By Gillian Murphy G11. Stressed about university? Here’s how to tackle it

Always on the horizon, university can be a very daunting thing to think about, let alone begin to prepare for. It often seems like deadlines for applications and teacher recommendations and information sessions that were once looming in the distance are suddenly popping up on your calendar and due next week. Most high school upperclassmen share a sense of stress and unease about the process, but there are many ways to tackle applying to university to make it more understandable and manageable.

Though the thought of starting to prepare for university applications early, like 9th or 10th grade, can seem overly ambitious and nerve-wracking, it does not hurt to learn a little about how it works. There is no need to have your mind set on your “dream school” the second you step into high school. And to be honest, you don’t ever have to find a dream school. There might not be one university that seems like a perfect fit, and that is okay! It is best to have many options, especially balanced ones; include both schools that might be a reach and attainable ones on your list. Starting to familiarize yourself with universities from your home country or regions you are interested in is a great way to begin. Mr. Ollie, one of ISPP’s resident college experts, gave some of his advice on this:

“Use the internet to help you search. Some countries have search engines like UCAS for the UK or Bigfuture for the USA.  Don’t be afraid to type into the search exactly what you’re looking for.”

Mr Ollie

There are also surveys that suggest schools that might match you best (like this one for American colleges from USNews), which take into account your academic and extracurricular interests, social habits, and more. A quick Google search can bring up a plethora of information on universities, so don’t hesitate to take 5 minutes and begin to investigate. Additionally, YouTube is a great place to get to know a school on a more familiar level. There are often tons of campus tours, interviews with students, dorm vlogs, and much more to be found about any given university.

In addition to the internet’s advice, chances are that there are people in your life who have university experience and wisdom to share. This could be a sibling, a parent, an older friend, or a teacher. And your most important in-person resource is your counselor. From my experience, just a short conversation with them about your future can be extremely helpful and gives you that reassurance you are looking for. And don’t just take it from me!

“Use your counselor as much as you need. We are here to help you through this process. Always feel free to email, chat, and once we’re back on campus, drop in.” 

^Mr. Ollie agrees!!

Right now is an especially great time to research universities, because many are offering virtual tours or information sessions in lieu of the traditional in-person experiences. Though eventually, if the world gets back to normal, nothing can replace visiting a college campus. Oftentimes people will speak about the moment they stepped onto a campus and it just “clicked,” and although that is an unrealistic standard, seeing a university in person can truly help you get a feel for the place. Though statistics and course listings can show you what you will experience academically, going to university is also about life outside of class, and seeing where this will happen – the green spaces where you will sit with friends, the dining halls where you will eat most of your meals, the libraries where you will late-night cram, the recreational facilities – is a very important part of making a decision when it comes down to it. Make sure to take notes while you are touring; eventually, the dorm rooms, programs, meal plans, etc. from all the colleges will blend together in your head, and you will be extremely glad you wrote down specifics about each university.

Another thing to consider is what your potential universities require in their applications. American colleges have an especially long list of supplements, including the CommonApp, additional essays, the SAT or ACT, and teacher (sometimes peer) recommendations. Though most of those things should not be addressed until Grade 11, starting to prepare for the SAT or ACT early is never a bad idea. Simply attending school is already preparation, because most of the content on the standardized tests will be subjects you have already studied, but learning the format and time management is essential. This can be accomplished through taking the PSAT (which is offered here at ISPP), using Khan Academy’s free practice program, buying or borrowing preparatory books, or again, turning to the worldwide web.

Although standardized testing is important, most universities emphasize their “holistic review process” – this is something you will probably hear over and over again. What this means is that they view applicants as more than a single test score; you are an individual with passions and accomplishments who is made up of many attributes. Try to get involved in clubs or sports at school – don’t bite off more than you can chew, but you want to have some extracurricular experience under your belt. It is important to find activities you love regardless of whether it is for university applications, and sometimes doing too much or doing something that you are not genuinely interested in will not be beneficial in the end. Universities are searching for people that will make their school a better place, and accomplishing that in your high school is a great indicator that you are able to bring something special to your future university as well. 

Organisation is super important in the process!

Make sure you know the application requirements for the schools to which you are applying. Many require applicants to select a specific program, and in this case, you will need a recommendation from a teacher in that subject. This might affect the IB courses you select, which is another vital reason to consider university plans early. There are also varying submission times all over the world, and you don’t want to miss them! That includes early decision or early action for some universities. This can all be easily tracked by marking application due dates down on your calendar. 

If this still sounds stressful and overwhelming, know that you truly do not have to worry. There are myriad support systems in place for you, and there is still so much time ahead to work things out. Just creating a google doc or spreadsheet to start organizing your university thoughts is a great and worthwhile step, if that feels like what is most manageable at the moment. Most of all, though, appreciate your time in high school. Sure, doing a little bit of preparation for university will ease your worries and help you feel on top of things, but this great period of time in life can slip away from you. You will find a fulfilling place for yourself wherever you end up, whether it was your first choice or your last, and you definitely do not want to move on to college and regret missing out on the fun parts of high school. There is more to life than where you go to university, so just view it as one exciting step in becoming your own person. 

Quick Definition Session:

  • CommonApp: A single online college application that many universities use (mostly US). It comprises general information (GPA, grades, extracurriculars, personal information) and essays. 
  • UCAS: A similar program to the CommonApp for British universities.
  • SAT: A standardized test that includes sections on math, reading, and writing. It is scored out of 1600 points and is used to apply to most US universities, as well as some international universities.
  • ACT: Another standardized test that can be submitted interchangeably with the SAT. It has a slightly heavier focus on reading comprehension, but gives less time to answer math questions.
  • UniFrog: A website used by ISPP to help students organize their interests, applications, and university or career plans. 

A big thank you to Mr. Ollie for his helpful advice! 

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