What I Wish I’d Known When Applying to College, Mount Si Graduate Reflects

[About the Author: Paige McCall is a freshman at New York University and a 2015 Mount Si High School graduate. She is studying screenwriting at NYU’s Film and TV Institute.]

Acceptance Rates are Overrated.

Don’t look at them. Or, I should say, don’t let them be all that you look at.

Look at where you want to be geographically, where the best programs for your interests are, and other important factors for you.  But don’t let the school’s overall acceptance rate be the make-or-break factor – especially if you are applying to a specific school orCommon App major within the university, where the number is often completely different from what is advertised for the whole college.

I lucked out and ended up at the school I truly wanted to be at, but there were a number of amazing schools that I didn’t apply to because of a tiny number that appeared when I looked up their acceptance rate. I set myself a certain percentage as a cut off, and didn’t bother applying to any schools with acceptance rates lower than that number.

My dad encouraged me to apply to several West Coast schools that had great film programs. I told him that they didn’t have exactly what I was looking for, but that was a lie. I just didn’t want to show him a rejection letter from these places he was “sure would want me.”

Like I said, I lucked out. I am happy and consider myself extremely lucky to sit in college classes where I care about what’s being taught. But, since I applied to a specific major within my school, I didn’t know to check if the acceptance rate to the major was different from that of the general school. I didn’t discover that number until I had been accepted.

I am so thankful for my ignorance because as it turned out, the rate was well below my set acceptance “cut off” rate – and I know I would have talked myself out of applying had I known it earlier.

Don’t sell yourself short. Your SAT scores may not be as high as other kids who get into your dream school, but you can always write one heck of an essay or have way more job experience or extra curricular activities than other candidates.

Go for it. You never know. Often times we have more to offer than we ever could have thought.

Scholarships: the BIG ones go Early, Look NOW

While applying to college, how I was going to pay for it was both the first and last thing on my mind.

I initially thought that I shouldn’t bother applying for private schools that aren’t known for offering many merit-based scholarships (NYU I’m looking at you), but counselors assured me that there were plenty of scholarships out there – all you have to do is search and apply for a lot of them.

That was about the extent of the advice I received – and it was already October of my senior year. So with this assurance that money was out there, I stopped thinking about scholarships for the moment and went back to focusing on what schools I actually wanted to attend.

Like most people, I had a general idea of where I wanted to be—for me, a big school in a bustling city was the dream.  But, I also had decided that I was going to apply to some film schools, having spent the year before falling in love with screenwriting.  (Special thanks to mom and dad for actually letting me do this.) Luckily, film schools and big city schools tended to be one in the same.

By November I narrowed done where I would apply, and had even sent my first application. With this first one under my belt, I got working on more application essays. By the time December came around, I had sent in my second application and received an acceptance letter. This lit a fire under me and I rapidly worked towards finishing the many applications that all seemed to be due January 1st.

So it was January 2nd, and I was done applying to schools.  I had finished more than half a dozen different versions of the same essays, and a lot of screenwriting portfolios—some with half a dozen additional writing assignments of their own.  I was exhausted.

I took a break until around the middle of January, and then I knew it was time to start looking at scholarships. For some reason when I had been told that there were plenty of scholarships out there, I assumed that meant they were still there after we finished actually applying to schools.  And technically they were.

There were countless random drawings available to enter. The famous “$2,000 No Essay Scholarship” was all over the internet.  But scholarships that were actually merit-based, that you could apply for based on your achievements, seemed to all be gone.

I entered lots of these lottery-type scholarships, but when there is no criteria to meet, EVERYONE who sees it can apply, and your chances are diminished exponentially.

I was looking for ones I had to work for. One with a GPA or volunteer requirement. Ones based on writing skills or film and television. Ones that were specific to my strengths – that I might have a chance of winning.

My parents even helped. We found some good options, but one by one these scholarships were crossed off my list because their deadlines had passed—some of them as early as October and November.

I don’t blame the counselors. It was up to me to find the scholarships – just as it was in my hands to choose where I wanted to apply. It’s easy for a stressed out high school senior to hear that there are “plenty of scholarships out there,” while they’re busy applying to colleges, and assume they can wait until later. I wish I’d had a little bit more clarity within the school.

Scholarship chances go up dramatically when we rely on our own strengths, not luck of the draw. Currently, one month into my freshman year of college, I am already writing essays and applying for scholarships for next year.  It doesn’t take that much time if you get on it early and keep up with it throughout the year.

More substantial scholarships go earlier than you think – so I encourage high school seniors to start looking NOW. And juniors, don’t be afraid to start looking the summer before senior year. Many college students I’ve met paid for a good amount of their education with scholarships they applied for before even starting 12th grade.

When it comes time to make the decision of where to attend college, when you have all your choices in front of you, that last thing you want is to have to turn down your dream school because you can’t afford it. This is when you’re going to want to have applied to as many scholarships as possible.  It can make the decision that much easier.

And even if you don’t receive these awards and the dream school is still out of reach, you can rest easy and without regret knowing that you did everything to get there.

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