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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Okay, Tolerate) College Admissions

By Robin Wasserman
Harvard Graduate and Noted Author

They say that to get in shape, you need to get obsessed and stay obsessed.

I have never in my life been in shape.

This is not, however, due to any lack of obsessing ability. I have, in fact, shown a great proficiency in the area of getting obsessed.

When I was twelve, it was V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. When I was nineteen,

Robein Wasserman - Harvard Grad Robin Wasserman is the author of several original novels for children and young adults, including the popular Seven Deadly Sins series. A Harvard alumna, she swears she got in on her own merits...

Her latest book is Hacking Harvard. Ocean's 11 meets The Princeton Review in this high-stakes admissions satire, as three too-smart-for-their-
own-good pranksters take on the ultimate challenge: breaking into the Ivy League.

it was Rent. When I was—well, actually, since I was—eight, it's been TV. (Only high quality TV, of course. With a few episodes of The Apprentice and Beauty and the Geek thrown in for good measure.) But for the last few years of high school, starting with the fall of tenth grade and ending only with a stamped postcard marked, "Yes, I will attend Harvard University!", it was college applications.

I read every book in Barnes & Noble. I visited every college campus. I watched every college-themed movie. I imagined, in great detail, how it would feel to open the mailbox and discover a wad of thick envelopes—as if, through the power of positive thinking, I could bend the universe, or at least the college admissions committee, to my will. Getting into college was the first thing I thought about when I got up, the last thing I thought about as I went to sleep, the only thing that kept me awake through most of my classes. I was, in short, obsessed.

This was not healthy.

I get that.

And I'm certainly not suggesting you follow my lead.

When I got to college, I met a surprising (to me, at least) number of people who hadn't bothered to worry about getting in to college. They hadn't done any research into college admissions; they hadn't read any college guide books. They'd just dashed off their admissions applications, figuring they'd get in where they deserved—and, failing that, they'd at least get in somewhere, and that would be good enough. (These were, of course, the same people who hadn't bothered studying for the SATs.)

If you're that kind of person, congratulations. That must be a lovely—if completely unfathomable—way to live.

This article is not for you.

This is for the rest of you, the ones who actually worry—though, I hope, for your sake, not as much as I did.

First, here's the stuff I feel obligated to tell you:

  1. You will get into college. Maybe not the place you desperately, passionately want to go. But somewhere.
  2. Wherever it is you end up, there's an overwhelmingly good chance (seriously, check the statistics) that you'll be happy at that college.
  3. This whole nightmarish college process has an expiration date, and by the last day of senior year, you'll have moved on to worrying about other things. Like the first day of freshman year.

Just one problem: I'm guessing you know all that stuff already. I'm guessing you've heard it a million times.

And I'm guessing that, even though it's all true, it didn't help. Not even a little. You don't want to be comforted. You don't want to sit back and take a deep breath and try in vain to calm yourself down.

You want to get in.

You've probably already received more "helpful hints" on the college front than you know what to do with. And I can't promise these will be any more helpful than the rest. But I can promise that the following lessons are drawn from my personal experience, an experience that was nerve-wracking, irritating, agonizing... but ultimately, successful.

Tip #1: Knowledge is Power

"The more you know" isn't just a cheesy NBC slogan long past its sell-by date. College admissions officers are looking for very specific things in an applicant, and if you find out what those things are, you're ahead of the game. And, more importantly, ahead of the other applicants. (Not to mention the fact that if you're doing research, you're doing something, which may have the added bonus of making you feel a little more in control.) You wouldn't take the SATs without knowing what to expect, right? Well, think of your college application as another standardized test—sure, in an ideal world, you can't game the system, because the application is just a reflection of your personality. But in the real world, the more you know about what "they" want, the more easily you can give it to them. That said...

Tip #2: Be Yourself

You can't game the system too much—these people are smart, and, more to the point, they go through thousands and thousands of college applications every year. They know what a phony looks like, and if you're trying to be one, they'll see you coming a mile away. Let your personality shine through. Don't be afraid to be a little quirky. This is especially true when it comes to your admissions essay, which is the one piece of your application over which you have total control. Speak your mind—it's the best way of proving you have one.

Tip #3: Find a Hook

Ask yourself: Why should this college accept me—as opposed to its thousands and thousands of other applicants? Once you've got a good answer for that question, make sure that it's obvious throughout your college application. (Not to mention in the real world. That means, if you express an interest in being a computer programmer, you might want to spend some time programming computers. If you want to be a journalist, find some ways—perhaps above and beyond editing your school newspaper—to start now. You get the idea.) Your admissions officer is your advocate—your only advocate. Once the decision-making process starts, he or she is going to have to convince all his co-workers to let you in. (Even if it means rejecting the applicants that they support.) Your college application had better give that admissions officer all the ammunition he needs to prove that you're worth it—or he's not going to bother.

Tip #4: Start Early

The sooner you start preparing yourself for the future, the better. Good grades and extracurricular activities aren't things that you can just pick up at the end of junior year—at least, not without admissions officers noticing... and wondering what you were doing for the rest of high school. That whole permanent record thing isn't just an empty threat, and everything on yours counts. (This is not to say that if you've got a spotty record, you're completely sunk. No one's college application is going to be perfect—and for a candidate that they want, admissions officers can be persuaded to overlook a lot.)

Tip #5: Breathe

I know, I know, easier said than done. But senior year doesn't have to be all panic, all the time. One of the best ways of calming down a little about the college applications process is finding a couple safety schools that you're genuinely excited about attending. Once you've done so, remind yourself that, no matter what, you'll spend freshman year in a place you want to be. While you're at it, remind yourself that getting into college is a little hard work and a lot of luck, so at a certain point—and this, of course, is only after you've done all the work it's humanly possible to do—you might as well just take a deep breath, cross your fingers... and relax.

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