By: Emily Player
As a Year 12 student, I am excited to begin my college journey, specifically learning how to navigate the college application process. But where does one start? What should one do? How does one look at colleges? In this Q & A article, I spoke to Ava Sarram, a Year 13 student and the current Head Girl, to learn more about her journey throughout high school and how she’s navigating through college applications.
First of all, who are you, what year are you in?
I am Ava Sarram. I’m in Year 13 and I’ve been here for 12 years, so it’s been a long time!
What subjects did you pick for IGCSE? Why?
Okay so, I had a lot of trouble picking subjects for IGCSEs. I chose geography ‘cause I had an amazing teacher and really loved the subject. Loved learning about, you know, how all these different mechanisms and nature work and how humans were messing it up - I just found it really interesting! I’ve always loved performing arts, so I picked drama. I ended up doing computer science outside of school. I met with our computer science teacher after school once a week just ‘cause I really enjoyed coding and I was indecisive and wanted to do three.
What subjects did you pick for IB? Why?
I do higher level Math Analysis and Approaches, Physics and Chemistry. I also do standard level ESS, English Lit Lang, and French.
What colleges are you planning on applying to?
I’m kind of applying all over the world. I’ve applied to the UK: I’ve applied to Cambridge, Imperial, and Sheffield. I’m interested in doing engineering, so essentially anything in that line. I’m applying mostly in the northeast in the US, outside of John Hopkins and Caltech, which is, you know, all the way over in California. And then I’m applying to the University of Toronto and McGill in Canada, so all over the place.
What are you thinking of studying? How did you know this was something you wanted to pursue?
Like I mentioned, I am really interested in studying chemical engineering, that’s at least
what I’m applying for. Again, I’m a really indecisive person so I didn’t really know what I wanted to study for a very long time. I’ve always enjoyed science, maths and sort of doing hands-on work, building things, solving problems. So, getting introduced to engineering, it kind of just fit those interests. I also really like the fact that it kind of gives me a lot of flexibility after, to be able to go into law or medicine or to pursue, you know, a doctorate, whatever it may be.
What are some factors you’ve considered when applying to college? Like cost, location, whether it’s liberal arts or not.
I mean one of the biggest drawbacks of what colleges I could look at, was the fact that I’m
interested in engineering - a lot of the smaller liberal arts colleges that I really like, and you know, are really amazing schools often don't have engineering programs. It also would be kind of nice to stay close to home, that’s why the majority of the schools that I’ve applied to in the US at least are in the northeast, but it is also kind of cool to have a different experience in a new country. So that’s kind of why I have that duality in my applications. What else have I considered? I mean obviously cost is always on the mind when it comes to applying, as college can be expensive.
What do you recommend people prioritise when researching colleges?
I think it honestly really depends on what people care about most in a college. One of the exercises that I did, which I found really helpful, was listing a bunch of different aspects of universities: the majors and minors they offer, the extracurriculars they have, whether they are in a city or suburban area. As I want to study engineering, I looked into schools that had good engineering programs. But everyone's list of priorities will look completely different! I just think it will be very useful to identify, as best as you can, what is most important to you in a school, and letting that be your guiding light as you research.
Have you taken the SAT or ACT? If so, why, and how did you prepare for it?
Yeah, so I took the ACT. I decided to take it just because one of the schools that I plan on applying to requires it. They require some standardised testing, so it was kind of a no brainer, kind of had to do it. I did the diagnostic testing, where you can do a practice SAT and a practice ACT and see which one you did better on. I did that, did better on the ACT, and just decided that I was gonna sign up on a whim. How did I prepare? Frankly, I don’t think I’m the best person to answer this question. I just sort of did some practice problems and practice papers like the week before and just sort of set a prayer and hoped for the best. I mean with those tests, a lot of it's not about the content, it’s more about how well you know the exam itself.
What are some extracurriculars you take and/or hobbies you have?
As I mentioned, I really like performing arts. I’ve been involved in a lot of songwriting clubs, singing choirs, performances, musicals, that type of thing. I’m also a competitive ballroom dancer, so that kind of takes up a majority of my extracurricular time. I’ve created this organisation called Art for All, and (its aim) is to increase access to performing arts. I do a lot of volunteering in that vein which is really cool. I’ve gotten to work with Ellis Early Learning, they’re a non-profit for teaching younger students. I’ve also gotten to work with students with disabilities at the Charles River Center, which has been cool. I really enjoy maths, so I run a maths competition and support club with my friend Gwen. I’m passionate about EDI, so I’m president of the Allies for Action Club at school right now. I do some tutoring and those are the main things that come to mind.
Have you been looking at scholarships? If so, how have you researched them and what has the application process been like?
Yeah, I mean definitely like I’ve mentioned, college is crazy expensive, so any scholarships
that are available, I’ve definitely looked into. A lot of schools, it’s really nice that they automatically consider you - the one that comes to mind is BU. (They have) a scholarship that you can apply for, as an extra thing. Most of the time, it’s annoyingly extra essays that you have to write. It seems almost like a no brainer to at least, you know, try and look for scholarships. In terms of research,I sort of just looked at the college I was interested in to see if they have scholarships. A lot of the time there are a lot of good resources, if you just look up university scholarships. If you do take the ACT, SAT, PSATS and sign up for those emails, a lot of the time the colleges themselves will send you information on financial aid and scholarships.
Relating to letters of recommendations - who did you ask? Why did you choose them?
I chose my Maths teacher and my Physics teacher. I debated having a humanities teacher but because I’m applying for engineering - I decided that I wanted to stay majorly in STEM just ‘cause that aligned with my interest. One of the most important things for me was picking teachers who, number one, had me for a decent amount of time so that they had seen how I’ve progressed, how I’ve grown. I also wanted teachers that genuinely had a very, very close relationship with me. I mean, obviously we’re fortunate that we’re such a small school and that you know your teachers anyway - but I felt like my Maths and Physics teachers, I was very, very, very close knit with. So, I felt like they could speak to not only the way I was performing in classes, but also speak to who I am as a person, which was important to me.
How have you found the college application process?
To be quite honest, definitely stressful. Stressful, but exciting! I feel like I always thought that when I got to this point of applying to college, I would know exactly what I was doing, be super organised, have everything figured out, etc.. But it definitely hasn’t been the case! There’s been a ton of learning involved, from all the different facets of the applications, to standardised testing, to figuring out how to get your personality and essence across a 1 650-word Common App essay. I am incredibly grateful for all the teacher support, and all the peer support as well! One of the greatest blessings in this process has been being around a cohort of amazing people, going through the exact same thing I am – having that support system has made the process so much better!
How do you balance your workload, extracurriculars, and college applications?
Again, it’s definitely been challenging, and certainly a work in progress for me as well. I think that, personally, speaking to my friends and teachers has been super helpful. Even talking to my mentor about the things I need to get done within the week, to have someone to hold me accountable, has been incredibly useful.
What advice would you give to high schoolers who are just beginning their college applications?
I think, number one, doing research: looking at different college websites, going to the
virtual information sessions, going on tours - I think it’s so useful to expose yourself to it. One of the biggest things for me (for when I was) in Year 12, was going and talking to some of the Year 13s - I wanted to know what they were doing, how they were, how they were managing the process, what and where they were looking. Also, our teachers, they’re so well-versed in the college application process so it’s good to reach out to the resources that we have here at school.
Thank you so much Ava Sarram for her time! We wish Ava and the other current Year 13s all the best luck with their college applications. Furthermore, I hope this article provides insight on what looking for colleges look like.