Sunday, November 11, 2012

So You Want To Apply To College?

I survived, and you can too!

It was at about this time last year that I was busy entering my name, birth date, social security number, address, pet's name, weight, eye color, credit card number and the soul of my future first born into college applications and test score report requests. It's funny to look back at that time, sitting in my dorm room at my last choice school, feeling very content.

I'm writing this because a year ago I felt that even though I was a solidly middle-class white male, I was underrepresented. I felt like I had done nothing worth recognizing and that no college would ever want me because I didn't volunteer, I didn't have a job, and I had (have) trouble presenting myself to new people. I wish I would have had someone I knew tell me not worry, because college isn't quite what it seems to high school seniors.

Without further ado, here are the 5 Things I Thought of About Applying to College!

  1. Don't be afraid to apply.
    In junior year, my guidance counselor told me to narrow down my search to about 3 or 4 colleges. This is a very small number compared to most advice I heard from other sources (*cough*Internet) which will often say 8-10. They say to pick one or two "stretch schools" (schools that would be difficult for you to get into) and a diverse array of others so you have options.
    When you consider this option, and about $50-75 for every application, you're already looking at about $400-500 in application fees alone, not even counting the $30 extra per application for sending ACT/SAT score reports, PSEO or college-in-the-schools transfer credit reports, and other fees. For this and other reasons, I eventually narrowed down my choices to these (in order of preference):
    1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
    2. University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
    3. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY)
    4. University of Minnesota-Duluth (Duluth, MN)
    This kind of threw the "stretch school rule" out the window. My top three were stretch schools, and UMD was a guaranteed fallback (thanks to my high test scores and extensive portfolio of challenging coursework, there was no doubt in my mind I would accepted there.)
    Even though I ended up going to UMD (and I'm happy with that choice) I am extremely bothered about the attitude many people I told about my top choices. They assumed that I wouldn't get in because I was from a small, unknown school in a small, unknown city. This is simply untrue. Top universities don't just throw out applications from places outside of gigantic metro areas. If you can put together an amazing application, you have the same chance as everybody else.. Say it with me: you have a chance.
    Don't be afraid to apply!

  2. Don't be afraid to leave the nest.
    I was always surprised by the graduating classes before me: consistently, they would gripe about how our home city was a bubbling cesspool of toxicity, rife with bullies, gossip and misery, but then they would leave for a college within a day's drive, to another Minnesota city doubtlessly similar to that which they had left.
    Now let me be clear: I did not hate my city. During my last two years of high school, I came to really love the city and its people for what it was and what it had given me. But it was time for a change: I made it my personal mission to leave the area entirely for college. What better opportunity to forcefully remove myself and become the world traveler I had always dreamt of being? "Trial by fire," that's what I say!
    Well, obviously that didn't quite work out. I did actually get accepted to RPI, but everything I'd heard about Troy, NY, made me not want to live there. Duluth, on the other hand, is one of Minnesota's best cities, and it is on a body of water, which I loved. Even if it is in Minnesota, I feel much luckier than my friends going to better schools in less interesting cities.
    Location, location, location!

  3. Do be a little afraid of money.
    I am a computer science major, and since middle school there has never been any doubt in my mind that this is what I want to do. This is actually incredibly lucky - computer science jobs are in high demand and even intro positions pay well. I knew that paying for college (with help from my awesome, loving, caring, my-blog-reading parents) would not be an issue. As long as I worked hard, I probably could have even managed going to a big 50k/year school like any of my top 3.
    So why did I choose the cheapest option? When it came down to actually choosing between RPI and UMD, money did play a not-insignificant role. RPI's financial aid package covered about half of the 40k/year tuition - leaving me to cover the other 20k/year however I could. For most students, this means loans. UMD (about 20k/year), on the other hand, gave me a half-tuition waiver for being awesome, another $1,000 off because I was a freshman, and another scholarship if I joined the honors program. My loans at the end of four years would be less than a third of what they would be for RPI. This was very attractive.
    When I actually began the loan process for UMD, and I had to read through government-provided loan counseling forms, I got a little scared. I don't really like the idea of being in debt, because even if I voted for it, I don't exactly trust the establishment. I'm still glad I won't be relying heavily on it like I know others are.
    When it gets down to it, it is ultimately your own decision how much money you want to borrow and blow on your education. I don't think, however, that this should factor heavily in your selection and application process. If you can get in to a prestigious school and you are confident in your ability to plan for the future, you should apply. Lots of financial aid exists.

  4. Don't listen to the nay-sayers.
    Back in freshman year, UMD was my dream school. It was the only school that I always knew I would apply to, and the more I learned about it, the more I liked it. It was only later, when I filled my head with the possibility of an Ivy League that I tossed it aside, but I never developed any disdain for it.
    In junior year, I representative from UMD came down to my high school and I, with a few friends, got out of class to go talk with him. He was a sort of soft-spoken, pseudo-hipster stereotype that is actually totally not the norm up here. After the talk, I talked with the others about what they thought. They said that although they loved the Duluth area, they had really not liked the school when they had visited. I was a little surprised - moreso even now, because I really like it.
    It was never really an issue for me what the school was actually like, as long as it was a reasonably well-connected research university in a good area. I figured I'd be able to fit in anywhere. This is why I only ever went on one campus visit (and not even to UMD - to UChicago!) I also think that a lot of high school seniors (myself included) become college connoisseurs, and duel others with their college choices like Pokemon cards in fourth grade.
    Don't let anyone get you down if you're thinking about a school, but also don't hold unrealistic expectations. Guidance counselors speak often of the mythical "perfect fit" for everybody, but any college will have its good and bad. It's just the balance that's important.

  5. Be prepared to be surprised.
    When I applied to UMD, I expected little more than the presence of a CS department. The University of Minnesota system's most well-known accomplishment in the vast field of computer science is possibly the development of gopher - and who even knows what that is anymore? But what I found was a department filled with intelligent, enthusiastic staff and involved students. Also, money. I can't tell you how awesome it is to go to a school where the lab computers work all the time. And they have Google Chrome.
    I expected the dorms to be way more disgusting and the dining center to be less boring, the concerts to be more well-known and the student groups to be less diverse. Also, Bill-freaking-Clinton visited a few weeks ago. Also, the bus system is free for students. Imagine! Me, a suburbanite that's only ever ridden a public bus once, using the bus system all by myself. It's awesome! And downtown Duluth - no one ever goes there on vacation because frankly, it can get a little weird, but wow! I've never had the opportunity to just walk around a city full of honest-to-God local shops and old buildings.
    There will always be surprises, both bad and good, wherever you go, but that shouldn't stop you from going anywhere. In fact, it should encourage you!
There you have it! Advice from someone that set many lofty goals and failed them all and is all the happier for it. Take it for what it's worth.
"So... 
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!"
-Dr. Seuss - "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
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