The number one thing to remember when applying to a college is that YOU are the one going there. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not anyone else from your family. Not your college counselor. You. You are going to matriculate into that college in the fall, and you will have to experience it.

I understand the pressure that many of us feel from our parents, our friends, and society at large. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to the people who love you. Listen, but do not let them decide for you.

Things you might consider and then rank in order of importance for yourself:

  • Education. Does the school have the academic resources you need or want? That is, if you want to study comparative literature, does the school offer that? (i.e. you probably shouldn’t go to MIT if you want to do humanities, as that’s a technical school!) In the end, you are going to school presumably to learn, so reviewing the available educational resources at the school is important.
  • Location. Do you want to go to a school in a city, a suburb, the middle of nowhere, near a good airport, near home, not near home, in another country than home? Does it not matter to you where the college is?
  • Cost. What financial resources do you have and what financial aid will the school provide if you need it? (A lot of folks tell me that Harvard is too expensive for them but they haven’t read Harvard’s aid policy which is pretty incredible. More than half of 2018-2019’s students were on financial aid, the average grant per year being about $53,000. That means that a lot of folks were paying less than $12,000 a year which is cheaper than most people’s in-state state school.) This is all to say: read the school’s financial aid policy and if you have any concerns an/or questions, call them!
  • Athletics. If you’re an athlete, this means TEAM. For me, this was one of the most important things I looked at when considering which college I wanted to attend. In fact, I declined my first choice because I didn’t enjoy the swim team there. If you’re not a recruited athlete, this might mean checking out other activities you’re interested in doing!
  • Academic reputation. I would put this last. I’m not saying it’s not important. Academic reputation can be a factor in job-hunting after graduation and opening up connections and resources. I walk around the world as a Harvard graduate, and that absolutely is a privilege that opens doors for me. So as I considered where to go, Harvard’s prestige was definitely something that attracted me to the school. But it wasn’t the reason I chose Harvard, and I don’t think others should choose it solely for that reason either. But to each their own! Just my opinion.

I will add that Harvard, the Ivy League, and other “top” colleges are NOT for everyone. Do not kill yourself trying to get into a place that you don’t even want to go to. Make sure that the colleges you’re applying to are places you could feel yourself actually enjoying, engaging, and learning. I know that perhaps sounds funny, wrong, or ironic coming from me, but if I had not been recruited to swim for Harvard, I’m not sure I would have attended it. Not because I disliked my experience there — I loved it and I wouldn’t go back and change my decision to go there — but more because it’s a pretty large school.

I came from a small high school where my average classroom size was 12 students and I could always have one-on-one time with my teachers. I learned so well that way. At Harvard, classroom sizes usually ranged from 60-300 students and most were not even taught by the professor. They were taught by TAs (teaching assistants). Most of my freshmen year classes were over 100 students in a large lecture setting with no time with the professor. I hated that part of my academics at Harvard because I often felt like I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted. I learn really well when I get to ask a lot of questions and interact with the teacher.

Additionally, Harvard is not considered a “teaching” college. Most of the professors are hired to do research, and because they are some of (if not the) best in their fields. But the smartest people in the world don’t always make the best teachers. In fact, I’d argue that after a certain point, high levels of intelligence detract from one’s ability to teach and truly connect with others. I went to Harvard primarily because I wanted to swim at a college with a good academic reputation and I like school, too. Harvard was a really good combination of these things as we are pretty good at swimming — before I joined, Harvard had already won several league titles and always sent a few people to NCAA championships every year. But, it’s not for everyone. If you learn better in smaller classrooms, Harvard might be too big. If you want to build relationships with your professors, Harvard might not be the best place.

Think critically about where you want to go and why. Apply broadly and make sure you are giving yourself options. Visit this page and take care of your mental health as you walk through this college application process.

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