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Let's omit "What are my chances?" from the discussion [for now]

You’re a student who will be applying to university this year—realistically in about 8 to 9 months for those applying to some earlier deadlines around the globe—and are already well into the process of discovering different types of universities, what you like about them, what you don’t. But, what you really want to know—or what your parents are asking perhaps more directly than you’d like—is, “What are my chances of getting in?”

And, the answer to that is this: "You’re not listening to me." Or, for those of you who have not heard me yet, “We just don’t know right now.”

The second part of the response is perhaps more helpful to you: Focus instead on what you can control right now and following how the process works. You simply don't ask how the chocolate fondant is going to turn out before you've even chosen the ingredients (there's a difference between using that Swiss 79% cacao chocolate vs. the Cadbury Milk option...) or considered the different recipes and which you'll choose. And, don’t be swayed by the easy-way-out, I-need-a-black-and-white-answer-now: “What are my chances?” You won't get one--and if you do it won't be precise! You see, it’s too subjective to give a response at this stage and you’ve got a long way to go—grades, experiences, testing, change of mind…hello, you are teenagers and you will, and probably should, have a change of mind or two over the next 9 months—to be able to adroitly answer that question.

There is still beauty in this process--one usually associated with stress and panic and fear. Right now, instead of stressing over whether or not you have good chances of getting into UCL in London or Lewis & Clark in Oregon—in general terms we know…the student who has mediocre grades is not looking at Cambridge—and wasting your energy on questions that have no answers, focus your energy on (and something much more fun and interesting) really investigating different types of universities—large, small, liberal arts, research, in the US, in Europe, in major cities, in smaller towns, …--to be able to figure out what you want in a university, what lights your fire and what you think you need in an institution where you’ll be for 3 to 4 years of your life.

This is what you should be doing right now. What you should not be doing is trying to hedge your bets and read the crystal ball will never give you the correct answer.

So, at this stage I am asking my students to do the following:

  1. Work hard—your hardest ever—at school. "No regrets" come next fall when you're applying should be the motto.

  2. Try something new outside of school. Anything? Yes. Just try something new.

  3. Commit to researching different types of universities. Three a week is good. You should have a “Long List” of universities that you’re using, all of which on the list touch on some factors that are important to you. Record all of your findings, what you like and certainly what you don’t like. And, make sure those universities are really different. There’s no point is researching universities that all happen to be the same in style, location, selectivity and what your neighbor is also researching. At the end of the day this process is wholly personal and if you don’t start to get that now, you’ll have a tough time showing that in your applications (and putting forth a strong one, at that).

  4. Start learning to be very true to yourself. Not to who you think you should be. Not to who your parents want you to be. Not to who your friends expect you to be. Who are you? That’s going to get you more quickly and efficiently to what type of institution is going to be the best fit for you and where, logically, you would then be set up to find the most success (read: happiness).

When a student does this well she will, within a few months, really be able to express confidently what she wants in a university, what she needs in a university (two different things) and also specific institutions that she feels she is a real fit for and why. The process gets easier from there, then, even as the stress builds during application season. The more the student knows himself, what he really wants and institutions that truly fit him and why, he will be able to articulate that with ease (and some hard work, indeed) in the applications as he works on them this summer.

Yet, you ask, don’t we need to figure out what my chances are of being accepted? You’ll do that as you properly research—that means being true to yourself along the way—and with some expert guidance by someone who can confirm or perhaps adjust your expectations as your final grades come in for your penultimate year of secondary school and as you try new things, experience new activities and get the hang of what this process is really about: fit. You finding it, you being able to express it and you committing to what that means for you. There’s no one else like you. And, every admissions officer knows that, too.

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