People often like to compare their chances and choices based on the previous actions of others who have gone through the same process. On the chance that it might be helpful to one of you out there, here is my admissions/decision story.
I began researching colleges in the eighth grade. No joke. I've always been incredibly enamored with college academics, life, and all that it means. Needless to say, I applied to approximately none of the schools I wanted to apply to in eighth grade (except maybe Stanford). I hadn't fully recognized my abilities by that time and I wasn't sure where I could go. However, starting research early gave me a definite upper hand. By the time senior year rolled around, I knew the admissions process forward and backward. I, not our overworked public school counselors (who knew only about our state schools) was the go to for any sort of college question. I was able to navigate the system on my own. It was nice.
I was still compiling my application list as I applied. I don't think that I ever completely finalized it until around December. It's a good thing I write fast and well. In the end, I applied to twelve schools ranging from the safetiest of safeties to arguably the best school in the nation. I sent in applications to the following schools:
CSU Chico (both of my parents went here and I was fraught with paranoia over being shut out)
Lewis and Clark College
University of Southern California
UC Santa Barbara
To give you a sense of who I am on paper:
GPA: 4.0 UW, 4.40 W
APs: 9 total including senior year schedule
3 community college courses
Varsity tennis 4 years, 2 years captain
Science Club, treasurer
California Scholarship Federation
Hospital Volunteer 1 summer
100+ Community Service hours for Police Department, club wrestling, local theater
Essays: 1 on how my dad's job (police officer) shaped my passion for law and justice and 1 on how music helped me get over my perfectionism. Both very good, highly commended by my English teacher
Letters of Rec: 1 excellent from my AP Chemistry teacher, 1 good from my counselor (they have many students, letters are generic), 1 that I thought would be excellent from my APUSH teacher but which actually turned out to be horrible because she was an awful writer, credited me with things I didn't do, misspelled my name, etc (she actually really liked me and claimed to write well but that was obviously a lie - I didn't get to read the letter until after applications were submitted and I requested a copy for scholarships)
Hooks: Absolutely none
And now, the results...
I applied REA to Stanford. I probably did not spend as much time on my application as I should have, particularly because I had a hard time coming up with topics for my essays and there were so many supplements. I was deferred to RD. I was pissed but also elated - I wanted to know, but I figured that if I was good enough to get deferred at Stanford, I could get in at most of my other schools. I sent in an optional update with a few minor awards that I had won. I did not submit an additional essay. I was rejected. My school is sending three athletes to Stanford this year and it makes me mad to know how much more academically qualified I am. This rejection still kind of stings.
I applied to CSU Chico in about 45 minutes. I received my admissions decision a few months later. I was accepted and was invited to apply for their Honors Program and various scholarships. I did not.
I applied to American University because of the location (Washington, DC for a Poli Sci major) and because I knew I could get in. I did not apply to their Honors Program or full-tuition Scholars Program because I was lazy and tired of writing essays. I was accepted and received a $20,000/year merit scholarship anyways.
I was attracted to Lehigh University because of its beautiful campus and amazing wrestling program (I don't even wrestle, I just like to watch it). I was fairly confident that I could get in and maybe even get a full scholarship. I was accepted and received around a 1/4 scholarship, no need-based aid. I was accepted into a program that would have exempted me from General Education requirements.
I applied to Lewis and Clark College as another safety, this one in case I needed to get out of California as I was planning on doing. The campus was beautiful and I liked the proximity to my cousin. I was accepted and awarded $17,000 in merit money, no need-based aid.
I was accepted at UCD, UCSB, and USC.
I received an email in January from UC Berkeley telling me that I was admitted and inviting me to interview for their Regent's and Chancellors' Scholarship. In the spring I was told that I had been given the scholarship. I received an honorary amount of $2500 (for those who don't qualify for need- based) a year, subject to increase if I needed it as well as various other perks important to a public university such as priority registration.
Bowdoin College seemed like the ideal college experience - if not a freezing one. I wrote a very cliche essay about how having questions is more important than having answers for their supplement. I was very happy to be admitted.
Pomona College was probably my favorite of all the schools I applied to (minus the huge prestige factor at Stanford). I loved the location, the surrounding neighborhood, the small community within the big Claremont Consortium. I wrote a somewhat controversial supplement.. I was rejected. Pomona was my first rejection and I hated the sympathy it got me. In hindsight, I've heard not-so-great things about it, so maybe it's for the best.
Duke University was also in my top five, but after being rejected from Pomona I was feeling very disheartened about my chances there. I applied RD and Duke accepts a huge part of its incoming class from ED, so my chances were slim. I was absolutely elated to find out that I had been accepted. I visited and really liked it. I did not receive as much financial aid as I had hoped.
When it came down to it, I found myself deciding between Duke (a prospect I was very excited about) and UC Berkeley (which didn't seem like such a big achievement because of the proximity and the number of people I know there). I visited Duke and fell in love with the architecture, the relatively smaller size, the sports, the name, the new culture. On the flight home, I was sure that I would spend my next four years in Durham. When I got home, however, I realized that I wasn't so sure about the distance and I didn't know if I wanted to spend the extra money on my undergraduate education. Some days I would wake up set on Duke, others I would wake up and want to go to Berkeley. I submitted my SIR to Berkeley the day before it was due. Turning down Duke was very difficult, but I feel that I have made the right choice. I will be double majoring in Political Science and Integrative Biology, singing in an a capella group, and hopefully getting a Sports Medicine Internship. It's somewhat helpful that everyone at Berkeley hates Stanford, too.
I regret that I did not invest myself more in the activities I chose.
I regret waiting so long to start my essays and editing them so little.
I regret not reading over that darn letter of recommendation that was so horrible.
I regret not applying to schools with better merit aid.
I am very glad that I knew so much about the application process.
I am glad that I asked for help in editing my essays.
There is not always a clear cut best answer, and that's okay.