Widgets Magazine

Lessons from reliving the college admissions process

Most students put their college admissions struggles behind them when they submit their enrollment deposits and cruise through the remainder of high school. When I was admitted to Stanford in early December last year, I thought that all I had left to do was pose for the obligatory Instagram announcement, sign on the dotted line and check out for the 2017 portion of the 2016-17 school year. After signing on as a private admissions counselor with a college consulting firm, however, I’ve since replayed the stress, frustration and relief that accompanies the college application process – times four.

My journey with each client begins with deliberation over the school list, the collection of schools to which a client will apply. Strength of majors, faculty and facilities; geographic region and climate; availability of honors programs or special degree programs – all of these factors and many more are bounced around and weighed several times as we try to hash out a balanced list.

The formulaic nature of it all was hard for me, and as I reflected on what made Stanford the perfect match for me, I found myself wanting to advise, “Don’t worry about the numbers, or the rankings or the acceptance rate. Just find a place that feels like home.” It wasn’t until I was coaching my students through finding the “right schools” that I realized that I had started to consider Stanford a home. At a school with the potential to be so overwhelming and intimidating, feeling as though I had a place here eased the freshman transition immensely.

Much of my focus during the application cycle revolves around strategizing ways to put an applicant’s accomplishments in the best light possible. I spend a fair amount of time brainstorming the most impressive phrasing for involvement in scientific research, sports and school clubs. Despite the fact that several of my clients have received national recognition for their talents and accomplishments, I’m always most struck when I find out about a client’s commitment to mentoring younger siblings, unrecognized dedication to the art of cross-stitching or triumph over devastating family situations.

It’s easy to get caught up in our peers’ impressive titles or successes – and don’t get me wrong: It’s great that we’re in a community where everyone is so passionate and accomplished. But while my job is to perfect what goes into each application, learning about what’s left out inspires me to learn more about the depth of my peers beyond what looks good on a résumé.

It’s hard to commit countless hours to the application process without wondering: What’s the point? Talking to my clients about their hopes, goals and dreams for the next four years has humbled me just as much as receiving my acceptance to Stanford did almost a year ago. The difficulties I’ve faced as I try to find balance and to keep my head above water at Stanford make it easy to lose sight of how incredibly fortunate I am just to be here. My students’ desire to live out this experience, whether here at Stanford or elsewhere, makes me even more grateful to have had it bestowed upon me.


Contact Jackie O’Neil at jroneil ‘at’ stanford.edu.