Reflections on the College Process
Now that my college search is finally over, I thought I’d write about my process, hopefully serving both as catharsis for me and a view into American college admissions for whoever ends up reading this (hi!).
Before I really dive in here, I want to address the elephant in the room. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to participate in this process at all, and I don’t think my experiences are anything near typical. I go to Catlin Gabel, one of the best high schools in the Northwest (and probably the country), and both of my parents attended and graduated from Amherst College. I started from an incredibly privileged position, and I realize that this has given me a huge leg up in the college process.
I think the American college admissions system is broken, since far too much is determined by your family’s connections. When I was visiting a school regarded as one of the best in the nation, I had an admissions officer who I knew previously tell me that I should let him know when I submitted my application so he could help me out. Although I didn’t end up applying to that school, the ease with which he told me this worried me — I could have been accepted to this school because I knew this guy, not because I deserved to be there. Your acceptance to a certain school should be determined on your own merit, not by who your parents went sailing with last summer.
Along with this, I attended an informational session held by several similarly prestigious institutions titled “Exploring College Options.” I don’t think it’s fair to have that title for an event where every college present has an acceptance rate below 20%, and much of the material seemed to be focused on helping the colleges brag about themselves in order to encourage more students to apply. Many colleges seem to only be interested in lowering their admit rates, rather than finding students that will thrive there, and I think this is a fundamental flaw with the way the system works right now.
Beyond these issues, the application process itself has some major issues. A huge portion of the application favors students who can afford expensive test prep, who have people around who attended college to help them edit their essays, who have teachers with few enough students such that they can write great letters of recommendation. I have no doubt that there are students out there who are smarter and more talented than me, but because I’m coming from a position of privilege, they weren’t afforded the same opportunities as me, and that’s not fair or acceptable.
With that out of my system, I’ll describe my own college search. I’ll try to be as candid as possible here, and again, I realize that this is not typical or normal.
I started this process dead set on going to Stanford. (Original, I know.) One of my senior friends when I was a freshman decided on Stanford, and from then on, I was positive that it was the place for me. At the end of sophomore year, I was ready to start the process that would inevitably end in me spending four years in Palo Alto.
The first college I visited was Amherst, at the start of the summer after sophomore year. My mom had kept in touch with a few professors (one of whom is now a dean), so when I visited, I was able to speak to four professors and the aforementioned dean. I didn’t love it at the time, but kept it in the back of my head. On the same trip, I spent a few days at MIT for a robotics event and toured Tufts, and liked both a lot more than Amherst. Tufts, in particular, seemed like a place where I’d be very comfortable.
Fast-forward to spring of junior year. I headed to California to visit as many schools as possible over spring break, and we started in the Bay Area. We walked around UC Berkeley (not my vibe), and visited the holy land known as Stanford. I loved it as much as I thought I would, and this only cemented its status as The Place For Me in my head. I also spent a little time at Santa Clara, and while it was beautiful, there was something about the vibe that I didn’t like. We made the looooong drive to San Luis Obispo to look at Cal Poly SLO, and while it was amazingly beautiful (the street signs use the font from The Lord of the Rings after all), I started realizing that maybe I wanted more options than just engineering, so for that reason, Cal Poly was off the list. We then took another looooong drive to LA (if there’s one thing that I learned from this process, it’s that my mother is a saint), and I spent my first night in LA at Harvey Mudd. I loved Mudd — there was something about the vibe and the unapologetic dorkiness that permeated the place that was very attractive to me. The next day, I toured Pomona and really liked it, and then my mom and I almost got heatstroke at Caltech, which I also liked. (We were supposed to tour Occidental that day, too, but decided that the hotel pool sounded better.)
Shortly after returning from California, I took my first SAT, and I started questioning the sanity of those who chose to take it more than once or twice. A month later, I took my SAT subject tests, and in an apparent unconscious attempt to influence the grading curve, my allergies decided that this was their time to shine. (I did fine, apologies to anyone else in the room with me.)
In the summer after junior year, my mom and I decided to do a grand East Coast tour, and it was quite the ride. We started on Long Island visiting my family, and took the ferry up to New London, Connecticut, and from there, we drove to Boston. I had lunch with my friend at MIT and realized that maybe it wasn’t quite as good a fit as I had previously thought, and when I visited Tufts again, I loved it just as much. (My mom didn’t think it was a great fit for me, which was interesting, given how much I liked it.) We migrated south to New Haven to look at Yale, and while I loved Yale itself, I wasn’t a huge fan of New Haven. I did my first interview at Yale (quite the place to start, I know), and the tour was amazing — the place is literally Hogwarts with less evil people. We then continued south via to Pennsylvania (I swear the Cross-Bronx Expressway is where humanity goes to die) aided only by the trashiest audiobook in existence, and I looked at Swarthmore and Haverford. I thought both were a little small, and although I interviewed at both, I liked Swarthmore a lot more — it has some amazing programs combining engineering and liberal arts.
Later that summer, I visited Carleton and Northwestern, and it was pretty clear to me that while both schools seemed lovely, I didn’t want to spend four years in the Midwest, so that was the end of that.
At the start of senior year, it was clear to me that Yale was my top choice, followed by Stanford, Tufts, and Harvey Mudd (roughly in that order). I took the SAT one more time to bump up my score, and put countless hours into my Early Action application to Yale. That application was deferred, and honestly, I was crushed. Everyone around me had been convinced that I’d get in, and I guess I’d come to think that way, too. It took me a few days to recover, but I realized how low the acceptance rate for deferred students was at Yale, so I put all my energy into my other applications. I decided last-minute to not apply to Harvey Mudd, MIT, or Caltech, since I wanted to have more options than just STEM majors, and I also decided last-minute to apply to Amherst and University of Rochester. (I was panicking a little and wanted to make sure that I got in somewhere.) I sort of forgot about Yale in the process, and Stanford returned to the top spot on my mental list.
The schools I applied to:
- University of Rochester
The feeling of hitting ‘submit’ on your last application is terrifying, yet satisfying. On one hand, you’re done with all that work, but on the other, it’s out of your control. I spent the months between the application deadline and the decisions coming back trying to simultaneously forget about the process…and then March came around.
The first decision to come back was from the University of Rochester. I got in, and although the school wasn’t high on my list, it was comforting in that it was an acceptance — I was going to college. Later that day, I was accepted to Pomona, and while Pomona wasn’t high on my list originally, I joined the Facebook group and immediately loved the place. The other admitted students were just so kind and brilliant and talented that I couldn’t help but love it.
Later that week, I got into Swarthmore, and at the end of the week, Amherst. Swarthmore sort of fell by the wayside for me (not exactly sure why, just something about the vibe), but I started thinking more about Amherst. That same day, I got rejected from Stanford, and although at that point I was leaning towards Pomona, it was absolutely disappointing to not get into Stanford, given how long I’d been dreaming about it.
Finally, the dreaded ‘Ivy Day’ came around, and I wasn’t sure at all what to expect from Yale. I got into Tufts that day, which was awesome, but given my deferral on my early app and my rejection from Stanford, I really didn’t think I was going to get into Yale. I opened the letter on my phone and immediately said something that I shouldn’t put here because the Internet is forever, but suffice to say that it accurately conveyed my emotion and surprise at getting into Yale.
I then had a ridiculously hard choice to make. The University of Rochester was out (I didn’t really like the vibe, plus I never actually visited), and my gut told me that Swarthmore and Tufts were, too. Ironically enough, despite starting this process thinking I wanted to go to a tech school, two of my final three were small liberal arts schools (Amherst and Pomona), and the last one was a medium liberal arts school (Yale). I decided to visit all three and decide from there, and I hoped that my decision would be clear from my experiences on campus.
Pomona came first. I spent two nights there, and while I liked it, I didn’t love it. I felt like it would be too small and that the people were too laid-back (if that’s possible), and additionally, it lacked an engineering program, and while I don’t want to major in engineering, I love having that maker culture around.
However, I did get my beloved In-N-Out while I was in LA, so it wasn’t a complete loss.
Two days later, I got on a red-eye to Boston, still hoping that my decision would be clear to me at some point. I was worried that I’d feel at Amherst and Yale like I did at Pomona — liking it but not loving it. I spent a lovely day and night at Amherst (the Kehlani/X Ambassadors concert helped), but I came away feeling about the same as I did about Pomona. I felt like I’d be happy there, but it wasn’t perfect for me.
I hopped on a train to New Haven, and as soon as I arrived at Yale, I knew it was the place for me. Ten seconds (not even exaggerating) after I walked through Phelps Gate, I looked around, and I felt like I was home. Yale was just a place that I could see myself — the people were amazing, the campus was beautiful, the resources and connections second to none. I committed before I even left campus (less than a day after I got there), and I spent my remaining time in New Haven thinking to myself how great a decision I’d made.
In the two weeks since committing, I haven’t regretted my decision once. I’m thrilled to be a part of the Yale class of 2020, and, well, August can’t come soon enough.
I realize that this is not a fair system, not even close. I’m coming from a position where I can play the college admissions game at a very high level, and it’s in my self-interest to do so to the best of my ability. However, I don’t believe that it should stay like this, and my hope is that things will change. The system needs fixing to be more fair to everyone involved, particularly those with less opportunities during high school, and while I don’t claim to have a solution, I know that the college admissions system needs to change, and soon.
Originally published at www.jacobbendicksen.com.