5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Applying to College

Practical college application tips from graduating seniors

college application tips

In our dream scenario, students begin their high school careers empowered with accurate information about the college process, and they make informed decisions throughout their high school journeys. But there are a lot of misleading college application tips out there, and every year, rising seniors who are about to dive into the college application process tell us the same thing: “I wish I’d known that earlier!” 

We want to do everything we can to help our Private Prep families avoid those exasperating moments of hindsight. So, here are the most common college application tips that older students tell us they wish they’d known sooner.


I wish I’d known that…


1. There are only 10 spots for activities on the Common App.

When we tell students that quality matters over quantity in terms of their extracurricular activities, we mean it! We often hear students express surprise that there are only ten spaces for their activities on the Common App (and only 150 characters to describe each activity). When considering which extracurriculars to pursue, students should choose activities that are genuinely meaningful to them and focus on investing significant time and energy into those activities. Doing twenty different things won’t ultimately benefit their applications; a shorter, more thoughtful list of activities that the student really loves is far more powerful. It is easier for an admissions officer to understand who you are and what kind of campus community member you’ll be with a more concise (and more meaningful) list of activities!

2. Colleges don’t care about your GPA.

Okay, this one is a bit misleading—colleges do, of course, care about your grades; your academic performance is one of the most important factors in the college admissions process. However, in assessing your academic performance, colleges don’t necessarily use the GPA reported by your high school; instead, they typically recalculate based on their own scales. This recalculation usually focuses on only your 5 core courses (English, math, science, history, and foreign language), and also takes into account each course’s level of rigor as well as what opportunities were available to you. In short, the GPA your high school gives you doesn’t always translate to how a college will view your application. There are a lot of different ways a student might achieve, say, a 3.9, and they’re not all viewed equally by admissions officers. Focus less on the GPA your high school reports, and more on ensuring that you devote your primary energies to your 5 core courses throughout high school. 

3. Colleges DO care if you read their emails.

This isn’t true of all schools, but it’s true of many. Demonstrated interest is more important than ever as the test-optional landscape has led to skyrocketing application numbers at many selective schools (for more about what demonstrated interest is, check out our blog post!). These days, many colleges will note the degree to which a student has engaged with them—which, yes, can involve metrics as granular as whether a student opens their emails. Since we don’t always know which colleges are employing this practice, we highly recommend that all high schoolers get in the habit of checking their emails regularly. At the very least, it’ll be great preparation for the application process, when email is the primary way colleges will communicate with you—and it also might allow you to check that demonstrated interest box!

4. Your recommendation letters should come from junior year teachers — BUT, you can sometimes send an extra letter!

We sometimes meet with students who are excited to ask a beloved teacher from sophomore or even freshman year to write a letter on their behalf for college. Alas, colleges really want letters of recommendation from junior year teachers—because junior year coursework is the closest approximation of college-level work that applicants have tackled, junior year teachers are the ideal recommenders. So, students should be especially proactive with their teachers junior year in terms of building relationships, self-advocating, and seeking extra help when needed. 

Also, many students are often surprised to learn that they can, in many cases, send in an additional letter of recommendation; this additional letter can come from a coach, an employer, an art or music teacher, a supervisor in a service organization—anyone who might share new insights or context that teachers may not have. However, the process can require a little extra work—typically, students have to invite this recommender themselves via the Common App—so students will have to be proactive, organized, and communicative.

5. Many colleges care more about supplementary essays than they do the personal statement.

When we think about “The College Essay,” it’s the personal statement that comes to mind — that open-ended, 650-word masterpiece. Students may spend years wondering what they’ll write about in that essay, and they may spend many hours perfecting it. But many colleges actually care more about supplemental essays! In supplemental essays, colleges get to choose what else they ask you; because those questions are unique to each college, they’re sometimes the best way for a college to evaluate whether a certain student is a good fit. Does this mean students shouldn’t write the best possible personal statement? Of course not! But we do recommend leaving ample time for supplements to ensure they get plenty of attention—we don’t want students spinning their wheels over tiny word choices in their personal statement while their “Why us?” supplements languish, undeveloped. 


Want help avoiding these common pitfalls and more? Reach out to our team for more college application tips, as well as personalized guidance throughout the college admissions process.

Private Prep