Some Advice for Applying to College

Stuyvesant alumni and Harvard first-year Jonathan Schneiderman provides some advice for students going through the dreaded college process.

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By Jonathan Schneiderman

Nota bene: This is not a comprehensive guide to the college admissions process. I am in no position to write such a guide; each person who applies to college finds himself or herself at a unique nexus of many circumstances, and there were doubtless things I experienced in my college admissions process that you will not and things you will experience that I did not. Nonetheless, I do think there are some tips that apply at least to a good majority of people applying to college, and I hope these are some of them. There are also pieces of advice that are important—for instance, that one ought to begin with one’s needs and wants in forming a list of colleges one wishes to apply to instead of appealing to those godforsaken lists—but that are so baked into how Stuyvesant encourages students to pursue their applications that I have not included them here.

None of this is intended to supersede the College Office; Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Makris, and Ms. Wilson are all experts, and I have received only good advice and other assistance from them in my interactions with them. If you see any contradiction between what your counselor tells you and what I’ve written here, please listen to your college counselor.

Tip 0: The Platitudes are True

In light of the COVID pandemic, I don’t know how exactly the College Office here at Stuyvesant is approaching the Class of 2022. For the Class of 2021, however—and to my knowledge for classes before us going back to time immemorial—the college process officially began when we were taken during one English class to a lecture hall, where a college counselor introduced us to it. To be honest, I don’t remember most of what Mrs. Hughes said that day, but one line stayed with me:

“College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

That is, the goal of the college admissions process is to end up with the unique school that suits your unique needs most, not to get into the school that is “best.” Indeed, because college is a matchmaking process rather than a prizewinning contest, there is no objectively “best” college, in the same way as there’s no objectively “best” romantic partner, even if there are some qualities we’d all like in our romantic partners. Furthermore, schools are pretty good at judging which applicants are the best fits for them, so people are usually happy wherever they wind up, even if their initial reaction to their admissions decision is disappointment. This is especially so at Stuyvesant, where virtually all students go to schools with very strong academic and extra-curricular offerings. Because of this, there is really no reason to get hyper-stressed over the college admissions process.

And yet we do anyway. The reason for this is that tidbits like, “College is a match to be made, not a price to be won,” even if we know them to be true, can feel like platitudes—nice-sounding, faux-comforting vacuities. One of the most important things you can do during the college admissions process is remember that they’re not, and one of the worst missteps you can take is to forget that. To that end:

Tip 0.5: Read Frank Bruni’s book

Perhaps you will find that your mind never slips into the toxicity of what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni calls “the college admissions mania.” If you do enjoy that fate, I congratulate you nearly as much as I envy you. If you are not so lucky, though, I strongly recommend reading Bruni’s book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” I believe college counselor Jeffery Makris sometimes recommends this to people. I came across it through my dad. Now, you may be coming across it through me. It’s excellent, and what it does so well is make statements like, well, “Where you go is not who you’ll be” feel true to someone who already knows they are but doesn’t feel them to be so.

Tip 1: 90 percent of essay-writing is the idea

You should begin the college essay-writing process right about now. Even if (as is and should be completely normal) you don’t yet know what schools you wish to apply to, you should be starting the process for writing the essay for, say, the Common Application, if you intend to use it. However, while it is perfectly fine to begin actually writing or typing now (I wrote my first essay in late March), and while it’s nice to get a healthy amount of work knocked out during the summer, you don’t actually need to begin writing or typing until late summer or even autumn.

So what do I mean when I say that you should begin the writing process now? I mean that you should start thinking about what it is you're going to write about when you do write the essay. This part of the process is far and away the most important: once you find the right topic, it’s like lightning in a bottle; the words will probably flow from your fingers when you open up that Google Doc. That said:

Tip 1.5: If you can’t think of anything, try writing, well, anything

Sometimes when I have writer’s block, I just write nonsense, usually in the form of swear words. Like this:


I call this the King’s Speech approach.

Tip 2: Write about what you find interesting

There are two criteria for the content of your essays: one, it should answer the question; two, you should care about it and find it interesting. Don’t write about what you think they want to hear; write about what you want to write about, and what you have something to say about.

The key thing about the college essays is that they serve two interrelated purposes: one, to give admissions offices a sense of you as a writer; two, to give them a sense of you as a person and a thinker. You’ll convey the former of those best if you write essays about what interests you, and you won’t convey the latter at all if you don’t.

Tip 3: Your essays are not your résumé

Admissions offices know what you’ve accomplished. They know about your extracurricular activities, about your grades, your test scores, etc., etc. Your job in your essays is not to rehash that. Now, if there’s a particular extracurricular activity that has impacted you or granted you insight, and you want to talk about that impact or insight (and there may well be; I wrote one of my essays about being a part of The Spectator), don’t hesitate to write about that activity. But your goal should never be to show off that you did the thing. They know that. The point of the essays is to bring you to life as something more than a résumé; you only do yourself a disservice if you fail to treat them as such.

Tip 4: Seriously, your essays are for you to write thoughtfully about what you find interesting, not for showing off

There are ways to use essays that, while not the same as using them to rehash one’s résumé, are along the same lines: people will use their essays to show how extreme they or their experiences are, in the hopes of standing out to admissions officers. Again, that’s simply not how it works. Admissions officers are interested in your reflections more than in what you’re reflecting on. The goal is to be yourself, not to shock or wow the audience (unless, of course, you are simply an amazingly thoughtful writer, though of course such writers don’t usually get there by trying to be amazingly thoughtful writers).

I wrote my Common Application personal statement about something pretty straightforward: reading a document in Model U.N. in middle school. Bruni, based on his interviews with admissions officers, provides some examples of how students try just a little too hard, namely a student who wrote about peeing her pants so she could continue an intellectually stimulating conversation with a teacher and a student who wrote about having a small penis in an attempt to get at thoughts on masculinity or something.

Tip 5: “Don’t write that. Please. Don’t expose yourselves.”

Sometimes, I think, people feel like they have to write about the deepest, darkest parts of their lives for what is a Very Serious Process. And look: the deepest, darkest parts of our lives can be formative. At the same time, though, you’re writing to a bunch of strangers for the purpose of going to school, not to your therapist. People feeling an obligation to go dark and deep is how you get other anecdotes Bruni mentions:

I ran these anecdotes [see tip four] by Marilee Jones, who was the dean of admissions at MIT from 1997 to 2007. They didn’t shock her. “Kids would talk about the 911 calls because their father was beating their mother up,” she told me. “Or anorexia. Or terrible, wrenching things about siblings with problems.” She recalled at least one essay describing the author’s struggle with the form of self-mutilation known as “delicate cutting.” “And there are some things where I just feel like: Don’t write that,” Jones said. “Please. Don’t expose yourselves.”

Unlike résumé-rehashers and whatever the [EXPLETIVE] is happening in tip four, this isn’t showing off. It’s not performative. Students who write about these things are writing about real, impactful struggles. It’s just that college essays are almost never the place for that kind of real, impactful struggle. Serious isn’t the same thing as dark and personal.

Tip 6: Write good “Why” essays by applying to schools you like—and use “Why” essays as a means for figuring out which schools you like most

Most schools you apply to will probably have you write an essay about why you want to go to that school. More than any other essay in the process, these should not be hard to write. The reason for this is that you should be applying to schools you like, and for specific reasons. If you find yourself not knowing what to say in “Why” essays, consider that you may need to look further for schools you’re really interested in. Remember: college is a match to be made, not a prize to be won. You should only be applying to schools because they would be a good match for you, and the reasons they would be a good match should make for an easy “Why” essay. And if you find that you don’t really know what to say aside from clichés in a “Why” essay about a school generally considered élite, you should consider that the main draw of the school may be its élite status, which is a bad reason to attend a school.

Tip 7: The ultimate litmus test for essays

Alright, that may be an overstatement, but this is the question I used to judge whether an essay was good. I think it’s pretty good:

When this process is over, will I be happy to have written this essay, even if I do not receive an offer of admission from this school?

Again, the goal of your essays is to convey who you are to admissions offices. To that end, they should be good pieces of writing, in their own right.

Tip 8: Apply to a healthy number of early schools, for your own ease

There is always a lot of college anxiety when early admissions results come out in December. I think the cause of this is sometimes misunderstood. It’s not that some people are getting accepted to their dream schools while others are getting deferred or rejected; it’s that some people have been accepted to their dream schools while many others haven’t been accepted anywhere. Now, those people may know full well that they’ll get in somewhere, even if it’s not their top choice, and that they’ll enjoy it when they get there, but still: however irrational, the situation of not having received an offer of admission yet is anxiety-inducing.

I recommend applying early to a few schools your college counselor has marked as “Likely” for you, just so that you’ll have an offer of admission to a school during the early round. Like I said, it’s irrational, but it helps relieve the December stress.

1. If at all possible, avoid having dream schools. Like all legends they are destructive if held as literal.