A College-Bound Student’s Personal Perspective: How I Tackled Senior Year

5:55 AM


In a world where we can quickly flaunt our accomplishments and reach thousands of people with just the click of a button, it is equally as easy to forget that failure exists for everyone. Although I earned a full-ride through multiple outside scholarships and was accepted into several “selective” universities across the nation (detailed list at the end), the true reality is: I was rejected to over 30 of the 50 scholarships I applied for and refused by 7 of the 16 schools I applied to.

During my senior year, I lived and breathed the words “college” and “application.” It was something that was always on my mind. Now that high-school has officially ended, I am honestly sad that the College Process is fully over. The College Process was practically my best friend throughout the year and it was difficult to officially break up on May 1st when I committed to the University of Southern California.

Rejection hurts, and breakups are hard, so this is my way of finding closure—because I’ll never fully forget the sleepless nights, missed meals, and the relieving deep breaths I took right before the clock struck 11:59pm.

As you read this, please remember that everyone is different. We each have our own stories, our own backgrounds, and our own interests. These are just some things I would have appreciated if someone had told me during or before my senior year.


1. Background
2. Preparing for Senior Year
3. Making your College List
4. The Process
5. The Application
6. Financial Aid
7. Waivers
8. Scholarships
9. Deciding on a School
10. The Best and Worst Advice
11. Final Reflection


Background

I am the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and a first-generation student. My father dropped out of school in the ninth grade and my mother fled Vietnam before she could finish her freshman year in college. I attended a Title-I, low-income, under-resourced school in the southwest side of Oklahoma City, in one of the lowest ranked states for education.

Throughout high school, I was certain that college would be my final destination. The journey, on the other hand, was extremely ambiguous. I desperately scoured every crack and corner for scholarships, guidance, and hope to obtain a higher education without burdening my family financially.

Preparing for Senior Year

To reflect, I had set myself up fairly well for the college application season.

1. Grades do matter. I graduated with a 4.0 unweighted GPA and Valedictorian of my class by taking advantage of all the most rigorous courses available. While my school was under resourced, they offered a few Advanced Placement courses and Dual-Enrollment courses. I took as many as I could that did not conflict with my schedule.

  • Questions to ask: Dual Enrollment vs. Advanced Placement? Which one is a better fit for you? It depends on the colleges you are planning to attend. Colleges have their own transfer credit policies that you can find online.


2Get involved! I accumulated over 500 hours of community service and had a part-time job for a brief period of time. I also held multiple leadership roles both in my school and community for organizations I was most passionate about. Things you could be involved in range from the school, local, and national level. You can find more opportunities to explore your interests here.

  • My biggest takeaway: Try new things. Keep an open-mind. Connect and listen to others. Don’t waste time doing things you are uninterested in just to fill your resume. 

3. Study for standardized tests. My Achilles’ heel was my standardized test scores. I took the ACT 8 times, raising my score from a 21 to a 29. I took the SAT once and was underprepared for the PSAT. Looking back, my deepest regret was not studying harder for these tests. It was honestly difficult for me to set aside time to study for standardized tests while managing my extracurriculars and grades.

  • Things to be aware of: The maximum number of times you can take the ACT is 12 but that doesn’t mean you should. Some colleges may ask for all of your scores and you might be hesitant to send ALL of them. It is better to score high with the least amount of tries if possible. Also, the college you may choose to send your score to at the time might not be where you want to go/apply to during senior year. Check to see if your college requires the writing portion.

4. Tour colleges. The best way to understand the college process is to visit it. While there, you will develop a connection with the college that you can use to write your essays and motivate you throughout senior year.

  • Did you know: If you cannot afford to visit the college, there are fly-in programs available before and after you get accepted, which is provided on the college’s website. College Greenlight also provides an updated list of fly-in programs you can apply for beginning the July before your senior year.

5. Write everything down. It is hard to remember what you did last year, let alone four years ago. Keep track of everything you’ve done: leadership positions, awards and accomplishments, clubs joined, jobs you worked at, hours you volunteered. EVERYTHING. I had an online folder of my extracurriculars with a brief description, organized chronologically, by leadership, and of importance to me as well as a spreadsheet filled with my volunteer hours, organizations, and tasks.

  • You should: Save your recommendations and your best academic essays in case applications ask for an example of your writing. Additionally, extensive research on everything mentioned is helpful.

6. Have fun. Keep a journal and create positive life-changing experiences that help you grow and learn. Take personality tests, explore your leadership style, and be purposeful. These are things that will eventually shape your personality and essays later on.

Making Your College List

The first time I set foot on a four-year university was during my sophomore year and I remember realizing quickly what I wanted in a college. It wasn’t until my junior year that I realized selective, top-tier universities were attainable for students like myself. When I made my list, I chose ones that were ranked high, had my major (business-related), and were in locations I could see myself living in. I only applied to 1 Ivy League and it was my "dream" school.


Resources I used: 
College Board’s College Search Engine - Provided a comprehensive list of colleges that was best fit for me according to my quiz results and helped me narrow my list
USA Today: Picking the Perfect College - Gave me ideas of what to look for in a college
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation: How to Apply to Selective Universities – Narrowed down things I was willing to give up and not willing to give up in a college, helping me finalize my decision

  • Questions to ask: Why should I apply to a selective university? Do they have more opportunities available for me? Is it affordable? What is a dream school, target school, and a safety school? How many should I apply to? What is the difference between a public and a private university? What kind of courses do they offer? Are they academically flexible or career-focused?  

The Process

This was the craziest part of my senior year. From deciding on if I wanted to apply Early Action (EA), Early Decision (ED), or Regular Decision (RD) to filling out the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, I was definitely overwhelmed and underprepared.


  • Questions to ask: What is EA, ED, and RD? Should I apply to non-binding vs. binding? What happens if I am deferred? Are my chances better if I apply early? 

I decided to apply EA to two schools and was deferred to RD. I almost applied ED to the University of Pennsylvania but hesitated because I was unsure of my major and had not visited the college.

The Application

Most of the schools I applied to were available on the Common Application. The Common Application saved my life. It organized all my due dates and made applying for college so much easier than it could have been. The only time I did not use the Common App was when I applied to two University of California schools, which only use the UC Application.

1. Do not procrastinate. It is absolutely crucial that you give yourself enough time to fill everything out and write your essays well enough for the day of deadline. You want to give yourself the best chances of getting accepted by knowing you tried your best and that there was nothing more you could have done. Deadlines include everything required beyond essays (test scores, extracurriculars, recommendations, etc.)

2. Be organized. I organized every deadline onto a color-coded, hyperlinked spreadsheet and divided it up by college and scholarship in order of my preference or due date. Then, I added everything into my calendar to avoid missing anything. It is so important to thoroughly read all the required documents each college asks for and make note of it.

3. Create a database and back up your files. Remember all the documents you saved before this? You’ll be so relieved to use them during this time. Download your test scores and recommendations to your computer to find them easier.

4. Check for other deadlines related to the college. Colleges might have supplemental essays you have to write, interviews you might have, or honors programs and scholarships with different deadlines and applications.

5. Ask for help. I can’t imagine where I would be without the guidance of my friends, counselors, and mentors who have experienced the process before. Don’t hesitate to ask for proofreading, advice, etc. Email admissions counselors for questions that are not included on the website. It will be nice for them to recognize your name during application readings.

  • Questions to ask: Is the honors program different from graduating with honors? Do they super score tests? Are the writing test or SAT subject tests required? What is the last test date they will accept? 

Financial Aid


  • Questions to ask: What is the FAFSA and CSS Profile? Do all colleges use it? Why should I fill it out? Does my college meet 100% of determined financial need? 


I filled out and turned in the FAFSA the day the application opened. It made me nervous to wait longer so I did it as soon as I could. I turned in the CSS Profile a little later because it was longer. Financial aid was one of the biggest factors during my decision. Many selective universities offer generous financial aid packages despite the sticker price that often scares people off. Always use the net price calculator on the college website to estimate your aid before determining if a college is unaffordable.

Google is super useful during this portion of the process.

Waivers

Attending college is not only expensive and so is applying for college. Ask your counselor or visit the website to find out if you qualify for an ACT waiver or SAT waiver. If you obtain an SAT waiver, you will also receive a CSS profile waiver (originally $25) that includes several free codes to send to colleges as well as college application waivers. Most of the time, if you qualify for a standardized testing waiver, you qualify for an application waiver as well.

This is also just a Google search away.

Scholarships

There are three major types of scholarships: merit-based, leadership-based, and need-based. Merit-based scholarships are dependent on your academics and test scores. Leadership-based are focused on your community outreach and leadership abilities. Need-based scholarships focus on your financial need and life circumstances. The same advice for college applications is applicable for scholarships.

  • Questions to ask: Is my scholarship renewable? Can it be deferred? Full ride vs. Full tuition? What is scholarship displacement? Is the postmark deadline the same as when it should be received?

P.S. I experienced scholarship displacement (an annoying thing) and got it resolved. It’s personal so I would be willing to answer if contacted about.

Deciding on a School

By the second week of April, all of the colleges I applied to had responded with either accept, reject, or waitlist. This was an incredibly emotional time for me as I waited for their financial aid packages to make my decision.

If I could go back, I would have done more extensive research on my schools and allowed myself to apply to schools that included more majors I was interested in. Long story short, after taking an Economics class, I realized that it was not enjoyable and now, I am no longer a business major.

Visiting colleges was crucial for my decision process. When I visited the college, I got to interact with students and faculty and witness campus culture first-hand. Factors that became unnegotiable for me were: diversity, class size, and support for first-generation and low-income students.


The Best and Worst Advice 

The Best: 

1. Always be yourself. As cheesy and generic as it sounds, it is absolutely true. I rewrote my personal statement four times before turning it in. The final version was completely me, not someone I imagined myself to be or what I thought the admissions officers wanted me to be. While I was writing my personal statement, I had too many opinions inserted and ultimately, overwhelmed myself. Write from your heart and stick to your gut. It’s okay to have others proofread, just make sure you don’t lose your voice.
2. The worst you can hear is no. It’s the last cliché one, I promise! If you find yourself needing assistance (like having trouble financing scores to be sent in or being unable to afford a college visit), contact your admissions officer to see if there is anything they can do to help. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and you’ll always be glad you did.
3. Remember to fail gracefully. (Shout out to Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend!) The first time I wrote my personal statement and started my college application, I was terrified of failing. When I was finally willing to fail and accept whatever was going to happen, I began to write more clearly, genuinely, and emotionally. Allow yourself to open up and fail gracefully to be the best possible version of you.

The Worst:

1. Write a generic essay that you can change the name and just copy and paste. Admissions officers can totally tell when you aren’t trying. They’ve seen it all and know when an essay is not specifically written for them.
2. You can’t afford it, don’t bother applying. You never know what will work out in your favor. The sticker price is often not the actual price. Everyone’s circumstances are different.

Final Reflection

Frankly, I cried a lot this year—both happy tears and sad tears. I experienced a lot of external doubt alongside with self-doubt. I can remember partly joking with my best friend thinking we would be rejected to all of the colleges we applied to and receive no scholarships. Overall, I felt a lot of regret and frustration.

Throughout senior year, you’ll experience a lot of doubt, especially different types. It’s important to stay positive, remember what you want, and keep moving forward. Find ways to continue being empowered, motivated, and selfless. A lot of people won’t understand what you’re going through but it’ll be so relieving to find people who do. Whatever happens is for a reason and you’ll be at peace knowing you did everything you could to succeed.

1. Believe in yourself, more than anyone else will ever. Be your own fuel, no matter the circumstances.
2. Take care of your mental health. Sleep when you need to sleep and eat when you should eat. Give yourself the necessary breaks because your work quality will decrease. (Something I still need to work on)
3. Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own path and their own version of success. We all have our own circumstances and different ways to be fulfilled.
4. Live in the moment. I wish I spent more time with some people when I could have because I might never see them again. Don’t waste more time counting down days than enjoying them.

Jenny Ha was accepted into Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, George Washington University, University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Washington, Oklahoma City University, and Tulsa University.

She is a Jack Kent Cooke College Scholar, Coca-Cola Scholar, Zonta International Young Women in Public Affairs International Recipient, Elks Most Valuable Student State Finalist, National Honor Society Scholarship Finalist, and U.S. Presidential Scholars Semifinalist.

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