The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
College is Hard, Applying is Harder: Five Pieces of Advice from a College Applicant

By Joy Mack ’21

Now that I am nearing the end of my high school career at TASIS and, with that, have finally finished up my college applications, I can genuinely look back and say it was nothing like I expected. Coming into 9th grade at TASIS, I had a handful of ideas of what applying for college would look like, but the process did not become particularly clear for me until I really dove into it headfirst. Thankfully, I have had access to experienced counselors who have not only showed me how to work through applications but have also supported me whenever I’ve come across something confusing. I am in no way an expert on the subject yet, but I have learned some things that I believe are worth sharing. Below are five pieces of advice for any students who will be going through the college application process in the coming years.

The TASIS College Counseling Team

 

#1
Get an early start!

Like I said, I came into high school with a general idea of which universities I thought I wanted to apply to, but I did not realize at the time how unrealistic those goals were when I had not had the opportunity to explore them yet. I would not necessarily go back and change my perspective at that point, but I admit that I was definitely naive to some extent. Something that has saved me from the engulfing lack of knowledge I had about the process is the privilege I’ve had to be able to speak to college counselors at any point in my TASIS career. I could not be more grateful for the abundance of help, both mentally and with the physical applications, I have received from Mr. Greg Birk and the entire College Counseling Office, which is now directed by Ms. Johanna Fishbein.

When I say “get an early start,” I do not mean you need to start stressing about college in 9th grade, but something that helped me immensely was expressing any concerns I had to Mr. Birk, my assigned college counselor. Whether I was contemplating the pursuit of a full IB Diploma versus AP coursework in 11th grade, concerned about dropping a class I was not excelling in, or just nervous about college, seeking wisdom from an advisor who has mastered an area students are so often unfamiliar with has eased a lot of mental pain. I even went to see Mr. Birk in 9th and 10th grade, before we were told to meet with a counselor, just to get a head start on what my course selection should look like with the university goals I had set for myself. I highly recommend doing so to get a full picture of your high school path. 

I inevitably walked into the first College Counseling Support class in 11th grade with a need for guidance, but I also drew confidence from the fact that I was acquainted with the people who were there to help. This aspect changed everything for me as I got deeper into the college application process. The closer you get to your advisors, the better they get to know how they can help you. They may also need to write a letter of recommendation for you, so it truly is best to start having a good relationship with them as soon as you can. If I have learned anything from this process, it’s that showing initiative is the best form of responsibility throughout your college application experience. 

Director of University and College Counseling Johanna Fishbein guides a senior through a mock interview. 

 

#2
Get everything you need
to be organized in the process

Honestly, I expected to be more prepared than my classmates when it came to starting the college application process, but now I know that was not the case at all. Though it is good to mentally prepare yourself for what everyone claims to be the hardest semester in high school—senior fall—it is really difficult to understand all the details you are going to have to cover in that process at one time. So, on top of getting an early start with your counselors before senior year, you should also be aware of what you as an applicant will need to complete. 

For example, one aspect of the college application process that I wish I could have improved on in terms of preparation and execution was going through the various steps required to apply for financial aid. In many ways, I admire my peers for getting ahead on things that I did not necessarily prioritize at the time, such as filing for aid as soon as I could. Because I can only speak from my experience applying to US universities, this aspect is very subjective. Some students may not even want to apply for financial aid, so it is just a case of knowing what you're getting into. The system for filing for financial aid was much more extensive than I ever anticipated. Retrospectively, I wish I would have taken more of an initiative in that area rather than loosening the reins after I submitted my applications. 

Similarly, in the US students can choose to submit early decision or early action applications, but this comes with the added responsibility of completing your applications ahead of the normal time frame that falls later in the first semester of 12th grade. This is one aspect of the process I’m proud of because even though I was still adjusting to the new school year, especially with Covid-19, I managed to complete a majority of the early applications I planned for. The choice to apply earlier than the regular decision deadline is completely a personal one, but I do think that it eased my stress to have some applications done by the time our winter holiday rolled around. Honestly, if you believe that you have the time to complete early applications, I think it only helps, so I would definitely recommend it. 

On a final note related to organization, you will need to figure out your rhythm and system for applying to universities. For me, a spreadsheet and notebook containing all my information and deadlines—in addition to the tools provided by the college counselors—helped me stay on top of my work. Remember that being confused is not a sign of failure in the process but rather a sign of learning. That is why the TASIS college counselors are always there to help. They are your mentors and will answer any and all of your questions, so just reach out when you need anything! But you must also know that they will not hold your hand through every essay and application, so you need to take ownership of the process and work hard to keep yourself on track!

 

#3
Teacher recommendations are vital

Teacher recommendations are an aspect of your applications that are not to be overlooked. The reason the college counselors stress the importance of teacher recommendations so early on is not only to give you and the teacher time to communicate but also because they understand how a strong recommendation from a faculty member can influence the way a college admissions officer views your application. 

This also ties in to the idea of having a good reputation within the TASIS community. If you get to the teacher recommendation part of the College Counseling Support class and no teachers find you to be a student they can write admirably about, you may have a difficult time finding someone to write a moving and quality recommendation. You need to try your best to not only pick teachers who have seen you grow or excel in their classes but who also see that you are a positive member of the community. Ultimately, your applications will include the essays you wrote, which will help showcase your best qualities, but additional praise from faculty members will only strengthen each university’s desire to accept you into their program. 

The college counselors will do their best to help you pick appropriate teachers and explain why this is such an important part of the process. Also, from my experience, the teachers who write recommendations are experienced enough in doing so that they will make sure they get them done in advance of the deadlines, so do not worry if you check on a recommendation and it is not completed yet. If you are truly concerned about the recommendation being completed on time, you can feel free to politely reach out to that faculty member or ask your college counselor to connect with him or her.

 

#4
Stress and comparison can be deadly

Because I am still waiting to hear from a number of universities I applied to, I can tell you first-hand how terrible the waiting period is between submitting applications and hearing back about your decisions. The only real advice I can give you is to keep yourself distracted. I personally find it difficult to focus on schoolwork when I know that decisions may be coming out within a specific time frame. So, if you enjoy working out or going to play a sport, use those hobbies as a way to keep your mind occupied on something other than when the decisions come out. I know it is tempting to check your email every five minutes, but at the end of the day, stress will only give you anxiety if you let it consume your mind. 

Something else I’ve noticed heavily among my peers is the constant questioning and comparison that is bound to happen when you are competing against each other for similar universities or in similar programs. The urge to compare yourself to other people can completely destroy the mentality you have around college applications. If there is anything I can take from my process, it is that comparison really led me to question my worth as an applicant. It is my hope that, in future years, other peers’ accomplishments can be celebrated rather than used as a basis of comparison between two people. The idea that I have been through four years of high school with the same people I am attempting to compare myself to puts the reality of college applications into perspective. You have all worked so hard to get where you are at this point in your TASIS careers and life. Do not let a competitive mindset tear you or your peers down and overshadow the long journeys you have all been on since you were kids who dreamed of going to university.

 

#5
Everything will turn out
how it is meant to

This leads me to my final point: no matter what happens with college decisions, everyone genuinely ends up where they are meant to be at this point in their life. I know students who are happily taking a gap year and thriving because of it. I am also close with peers who are experiencing their first year of college and enjoying the new environment—even if it wasn't the “best” school they applied to. As an applicant, I understand that it is inevitable to want to attend the highest-ranking university possible because that is what we perceive to matter and forms our worth as students, but you should know that the steps you take once you graduate high school all depend on how you want to pursue adulthood.

The college counselors at TASIS are wise enough to know how great of an accomplishment graduating from TASIS is alone, even before you pursue a college degree. They are here to support and uplift you in all of your accomplishments, not to put you down for not getting into a specific university. I was truly worried that I would disappoint a lot of people by not being a “good” enough student and getting into the most prestigious programs I could, but after I did get rejected by some of those programs, I realized, through my counselors’ reactions, that that expectation I had for myself was all in my head. 

The college counselors understand that there really is a place for everyone after high school—that it is all about finding the best fit. I am lucky enough to attend TASIS, where I have those supporters cheering me on in my achievements no matter what. Every student hears that there really is no method to the college decisions you receive, so you have to put your rejections from college into perspective. A lot of the time, they are simply redirection for the path that is meant for you. Keep that in mind no matter what comes out of your application process.

Honestly, the college application process is a long and grueling one, but it is also rewarding in the end. Whether you are starting to think about where you want to apply or are waiting for your college decisions to come out, you should be extremely excited to start the process that will catapult your new life once you graduate from TASIS. 

I am so grateful to have the support system I have at this school, and part of the process that I love is sharing my accomplishments with my counselors, teachers, and other mentors because they are the people who helped me get through it. If I can give other students any advice about the process, it is to have a great choice of family members and faculty mentors supporting you and sharing the excitement for this new chapter with you. And don’t forget, you got this!

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