Applying for University: A Truly Terrifying Thought
As I sit here at 1 am for the fifth consecutive night, I ponder my life choices. Why didn’t I do this, I could have done that, but I didn’t. I look to the future. Oh my God, I have four assignments due next week. Wait, was there stats homework? I guess 1 am is going to turn into 2 am. These late-night conversations with myself often amount to existential internal debates about my life in university. Will I even get to university? Not if I hand in my French assignment like this. I should have joined more sports, universities care about sports. I really screwed up that one economics test last year, why would any school ever want me.
Frankly, there’s a reason that the thought of university makes me question the course of my life, and I think other seniors will be able to relate. There’s such a focus put onto post-secondary education in our lives; I don’t think I’m alone in saying that as a senior, discussions tend to shift toward the topic, and when you’re asked, you’d better have a good answer. The truth of the matter is that not everybody has it figured out, and even the people who think they do may begin to question their choices. Navigating the application process is a scary thing to do, but the silver lining is that everyone, and I mean everyone, is going through the same thing. As a fellow member of everyone, here are my insights into how to make university application season more manageable.
Part 1: Choosing Something to do for the Rest of Your Life at 17
...Or at least that’s what it feels like. Really, though, in university, you don’t always have to be committed to a major when you enter your undergrad. In fact, many programs let you shift your focus within your faculty, and at a liberal arts institution, you might be able to redirect your study altogether. But let’s take a step back, what if you really have no idea at all what you want to do. My advice is to ask yourself what makes you happy. Now, this doesn’t have to be happy in the sense that you’ve found your passion, that’s not realistic. Ask yourself things like, when I sit down to do homework, what do I reach for first? What work can I just relax into? Is there a class I’m happy to go into? If you can't find something that brings you joy inside your school, look outside. Do I do any other activities that elicit any of these feelings? In actuality, you can make a career out of anything, so reach as far as you need to take inspiration. If all you really like doing is talking to friends and vibing with people, maybe you could look into social work. The point is, you don’t have to be the kid who knew he wanted to be a chemical engineer in grade 9 to find your way.
Part 2: A World of Choice … That Gets Smaller
There are a lot of universities. The optimist may say that simply means you have a lot of choices. The realist would say that it’s a deluge of options that no one could possibly get through. That’s why step 1 is important; you can’t look at every program ever at every university. In my mind, there are two ways of going about finding a program you want to apply to, both of which I’ve used. The first is best if you’ve come to a decision about what you want to study. There are thousands of resources out there rating university programs on every type of scale you could imagine. If you want an academically rigorous program you can find which universities offer that in your field, if a co-op is important you can seek that out, if experiential learning works best for you then there is a program out there that does it. Set your priorities, find schools that match your needs, and suddenly you have a list of schools you want to go to. The other method is for the person who cares about school culture, and might not know what they want to do. Every university has its own feel, and even within universities sometimes different campuses have their own vibes as well. Maybe you’ve heard about a couple of schools that someone you know really enjoys. Research that school and find out what programs they have. This is a great method for finding out about some of the really unique programs that schools offer that most people will never come across. If you’ve identified a place you think you’ll be happy, it’s for your choice to be more about the school than the program. My only word of warning, though, is to be cognizant of what you sign up for. Make sure you’re aware of what the program you apply to is about because if you don't look and you end up hating it, it may ruin the experience of the school.
Now that you have a collection of programs you are interested in, it’s time to get realistic. University applications are a two-way affair and schools get to choose if they want you just as much as you get to choose if you want them. In spite of this though, I wouldn’t suggest that you look at the average requirement, realize your grades aren’t above the competitive average and give up on the school. Contextualize it as “what do I need to do to get into this school”? It’s ok if the answer is too much, but your current academic standing doesn’t define you. For example, I’m a relatively high achieving student, but not necessarily that high achieving. What I mean is that I’ve always dreamed of going to Yale, but I don’t feel like the type of kid who would get accepted to Yale. When I got to the start of this year I said, ok if I want a chance at Yale I’m going to have to commit a lot of extra time to study and a lot of extra time to extra-curricular. Am I guaranteed to get accepted, no, but does this give me a better chance at getting accepted, yes. In a similar vein, figure out what, if anything, you can do to get into the programs you want.
Part 3: Applying — The Real Deal
Alas, the university application season is fast approaching. Early applications will begin closing sometime around December or January, and regular applications might close about a month later. The process isn’t just something you can put off for 3 months though, there are actions you should be taking now. First question, do any of your programs require supplements? Sometimes a program will require you to do an essay, a personal statement, or a bio. Make sure you get on this early so you can share your drafts with others and get them edited so you’re putting your best foot forward. Believe it or not, early applications in the UK and the US either have closed or will be closing in the next two weeks, both of which require extensive amounts of supplemental material. Second question, are you planning on applying out of province? If so, you should be looking in the next month or so for an OUAC number. Your OUAC number is something you need to submit to out of province schools as it keeps them updated on your academic progress. Not including it may take you out of the running for admissions or for achievement-based scholarships. Third question, what do you need to make university feasible. I know that scholarships will be an important part of the admissions process if I want to go to any of my dream schools, and the deadlines for more and more scholarships are passing. There are tons of scholarships big and small that are out there and the more you apply to the better chance there is that you’ll win something. Fourth and final question, when you apply, what will your schools be seeing when offering admission? If you know they will see your first semester marks, it might be wise to focus on those courses. If you know universities are going to be tracking your Advanced Placement or IB scores, it might be time to start making study notes so future you can be successful.
Part 4: The toughest part — Relaxing
If you’ve followed parts 1 through 4, you’ve done what you can do. My advice to myself at 1 am is to go to sleep. You can let fear haunt you or you can do something productive like scrape up the last hours of darkness in an attempt to do something adjacent to recharging for the coming day. It’s incredibly clichée but living in the moment is important. At 1 am, I have the chance to wallow or I have the chance to take an active role in my success and get my work done. The one thing I’ve never done is create a list on paper of all the things I need to do because seeing how much you’ll need to do in the future prevents you from wanting to start in the present.
I am, by no means, an expert at this, but I’ve been through each of these stages myself, and I know a lot of people who have too. Applying for university really sucks this year; you can’t tour, it’s hard to talk to anybody at the universities, it’s hard to keep motivation and academic averages up amidst changes to the school structure we’ve known all our lives, and a lot of the things we love doing might have been taken away. What I do hope, though, is that we can feel a sense of togetherness as we go through this process because there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and an awesome university experience awaits.