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Image from Pexels

When it came time to start looking at colleges, the first thing my unknowing sophomore self did was open the huge copy of Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges that my mom’s friend had lent me. I flipped to the Engineering section and began to work my way down through the list of most selective programs. One by one, I dismissed schools. “No, this one is too big.” “This one’s in the middle of nowhere!” “Hm, this school could work!” In hindsight, my criteria were fairly arbitrary. But I did have a solid starting point: engineering. This baseline wiped out liberal arts schools, an entire field of colleges that I could have considered. After that, I was left primarily with large state schools and a handful of others that excelled in engineering. From there, it was time to start researching, visiting, and applying.

In the back of my mind, I had always had dreams of attending an Ivy League college. However, being the realistic future engineer that I was, I relegated these schools to the “reach” category. Cornell, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia were my favorites, but I maintained a pragmatic point of view, mostly looking at so-called “matches.” In this range, I added in schools that were still very selective, but for which I was an average applicant. In the process, I realized that for many highly-qualified applicants, the term “target school” is a difficult one. Colleges like Northwestern, Bucknell, Carnegie Mellon, and UC Berkeley all have low acceptance rates and high average test scores. Just because an applicant is well-qualified for once of these schools does not mean they can be confident of acceptance; there are simply too many students applying to the same colleges. To a certain degree, it is simply luck. To combat this phenomenon, I planned to apply to many target-range schools with the hope that I would be accepted into one or two of them. And for my safety school, I threw in University of Washington—far from my home in New Jersey but an awesome college nonetheless.

Throughout all of my planning, researching, and visiting, I had been toying with the idea of applying early somewhere. There was early action, which would not bind me anywhere, and early decision, which would commit me to that school should I get in. Realizing that I had better odds of admission by applying early, I decided to pursue a reach school in the early round. By the end of my junior year, a clear favorite had pulled ahead: Columbia.

I was drawn to the incredible location, rigorous Core Curriculum (which would allow me as an engineer to continue studying many humanity-based fields), and the general vibe of the students I encountered while visiting. Columbia had an early decision program, which left me with a tough choice. Could I commit there with 100% certainty, or would it be better to apply somewhere with early admission, like Yale, and try for Columbia during regular decision? By the beginning of senior year, I had come to the conclusion that Columbia was undoubtedly my top choice.

Now, I just had to convince my parents of that. They were, understandably, wary of the binding nature of ED and encouraged me to do more research before deciding. On Columbia’s website one day, I noticed a program that would allow for prospective applicants to stay overnight with a host on campus. I signed up for an October date with the hope that I would fall even more in love with the place… and I did. During my short stay, I trekked to Times Square, ate in the dining hall, and attended a challenging philosophy class. My host and the people I got the chance to meet made me sure that Columbia was the place for me, and based on my smile when I hopped in the car to head home, my parents realized too.

Once I knew I was applying ED, I was faced with the daunting task of writing and polishing all of the supplementary essays by November 1. The essays, I knew, would make or break my application. I edited, rewrote, and showed them to a few trusted people to make sure they were the best they could be. Once everything was submitted, I could breathe a little easier, the decision being out of my hands. Nonetheless, I was a nervous wreck. When Columbia finally announced that decisions would be released December 12, the anxiety became all the more real. Throughout this process, I had been trying to remain cynical and impartial, hoping that this would make the blow less painful in the likely chance I was denied. But even though I didn’t want to become attached to Columbia, there was no denying that I adored the school. It was even hard for me to work on my other supplements before the decision was released. For better or for worse, I had set my sights on Columbia.

On December 12, I woke up in a panic. I went through my day as a zombie, waiting for the fated hour of 5 pm. That evening, I grabbed my laptop and headed upstairs to sit alone in my room. At 4:56, I put on Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” to improve my spirits. At 5, I logged onto the portal and clicked on my decision update. I saw a “Congratulations!” and that was all I needed. Tears fell out of my eyes and I ran downstairs to hug my father and call my mom. To be entirely honest, it was the best day of my life.

The college admissions process taught me a few things. For one, I learned that it’s okay to fall in love with a school. But I also learned that you can’t only fall in love with one school. While I favored Columbia, there were many other schools that I visited and could have been happy at. I made sure to stay level-headed in case Plan A didn’t work out as intended. I would also recommend that anyone thinking about applying ED tries to arrange an overnight stay. Even if your college doesn’t explicitly offer one on their website, admissions may be able to arrange something for you. That short visit gave me an authentic feel for Columbia beyond the tour that I had attended one year earlier. As far as applying, I would encourage every applicant to look at the essay as if it’s the most important part of the application. While this may not necessarily be true to readers, it’s the only thing that you have direct control over during the application process. Everything else, like leadership positions, GPA, and SAT scores, has already been set in stone. Essays, on the other hand, are up to you, and they can truly set you apart from others. Lastly, reach. While your reach school may not always work out, you’ll never know if you don’t try. Regardless of what that decision says, you’ll have challenged yourself and grown as a result.

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  1. Pansy Tseng (@pansytseng) on July 13, 2015

    Hi Sophie! I loved your story; it definitely gives me a heads-up as to what I should expect when I apply to Columbia this fall. One question though is did Columbia cover the cost of your overnight visit? Or did you have to pay for your commute and stay? Thank you!

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