There were quite a few things I’ve been worried about since the end of my freshman year. Moving to New York City and experiencing the vastness of a school like Stuyvesant High School destroyed a lot of naivete about big city life, as well as about high school in general.

I’m not saying my school wasn’t amazing - it honestly was. But I was wide-eyed and naive, ready to take on anything and everything and convinced that I could really become anyone. Lo and behold, that idea turned its head almost immediately. By the end of the first month, I was already exhausted and regretted almost every choice I had made. The one thing that I lucked out on was that my test scores and grades never fell - granted, they were no longer the pristine straight A+s that I remembered from middle school, but they weren’t terrible, even with my full plate of honors/AP courses.

I started thinking about leaving then. I actually ended up applying to Andover and Exeter, fully planning on going for my sophomore year - however, a combination of unrealistic financial demands and the possibility of things becoming better my sophomore year kept me back.

Now for one thing, I’ve always been a girl with too many hopes on her mind. Whether it was becoming a journalist, a director, a CEO, or some other far-out dream, I’ve always had the idea that I could do anything. After all, I was so far from starting my career, I definitely had enough time to change my mind.

Nevertheless, I soon discovered this to be false as well. Starting my sophomore year with full hopes, everything came crashing down soon once again. I was exhausted beyond belief and started dreaming of leaving once again. At this point, college came up. A few years back, a student on the KidSpirit Editorial Board named Zachary Young had made headlines as a sophomore applicant accepted to several well-known colleges. I didn’t have his credentials, but I figured there wasn’t much keeping me from at least trying. I’d also heard of much younger students making the transition early, and I fully believed myself to be capable of doing so.

The problem this time was that I was far too late into the process - it was already December, and I didn’t think I’d have enough time to convince the school’s administration, my parents, and my teachers to finish a full application in time to send off to schools; so, I decided to wait it out another year.

Finally, it was junior year. I applied to a few schools at the beginning of the year, found out I had screwed up my applications spectacularly, tried again the second round, and the acceptances started flowing in.

I suppose that’s where we are right now. So far, I’ve had acceptances at quite a few schools - I’ll refrain from listing them right now, but some of my top choices did end up on that list. I thought about attending for a while, but for some reason, that same nagging feeling that I could make up for my mistakes in a final year came back again.

The sad part is that I’m not deciding to stay behind for the typical senior fares - traditions (Senior conga line, late pass wall, crush lists, Assassin, Spirit Week, etc.), Prom, finishing up with a Stuyvesant diploma, leadership roles, or even just having a more relaxed year before college. It’s more of the idea of staying in New York City and being able to tie up unfinished lines. I feel like I still haven’t discovered myself, and I’m just afraid that making the move too early will only smother what I’ve already destroyed about myself.

All emotional thoughts aside, there were quite a few lessons I learned from the process, which I figured might be interesting.

  • Most colleges actually do accept juniors…and sophomore, freshmen, and below. All you have to do is explain why you’re forgoing your high school education to attend. In addition, although you will be judged against seniors, it’s not that harsh. Depending on the college, there’s usually a different screening process. For instance, Carnegie Mellon has an early applicant program that admit juniors who are interested in attending a year early.

  • There’s really no excuse for not being able to afford college. Of course, there are excuses for not being able to afford an education at your dream school, but as a lower middle class applicant, I’ve found an ample number of schools offering nearly full scholarships for qualified applicants.

  • This is by no means a statement to demean those who are genuinely unable to afford a college education - I’m just saying that there are resources available for students who are vigilant - whether it’s talking directly to admissions offices to negotiate financial aid, applying for external scholarships, taking out student loans (sigh), or work-study programs.

  • You don’t have to pay for college applications - at least not all of the time. I didn’t actually apply to every dream school I had, given the fact that I wanted to both save money on application fees and didn’t feel it was realistic to apply to schools that I wasn’t absolutely keen on attending if I got in. I also had an idea that I would somehow be able to transfer to another school my sophomore year if I absolutely hated it here. However, I did make one exception in the application process: if the colleges I applied to were totally free, I would take a chance. Some of these included Smith, Hampshire, Colby, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and other liberal arts schools. If you’re a good enough applicant, not only do you not have to be for SAT/ACT scores and associated fees, but you’ll received a pretty hefty financial aid package along with the acceptance.

  • Interviews are pretty indicative of your fit. Most schools don’t heavily weigh their applicants based on an interview unless it goes spectacularly badly, of course, but usually they’ll assign you an interviewer in your vicinity with at least some sort of connection to you. There are always plenty of exceptions, but most of my interviews ended up being either very pleasant and interesting or terrible fits. This is especially true if you’ve never visited a college - the interviewer will usually give you a hint into whether or not it’s a school you really belong at.

  • Likely letters are real. I actually ended up receiving a likely letter from an Ivy League over a month before their application decisions come out, with an invitation to come to their campus visit weekend, as well as their department-specific events. I also received one from a liberal arts college and a few technology institutes, so it was just a little exciting to get a physical acceptance before the digital affirmation.

  • You can graduate high school without actually attending classes. There are a few ways to interpret this. In New York City, having a legitimate excuse for missing classes (perhaps even 50+%) does not allow teachers to fail you solely based on absences. So that’s one way to graduate. The other is through taking outside exams. Unfortunately, these have to be arranged, and you can only graduate with your regular class, so if I was to drop out now, I’d either have to take additional credits to graduate early or take the GED next year.

  • Most colleges fly you in for visits for free. This is true for NYU Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, along with Yale NUS - which sort of made me wonder why I didn’t apply to either NYU or Yale. At any rate, even smaller and state schools are usually willing to arrange some sort of transportation, and free trips are pretty exciting.

  • There are also junior fly-ins. These usually happen the summer before or fall of your senior year, and require a rigorous application process. I’ve never been to one, but they sound pretty fun in all honesty.

  • UCs are pretty heavy on grades and test scores. I think most Universities of California conform to this standard, but the standard is lower depending on the school. UC Berkeley definitely had a rigorous process - I wouldn’t be surprised if they automated it so that only students with certain averages were taken into the Second Round for additional consideration.

  • A lot of colleges advocate the gap year. From Princeton to Emory to Georgia Tech, they’ll even offer special programs that you can apply for to receive financial aid or stipends to travel or perform service during your year off.

  • Colleges also offer tons of study abroad programs. Most of these surprised me, but I suppose it’s really in their best interest - as well as the students’. I haven’t looked too much into these yet, but schools like Duke offer a ton of opportunities that only the most interested students will usually know about.

  • Some schools have deadlines on October 15. These included Oxford, Cambridge, Georgia Tech, and a few other higher tier schools. I didn’t end up applying to any of those, since the deadline was much too early, but this does increase the chances of acceptance for students who are vigilant about their plans. I was honestly a little last-minute with all of my applications, which didn’t really help.

  • There are a ton of full scholarship opportunities most students are unaware of. I was most disappointed not to apply to Georgia Tech since they have an extremely nice scholarship package, but then again, it would have probably been reserved for a senior. Just something to keep in mind.

  • There are definitely strategies to winning external scholarships. A lot of my friends noted this, but I keep seeing the same people at competitions and scholarship weekends - from summits like #include to competitions like ISEF and THINK, it might just be because of shared interests, but there’s also definitely a path for students who are interested in these kinds of opportunities. It’s also interesting that most students from these sorts of competitions end up at the same colleges.

Another interesting phenomenon - the college process really is random. While I was admitted early to a number of liberal arts collegs within the same tier (by this, I mean difficulty of admission), a number of schools with “lower tiers” waitlisted me. I’m either going to crop it up to a bad fit or Tufts syndrome, but it’s definitely something I’d like to look further into.

As for my plans for next year, I’m honestly not even sure at this point. I’m thinking about applying to different schools and seeing whether I can have more choices (I do have some regrets about where I sent my applications - yet another phenomenon I’ve noticed in seniors that has made me pretty happy about applying early) or different scholarships since most are only open to seniors, but I’m probably going to keep my options open in the meantime.