Looking back on the 2020-2021 college application process, the first phrase that comes to my mind is “an absolute dumpster fire.” The only thing I could think was, “What the heck am I supposed to be doing?” As students, we didn’t only have to go through the challenge of independently navigating college applications in a remote climate. Oh no! The stars aligned to give us the PERFECT hotpot of new and confusing application requirements! Universities lifted their requirement for SAT/ACT scores, AP exams were changed drastically—which made AP scores sporadic and unpredictable—and to top it all off, College Board announced last minute that they were getting rid of SAT Subject Tests in 2021! I was left grasping for answers to questions like “Should I take the SAT? Should I even submit my scores? If SAT Subject Tests are going away, is it worth bothering to take them? What in the world is a FAFSA? Wait a second, I could’ve submitted my CSS profile WITH my early applications so I could see my financial aid offer along with my acceptances?!”
Luckily for me, I was able to fumble my way into a top-notch university. Instead of worrying about what colleges were expecting in an application, I decided to include everything that I thought would make me stand out. Even though the requirement for SAT/ACT tests were lifted, I decided that if I wanted to stand out and have a real shot at getting into Harvard, I should submit all the test scores I could. So, I signed up for two SAT tests four hours away from my home (because all the administrations in my home state were cancelled), studied my butt off, and took the SAT, SAT Chemistry, and SAT Math II tests. I’m still envious of all the underclassmen in the world who don’t have to worry about SAT subject tests in the future. Nonetheless, after 500+ hours dumped into Khan Academy and a lot of heartache, I finished my junior year with a 1580 SAT, 800 Math II, and 790 Chemistry SAT score!
Even though college applications were online, the most nerve-wracking part of the process was still the essay and the interview. I knew that many students were going to write about their experiences during the pandemic in their essays, so I decided that I wanted to go against the grain and write about the challenges I had to overcome earlier in my life. As the son of a veteran, I had to move 12 times before my senior year of high school, which meant that I got to experience and learn to succeed in a plethora of different communities. I was also an accomplished marathon runner and had risen to leadership roles in different extracurriculars despite moving four times while in high school. I decided to draw on those experiences so that I could stand out in my essays and interview.
For me, the hardest part of the college application process was figuring out how to get financial aid without outside resources or a school counselor. If it weren’t for Google, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to college! Thankfully, I was able to complete my FAFSA early; however, the Financial Aid Profile went COMPLETELY over my head until AFTER I had been accepted into Harvard during the early application phase.
Looking back, the best advice I could give to someone in the same position I was in would be to get some help! Trying to navigate the complicated world of college applications, especially to elite schools, can be overwhelming. It is certainly nothing short of a miracle (and a very kind interviewer) that it worked out for me. HSA Tutoring offers PERSONAL Crimson Coaching College Application prep, where a current Harvard student will help you nail the college application process without making the same mistakes I did (like not knowing exactly how financial aid worked). HSA Tutoring also offers group crash courses for the SAT & ACT, where you can get personal help from someone who’s spent thousands of hours studying for the SAT so you don’t have to! My final word on the subject? Don’t waste 500+ hours with a brute-force study strategy like I did—work smarter, not harder, by getting relevant help from those tutors who have succeeded in their college journeys!