Katie Miller recently graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., where she was captain of the tennis team, leader of the spoken-word poetry club and edited her school literary magazine. She loves music and writing and is very relieved to be finished with the painful process of applying to colleges. Here, she reflects on what she learned along the way. — Susan Svrluga
At my lowest moment during the college application process, I closed the blinds in my room and buried my head in despair.
My email was filling up with rejections from schools that I had worked so hard to impress with my applications. Even worse, my phone was buzzing with texts and Facebook posts from friends who were getting good news from their first choice schools — some of which had turned me away.
Two months later, I feel much better. I ended up with a fistful of rejections, but ultimately had two great options: the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maryland. The school I chose didn’t start near the top of my list.
But then, nothing about this insanely unpredictable process went as I expected.
I am excited to start college next month at a school that made me feel important, and relieved to have survived the college application gantlet.
I learned some lessons along the way — about navigating an ordeal that has become a harrowing rite of passage for many high school seniors — but also about myself.
Here are my top five pieces of advice for next year’s applicants:
1. Be prepared for disappointment
Nothing truly readies you for the feeling of defeat that comes with opening a letter of denial.
At the start of the process, UCLA was my dream school. My computer search history was packed with Google images of the picturesque campus in Southern California. The weather app on my phone was set to both Bethesda and Los Angeles. UCLA’s top-ranked psychology and writing programs seemed to call my name.
When I received a letter of denial, I was crushed. The generic “I am sorry to inform you …” felt shockingly personal, as if my own personality were not good enough in their eyes.
After enduring a period of disbelief and depression, I attempted to appeal.
I wrote a letter explaining why I deserved another chance, collected letters of recommendation, sent emails to the undergraduate admissions officer, and even met with her on campus.
All of the stress of the college process was magnified and compressed into one month. Then, I received a second letter of denial.
2. Accept that aspects of this arduous process will simply be inexplicable
I applied to four University of California schools and was offered admission to three: UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UC Berkeley.
I still don’t understand why UCLA was the outlier.
I focused a majority of my effort on UCLA, but none of it paid off. Even after going through applications to eight schools, I still have only a vague understanding of how they made their decisions.
While some websites claim they can tell students which elements of the application different schools value, maybe it depends on factors as arbitrary as who sits down to read the essay.
Three months ago, I wrote about how much effort I put into my essays. I’m unsure of whether all of that time made much difference in the end.
Students across the spectrum face letters of denial. One of the brightest students at my school is headed to Harvard this fall, but only after posting a wrenching note on Facebook about how wounded he was that he was denied from Stanford. Unfortunately, there is no way to accurately predict a college decision, even for students who have done nothing but prepare a flawless resume.
3. Even when you think you have done everything right, you’ve probably gotten something wrong
I went over my University of California application countless times before submitting it and still managed to list some of my classes incorrectly. Instead of meeting with my school counselor to confirm which of my classes were honors, I thought I was playing it safe by reporting them as on-level.
Overlooking wrongly labeled classes and failing to double-check them with my counselor put me at a disadvantage.
I did learn a second lesson in my attempt to recover from these mistakes: Pushing for answers and explanations goes a long way.
You will never get full disclosure from a university admissions office, but by calling and asking why I was denied, I learned that my mistakes led the office of undergraduate admissions to believe that I had dropped AP and honors-level courses.
The mistake initially cost me at both UCLA and Berkeley.
My appeal didn’t help me with UCLA, but it did get me admitted to Berkeley.
4. There is a time and place for modesty and the college application process is not it
I really struggled to boast about my accomplishments. I was overly concerned with appearing humble in my essays and felt uncomfortable connecting the questions to my achievements.
On my application, I should have said that I continued involvement with the Spanish National Honors Society through senior year, even though I hadn’t yet completed my credits. I shouldn’t have refused myself credit for work that I had done every year and planned to repeat in the near future simply because I hadn’t already completed it.
Especially today, as colleges’ standards continue to raise, it’s vital to take advantage of all accomplishments, because there are probably a thousand other kids with the same ones.
5. Give serious consideration to all the schools on your list, because your final choice may surprise you
This might be the most important lesson I learned. Had I known at the beginning of the college application process which two schools I would be deciding between, I would have packed my bags for California without a second thought.
But I ended up choosing U-Md., surprising even myself.
The reasons for my decision weren’t even part of my thinking when I began applying to schools. Among them was that Maryland offered me admission to its Honors College, a selective program that offers seven living-and-learning programs, smaller class sizes and more courses.
I didn’t know much about this program when I applied, but as I learned more about the school, I became aware of its benefits.
The program would make it possible for me to study abroad, live in a tighter-knit community, and attend smaller classes. The honors humanities program in particular would allow me to bond with peers over my passion for reading, writing, and the arts.
I would get to stay in a dorm at the heart of campus, choose from a special list of courses reserved to honors students, and even attend performances in New York City. One of my greatest fears about attending U-Md. was the massive student population. The honors college would allow me to feel part of a community while attending a big school, with all of the diversity and variety still included.
There were some smaller factors in my decision, too: I wanted to go to a place where I was wanted, and U-Md. made me feel wanted with acceptance to the Honors program, and the admission officers’ availability and responsiveness.
Calls to the Berkeley admissions or financial aid offices went unanswered for days. U-Md. took care of questions and problems quickly.
Money was also an issue.
My parents tried to keep me from making the decision based on cost, but it was a factor for me. Berkeley was going to cost about $60,000 a year, or three times as much as U-Md.
It would be difficult to justify choosing Berkeley over U-Md., considering U-Md.’s significant advantages regardless of cost.
I was also thinking of my own financial future.
I know that I’m likely to attend graduate school and will need to support myself financially one day, so it seemed more reasonable to save my family and myself the thousands in debt.
After emailing and texting students at both schools and conducting some of my own research, I made a long list of pros and cons for each school.
I realized that Maryland will provide more advantages in the long run especially. I see myself attending graduate school one day, and Maryland’s honors college will give me more attention to succeed and stand out in my class, and put me in a better financial situation post-college.
Also, I discovered that U-Md. is rapidly improving by adding new facilities on and off campus, offering more opportunities and courses for students, and growing more selective. This, as well as all of the positive feedback I have heard about the honors college, internship opportunities in Washington and student life, were big factors in my decision.
I feel like I made the right choice, but the fact is there probably were multiple right choices.
Sometimes I still have doubts and pangs of concern. Sometimes I’m still jealous of my friends who are leaving Maryland in the fall and going to college in completely different parts of the country. I worry that college will feel like a continuation of my high school.
But I have realized that the college experience has less to do with the school name, location and reputation, and more to do with what you accomplish there.
So while I am going to attend a school that started out lower on my list, I am excited, and it’s a way better feeling than I had a few months ago.
One last thing I realized: In fifth grade, I spent hours practicing soccer in the backyard with my family, doing drills designed to teach me how to fight for the ball. We set the ball between us and ran to approach it at the same time, so that I wouldn’t back down when I faced an intimidating player in games.
The college application process reminded me so much of that. I guess I still need some practice learning to fight for the ball.