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I had what most would consider a pretty successful college application process. I started early, did a ton of research, and put a lot of time into my applications. However, despite my best efforts, there were still some things I now realize I could have handled better. Here are four mistakes I made while I was applying to college. Keep in mind that these are all personal and not meant to be a guide—something that I didn’t do enough might be what another student did too much. I’m sharing my experiences in the hope that students applying to college right now may be able to relate to or learn from them.

1. I got way too stressed out over it

Most of the other problems I had while doing my applications stemmed from this mistake. It’s totally normal and even reasonable to be stressed out during admissions season; college is one of the most important decisions high schoolers are asked to make. But I didn’t just get stressed. I turned into a crazy person. Thinking about my SAT scores kept me up at night. I became obsessed with getting into college and thought it was the deciding factor for how the rest of my life was going to play out.

Looking back as a current college student, I realize how silly this attitude was. Nothing mattered nearly as much as I thought it did. It wouldn’t have mattered if my SAT scores had been 100 or 200 points lower. It wouldn’t have mattered if my supplement essays were bad. And, while it would have affected my life, it ultimately wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t gotten into my top-choice school. I needed to have more trust in the process, and to understand that I would have been okay no matter what.

2. I didn’t think through the consequences of doing early decision

For me, early decision was a strategy. I knew that if I applied ED, my chances of getting into my top-choice school would be greater, and I would be finished with applications sooner. It seemed apparent to me that this avenue was advantageous– I couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t doing it. And after getting my ED acceptance, it seemed as though this judgement was correct.

It wasn’t until April, when regular decisions started coming in, that I recognized the downsides of ED. My friends and classmates received acceptances from many different colleges, and got to make decisions about which of a selection of schools to attend. I saw them weighing their acceptances against one another, looking at the various locations and student bodies and programs that were all real, tangible possibilities. Some of them received unexpected scholarships, or suddenly became excited about schools they had only been lukewarm about when applying. And even though I knew that my school was a great fit for me, I felt that I might have missed out on some opportunities by applying ED. Sometimes I still get a “what if” feeling when thinking back on it.

I’m not trying to discount early decision, or discourage people from going that route. I am just suggesting that you fully understand the implications of a binding agreement.

3. I cared too much about rankings

This is something that I still struggle with. I know intellectually that fit, cost, and other individual factors matter exponentially more than any overvalued, unreliable ranking. But it is so hard not to care about college rankings in a culture that is obsessed with them—a culture that assumes schools that belong to a certain football league are better than all others, that discounts state schools as being for slackers, and that associates the ranking of a student’s college with his or her intelligence level.

I worked very hard all throughout high school, and I wanted some recognition of that. That is, I wanted people to know that I went to a college where “smart kids” go. So while I knew that personal fit was the most important thing, I still wanted a college that was at least somewhat highly ranked. I tried to balance both these factors as I formed my college list. But now that I am attending a “somewhat highly ranked” college, I see that rankings only matter on an extremely superficial, inconsequential level. No one really cares whether your school was ranked #20 or #80 in US News and World Reported. It does not matter. And by caring about rankings, I overlooked some colleges that I may have considered otherwise.

4. I didn’t recognize my strengths

In high school, I felt like I was bombarded with messages like, “Colleges are more selective than ever!” or “Anything under a 40% acceptance rate is a reach school!” or “Look at this kid who’s more successful than you’ll ever be!” It makes sense why people say these things: they don’t want students to feel devastated upon receiving rejections.

Because of these messages, I felt that it was in my best interest to be prudent, to assume that I wouldn’t get in anywhere except my safeties, and to tell myself that my I wasn’t that strong of an applicant. Now, there’s nothing wrong about acknowledging how selective and seemingly random college admissions can be; in fact, it’s super important to learn to love your safeties. But I took it too far, to the point where I was discrediting my own accomplishments. I just wished someone had sat me down and said, “These parts of your application are genuinely, unequivocally, very strong.” It would have saved me a lot of stress and allowed me to look at colleges without the acceptance rate feeling like a dark, looming storm cloud hanging overhead.

I want to emphasize that none of these mistakes had any lasting affect on my life. I am currently attending my top-choice school, which I love and is a great fit for me. I would, however, have been much happier, healthier, and calmer during high school if I had known then what I know now. Everyone I did here is totally avoidable, and I hope someone can learn from my mistakes and avoid some of these pitfalls.

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the author

Celeste Barnaby is a senior at a tiny private school in Reno, Nevada, also known as the Neon Babylon. She has committed to attend Wesleyan University and plans to major in film studies (but she's keeping an open mind). When she’s not stressing out over her schoolwork or procrastinating said work, she enjoys horseback riding, writing macabre short stories, and shopping for flannels. You can observe her attempts at humor and various television-related obsessions on her Tumblr.

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