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Tips From a First-Generation Student Turned Admissions ProfessionalDavid Duxbury
Photo courtesy of Northwestern University
I understand now that I didn’t approach my college applications correctly.
I thought I'd followed all the rules. I had an excellent GPA and a high SAT score (including a perfect 800 on the verbal section). I took as many advanced and AP courses as I could fit in my schedule. I took theater classes during the day, attended stage crew and rehearsals at night, and participated in four years of daily choir. On paper, I wasn't a student who should have had trouble earning a spot.
Yet there I was in 2006 with a stack of five waitlist letters.
I felt forgettable.
I’d like to help you and your teen navigate waitlists and applications successfully, so let’s talk about what went wrong. First, I mostly applied to schools that were small and very selective. My high school guidance counselor had recommended a fleet of schools that were all in the same tier, and I didn’t trust myself enough to argue with a professional who did this for a living.
She mentioned that students should include a safety school or two, so I did. But I didn’t bother to find ones I actually liked. To me, a safety school was like the emergency room — it’s there if you need it, but you really, really hope you won’t. I wasn’t an egomaniac. But I had internalized the great fiction that is sold to young people: Your school’s reputation determines your worth and reflects what you are capable of achieving.
That myth gnawed at me throughout application season. I was haunted by a single question: Will I even get in anywhere? In a haze of admissions stress, I read several college guidebooks, compared my grades to the “average” student at each school, and visited several colleges. After all that research, my final list of schools still looked suspiciously like my guidance counselor’s initial recommendations. If you asked me why I wanted to attend these institutions, I didn’t know.
So I wrote generic essays about how I wanted a school with “good academics and a strong theater program.” I did my best to erase every last scrap of my personality. DON'T DO THIS. If colleges wanted a robot, most of them have the budget to buy one. They don’t need you to act like a machine.
The teen version of me didn’t know this. I looked at the little cards I received from my five waitlisted schools, trying to shut down the fear that I didn’t belong anywhere. Those little cards are the admissions equivalent of an RSVP, except you haven’t been invited to the party yet. If you work hard, you get invited. Or not.
I had been accepted at a state school I wasn’t excited about and to a small liberal arts college north of New York City. I hadn’t visited the small college before applying, but I was drawn to its reputation in the arts and it seemed like it could be perfect for me. Maybe things were going to work out!
Unfortunately, when I visited the campus in person, it didn’t feel right. Years later, I still don’t know why I disliked it. The school had a beautiful and safe campus, happy students and professors who were famous for art and literature. But finding your perfect-fit college is like falling in love. It’s not particularly logical, and even when the other person is interested in you and everything lines up perfectly on paper, you might find yourself thinking, “Is this really it?”
I’m aware how sentimental this will sound, but when your teen accepts an admissions offer, they should follow their heart. They’re going to live there for four years. If they graduate, they’re committing to a lifelong connection to the school and its alumni network. Logic is not enough. They need to love it.
It’s hard for most people to make important decisions when they’re under intense stress, but certain techniques can make it easier. I found it helpful to compare each waitlisted school to the liberal arts school where I had been admitted. In other words, I focused on two schools at once, asking “which do I like better?”
For four of the waitlisted schools, I felt confident checking “please take me off the waitlist.” But for the fifth, Northwestern University, I hesitated. I didn’t feel comfortable letting go of the opportunity.
If your teen is in the same position as I was, their instincts and emotion are their lighthouse in the fog. If they can easily and comfortably say, “I don’t really care about that school,” and if they’ve been accepted somewhere they like, they don’t need to mess with the waitlist. Your teen doesn’t have an obligation to stay on that list “just to see.” In fact, they should resist the instinct to stay on the waitlist just because they’re curious; if they don’t like the school much, they should leave the waitlist spots for people who are desperate to attend.
On the other hand, if the idea of checking “no” causes your teen squirming discomfort — a feeling that they really can’t let go — they should stay on the list. And try to be gracious with themselves as they cope with the stress of more waiting.
Your teen will also need to take some additional steps to show the school that they are serious about attending. Like many of you, I had heard you’re supposed to do “extra stuff” to get off the list. I asked my theater teacher for a recommendation — something I should have done when I initially applied to school. I had taken all of his classes and auditioned for every single play. I'd taken part in stage crew and performances for four years straight. I hung out in his office during lunch hour. He knew me extremely well and even trusted me enough to babysit his two-year old son. I knew he wouldn't let me down with a wilting and generic letter.
I also visited Northwestern. After an informal tour, I badly wanted to attend. I wrote a new essay, but I didn’t write what I thought they wanted. I admitted that I hadn’t visited Northwestern until recently because I was afraid to fall in love with it. I described specific campus details I loved — the millions of pink flower petals falling from the trees in April, the beautiful theater, the imposing brutalist library. I wrote that I could imagine myself spending time with friends at the “lakefill” (literally an area of Lake Michigan that Northwestern “filled in” with extra dirt to gain additional real estate in Chicago’s crowded suburbs). I told them that they already knew the logical reasons that Northwestern was a great school, so I was going to tell them the emotional reasons that I belonged.
I finally had a cohesive story — my extracurriculars were in theater, my recommendation was from my high school theater director, I had specifically applied to the theater program, and I clearly stated that I wanted to study theater in my essay. I believe that this story helped a Northwestern admissions officer finally say, “This student belongs here.”
Several weeks later I was offered a spot at Northwestern. I accepted and eventually graduated summa cum laude. Nowadays, people see my PhD and assume academics have always been easy for me. Having read this article, you can tell them otherwise (actually, please don’t — I’d like to play it cool for a while longer).
I hope this advice helps you and your student navigate college admissions, but I also want to send a clear message that your teen’s worth is not dependent on admissions decisions. Have faith that their perfect-fit school is out there and remind them that you’ll love them no matter what.
Everything you need to get through college application season with your high school senior!