I applied to 23 colleges and wrote 50 essays. Here’s what I learned.

Find your voice, beat procrastination, and other lessons from my college application journey.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

The writer of this essay is a 2023-24 Student Voices Fellow at Chalkbeat. Click to learn more about our high school fellowship program.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Sitting in the Seward Park Public Library, my fingers dance as they click away at my laptop’s keyboard, their momentum fueled by the overwhelming sense that all my hard work will pay off on decision day. But hours later, when all my mental power is drained and the rock songs on my Spotify playlist start repeating, I feel a sense of dread. What if I don’t get in?

For the past few months, the stress of the college application dominated my life, fueled by my desire to study at what society refers to as “top schools”— prestigious institutions of higher education that provide students with a world-class education but accept only a tiny percentage of those who apply.

In this headshot, a young Asian male wears a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie.
Alexander Calafiura (Courtesy of Alexander Calafiura)

Overall, I spent some 200 hours applying to 23 schools and writing 50 supplemental essays, with topics ranging from my interest in a school to the three words that best describe my life. Answer: providential, earnest, and excited. Of all the schools that I applied to, seven were “safeties,” meaning I was more likely than not to get in, four were “targets,” for which my grades and scores made me a strong candidate, and 12 were “reaches,” schools with the most competitive and unpredictable admissions practices.

Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this much work when they can only enroll in one school? Why pay application fees, some of which top $80, for so many schools? Turns out, among my friends, many of whom attend some of New York City’s most competitive public and private schools, this is becoming an increasingly common practice.

The trend is not limited to my social circle or New York City students. In recent years, the Common Application, a platform that allows students to use one application for the majority of U.S. colleges, has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools. And with fee waivers, which I qualified for, the Common Application has given students the ability to apply to a wide range of schools at no cost. Since schools that accept the Common Application may ask for supplementary essays, the number of schools I applied to was limited only by my own time, effort, and sanity. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania asks you to write a thank you note to someone who you’ve yet to thank, and Columbia University asks you to list the literature and media that has had the most impact on your intellectual development.

Additionally, in recent years, the Internet has popularized what is called the “shotgunning” method — that is, applying to many elite schools at once in hopes that at least one school will accept you. Essentially, “shotgunners” believe that because they have no insight, year to year, into the exact mix of qualities and skills a school is looking for, they might as well spread out their options in the interest of finding one singular “match” school.

And since many prestigious colleges went test-optional during COVID — meaning SAT and ACT scores are no longer required for admissions consideration — the Common App saw a 30% increase in total applications, which resulted in an even lower percentage of applicants getting in.

I am no expert in college admissions, but I have spent hundreds of hours applying to colleges. In the interest of benefitting future applicants and providing some insight into what it’s like to apply to college, here are some of my biggest takeaways from the whole process.

Strive to be yourself and find your authentic voice.

I’ve always thought that “be yourself” is a reductive piece of advice, but having been through the application process, I have to admit that it’s true. In my case, I wrote about my love for cycling around New York City and my passion for Russian literature. Colleges want to know what makes you unique, and your thoughts and emotions are a large part of that. To that end, rather than inventing aspirations and exaggerating your experiences just to appeal to an admissions officer, you should genuinely believe what you’re writing. If you don’t, why would the person reading your application believe it?

Stay organized or waste hours of your time.

If you’re like me, and you find it hard to keep track of things in your head, a spreadsheet or document that contains or links to all your college application-related materials will be invaluable. I’d say that more than anything else, following my college counselor’s recommendation of using a spreadsheet saved me tens of hours of my time, and made my life 10x easier. Added bonus: Keeping track of the total number of supplements I had left to do was motivating as well as therapeutic.

Love your schools, or you won’t love applying to them.

Applying to so many schools is not for everybody. In fact, if you don’t truly love a school, don’t feel pressured to apply for the sake of prestige or name value. Without a genuine interest and passion for these institutions, it’ll only be a matter of time until you burn out and the quality of your applications suffers. For instance, I wanted to attend college in the Northeast or California, so I made the difficult choice to take great schools, such as the University of Texas at Austin and Vanderbilt, off my list.

The process is temporary, but the takeaways are forever.

After writing so many essays about my experiences, interests, and desires, I realized that my supplemental essays were emblematic of what I wanted out of life and my college experience. For example, after I began writing about my intended major (economics), it occurred to me that what I’m truly passionate about is policy’s intersection with economics and mathematical modeling. After I began writing about my most treasured extracurricular experiences, it became clear to me how much I valued using my voice as a tool to impact my community and effect change. I believe that writing about your genuine interests is more valuable to you than simply trying to present something that you think will appeal to colleges.

Find ways to avoid (my archnemesis) procrastination.

As I started writing my essays, I struggled a lot with procrastination because I worried that no matter how artistic or beautiful the essays I wrote were, I’d still be rejected from a school. Over time, I’ve learned that this is a natural emotion. But once you fall into the trap of thinking this way, you’ll waste so much time that the quality of your work will suffer. Thankfully, I got around these thoughts by staying off social media, taking consistent, relaxing breaks, and practicing mindfulness. For example, I found it to be particularly helpful to take a “mental reset” every few hours; I did this by jogging along the East River, getting boba with friends, and going to the gym. After my brain and body took a break, I found it to be a lot easier to pour my thoughts onto paper and discover prior flaws or mistakes in my writing.

Now that I’m essentially done with the college application process, I’m extremely excited for admissions decisions over the next couple of months. But in the short term, I face the alarming, perennial beast: senioritis. I’ll take my time to address it after one … more … episode … of … “Suits” on Netflix.

Alexander Calafiura, a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow for 2023-2 is a senior at East Side Community High School in New York City. In his spare time, he enjoys folding origami, reading classic literature, and discussing politics. At school, he is a co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The East Sider.