Anger and Celebration: Seniors Reflect on the College Admissions Cycle


(HARVARD) Seniors on College Process (Scattergrams relating test scores, GPA, and acceptance to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, where circles are acceptances and waitlists while triangles represent rejections and defers)

For many in the class of 2021, the college admissions process has not been easy. Not only did Lakeside seniors reckon with rising application numbers at highly selective colleges, but they faced a restructuring of the college counseling department (each college counselor took on 10-15 more students than in previous years but was also supported by an essay specialist). Below, a representative sample of the senior class shares their experiences during this past admissions cycle. Comments from Mr. Worthman, Director of College Counseling, are included when appropriate. 

Relevant Information:

“Hooked” students are those that fit an institutional priority. Mr. Worthman, Director of College Counseling, states that this includes “recruited athletes, legacies (children of alumni), developmental cases, underrepresented students of color, talented artists, and more.” Hooks can be school-specific (Haverford, for example, prioritizes Quaker students) or applicable across many colleges. Every Lakesider is qualified to attend the top schools in the nation; however, applicants with hooks usually have a better chance of being accepted to highly selective institutions. 

The application cycle is also broken down into three categories: Early Round I (including Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, and Early Action), Early Round II (Early Decision and Early Action), and Regular Decision. Many colleges fill a large percentage of their class from early rounds, so there is strategic advantage in applying early.  

Additionally, seniors work with their counselors to create balanced college lists in the fall. These lists are devised of likely schools (where the applicant will most likely be accepted), target schools (where the applicant has a 50/50 chance of acceptance), and reach schools (where the applicant will most likely not be accepted). 


Interviewee #1, Unhooked, Accepted in Regular Decision

What was your experience with college counseling this year?

Because the department was understaffed, I felt like my counselor had a lot less time for me and my process. It worked out; I’m going to college. But it just felt like there was a general lack of communication. I would write an essay, and the edits felt minimal: more style rather than substance. I can fix grammar and word choice; I can’t change my entire concept. That’s what I wanted more help with. 

That being said, I cannot imagine being one of the college counselors this year. Their jobs must have been absolutely insane. The fact that they even read my stuff at all is really impressive. And they were extraordinarily helpful with financial aid once I did get into college.

I have heard mixed reviews about the financial aid process… can you say more about your experience?

Yeah… The whole process does feel like it’s geared towards, “You got money? You’re going to college. You don’t? We’re gonna have to figure something out for you, I guess.” I wish they had started the college process by being upfront about financial stuff. There were a couple of colleges that I got into that, financially, were not an option for me; I didn’t know that before I applied. Lakeside needs to do a better job at spelling that out. 

Was there anything that made this admissions cycle difficult for you?

This year felt very isolating. In a normal year, there would have easily been a lot more discussion and communication amongst students. Maybe we could have approached the counselors as a group about our concerns, as opposed to just sitting in a Zoom void.

Even though you had some concerns about the process, are you happy with where you’re going to school? 

I was not at first. There were many tears shed because of the stupid Lakeside mindset: “Oh, you’re not going to a school that everyone knows the name of? You’re a failure.” It sucks that the culture at Lakeside is so aggressively if you’re not going to an Ivy, then you’re dumb.

But now, I would choose my current college over the schools that I’m waitlisted at. Every day, I learn more about my college, and I think, “Wow, this is the place that’s going to be best for me.” 

Statement from Mr. Worthman: Each student got the same amount of time and support they would have gotten in prior years from the college counseling office. However, some of the college counselors’ essay-reviewing work was redistributed to Ms. Jacobson; Ms. Chaddock; and Ms. Vellines, a former college admissions officer.

Sometimes students do apply to colleges they can’t afford. Typically, we would tell them that financial information in advance. The challenge is that some families don’t share their financial restrictions with us until later in the process, though we encourage them to do so in our intro presentations and questionnaires.


Interviewee #2, Unhooked, Accepted in Early Decision

What was your experience with college counseling this year?

A lot of friends and classmates talk about how “Lakeside college counseling is so bad; I didn’t get into XYZ college,” or “my counselor didn’t help me write better essays.” But we’re really lucky to get this robust program. I hear so many of my non-Lakeside friends saying, “Wow, your counselor actually reads your essays?” 

I’m personally really grateful for my college counselor, because we connected in a way that was really genuine and supportive. My counselor kept me grounded. I would stress out for 15 minutes, and they would just listen. 

How did going into the process unhooked affect your mindset?

I felt very angry about it. It frustrated me to hear about the other classmates who were applying to the same college early as me; I knew that they were hooked while I wasn’t. It felt like my effort and time was just being thrown into the trash. 

Are you happy with where you’re going?

I definitely am, but I wasn’t as happy as I thought it would be. I had a rush of euphoric joy for a few hours — this is what I’ve been working up to; I’m making my family proud — and then I crashed and realized that my other problems are not resolved. I’m fulfilling the reason for my parents’ immigration, but we’re still in diaspora. Was my education a good enough reason to lose all that we lost?


Interviewee #3, Hooked (Athletic Recruit), Accepted in Early Round I

Can you tell me about your recruitment process?

A lot of the events over the summer got canceled, which is the time when you get recruited. That was hard for a lot of kids.

I was lucky enough that one of my coaches has credit, in the sense that he was a professional scout and current college coach. A lot of people listen to what he says. And so, in that way, many of the schools that were interested had never even seen me play. I also reached out to schools that had an interest in me, which I think was a helpful factor.

What was your overall experience applying as an athletic recruit?

My experience might be more positive than other people, just because everything went smoothly. My college counselor was really reassuring.

I just applied to the one school, and there wasn’t a lot of stress about, “oh, I need to make this essay perfect.” I still tried my best, but for other people it seemed really stressful, and I was fortunate to not have that. I’m sure for a lot of kids, they don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I could see how there would be little details that you obsess over and get overwhelmed by, especially if you’re applying to 15 schools. 

Was there anything you were worried about during this process? 

At my college, if you’re an athletic recruit and meet a certain academic standard — unless you don’t fill out the application or you get expelled — you will get in. Because I expected to be accepted, I was irrationally worried about what would happen if I didn’t. I told people I’m going here; what are they going to think about me?


Interviewee #4, Unhooked, Accepted in Regular Decision

What was your experience with college counseling this year?

I was bouncing between three college counselors, and it was definitely stressful. 

I was applying to arts programs, and most of my audition and portfolio support came from my teachers and friends. There wasn’t great information from the college counseling department, but there’s nothing awful with the support system that they have in place. It evidently worked out though; I’m going to a great school and had great options. 

Was there anything that made this admissions cycle difficult for you?

I just think going test-optional made the application process a lot more competitive because people didn’t have that barrier to applying. But I also think it’s a step in the right direction because test-optional is more equitable. A lot of standardized testing is just about resources and who can afford tutoring.

How did being unhooked affect your mindset or experience?

It is weird knowing that a lot of your peers are going to go to Ivies, to Stanford, because they’re hooked. Everyone who gets into these schools deserves it, but there’s still a sense of I feel just as competent as this person, but they’re getting into “better” schools because of their parents. That was part of the pressure at the beginning: I have to get into a good school. 

There was a certain point in the process when I realized that everything happens for a reason; I’m trusting the process. It’s not the name that matters. It’s what you make of it. Once I reached that point, the pressure faded. 


Interviewee #5, Unhooked, Accepted in Regular Decision

What was your experience like with college counseling?

Pretty decent. My college counselor was always willing to answer my questions in detail, and I’m sure they wrote me a great letter of rec. There were just lots of little things — the quality of my essays, my activity list — that I felt slipped through the cracks because the counselors were overworked. I ended up doing a significant amount on my own. Part of that was my decision, though.

How so? 

My final list was not balanced at all. I believed I could handle the workload, and I believed I could handle the rejection. It was the right decision for me, but it was really difficult. I’ve spent literally every single break this year working on college applications. I’ve been swimming on the edge of burnout for a long time. It did work out: I am so thankful and lucky to be going to an excellent school next year.

What do you want to change about the Lakeside college counseling department?

There are discrepancies between college counselors. For example, some college counselors wouldn’t share the number of students applying to early schools; other college counselors would. Some college counselors recommended against sending in an arts supplement, even if students had received recognition for their artwork; others college counselors allowed students to send one in. I don’t know others’ circumstances, but it didn’t feel great to learn that some people had access to information or opportunities that I didn’t.

I feel like the people who beat down doors and keep asking questions are the ones who get what they want out of this process. They’re the ones who will get college counselors to call offices and advocate on their behalf. That doesn’t sit right with me. Everyone should get the same treatment. 

Statement from Mr. Worthman: We’re happy and willing to share information about how many students are applying to early schools. 

If a student is submitting an art supplement, they should be submitting because they believe, with feedback from their art instructor, that they have a talent in the field that will be recognized as among the best among college faculty. Even if we advise against sending one, a student still can. 


Interviewee #6, Hooked (Legacy), Accepted in Early Round I

What was your experience with college counseling this year?

Very positive. My college counselor and I made a wonderful team, and I think they were good at making sure I hit deadlines and celebrating with me. They were available to me whenever I needed them and wanted to meet with them. It’s tougher when you are going from five college counselors to three, but they were still able to give me as much time as I needed. There was never a time when I felt unsupported.

One of the benefits of getting in early was not that I didn’t have that stress later on, having to write a ton of other essays. My entire process was straightforward. I didn’t have all that much to do; it didn’t really interfere with classwork. I know that is the exception and not the norm, especially this year. 

Did being hooked affect your mindset or experience?

I have always wanted to go to my first choice college, especially given that I was hooked. It would have been a real downer if I didn’t get in. So a lot of my time and energy went into that application. Now that I am going there, I’m very, very excited.


Interviewee #7, Unhooked, Accepted in Regular Decision

What was your experience with the college process?

It really sucked. I didn’t really feel like I had a grip on what was going on, and certainly being stuck at home all day didn’t help. My college counselor was tremendously overworked, so I can’t really say whether it was Lakeside or the pandemic, but I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark. 

Come March, I got rejected at the majority of my colleges. I knew my chances weren’t good, but I don’t think I could have predicted that they would be this bad. 

Do you know what might have led to that outcome?

Honestly, I can’t put the fault on any one thing. And maybe that’s why it’s frustrating. I can’t really blame the college counselors; they did help me. I don’t feel as if I did anything wrong, at least not egregiously so.

I’m sure a lot of your interviewees will say, “I was really scared of not getting in anywhere, but I ended up getting admitted to ‘insert Ivy League here.’” There’s some irrational part of my brain that gets angry by this. I can’t complain too much, right. I really can’t. I ended up at a school that I’m happy with. 

There is that platitude that everyone will end up somewhere. That’s true, I guess, but for me, it very nearly wasn’t. 


Interviewee #8, Hooked (Underrepresented Person of Color), Accepted in Regular Decision

What was your experience like with the college process?

My process was stressful, but it wasn’t awful.

I switched college counselors, and my second college counselor’s perspective on the college process was very different from mine. I told my counselor that I was worried about financial aid, but we never really talked about it. I had to get help from an external program to fill out the FAFSA and CSS. 

Financial aid is one of the biggest concerns, especially for first generation college students like me. I feel like I should be the one that the department focuses on helping because I have no idea what I’m doing. 

What would you like the department to change about its approach to first generation college students?

Different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds need to hear different things in order to be able to succeed within this process. You need to humble some kids, and other kids need to believe that they are worthy enough to apply to certain schools. I sat down with my first college counselor, and I said, “I don’t know if I’m going to apply to a school with a 20% acceptance rate.” They said, “Do it anyway.” They are the only reason that I’m going where I am now. 

I also don’t love the general culture around college and college counseling at Lakeside. There are so many kids whose dream school is UW. We need to stop bashing certain schools because there are people who want to go there. 

Statement from Mr. Worthman: Depending on what students and families need from us, we will always help with filling out financial aid paperwork, including the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. However, families must let us know if they need help. 


Interviewee #9, Unhooked, Accepted in Early Round II

What was your experience with college counseling this year?

Generally, it was pretty good; I’m happy with where I’m going. My parents didn’t know much about the college process, and my college counselor was really good about explaining everything. 

I think the one place where things kind of lacked was the financial aid aspect. That just wasn’t something the college counseling office talked about that much. I ended up doing EDII, so I could have a bit of choice in my decision rather than being backed into a corner by my financial situation. Looking back, the right choice would have been for me to have some schools that offered merit aid on my list from the beginning.

What else do you wish that the college counseling department had done differently during this process?

I wish they’d emphasize hooks more. Lakeside makes it seem like if you work hard, all your college dreams will come true, which isn’t true for everyone. 

In the fall, the college counselors said they didn’t know if I was hooked. I applied somewhere for Early Round I, and my college counselor said that it’s always hard to tell, but that I was a good candidate. I got rejected, and they said that the fact that I was rejected meant I was unhooked, which affected the rest of my process. 

They shouldn’t tell someone that they might be hooked and then backtrack. That messes with your decision-making. 

Statement from Mr. Worthman: Determining whether a student is hooked or not requires a lot of judgment calls. We try to be as accurate as possible; we will talk as a team to make sure we’re consistent. We do frequently have students who are hooked and aren’t admitted. Hooks do not guarantee that the applicant is going to get in. 


Interviewee #10, Unhooked, Accepted in Regular Decision

What was your experience with college counseling this year?

The process was definitely really long and hard. 

I can’t have had more support from Lakeside. I really enjoyed my college counselor. I would have liked more help starting earlier, because I was thinking about being recruited so early. That would have made it more efficient. 

Can you speak to your athletic recruiting process?

I started in freshman year by emailing close to 50 coaches. I made three videos and sent those out. By sophomore year, I was talking to some DIII coaches; by junior year, some DI coaches. Then the pandemic hit. I was planning on playing over the summer of 2020, and that was really my one chance for colleges to see me. That all got canceled, so I had to apply without being recruited. 

Looking back, what do you wish you had known about the process?

That it would be hard to get into your reach schools this year. When I looked at my reach schools in total, I thought there was a good chance I’d get into at least one. That just wasn’t the case, and I didn’t have too many options at the end. 

Also, the college counseling office always talks about grades being the most important thing in the college process. It’s important, but you need something more, like extracurricular achievements, to get into the very “best” schools unhooked. Your grades alone will get you into a really good school, but not the best in the world. 

How did your unhooked/hooked status affect your mindset or experience?

I was a legacy at a pretty elite school. I was trying to decide whether to apply early there; my college counselor said that I would get in if I did. It was tough trying to decide to go with the school that I have the best odds at versus where I actually wanted to go. 

In the end, I didn’t want to apply early to my legacy school. I didn’t get in during Regular Decision, though. Ultimately, I think I made the right choice. 

How so?

In the end, everything worked out. If you could tell me at the start, “You’ll be going to this college,” I would have been happy. 

At the same time, it’s also hard to see people — people I know that I worked harder than — get into “better” schools. I have to just get over myself and be excited with where I’m going. 


Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.