also take different elective classes outside of your major during college to find out what you are really interested in studying. 
  • A great way to experience what college classes are like before going to college are Splash classes. Splash is a program that offers students from grades 8–12 free college-like courses for one to two days at a university’s campus. The program costs $40 for a total of two days (the program roughly lasts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. depending on the classes you choose to take) at a university.
  • I went to UC Berkeley Splash and Stanford University Splash a few times throughout high school, and I loved the selection of courses offered by the college professors and guest speakers of the Splash programs. Some of the courses can range from marketing classes to Bollywood dance lessons. By taking courses like those provided by Splash, you could find classes you like that tie to a specific major.

When you start applying to colleges, you are going to use different online applications, such as the Common App, the Coalition App, the California State University (CSU) application and the University of California (UC) application. 

  • It depends on the college you are applying to on which specific application it wants you to submit. Usually, colleges have a “How to Apply” page for undergraduates (which is what you will be) that specifies the necessary steps you will have to take to apply to a specific college. 
  • If you are not sure about something, do not hesitate to email the college’s undergraduate admissions office. Colleges usually have a web page for their undergraduate admissions office and a “contact us” section where they list the contact email or a box where you can submit a message or question. If you do not want to do that, then Google is always another great option. 

For the infamous college essays, the common advice is to write them during the summer before senior year, when you can get them done and out of the way before senior year. I suggest taking the time during the summer before your senior year to really think about the experiences and events that shaped your life, and then start writing essays. Colleges usually provide their college essay prompts a year early and you can often find your college’s essay prompts in their undergraduate admissions web page. However, do not sweat it if you cannot finish all of your essays during the summer. Sometimes life happens and you find something new to write about. For me, it took until the day before I went to the D.C. National Journalism Convention in November to reflect on my experiences and write essays that came from my heart. 

  • Writing college application essays is a different process for everyone. I know it sounds cheesy, but write from your heart. When you write from the heart, you will find it easier to write about your personal experiences and how they have shaped you into the person you are today. Colleges want to read about your perspective, so you have to be vulnerable and authentic in your writing.
  • Not all colleges want students who have been on wild safari rides while building homes for the less fortunate. Your personal experiences are unique and unparalleled to anyone else’s, and the right college will choose you for you.

Make a note of your colleges’ various deadlines. Common deadlines are FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the actual college application itself. FAFSA is important because it helps the colleges you apply to determine the amount of need-based financial aid you can receive from the colleges.

  • Having a bunch of deadlines is stressful (I have written so many deadlines on my planner that at the end of the week I would get confused on which ones I had actually met), but it really helps to know your deadlines beforehand and write them down somewhere you can remember them, like a planner. If you cannot remember them for the life of you, ask your family members or friends to remind you.
  • Also make a note of SAT, ACT and SAT subject test dates if you plan to take them or retake them in your senior year. The College Board plans to postpone SAT test dates to August and September; however, if the shelter-in-place situation continues through the rest of 2020, the College Board will offer secure at-home tests.
  • Most liberal arts colleges and UCs have suspended the SAT requirement for high school students of the class of 2021. Other universities such as Virginia Tech and Tulane University have announced a one- or two-year plan in which tests are optional.

Before you submit your application, make sure you have filled out the correct information required for the application. It would also be helpful to go over your application twice in case any typos show up. You could also fill out your application, save it and submit it on another day before your application deadline.

Celebrate when you have hit that “submit” button on your college applications! Some college applications give a cute little burst of confetti when you do that, and I have always found that really satisfying. Congratulations, you are one step closer to college.

Also, if you do not choose to apply for college, that is perfectly OK. Life works out in different but wonderful ways, and whatever path you decide to take will ultimately lead you to the right destination for you.

  • Something my counselors always reminded me of is that college is not a destination, it is a journey. Applying to college is not the end of your academic career. College is the start of a new journey, where you can grow not just academically but also personally.

The waiting period:

  • Life moves on after you apply to college. You still have a whole semester of senior year ahead of you, and that is the time to make memories and cherish the time you have left with your family and friends. 
  • It is also very important to keep up your grades even after you have submitted your college applications, as you will need to submit your senior year transcript to your chosen college.

The decisions period:

  • College decisions are scary but also kind of fun because they build a little suspense. From personal experience, I know how easy it is to feel down about yourself if a college you really wanted to go to chose to not offer you an acceptance. But in no way, shape or form does a college rejection define your academic or self-worth. Sometimes colleges make decisions on factors that are totally out of your control that might even not apply to you at all. For example, they thought you were better fit for another major than the one you applied for, or whoever read your college essay just did not resonate with it as another admissions counselor could have.
    • I got denied from my very top choice, New York University, but I learned to be grateful for the options I do have, and it is personally exciting to learn more about a college I might have overlooked during my application process.
  • Remember to thank the teachers who wrote your letter of recommendation. They are here to support you no matter what college decisions you make. One of my best senior year memories was telling Journalism teacher Laura Gordon-Reska and English teacher Claire Ballard the first university I got into, Chapman University. We screamed and jumped up and down in the office. 
  • UPA academic counselor Dot Westerhoff once told me that what matters is not the college you go to, it is what you choose to do at that college. In the end, we are all responsible and capable of shaping our futures. Even if you end up going to a college that was not your first choice (or even 10th or 20th choice), you still have the power to choose to make the most out of what that college can offer you. Plus, you can always re-apply to your “dream” college in later years as a transfer student or as a graduate student.

I have learned that a college does not tell you who you can or cannot be; it only gives you the resources to choose your own adventure and reach your full potential. It is all about your mindset. Only you can tell yourself who you can be and what you want to pursue in life.