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Bringing out the best from your past

Dear High School Seniors,

College application season is here. You’ve worked more than three years in planning, shaping, and doing all the amazing things you’ll be putting in your college applications.

Whether you’re proud of what you’ve done or you think you could’ve done better, you have to admit that for the most part, there’s little you can do now to change any of the main application factors or start fresh for any of them (other than writing your personal essays).

Having AP and Honors classes, having a high GPA, having high standardized test scores, having glowing teacher recommendations, and having experience in demanding extracurricular activities—you can’t go back in time and study a bit harder for your tests, get a better teacher recommendation by participating more often, or suddenly join a few more clubs.

But here are some ways to bring out the best in what you can no longer change:

Classes and GPA

– If you didn’t have Honors classes or good grades your freshman year but did in later years, it’s okay. Admissions officers will love how you’re progressing academically and how you’re challenging yourself. Most likely they’ll notice this trend on their own when looking at your transcript, but if you’d like, you can mention your progression in one of your personal short responses or in the optional additional info section (NOT your personal open-ended and creative essay, which should be a specific and focused story).

– If you took an “easy” elective class instead of a traditionally difficult liberal arts class and you honestly had a reason for doing so, mention it in a personal short response or in the optional additional info section. In my senior year, I wasn’t able to take AP English because I wanted to take the Intro to Video Production class. I was applying to colleges as a film major and had every reason to do this.

Standardized tests

– It actually may not be too late to retake a test and send in a new and better score. This can even be done after you finish your application and press that “submit” button! You may want to let the admissions office know that they can expect a newer test score later.

Teacher recommendations

– When you ask for a recommendation, be sure to list your specific accomplishments from the class. Don’t assume your teacher remembers everything you did.

– Even if she remembers a lot, what she remembers might not be parallel to the “theme” you want to show in your application. For example, if you’re applying as an art major, you don’t want your English teacher spending so much time saying how great you were at grammar. You want him to talk about the time everyone handed in self-made novellas and yours was so exceptionally and professionally made with full-color drawings on every page and even homemade book binding.

– What was your final grade? Did you regularly outperform your classmates on tests? Was one of your projects or papers exceptional? Were you a leader in discussions and good at drawing out responses from classmates? A good debater? Did you participate when no one else had the courage to? Did you have the commitment and maturity to stay afterschool whenever you had trouble understanding something?

Extracurricular activities

– Turn your “extracurricular resume” from description-based to accomplishment- and number-based. If you were the secretary of a club, don’t say you “organized notes” and “emailed members with meeting times”—everyone knows that’s what secretaries do. Be specific with things YOU did that other secretaries before you or across the country probably didn’t do. Two examples: “increased number of members from 12 to 27 with active Facebook page and Twitter for the organization”, “facilitated smooth communication by electronically archiving notes from meetings to Google Documents for all members to easily access.”

I hope these ideas prompt some of your own creativity in filling out your college applications. Remember that seeing the past with a new set of lens and selecting what to focus on is still being honest. Tweaking the truth or exaggerating is not.

You’ve worked ridiculously hard the past few years. Be proud of everything you’ve done in high school so far and know that it’s normal to wish you did more of this or better at that. But the past is over. Focus on the present. Make the best of what you’ve done. You can and will do even better in college!

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; and Wisdom to know the difference.”
– Reinhold Niebuhr

Best Wishes,
Nathan Chow
Boston University Class of 2009

Nathan Chow is a graduate of Boston University's College of Communication. As a leadership and career coach who helps millennials land their dream job, he helps them 1) figure out their strengths and purpose, 2) edit their cover letters and resumes, and 3) negotiate higher pay with confidence. Nathan's mission is to minimize people's stress and anxiety and lead them to happier lives. One client's pay multiplied by 1.5x after two hours with Nathan. Another received $4000 more after 15 minutes working with Nathan. Check out and subscribe to the free newsletter. In his free time, Nathan loves to read, write, dine out, eat ethnic food, run, salsa dance, play soccer, take photos, juggle, joke, laugh, and meet new people---but certainly not all at the same time. Nathan reads and responds to all email.

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