Amelia Byrd is a first-year advertising student at the University of Miami. She shares what she learned from applying to college and offers 6 pieces of advice to high school students navigating college admissions and the essay writing process.
If you’re anything like I was when I was a second-semester junior, you might already be thinking about how you don’t want to “waste your summer” studying for and taking (or retaking) the ACT/SAT, writing college essays, and completing applications.
But trust me: You do want to start thinking about that stuff now. Here’s why.
If you do little by little and break this whole big process down throughout the summer before senior year (and even starting a little of it second-semester junior year), your whole senior year will be much easier. And you’ll be under a lot less stress than your friends who are having to cram everything in AND finish applications AND complete schoolwork AND try to enjoy their senior milestones.
Juniors: Spend this summer focusing and working hard on your applications. Then soak it in. It’s going to be a great year.
Here are my other suggestions to high school students for navigating college admissions and making the preparation and application process a little less stressful.
Looking back, something I wished I’d done during high school was focus my extracurriculars on my intended major.
Sure, it’s hard to think about that in the moment — especially if you don’t know exactly what you want to major in or do as a career. But I think it’s important to be involved in similar things in high school that you want to be involved in during college. For example, if you intend to major in the medical field, then think about getting certified in CPR, taking health science classes, volunteering at a hospital, etc.
Even if you’re not positive about what you want to do in the future, participate in extracurriculars that aren’t just resume-filler clubs — ones that you’re really excited about being involved in.
I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to study in college. And that made choosing extracurriculars a little bit more difficult for me, so I totally understand how it would be hard for you, too. Truly, just follow your heart and think about things that are versatile. For example, I was on the yearbook staff all throughout high school. There, I learned skills like writing, business marketing, digital media, advertising, graphic design, leadership, communication, and more. And this is definitely benefiting me in college.
So if you can, find a club or activity that will teach you a little about a lot of different things. Bonus if it's also applicable to jobs/majors you may be interested in.
Applying to college was a stressful and overwhelming time for me (as it is for many people). And most of the time while working on applications and essays, I’ll admit my main focus was mostly on just getting it over with. There were so many essays and questions and different places you had to add in your courses and your grades. It was exhausting.
I did end up getting into (and attending) my dream school (Go, Canes!). But I wish I’d put less pressure on myself and enjoyed the process more. Researching so many colleges in different states was nerve-wracking, as was knowing I had no idea where I was going to be living in less than a year.
Looking back, I wish I’d had more fun with the process instead of thinking of it like another school assignment and feeling like this one decision would be the end all, be all of my future. Yes, it’s an important decision to take seriously. But it wasn’t the make-or-break decision I thought it was going to be.
Applying Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) can be worth it. That is, if you have a school you KNOW you want to end up at and it makes sense from a financial, academic, etc., perspective. I applied EA to Miami because at the time, I thought I wanted to keep my options open. When I was deferred, I was given (and took) the chance to switch to the ED2 pool. While the odds of getting into your top school are different for every student and every school and every application season, in my case, these EA/ED applications improved my odds of getting in more than I thought they would.
Note: ED and ED2 are binding decisions. So make sure you’ve done your homework on whether a school is right for you from every perspective before you apply ED/ED2.
If you’re stuck between deciding from among a few different schools and don’t know which to choose, I know how it feels! All the schools I was considering were very different in terms of size, location, and the general student body. Yet they were all really good fits for me.
I encourage you to keep a very open mind throughout the process and know that even if you have a very specific idea of where you want to go, don’t hold on to that stubbornness and not look at any other colleges. You might find yourself surprised.
For most of high school, I was dead set on going to college in California and was planning to apply to schools like UCLA, USC, Berkeley, and more. Florida was only sort of on my radar, so when my parents tried to convince me to tour UMiami when we were in the area on vacation, I said, “No way!”
They still made me go, and I loved it the second I set foot on campus. After our tour, I remember driving back to our hotel and binge-watching “University of Miami: Day in the Life” videos. I fell in love with the school and the potential life I could live there. In the months following, I joined multiple group chats with other prospective applicants and gained a great sense of community without even being at the school.
I know that even now, touring schools in the era of COVID can be difficult. Visit where you can, and get active on social media as well. Connecting with other applicants and talking with current students can make a huge difference in your search.
I also wish I believed the people who told me, “Your stats may not matter as much as you think they will.” After comparing college results with friends and peers, I realized that sometimes admissions decisions don’t make any sense. And that can be super-frustrating.
There was one school I was rejected from, yet some of my friends were accepted – and we looked really similar on paper in terms of grades, ranks, and class rigor. So why was I rejected? Who knows. And then there were also schools that I was accepted to alongside friends who had drastically different academic profiles.
I tell you this for a few reasons:
The last thing you might want to do after filling out all your applications is apply for scholarships, but it can really pay off (literally). I repurposed my personal statement into three different lengths and used it to apply for scholarships. Minimal effort, but great reward!
Also, there were some scholarships that very few people were applying to. My NHS chapter had so few people apply to their scholarship that they ended up awarding a scholarship to each applicant!
Lastly, don’t stress yourself out completely over this process. I remember being so anxious about testing to the point of getting sick the night before taking the ACT. And then I didn’t even end up submitting my scores to UMiami because of the test-optional policies!
You are where you are in the process. And by the summer before your senior year, there’s not much in your control anymore (besides a few parts of your application), and you can find some peace and joy in that.
College is going to be one of the best times in your life. So try to approach the application process in the same way — because it’s going to get you just where you’re meant to be.