How to Survive College Apps

Compiled and Written by Alison Chapman, TAMS Alumni Relations

*Disclaimer: this is merely meant as a friendly advice article. Please confirm all specific details with your college advisor and the institutions you are exploring. Admissions details change all the time. Best to check before assuming*

College apps. Whoa. Amiright? Where to start, what to consider, when to do what? A class of 2015’er emailed me asking to be connected with an alumnus/ae for their tips and tricks. I decided to do one better and collect advice from alumni to share with the whole class. Summer is the perfect opportunity to really invest some time and thought into this process. But don’t forget to have some fun too, okay?

Firstly, listen to Ms. Vann. She has your best interest in mind and is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Go back and find the email she sent out to the whole class on April 22 titled “College Application Information and Assignments.” Look there. You should have already completed many of those tasks but there are a few more coming up soon.

The advice shared by alumni was vast, represented a lot of opinions, and WAS incredibly helpful. I’d like to share some snipits of advice to get your brain in college app mode. Some won’t apply toward everyone so keep in mind that these are the opinions of people who have been where you’ve been but may have had different goals and experiences. Here’s what a few had to say:
[tabs tab1=”Scholarship Applications” tab2=”Number of Applications” tab3=”Deadlines” tab4=”Where to Apply” tab5=”Deciding Which School to Attend” tab6=”Degrees”]

“I have been on a scholarship committee for the last couple years and have advice about the scholarship applications: First, the essay really does matter — answer the question that is asked, have the courage to show who you are with your story rather than choosing an easy answer, and get someone you trust to edit it for grammar and content. Second, choose the people who do your recommendation letters wisely; don’t just choose a professor you get along with, but make sure he/she is the one who will take time to write a positive letter about you and not just write one sentence to have it done with, and make sure you give them plenty of time to complete it before the due date, Third, evaluators look at the big picture, not just the grades and test scores, so make sure what makes you unique it in those paragraph/essay answers.”


“Make your list relatively short – use the summer to narrow down your list to 5-8 schools, so that you’re able to put some real quality into each and every application. Too many applications and you’ll stretch yourself very thin and the quality can go down. Also, keep in mind that you’ll have physics and clubs to deal with in the fall.”


“Once you have your list of institutions, write down ALL of the associated deadlines (essay topic release, early action/decision, scholarship consideration, last considered test date, etc.). Stay ahead of your deadlines for the sake of your counselors and in case you need to clear things up (which isn’t unlikely given your education background). For example, one of my schools was waiting on my high school transcript, but they already had it and had only marked it as college transfer transcript. One phone call later, it was all cleared up and I didn’t miss my all-important early action and scholarship consideration deadlines.”


“I had a major in mind that not every school offered. I knew I wanted to pay as little for college as possible, so I concentrated on public schools offering that major. I further narrowed the list by geographic area (Michigan offered my major but I thought that would be way too cold). In hindsight I’m happy with my choice of the University of Illinois, but wish that I’d picked an in-state school because (a) I planned to live in Texas after graduation, so networking & job opportunities would have been better here and (b) it would have been cheaper.”

“Don’t be afraid to apply somewhere other than the usual names you hear that other TAMSters went to. I made a point of looking for a school that offered the majors I was looking for, had a great scholarship offer for national merit, and most importantly, it felt like a good fit from the moment I visited. Put forth the effort to visit the schools that look the most attractive to you. It shows that you like them and even if you hear a lot of the same school info over again (which you absolutely will) it doesn’t hurt to size it up in person. I fell in love with the University of Alabama, and I’d definitely recommend it, but don’t pick a school just because you think that’s what’s expected of you. Pick what feels right.”


“I knew I wanted a relatively uncommon major (Speech Language Pathology) and so that narrowed my schools a fair bit – if you KNOW what you want to do that can be helpful. If I had decided to change majors though I might have been in trouble since the majors at UTD were limited at the time. I stuck with in-state because of finances and because I knew grad school was in my future. That worked out well, though now I know that I probably could have gotten good scholarships out of state. Tour schools – I felt at home at one and not at another and it made a big difference.”

Foo Pham, TAMS Class of 2010, put together a handy-dandy little weigh-your-options worksheet that is definitely worth looking at! Click here!

“Speaking as a faculty member, rather than an applicant, keep your eye on the long term outcome rather than the immediate decisions. I advise undergrads applying to professional programs…Once the professional degree is in hand no one cares where you went to undergrad. Once you’ve been working for two years, no one cares where the professional degree comes from (the same is not true of a research graduate degree though). Take on debt/spend time and energy where it matters.”



Now, an absolutely wonderful alumnus, one of my personal favorites, wrote an article outlining many points to consider. I strongly suggest you listen well.

[one_third]Alumni 1

Jordan Paul Smith, TAMS Class of 2006, Environmental Scientist[/one_third]By this point, you have hopefully gotten a fairly good idea of what university you believe that you would ideally like to attend. If not, or if you need to further flesh out your list, now is the time to do so. You should know which schools you are going to apply to before the start of the fall semester. Ideally, these schools are ones that you have done a little bit of research on rather than strictly going the Ivy route. My first piece of advice in general is to UTILIZE YOUR COUNSELOR. She is there to help you. If you have a general idea of what you want to do or what your interests are, but you are having difficulties with your list, talk to her. She has seen a lot of students go through TAMS and has a pretty good idea of what schools are out there and which may be a good fit for you. [And, don’t forget, Ms. Vann is a TAMSter too.]

When it comes to selecting your schools, don’t get too hung up on names. There are lots of great schools out there with incredible undergraduate programs that may not have the same name recognition as some of the other, better known universities. Choosing a university simply because of the name is not really the best way to make a decision. You need to make sure that your interests are going to be represented in whatever programs that they have to offer. While it is important to choose a couple of those “dream schools” to which you want to apply, it is also important to remember to apply to other programs that are good yet a little more attainable. Everyone needs to have a back-up plan, but be sure that your back-up is a school that you would actually want to attend in the first place. If possible, visit as many of your school choices as you can before the fall. After choosing your schools, I would go back to your counselor and go over the list with her. You may have too few and will need to flesh out your list a little, or you may have too many and will need to drop a couple. Your counselor will help you do this.

So after getting your school list narrowed down, thus begins the potentially arduous application process. Applications typically consist of the physical application itself, one or more essays, letters of recommendation, and an interview. Interviews may or may not be required, but in my opinion as a Rice interviewer, it is far better to do them regardless (see below). For the physical application, you already have all of your grades and test scores by this point, so we will skip over to the essay(s), letters, and interview.

The essay is one of the most (if not the most) important parts of an application. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE ELEVENTH HOUR TO DO THIS! This bears repeating. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE ELEVENTH HOUR TO DO THIS!

This is not an assignment that you can blow off and do on the fly like you can in some of your classes. [But you don’t do that, do you?] The essay is the university’s opportunity to look at you as a whole candidate rather than just the sum of your grades and test scores. I believe that most schools start putting up applications in August, so you should have at least one rough draft or a detailed outline ready by the end of September. [You can view the three essay options for the Apply Texas application now! Write them over the summer!] When I was in the process of applying to schools, I kept a brainstorming pad and would just free write potential things that I might want to work into my essay when they came to me, even though I didn’t necessarily have the prompt in front of me yet. You can go online and find example prompts to get an idea of the sort of things that a school might ask of you when writing your essay. The common app. wasn’t widely used when I applied to my schools, so each essay that I wrote had to be tailor-made to some extent, but I already had a skeleton to work off of because of the writing that I had done beforehand.

Your next step after composing your first draft (and proofing it yourself) is to have another set of eyes look over it. In fact, the more people you can have read your essay (within reason), the better! I HIGHLY recommend giving it to your counselor as soon as possible before she is bogged down reading everyone else’s. She will give you some feedback and redline certain items, but the onus for editing and rewriting falls on you and you alone. The same goes for the other eyeballs you want to look at it as well. You will go through several drafts, and your essay will probably not look anything like it did when you completed your first version. This is a good thing. I know a guy from my class who is by and large one of the smartest people that I have met, but he blew off his essays until there was only a week left to submit them. He essentially had to turn in his first draft with his applications, and as a result he didn’t get into any of his top tier school choices. He would have been a shoe-in otherwise.

As far as recommendation letters go, you need to get on your recommender’s radar as soon as possible. Pick a professor who knows you reasonably well and who you think would write a genuinely glowing letter on your behalf. Give your recommender a copy of your essay, even if it is a draft. When you are in a huge class, professors generally have a hard time keeping track of the majority of their students. Giving them an essay will jog their memory, and they might just give your some pointers on it as well. They may also want to meet with you for a casual chat. Also, be certain to give them plenty of notice. These folks are super busy and are about to become even busier when they are inundated with requests from all of your classmates for their own letters. Getting in the door early is courteous to your recommender and is a far better way to ensure that you get a good letter from them rather than one that is quickly churned out to meet your deadline. If you wait until the last minute, your recommender may not be so inclined as to write a glowing letter for you, so be wary. When the letters are all sent off, WRITE A THANK YOU CARD!!!!!!!! Write it by hand on a card or cardstock. Also, a small gift may be appropriate, but the card will definitely not go unnoticed! Just do it, seriously. These people are in no way obligated to write your letters. They are doing it on their own time, so be appreciative.4

The interview is the final part of your application. As I said earlier, even if your school doesn’t require one, go ahead and do it. I volunteer as part of Rice Alumni Volunteers for Admission to act as an interviewer for applicants. I can tell you personally that doing the interview is another way to really present yourself as a human face rather than just your grades and test scores. I could write a book on this next item, but I will try not to belabor the point too much: Do your research.

Interviewers like me typically pull from the same pool of standard questions. If I ask you, “Why do you want to attend Rice University?”, then you have got to have a better answer than, “Because it is a good school.” When I hear this, and I unfortunately hear it often, it sets off an alarm bell in my brain that this student did not prep for his/her interview. Other questions will be about your experience as a leader, overcoming challenges or obstacles, solving disagreements when working in teams, what you would contribute to the university’s student population, etc. You can find many of these standard questions online. Look over them and have some general canned answers ready to go beforehand so that you are not entering blind. Make sure that during the interview you are engaging, charming, and attentive. The interviewer is volunteering his/her time to meet you, so treat it seriously.

This is all very overwhelming, I know. Applying to schools is tedious and tremendously stressful in the best of times. That being the case, start outlining what you need to do ahead of time and start setting benchmarks for yourself. For each school to which I applied, I had a to-do list with my personal soft deadlines and hard deadlines. You will be juggling a lot of balls in the air, so this is a good way to help keep track of things.

Lastly, follow your heart and don’t downplay first impressions or gut feelings. I applied to six schools my senior year and was accepted to five. Of these five, my top two were Princeton and Rice. Both are great schools with superb reputations; though, Princeton has far better name recognition. I was set to attend Princeton until I actually got a feel for the sort of place it was when I went for my prospective student visit. The fit didn’t seem right, and I didn’t really enjoy the trip experience. On top of that, the other prospective students didn’t strike me as the sort of people that I would enjoy being around for the next four years. When I went to visit Rice, it was the exact opposite. I had a really great time, I met loads of great people, and I got the impression that it was a place where I could really be happy. So, much to the surprise of most of my classmates, I chose Rice over the Ivy.

I realize now that putting my well-being first and following my instincts paid off in the end. I had a great undergrad experience because I knew after visiting Rice that it was a place where I could feel comfortable being myself, where the people were more down to earth, and where the weather was far nicer that New Jersey (I would gladly take a Houston summer over a Princeton winter any day).

I hope that this was helpful in some way. Get started now and save yourself the preventable hassle down the line. Good luck!

Thanks to all who contributed their advice! Let us know what you think in the comments down below!

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