It's quite common for students to ask me questions about college. At first, these were questions about how to get in; over time, probably largely due to my work with MUSA, this has given way to questions I can actually answer: questions about life in college, especially questions about the lifestyle and philosophy of an undergraduate.
And then there are the students who didn't ask for advice, but I give it to them anyways. I'm quite an unpleasant friend to have!
So while I originally conceived of this as an essay about how to get into college, that was delayed by personal issues, and since then it's blossomed largely into an essay about attitudes towards higher education. Still, this was supposed to be about how to get into Berkeley or UCLA, so I will give my thoughts on the application process. (The usual disclaimer: I'm not an expert, take everything I say with a grain of salt, blah blah blah. And remember that at the end of the day, you will still have to play dice if you're applying to any reach schools, and if you're even reading this essay, then in the end you probably will. Ultimately this is an essay about everything I and the people around me did wrong, not what you can do right.)
I observed even while at Bear Creek that the way so many high schoolers approached clubs and other extracurriculars is at best misguided and at worst a waste of four years of their lives. It was and still is common for students to try to maximize the number of extracurriculars that they participate in, rather than the experience earned along the way. What did this get them? For each such extracurricular, they got a single, barely noticable, line of text in the extracurricular section of their Common App — a line that they could've forged for all the good it did them. While it might be worthwhile to pursue at most one extracurricular for signaling purposes, it's ultimately more effective to focus your time and energy on experiences that you actually enjoy and learn from; at least you'll get a good college essay out of it.
But the usual approach to essay-writing seems foolish as well. This isn't to say that my essays were particularly lucid; in high school, to overcome my shyness, I forced myself to put up a facade of "savagery" and over-the-top lunacy, and since that seemed to get me friends, I tried to play up my eccentricities in my essays, even to the point of inanity. (Over time, lunacy has just become part of my personality, though I would call it "cursedness" now, and I definitely recognize that it's not healthy or particularly stable, so when I'm not with my close friends I try to suppress it. How have the tables turned!) In hindsight, I went too far; my writing from that stage of my life still makes me cringe with how outrageous it is, and I have no doubt that my answers to the dozen-essay gauntlets of Caltech and Stanford hurt my chances of admission.
Modulo grammatical and rhetorical errors, the flaws from most college essays I've read are fundamentally no different. Students want to project a certain image of themselves: the image of a skilled writer, whose polysyllabic, archaic dictation betrays not their use of such an instrument as the thesaurus, but also of someone who is so very passionate about something, they don't have to tell you how passionate they are (but still do anyways). The result is that most essays I've read sound the same — janky and tone-deaf. If the student truly is a good writer, that would show in how poetic their voice is, and if they were truly passionate, they could convey by demonstrating their dedication, rather than simply stating it.
If I were to do the college essay gauntlet all over again, I would track down my closest friend, one who I can be perfectly vulnerable around. We would sit down on a couch and discuss our lives; frills first, but over hours we would swim up that Congo and into each others' loves and loathings, sobbing and hugging and laughing and screaming, until we finally had our topics; whatever we told each other in our moment of weakness, we would parrot to the admissions officers, as if we loved them. Now that would make for a great essay!
But essays and extracurriculars are not enough; they don't reflect the actual reason you're going to university (I hope): academics. For that, one needs entrance exams and a transcript. Entrance exams are widely known to be a scam, reflecting one's family wealth much more strongly than her success in university; still, you have to play the game, which means you really ought to study for them. Fortunately, they are a game, one with set rules. There should be no surprises on the SAT, ACT, Subject Tests, or even AP exams, because they cover exactly the same material every year, with identical formats and scaling. Because of the plethora of test banks, it's not hard to sit down and do ten, twenty, thirty practice tests, between each one analyzing where one did worst, as if learning a musical instrument. I could spend anywhere between twenty and a hundred hours preparing for a standardized test in high school, and by and large it paid off, inflating my scores far higher than they should have been. (This same trick works in large "weeder" classes in freshman year of university, incidentally.)
As for classes — I put far too much effort into trying to inflate my GPA in high school, claiming I didn't care and still fighting for a Pinnacle spot that was always just out of my research. I took lots of AP classes that I learned nothing from and got little college credit for, when I could've been taking community college classes that would've prepared me for university far better. In the end I did take several classes at Delta College, and invested time self-studying multivariable calculus as well. This allowed me to skip most of my general education and lower-division classes in university, and in my experience such classes are quite unpleasant at large schools. The GE is unpleasant because nobody cares and will only do the bare minimum to pass while learning nothing; the lower divs are unpleasant because they're huge lectures with discussions taught by graduate students who also don't care, and also weeder classes designed to reward effort and gaming the system far more than actually learning the material.
In general, I would recommend that high school students take advantage of their community college to the best of their ability. But in particular, they should question why they're even going away to university in the first place. The cost is simply far too great to be doing it just "to get away from your parents" — you should be able to clearly elucidate what benefit skipping community college and going straight to university has for you.
Write more on: -Attitudes on college; conseqeuences for mental health --Obsessive-compulsiveness and parenthood --Partying --The 40 hour job? -Some notes about housing --Living in the city --Dorms cost and benefits