Riley - Vanderbilt University - Class of 2020

Riley - Class of 2020
When I toured Vanderbilt, it was as if the sorting hat had been placed on my head and "Vanderbilt" was announced on a loudspeaker.

I scored high on the ACT and SAT as a sophomore and had always been competitive academically, so I felt I could include most top-tier schools in my college search. But I wondered, how high do I reach? Realistically, what are my odds of getting in to these dream schools? And would I be able to succeed if I got in?

  • Hometown: Santa Rosa, CA
  • High School: Public
  • GPA: 3.75/4.52 (weighted)
  • ACT: 35
  • SAT: 2280
  • Major: Mechanical Engineering
  • Goal: Participate in improv and graduate in four years

Yes, and...

I want to study engineering and do theater in college, and two of my passions are improv and Design Thinking. Both subscribe to the manta "Yes, and...". The idea is to eliminate "no" or "yes, but" responses to any idea or situation you're presented with. I applied this concept when looking at colleges, and I ended up with 42 schools on my list!

Of course, I eventually narrowed my list down. Colleges stayed on the list if they reached out and demonstrated interest in me or if they were private schools that were likely to be generous with need-based aid.

Customizing my college tours

Before touring colleges I sent "cold call" emails to department heads, asking if they could connect me with people who could help me set up a private tour. What I got with these visits was a conversation with real students and access to areas of campus that you need a student card to visit.

For example, at Harvard, I stayed on campus with a senior, ate in the dining hall with his friends, played video games with some engineers, and got private tours of the libraries, labs, and theaters where I would be spending much of my academic life. At the University of Alabama, my dad and I got a private tour of the campus, honors college, and the engineering and theater departments—all on a Sunday.

The sorting hat speaks

After Alabama, my dad and I drove to Tennessee for Vanderbilt's PreVu Day. The day included a general tour, informational sessions at each of the four colleges on campus, an amazing lunch where you could sit with admissions staff, and a QA session with a student panel.

Halfway through the day, my dad asked me what I thought, and I looked at him and said, "This is it." He was a bit stunned because I usually like to ponder things and gather facts, but this time was different. I just kept thinking, "These are my people. This is where I belong." I felt like I could be friends with every student I met. And, I sensed that I wouldn't be looked at as the smartest kid on campus, but I also wouldn't question whether I could make it academically. It was as if the sorting hat had been placed on my head and "Vanderbilt" was announced on a loudspeaker. All I had to do now was get in.

Betting on Vandy

I knew I was on the bubble for most of the prestigious colleges on my list. I thought I needed any advantage, so I applied for a binding early decision at Vanderbilt. Once I sent in the application, I looked at the applications I had started for Harvard, Dartmouth, Rice, and other top schools. I knew if Vandy rejected me, it would be the first of many.

It seemed like forever until December, when I got a nondescript email from Vanderbilt. I thought it was a form letter preparing me for the inevitable. One click, and a congratulations graphic popped up! I jumped out of my chair and hugged my dad. There was this feeling of disbelief. Was this really happening? A strange combination of relief and elation consumed me. The process was over.

My ups and downs

The personal attention I received from U-Minnesota, U-Alabama, and Iowa State was wonderful and made me feel like a big deal. Each one reached out and committed significant time and resources to help me learn about their schools. Their admission offers included healthy aid packages and acceptances into their honors colleges. I felt lucky to have these amazing options.

Since I committed to Vanderbilt early, I thought I might always wonder if I could have gotten into Harvard. This bothered me until I attended a gathering of accepted Vanderbilt students in California and found myself hanging out with 15 other like-minded people. It was obvious that I had made the right choice.

What I learned

Applying the concept "Yes, and..." kept me open to more colleges and, as a result, gave me options. If I had only looked at prestige or ranking, I wouldn't have been presented with such great opportunities and financial incentives.

Doing research pays off. I don't think most families get into college admissions as deeply as my parents and I did. We made charts and spread sheets and read everything we could get our hands on. Yet, while this helped me make informed and rational decisions, the emotional aspect ended up being the most compelling.

The money factor

The aid package from Vanderbilt will cover about 80 percent of the annual costs. In addition, I was one of six students selected as a Curb Scholar, giving me access to additional resources and financial incentives throughout my undergraduate years.

My advice

Make the effort to set up private, custom tours. Colleges provide amazing opportunities to students who take initiative to learn more about them. Don't be intimidated by the prestige or power associated with a large institution. Almost everyone wants to share a personal story about what they love about their college.