Before opening the Common App for the first time, I imagined that writing college essays would be similar to writing essays for my English class. I would do research, decide on a thesis, write my three body paragraphs, and then finish up with a cheesy conclusion. Much to my surprise however, when I first read through the essay prompts, I realized that my typical way of writing essays was no longer going to be sufficient. For the first time, the answers to these essay prompts were not located in the footnotes of a textbook or hidden in somewhere in the meanings of obscure poetry. There were no primary sources I could cite to defend my argument. Instead, I had to think hard about really personal questions that I hadn’t yet fully considered:
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- What do you hope to gain from the college experience?
- What do you think is the biggest problem our world faces today?
In my mind, applying to college had always been a means to an end. The only reason I was applying was so that I could go to college - that seemed obvious, right? I thought my job as a high school senior was to fill in the blanks and hope for the best. At the start of senior year, I had never considered how much there was to gain by using each essay, short-response, interview, and college visit to learn more about how I saw my future and growth over the next four years.
In the process of applying to college, I spent a lot of time reflecting on who I wanted to be in college and what kind of impact I wanted to have. After studying abroad in high school, I realized my college experience would be incomplete if I wasn’t able to continue traveling the world. I wanted to graduate in four years as a true global citizen, with knowledge and experience from across the globe, so that’s what my college search became. I wanted to study new languages, meet new kinds of people, and see parts of the world that I didn’t even know existed.
When finding the “perfect school,” I stopped looking at acceptance rates and college rankings and focused more on how involved their students were with the world at large and what academic and extracurriculars focused on global affairs and international studies. I was still stressed by character limits, deadlines, and awkward interviews, but knowing that my personal journey in college didn’t depend on any specific school, and instead on what I hoped to get out of it, helped to relieve the pressure of getting into a top-tier school.
Choosing where to go to school is obviously important in the college admissions process, but I often forgot what it really meant to move on from high school and start the next stage of my life toward adulthood. The questions I have to ask and answer about myself over the next four years will be so much more complex than the ones from problem sets or midterms, but the answers will also be so much more valuable.
Because of this, it is important to use the college application process as a starting point for that journey. If you have always wanted to be a doctor, your college essays will ask you to defend your choice. Why are you pre-med? What motivates you to help others? Thinking critically about your answer could either strengthen your belief that being a doctor is the right path or help you realize you had chosen it for the wrong reasons. Either way, and even if your decision changes later, you’re one step closer to understanding yourself and the future you want to build.
Applying to college can be a great opportunity for self-discovery and reflection if you allow yourself to think outside the scope of acceptances and rejections and instead consider the long-term. I made sure to use every part of the college application process to examine and re-examine who I was and what I wanted to be when I graduate in 2020.
I still don’t know exactly where I will end up or what steps I will take to get there, but I feel so much more confident that the answers will come to me in time. Using college apps to self-reflect on my first 18 years has given me a stronger sense of self and sense of direction, both of which have helped me make the most of my time at Yale and (hopefully) will carry me to graduation and beyond.