In a few days, college applications will be due. In the last month, the high school students I tutor and a few old friends have bombarded me with essays at various stages of the revision process. It’s fun for the most part, partly because I get to see a glimpse of my students’ lives outside the specific academic subject I’m tutoring, but also partly because it gives me a weird sense of nostalgia. It’s this mix of panic and excitement for what’s to come. With some of my students, I take this chance to sit down with them and ask, “So why do you want to go to this school?”

My first Festifall experience two years ago was — like it might’ve been for the other freshmen walking around — overwhelming. My friend and I toured every booth, signing our names onto listservs before the person standing across from us finished their spiel. When we couldn’t find a specific club we were looking for, we asked around and got directed to the area “right next to Dana.” We ended up getting more lost. By the end of the day, our backpacks were filled with flyers, candy bars and pens; by the end of the week, my inbox had become flooded with invitations to go to mass meetings, only a handful of which I managed to attend.

When I ask my students why they want to get accepted into their top-choice schools, I usually get this recurring answer: “It’s one of the best in the nation.” Or, if they’ve done a little more research, “It has one of the best ______ programs in the nation.” Most supplementary essays ask the same question, and my students usually give that same “It’s a top school” answer, though with a bit of personal flair sprinkled in.

“Maybe,” I suggest to them, “it’s a good idea to understand the student body and faculty makeup there. Maybe look up class sizes and teaching philosophies. Maybe explore the campus culture and see if you are a good fit. Visit the campus, schedule an informational interview with an alumni, anything to get you more acquainted.” It’s difficult for me to stress to them the importance of school culture and classroom teaching styles. Our majors and interests might change, but who we’re surrounded by doesn’t.

Things have settled a bit since the chaotic confusion that made up my freshman year. I’ve declared my major, I’ve narrowed down to four clubs/organizations, I’ve made little social circles that I fit into, and I have a better grasp of my post-graduate aspirations. The only thing is it took several semesters to completely rethink my goals (for example, should I really take this creative writing thing seriously, or should I go with what I came here for — STEM?), and subsequently several peers and mentors to patiently direct me to where I really wanted to go.

I tell my students that the University of Michigan is a big school. They’ll be able to make it however they want. The downside to that is it’s really easy to get lost among the crowd. I tell them there are a lot of students who are doing splendidly — grades-wise, social life-wise, accomplishments-wise. But we don’t really hear from the students who are struggling: the ones who don’t know what to do with their degrees, the ones who can’t keep up with the rigor of their major or the ones who realize halfway through that they don’t want to do this anymore. The University doesn’t go out of its way to seek out these students, so it’s really up to the individual to let the school know.

“It’s hard to reach out to advisors you might not know, or see the professor to talk about that recent test score. Unless you feel absolutely comfortable with them, it’ll be easier to wait another day,” I say to my students. “And before you know it, the end of the semester is approaching.”

I tell my students to stay conscientious. I tell them to strive for their goals and passions while also keeping an open mind. I tell them to prioritize their learning but not at the expense of their physical and mental wellbeing. Sometimes, I tell them this with a sense of hypocrisy, knowing that I’ve committed the very errors I tell them to avoid. In the end, though, my only wish is that they choose a school where they get the most out of their learning, and hopefully they will take a little less time to get there than I did.

Jenny Wang can be reached at

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