Decision Day Corkboard

We know that some of the most important viewpoints on the college admissions process come from students themselves. That’s why we surveyed 143,000 of them when we created our Best Colleges guidebook and ranking lists.

While administrators can (and do!) tell us essential information—about program offerings, admission statistics, and financial aid options—they can’t tell us what it’s like to be a student at their schools. So we turned to college-bound students themselves. They revealed the ins and outs of getting into and attending their dream schools—in their own words and from their own perspectives.

In celebration of National College Decision Day, May 1st, we reached out to students who earned admission to their top colleges to solicit advice about what to do (and what not to do) during the college process. We asked about what they did right, what they wish they’d done differently, what they wish they’d known, and what they’d advise others to do. They had a lot to say! Here are a few of our favorite pearls of wisdom. 

Tip #1: Do your homework

College-bound students pointed out how important it is to research schools to find a great fit.

“Personally, I believe the most important tip for the college application process is to thoroughly RESEARCH YOUR SCHOOLS. The last thing you want is to waste your time on applications to schools and majors that you are not interested in. DO NOT apply because your best friend went there. DO NOT apply because you heard it's a good school. DO NOT apply because it's ranked highest. Only devote your time and effort to schools and programs that truly excite you the most.”
“Do your college research early and decide what your number 1 school is. Apply there early action or early decision, since you have a much greater chance of getting in early than regular decision.”
[Editor’s note: While doing research early is always a good idea, it is not universally true that applying early offers a greater chance of admission; in addition, other factors, such as financial aid, may affect your decision about whether to apply early.]

Tip #2: Pursue happiness

Students emphasized the importance of being happy about all of the schools on your list. In other words, do your research, and then reflect on what you’ve found.

“Don't overlook the ‘safety’ schools. In doing my research and visiting colleges, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were a good number of schools where I would have been very happy and gotten a great education. Find things that excite you about your safety schools so that you are not disappointed if that's where you end up going.”
[Editor’s note: We prefer to think of “safety” schools as “likely” schools for two reasons: First, since there are no guarantees in admissions, schools can be likely but usually not entirely safe; and second, the term “safety school” sometimes has a pejorative connotation—and to the above-quoted student’s point, any school you apply to should be one you’d be thrilled to attend.]

Tip #3: Be yourself

According to college-bound seniors, it’s important to complete your applications carefully and thoughtfully. You’ll want them to reflect your true and best self.

“The most important thing I've learned about the college application process is that the application itself is really important. Your personality has to shine through in your application, essays, and activities list. There are so many applicants with great test scores, GPAs, and activities, but there is only one YOU. Think about who you are, and what makes you stand out from the crowd. Then make sure that attribute or theme comes through in your application. Edit a lot.”
“My advice would be to just be genuine with your essays instead of trying to be flashy—schools will love you for you and not for the way you phrased your sentences.”
“One piece of advice I would give is to really focus on the essays in the application. Of course, it is very important to try to get the best grades and test scores you can get. However, what I've noticed is that when we become so wrapped up in having the ‘perfect’ academic profile, we forget to really express ourselves in our writing and show who we really are to the admissions team.”
“Be authentic! If you have to change yourself extensively for a college, then you don’t belong at that college!”

Tip #4: Start early

“Start your essays early so that you can put them down and come back to them.”
“I wish I had started taking [the process] seriously much sooner because my main Common Application idea didn't come until late September—which had me rushing on all my early applications.”

Tip #5: Consider applying Early Action

“I applied to one of my top schools early action. I am so happy I did because I was able to find out earlier without having to commit yet. I would definitely recommend doing EA if possible because you get to hear back early, and if you do get in to a top-choice school, you’ll have a better idea of what other colleges you really want to go to. I know for me, getting into one of my top schools EA helped me realize which schools I was still interested in applying to after.”

Tip #6: Know your strengths

Students advised taking the time to recognize where your strengths are—so that you’ll always be able to put your best foot forward.

“For standardized tests, I wish I knew earlier that the ACT was better for me than the SAT. If I did, I might have been able to start even earlier on the application process and have all my testing out of the way.”
Not sure which is better for you? Here’s a resource to help you figure that out .

Tip #7: Trust the process

College-bound seniors also advised future applicants to trust that being yourself is part of the formula for success. Particularly in the wake of the college admissions scandal, this advice is heartening.

“I wish I’d known that there really is no secret formula to get into schools and that trusting the process is the best thing to do.”

Tip #8: Get excited about college

Students who did get into their best-fit programs were seriously excited about what was in store for them. We hope that you’ll find yourself in that position, too!

“I’m most excited to grow as a person and to explore the new topics that weren’t available in high school but really capture my interest.”
“I am really excited to begin my major and start my classes. I was lucky enough to get into the major of my choice. I am so happy to know that I get to study a subject I am very passionate about.”
“I cannot wait to start my college adventure!!! I look forward to all the opportunities to come.”

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