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A Ponte Vedra High School Student’s Path to Duke

By Maddie Paris

Editor’s Note: Back in the dark ages of the late 80s, applying for college was a pretty casual process. Even those who didn’t break a thousand on the SAT could get into my alma mater, UGA. Alas, that is no longer the case. I often wonder where I would’ve ended up! This year’s Facebook photo feed of area high school students donning caps adorned with their college letters was particularly impressive. So, I asked one of those students for her perspective on the college entry process.

Out of all human emotions, rejection is probably one of the most feared in our day to day lives. We constantly seek out approval from others and inwardly crumble every time we admit to ourselves that we’re just not good enough. Beginning the college application process means opening yourself up to this rejection and finding the strength to move on and make the most out of every opportunity. Everyone will find his or her own place in the world, but there are some strategies to get you there a little faster with a little less headache.

Open yourself up for rejection and build the strength to handle it.

I began my college process the summer before my freshman year of high school by meeting with my school college guidance counselor to discuss my upcoming schedule, when the whole idea of leaving my family for four years gave me anxiety (it still does). Looking back, I should have strategized much more from the beginning by minimizing the number of standard classes I took and doubling up on sciences to prepare myself for more APs in the future.

APs are incredibly important for college, as they prove to colleges that you challenged yourself as much as possible, and they boost your GPA tremendously with their 5.0 scale, greatly increasing rank.

For top-tier schools, class rank doesn’t matter until it does.

Class rank is a fickle predicament, as it doesn’t really matter…but only if you’re high enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or fourteenth, but if you’re fiftieth, you’re certainly at a disadvantage. Transferring schools can drop your rank artificially, and as long as you have a viable explanation, the college should overlook this.

Ivy League Colleges Ponte Vedra High School
Ponte Vedra High School Graduate Maddie Paris

My advice is to always take as many AP courses as you can possibly handle, and focus on doing well in those courses. However, always leave room for classes you harbor a passion for. I was in the Biotech Academy all four years and gave up additional AP courses, but my dedication to biotechnology and genuine interest in the subject helped me in the long run with internships and science fair projects. I have many friends who gave up APs for drama or band because they were so passionate about the subject and have gone on to amazing schools. Always aim for As, but a B or two still displays your commitment to challenging yourself. I personally cried when I got a B for third quarter AP Lit senior year, but sometimes a dash of perspective is all you need to get you through.

Score levels are only the prerequisite.

Test scores are similar to GPA in that they only get you to the qualifying level in the admissions process. Some students are able to scoot on through with below average numbers, but for the vast majority of applicants, score levels are only the prerequisite. My parents enrolled me in an SAT prep class the summer before my junior year, and I hated the teaching strategies so much, I had a mental block about the SAT for over a year. I studied for the ACT by taking practice tests out of the official workbook and painstakingly going over my answers and learning exactly how my thinking process led me to the wrong answer so that I could improve for the next round. I took the ACT twice, and my score was so much higher than my practice SAT scores that I stuck with the ACT. My advice is to work on practice tests on your own time and figure out which test seems better for you. Everyone is different in terms of testing, so finding your own strategy is the most helpful tool.

The biggest part of the application process is how you portray yourself to the college admission officers. The majority of the competing applicants will have the same GPA range, so the personal essay and extracurriculars are where you must stand out. I took many days to examine myself, my goals, my life choices, who I am, and why I am who I am. One day I was in the right mood to write, and I just spewed out an entire stream of consciousness. The end of my junior year, I made the decision to run cross country instead of dancing on my school’s dance team as I had for the past three years, so I chose to focus on this decision, along with my self-awareness about Ponte Vedra society (I don’t shave my legs and I tend to shop at thrift stores). I wrapped together all of my experiences and portrayed myself as an introspective, motivated independent thinker, which actually sums me up quite well.

Leadership roles and volunteering are important, but the passion behind them needs to drive the applicant.

The name of the game is to find your essence and then facilitate that in your essay. That’s where extracurricular activities come in as well; your actions should support your narrative and can also serve as ways to get to know yourself a little better. Soccer moms always seem so bent on making sure their kids are involved in every activity under the sun to make them a better college applicant, but they often miss the strategy behind it. Yes, leadership roles and volunteering are important, but the passion behind them needs to drive the applicant. I may be a little bit of a hypocrite on this subject, as I certainly became involved in causes and leadership positions purely because I knew they would look good on my resume, and my ability to BS them into helpful anecdotes didn’t hurt. But I didn’t learn anything about myself, my passions, or who I wanted to become. If I had given up a leadership role in the Children’s Miracle Network Club and focused my time on volunteering at the GTM Research Reserve exploring biology (my first love), I would have arguably had a much stronger application and felt more personally fulfilled.

College application season is a stressful time, but organization and support go a long way.

College application season is a stressful time, but organization and support go a long way. My parents always made sure I was applying to a school solely based on the fact that I truly wanted to go there and not because of their influence. The greatest pressure came from myself, as I wanted to prove that I was capable of getting into a top school. I learned to relax more, as whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and I found my balance in this. I controlled what I could control and adapted to the outcome, whatever it might be. Now I’m moving on to the next chapter, which will probably be much much more difficult than I think it will be. While I’m incredibly nervous about whatever comes next, I know I have the ability to overcome it and live my best life.

About the Author: Maddie Paris graduated from Ponte Vedra High School in May and will be attending Duke University this Fall. 

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