With college application season in full swing, the question of how to do well in courses and gain acceptance into dream schools is hot on many high schoolers’ minds. Students often believe that there is a single formula for academic advancement, that following a set list of steps can propel them into the schools they aspire to attend. For many colleges, this happens to be the case: By (1) taking challenging courses, (2) studying diligently, and (3) reflecting those efforts in a strong academic transcript, students can secure admission into some of the nation’s top universities.
However, for certain colleges, academics alone aren’t always enough. Powerful essays, extracurriculars, recommendation letters, or even a personal portfolio, among others, take center stage for universities that want a more well-rounded picture of who you are. This is where the flaws in our once-foolproof formula begin to emerge, leaving many students unsure of how to put their best foot forward on their college applications. I was once one of those students, afraid and confused about how to approach what seemed like an incredibly daunting process.
When asked how I got to where I am today, I always joke that my path has been anything but linear. Though my story is largely defined by curiosity and exploration, it is just as riddled with uncertainty and change. In the first part of this two-part series, I’ll tell you more about the challenges I faced to reconcile my interests, as well as the reason why I chose to integrate a diverse range of experiences into my college applications. In the process, I hope you’ll discover that your definition of success can come to fruition in many ways – and that looking inwards is a great place to start.
First, let me tell you a little bit about my academic background. I am a freshman studying Environment and Sustainability at Cornell University. I went to a public high school in Carrollton, Texas, where I graduated as valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar. While there, I took eleven AP classes and four dual enrollment classes. I finished my final year of high school in the Chamber Orchestra after having played violin for nine years, and in my senior year I was an officer for three student organizations.
But what if I told you that the numbers seldom tell the full story?
Though I discovered my passion for environmental conservation many years ago, I only realized that I wanted to pursue it as a career near the end of my junior year. At that point, my extracurriculars were numerous but had little to do with anything remotely environmental: I had been actively involved in music and Spanish and Make-A-Wish for quite a while, and my summer experiences ranged from internships in digital marketing to camps for engineering and neuroscience – all of which only made me realize that none were right for me. I’d spend my waking hours virtually tutoring students in math and English, submitting short stories to writing competitions, and puzzling through jigsaw puzzles with frustratingly small pieces while blasting music on my headphones. Environmental work was nowhere on the list. The pandemic had been in full strength, and there were few options for students like me to safely get involved in fieldwork. Not knowing what to do, I remained holed up in my room, tapping on my battered Chromebook, waiting patiently for an opportunity to arise.
After a few weeks of waiting for an opportunity that never came, I knew I had to create one for myself. The pandemic didn’t seem to be waning any time soon, and obtaining an in-person role went against my family’s wishes. Thus, The Sentimental Environmental(ist) was born. Though it started as my feeble attempt to connect with the environmental world, it quickly grew to become my passion project – a website where my long-standing love of creative expression and my growing interest in sustainability could intersect. Suddenly, I found myself spending endless hours sharing with the world the environmental issues that troubled me, whether in the form of poetry, articles, interview reports, essays, videos, or artistic pieces. I would pen children’s poems about E-waste, talk to inventors about their contributions to sustainability in areas such as shampoos and toothpastes, and craft murals from bottle caps and snowmen out of old socks. My artistic and literary interests had finally been released from their cage – and my inner environmentalist was happy too.
When senior year rolled around, I decided that my college applications would reflect the diverse experiences the past four years had provided me. I had done a lot of intensive writing for several months, and I wanted my applications to reflect my growth as not only a writer and artist but also an environmentalist. However, I still loved languages and music and had gained valuable transferable skills from my previous internships and summer camps, so I made sure to include those as well and explain (albeit briefly) the lessons I’d learned in the process. I detailed, for example, the “Eco-Flops” that I had designed entirely out of reused materials such as soda tabs and torn rags in an engineering summer camp, thereby highlighting my environmental interests despite that I didn’t want to become an engineer. Cornell was one of my dream schools because its emphasis on sustainability mirrored my own, so I could hardly contain my excitement when, almost five months later, I found out that I’d gotten in.
This is not to say that your college application process should mirror mine. Some may argue that I should have figured out what I wanted to study earlier so that I could obtain relevant experiences throughout high school, but I personally enjoyed embracing my teenage years to explore a little bit of everything. In doing so, I was free to figure out what I liked and disliked, ultimately enabling me to decide to major in Environment and Sustainability while pursuing writing and language study as well. Of course, your approach may be different. If, for example, your high school experience has been defined by an in-depth focus on one particular interest, then you could hone in on that interest on your applications instead. Or, if you feel like you haven’t had enough opportunities to explore your passions in high school, you could take advantage of your essays to write about what you hope to learn and achieve.
The biggest takeaway? While your college applications should certainly include your grades, academic awards, and noteworthy exam scores, what matters most is that your passions shine through. Use the essays section to elaborate on your interests or on personal experiences that have shaped your worldviews. Use the extracurriculars section to showcase what you love to do, and more importantly, how you made an impact through those activities. Color your applications with details on the experiences that mean the most to you, and make sure that admissions officers know just why you value those experiences so much. Ultimately, numbers and statistics are important, but who you are outside of them is even more so.
So, in a nutshell, that’s my college application story. Yours may very well be different – and that’s okay! Above all else, I encourage you to pursue what you genuinely love and to stretch your intellectual curiosity both in and out of the classroom. And if you’re like my high school self, and you’re struggling to decide what you want to pursue, don’t worry. You might just find that opening your mind to multiple disciplines will give you a sense of clarity – just as it did for me.
Note: For the second part of this series, click here.