Slaying the Dragon: What You Need to Do Before Submitting an Application

Guest post by Arthur R.

The legend of Saint George describes George taking up arms against a wicked dragon that demanded human sacrifices. It’s a myth so potent that the entire country of England dedicated its flag to George’s victory. And whether or not this famed battle actually happened, “slaying the dragon” has become a familiar story in modern society. That image — the feeble yet gallant warrior, armed only with a flimsy lance and a firm courage, vanquishing the terrifying reptilian overlord — might even resonate with many of today’s college applicants. Although the Trial by Combat has been discontinued, the work required to submit a well-crafted application (or slay a dragon) is no small task.

This post seeks to arm you with the knowledge you need to complete your own college applications. And although the journey may seem daunting, do not waver, young warrior. With the right tools, slaying the dragon is completely doable.

The Hero’s Meditation:
Before you can even write a college application, you must determine where your applications will be sent. Finding a college “fit” requires honest reflection. It’s arguably the most important decision you’ll have to make. You must discern your internal values, learning style, and future hopes. Those decisions should guide your college choices and, hopefully, lay the foundations for your on-campus happiness.

Answers to some questions come easily. Do you enjoy an intimate learning environment? Maybe a ginormous school like NYU isn’t for you. Hate the cold? Look south. Can’t get enough of scientific research? Perhaps you should avoid the smaller, liberal arts colleges, which might lack the resources for that type of exploration.

Of course, you should pair this internal discernment with outside research. Be sure to visit colleges that pique your interest; when visiting presents a formidable obstacle, read through a college’s online materials and perhaps take a virtual tour. If your values align with those of a school, chances are, that’s a “fit.”

Although it may seem cheesy, take this reflection process seriously. If you apply to schools that you’d be truly happy to attend, then you’ll find yourself much more engaged during your college experience.

Consulting the Elders:
Don’t leave your parents, teachers, and counselors in the dark.
Although this is your personal journey, your mentors will provide invaluable advice and guidance. Commit to that dialogue. As you wade through your inner quagmire and struggle to find solid ground (you undoubtedly will), don’t be afraid to ask for help. Luke couldn’t have defeated Darth Vader without Yoda, and Spiderman would be little without Uncle Ben.

Equipping the Hero:
Once you’ve found some schools that might be good “fits,” you’ll have to determine what materials you’ll need to complete to apply.

If you haven’t finished your standardized testing — that is, with satisfactory, SAT, ACT, AP, or SAT II scores — you should consider studying and retesting before applications are due. Note that if you’re applying early, the last time that seniors can sit for exams (and still have their scores impact their admissions decisions) is the September SAT and October ACT; regular decision applicants have some breathing room before the January SAT and February ACT. You’ll have to submit these test scores officially, via the College Board or ACT websites, to each college.

Once your testing is complete, start the Common Application or Coalition Application. Completing this step is relatively rote: students input their personal information (like addresses, contact information, and family situation). Both the Common Application and Coalition Application publish an updated list of participating schools, but if you’re unsure of a particular school’s policy, be sure to check that school’s website for their specific application requirements.

If you’re considering applying to a school that does not accept either the Common or Coalition Applications, you’ll have to complete another application. Georgetown and MIT are notable examples of schools that require a separate application. Similarly, major public universities that boast multiple campuses — such as SUNY, CUNY, and the UCs — typically have another, but semi-common, application. That is, it allows students to apply to any individual school within the university’s system. And if you’re applying to schools abroad, their application materials and posted deadlines differ greatly from those at home.

The Side Quests:
Most applications will ask for a list of a student’s activities. In the past, this has been called the “Activities Sheet,” and although the Activities Sheet is much less rigorous than it’s been in years past, it still requires a careful attention to detail. The Common Application, for instance, asks students to list and explain the significance of up to ten activities they’ve participated in during their high school years. At first glance, it seems relatively easy — especially with tight word restrictions. As will become a reoccurring theme, though, writing succinctly might actually present a more formidable challenge. When applicants are given few words, each word needs to be thoughtful, and deliberately chosen to flavor the response.

Furthermore, many students will write a resume. Consider submitting it as a supplement to colleges — many colleges ask for it directly. And even if you’re not including your resume in your applications, it’s a useful tool to have!

Percy’s Mirror:
The personal essay is easily the most time-consuming portion of the Common Application. Its importance to admissions decisions cannot be understated; any cursory overview cannot accurately convey what must be done to craft an effective and genuine personal essay. Consider reading our previous post about the personal essay — it provides in-depth recommendations about how you can best approach this portion of the process.

Some colleges will require applicants to write additional supplemental essays. Although they might require fewer words than does the personal essay, supplemental essays provide crucial information to admissions committees. Schools ask for applicants to write supplemental essays so they can see how one student might fit into that school’s wider community.

Supplemental essays might be the most overlooked section of applications. The rationale is quite easy to understand: the amount of supplemental essays an applicant needs to write can accumulate quickly. An applicant applying to all eight of the Ivy League schools, for instance, must write upwards of 30 individual supplemental essays. Applicants, therefore, may rush through the supplemental essays and fail to give them the careful attention and considerable crafting they require.

Wow, that’s a lot.
Undoubtedly, yes. Slaying the dragon begins with ample forethought through internal reflection and honest dialogue. Before setting off on the adventure, you’ll need to sharpen your tools: examine the materials you’ll need to submit and applications you’ll need to complete. Pick up some extra gold through the side quests (compose an Activities Sheet and a resume). Finally, plan your victory by crafting both a genuine personal essay and the required supplemental essays.

Don’t let this odyssey frighten you into submission. Most heroes and heroines tend to slay their dragons within the two-hour window cinema allows, but you should take advantage of all the time you have to begin your applications. The Common Application opens in August. We recommend that college-hopeful seniors plan to finish a first draft of their Common Applications (including the personal essay) before school starts, so they have plenty of time to revise before applications are due. By planning ahead, your college dragon will no longer loom ferociously like Saint George’s mythical opponent, but rather scamper funnily across beaches like today’s tiny lizards.