College Applications: How Working Backwards Can Take You Forwards

Stay positive

by Sarah Forman | Tue, September 19, 2017

Junior and senior year of high school are for many the most academically stressful, and with a wealth of universities to apply to and increasingly competitive admissions at the top, there’s a growing pressure on students to plan for their collegiate future at an early age.

John Macrow, Director of Higher Education at Wellington College International Shanghai explains that,

“Pupils should really start planning in Grade 10, making use of the wealth of resources available [to them]. [They can] then come back to school at the start of Grade 11 with a clear plan of how to proceed.”

Sticky notes

Having an understanding of how to navigate this extended process, students can then establish a solid statistical foundation through their test scores, grades and curricular choices, while “solidifying their story,” for US based applications through extra-curriculars, personal projects and passions, all of this upping their chances of acceptance.

But while planning has become a necessary part of this process, it forces some large, existentially bound questions on young-adults who are already under a lot of pressure.

Who are you?

Princeton’s college application asks students to list two adjectives their friends would use to describe them. Standford wants to know what five “best describe you,” while USC asks that you describe yourself in no more than three words. In an attempt to define and differentiate themselves, it’s easy for students and parents to lose sight of the doors that this process is meant to open. When applying to competitive programs, plans or career goals are encouraged, and while a sense of direction may stand out in an application, figuring that out is no simple task.


Macrow asserts that for many students, deciding what to study is the hardest part of the application process, with the Campus University Guidance Office Department Head for Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), Gubei, John Liu agreeing.

“Beyond the pressure of achieving grades and completing applications, what students struggle with the most is, first, figuring out what type of university environment they are most interested in, and second, figuring out exactly what they want to do after they graduate from college . . . Those struggles often relate to parent expectations or peer and society expectations."

Forging identity

One approach that is often taken to help answer this question is that of list making and résumé building. By putting on paper what one has done, it’s easier for students to establish a path, generally resulting in at least one clear available career objective for moving forward. However, one of the potential downsides of this method is that it tends to put individuals on tracks or paths that might close them off to unknown professional possibilities.

Woman on Laptop

There are an uncountable number of jobs in the world, and better understanding the employment landscape enables students to fully engage with the process and develop a stand-out application. Liu explains that at YCIS,

“The Year 11 curriculum is all about career exploration, and we organize internships to help students hone in on what interests them. By participating in an internship opportunity, the students may discover that the path they had in mind is perfect, or, they may think, ‘oh, goodness, this is not what I want to do at all!'”

By having multiple working experiences, students can learn not only about their values, but can start to identify the individual components of day-to-day working life that they enjoy doing – a reality that may stand in stark contrast to the idea of what living into that job really means.

pen and paper

Working backwards

By asking questions and engaging in the introspective nature of this process, parents and guidance counselors can help students uncover the real reasons they like what they do, and apply them to careers they may not have considered before. If your daughter is captain of the soccer team and seen as a leader, it’s possible she has a talent for management and would thrive in a business-related program. But perhaps what makes her a good leader is that she loves to delegate and enable others to thrive – skills and motivations that would lead for a fulfilling career in human relations. Growing tech companies like Google depend on skilled employees and strong working relationships. With the growing importance of a supportive work culture in big organizations, HR is becoming not only a lucrative career, but an essential and prestigious one.


If your son is perceived as artistic because he’s successful in the studio arts and loves learning foreign languages, he may want to enroll in a fine arts or art history program. But if what he loves about studio art is design, structure and puzzle-piecing projects together, he might also want to explore a career in computer science, where language building produces images, structures and user-oriented interfaces.

By digging deep, taking things apart and working backwards, parents can help alleviate the stresses of the application process, while reopening the doors that can be shut by statistics, pressure and the desire for a concrete plan. Uncovering and discovering interesting opportunities is likely to not only excite your child, but to set their essays, motivations and energy apart from those that are simply looking forward. Introspection is a valuable tool to have at any point in life, and the college application process is the perfect time to start developing this lifelong skill.