Deciding which colleges to apply to is indisputably a daunting process. When I was first looking into colleges, starting in my junior year, I didn’t know quite where to start. My first step was making a spreadsheet with a list of colleges I had heard about and wanted to research. Then, I compiled a list of essential things that were important to me:
I had spontaneously visited a handful of colleges in my sophomore year while on the east coast. Based on those visits, I also made a list of negotiable things that were important to me:
At this point, various Ivies, liberal arts colleges, and the UC’s were on my radar. I visited most of them, and right after the trip I made sure to write down the impression I had of campus, my tour guide, and various students/admissions officers I had interacted with. Finding a supportive, positive environment was so important to me. At this point, I was additionally recruiting for rowing, so I would also try to meet the head coach and team at each college I visited, recording my impressions of each in my spreadsheet.
After all of my research, I ended up with a list of 11 colleges to apply to, ranked in this order:
It might be surprising that I didn’t consider Stanford or some of the other Ivies and that I considered all-girls schools like Scripps and Barnard over certain other colleges. However, my decision to apply was genuinely swayed by the environment and culture of certain colleges. I had also had unique, positive experiences at the first five schools in my list.
I loved Harvard because of the academic department I wanted to be a part of: not only were the professors kind and renowned, but the department as a whole was supportive, and the professors brought their dogs to work sometimes. I cemented my love for this department by taking a class with Harvard Summer School before my senior year.
At Harvard Summer School, I fell in love with the Cambridge area. I loved the public transportation system, how Boston was so close, and how the food was nearly as good as the Los Angeles food scene. I also loved the people I met, from students to professors. In other words, Harvard checked all of my boxes. As much as the colleges were vetting me, a prospective student, I believed that I too was vetting the colleges for my right fit.
When I visited Amherst, I had a sprained ankle from a summer camp. The kindness of the admissions officer — who brought me a wheelchair and pushed me up the steep hill to the information session — as well as the people I met in the athletic department made me view Amherst in a positive light. This personal experience, along with the fact that students could triple-major and that the academic department I was interested in was so amazing made me consider Amherst my second choice.
The only drawbacks were lack of access to a city and a much less diverse food scene than I was used to. However, those two things were on my negotiable list. With this in mind, due to my personal positive experiences on campus, I strongly considered applying to Amherst Early Decision.
I had a similar experience at Brown and Princeton as I did at Harvard in terms of most of the things on my lists being fulfilled; however, my experience with my academic department of interest wasn’t as riveting at both schools. Additionally, the proximity to a city wasn’t as convenient as Harvard’s Cambridge to Boston trek. Brown’s athletic facilities weren’t at the same level as Harvard’s. Princeton’s overall environment and student culture didn’t impress me as much as Brown’s and Harvard’s did.
I did strongly consider applying early to Princeton as Princeton is often the number one or number two ranking team for rowing; they were seriously considering recruiting me despite my height disadvantage for the sport. My upward trajectory with personal records my junior year was very appealing to recruiters at colleges.
As I had been a dedicated student athlete for many years, I was recruiting pretty strongly for rowing. However, due to my height disadvantage, I was unlikely to be noticed by Harvard for recruitment. Thus, I leaned on my other strengths: I had genuinely pursued my academic interests in high school, taking four languages, and completing the most accelerated track in the classes related to my prospective college major in the humanities. However, I had also maintained top grades in the honors and AP STEM classes at my preparatory school.
I had a compelling, yet genuine story to tell: I was applying as a humanities major because of my academic interest, but I was also pre-med. I had the academic grades and extracurricular resume to demonstrate my love for my favorite academic subject as well as hundreds of volunteer hours to demonstrate that I was serious about becoming a pediatric oncologist. The beautiful and exciting thing about applying to any liberal arts school was that I could continue my academics in the humanities, but also complete all of my pre-medical requirements. I have always fostered my love for learning, so attending a liberal arts school made the most sense to me.
After my summer taking a class at Harvard, my decision to apply Early Action to my top choice school was cemented. Many people discouraged me from applying to Harvard, saying that I was wasting my Early Action, that I should prioritize getting accepted to a school where my chances seemed higher or I had an obvious advantage with being recruited.
I had enough realistic confidence in my academic and extracurricular prowess to aim for my genuine top choice school, a school that I had picked based on personal experience and extensive research that revealed how good of a fit it was for me. However, every student that applies to the top colleges has amazing academic and extracurricular interests.
I think that what helped me stand out to admissions officers was my genuine adherence to my interests that resulted in glowing letters of recommendation. I had built personal relationships with my favorite teachers organically just through my love of the academic subjects. Additionally, my genuine and in-depth consideration of the colleges I was applying to helped me stand out to my interviewers. In the college process, the fact that I felt I belonged in Cambridge shone through in my Harvard interview in particular.
I knew I had to put my best foot forward and apply to my actual first choice school, even if that seemed “strategically disadvantageous” to others. This was my college process, and the point of applying early to a school is that it is actually your first choice: if you are accepted to the college, you will attend.
Nobody expects that they’re going to get into Harvard - it is impossible to believe that with certainty. After finishing my Harvard application for Early Action, I made sure to finish all of my other applications. My mindset was, if I am accepted, then I just have a bunch of personal narrative essays I finished for no reason, but I probably won’t be upset about that because I will have been accepted. If I am deferred or rejected, I will send out all of my other applications on that same day.
I was accepted to Harvard Early Action, and sent in my intent to enroll the day after. I had already sent out my UC applications at that point as well as my UNC Chapel Hill application tied to my Morehead Cain Scholarship nomination, but I withdrew my application from those colleges. As I had been accepted early to my top choice school, I did not need the validation of counting how many other colleges I could get accepted into.
However, I know that a lot of people wonder, why choose Harvard over various other acceptances to other schools? And based on anecdotal evidence from friends I know who were accepted to multiple top colleges, their choices were based on understanding the student culture and/or on visiting the school to see if it was genuinely the right fit.
Now that I have attended Harvard, I know that I made the right choice — I have met so many genuine, amazing people in my academics, extracurriculars, and social activities at Harvard. And, as cliché as this sounds, the thing about a college is that it really is the people who make it special. There is a reason people are drawn to their best fit colleges: it enhances the student body if everyone is drawn to the same or similar aspects of a place. So, if you are going into the college process, I would strongly encourage you to apply to your genuine first choice.
And join the discussion about Harvard on the CC Forums.
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