02/10/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

What I Learned About Myself From Applying To College

After my winter break marathon of eight college applications, I feel as though a huge boulder has been lifted off my back. One thing I learned during this process: the best essays aren't written at the last minute. Don't do it, don't even let it cross your mind; given that you have less time than you think. Let your creation sit and simmer and then work on it again after a day or two. This rule applies to English assignments, government thesis papers, college essays and just about everything long-term in life.

Just when I thought I'm done with writing about my background, my interests, and my aspirations, I have to move on to the reality of paying for college. The financial aid process is less trying than the essay writing, but it's just as time-consuming. Tip: make sure you're on the right website. I originally went on the wrong website and almost paid to apply for a free application, so please don't make this mistake. Now while filling out the CSS profile and the FAFSA, I used my calculator numerous times (despite my pet peeve for using calculators for something I can do in my head) and gathered a heap of my family's papers around me on my bed. It was confusing to look back at my family's finances over 2013, since we had a few drastic changes occur last year. There were times when I wasn't sure whether to put down a piece of information, and I couldn't ask my mother to help because she couldn't understand either.

If you're also in special circumstances, make sure you call or email CSS and FAFSA or ask your college counselor at school for clarification. Be safe, not sorry!

Now speaking of support, Google spreadsheet also became a good friend of mine this year -- a tracker of my application deadlines and a key to maintaining my sanity. I also looked up some scholarships with my mentors at Minds Matter, and I'm pleasantly surprised by the variety of opportunities available; just keep in mind that identifying them is your duty. There are ones that need essays, ones that need three sentences and even ones that need poster submissions. I definitely look forward to applying to some of these... right after I fill out all the financial aid forms and send in all the required tax returns.

Of course, the college application process wouldn't be complete without college interviews. I either requested interviews or received requests from alumni from the colleges I applied to, as most of them had optional interviews, unless I applied to a special program or scholarship. I remember practicing for my first interview with my mother and my Minds Matter mentor and hearing a recording of my practice. Man, did I sound strange, as if I'm a completely different person! My voice sounded soft, nervous, and thin, as if someone stretched out my words like taffy, but repeated practice made me feel more secure and comfortable in my voice.

My practice came to use when I went on a college interview with a Columbia University alumnus. Luckily, he suggested a quiet cafe, where I wouldn't have to shout over five other people to speak to him. The interview was enjoyable, but things got nerve-wrecking when my interviewer asked "Why Columbia?"

Uh-oh. I had a whole list planned out beforehand: going to Columbia Splash, visiting its famous "Fly Room" and admiring Butler Library under the clear blue sky. Yet none of those things came to me at that moment, so to shake off my panic, I talked about how familiar Columbia is to me as a New Yorker and how I would like my family to be accessible. Fortunately, I managed to talk about some of the things on my list later on, but that one moment made me boil down my list and reveal the simplest and most honest reply, to "Why Columbia?"

It was refreshing to learn something new about myself. Although I've looked at so many criteria for college, such as quality of education, quality of food, student population, study abroad opportunities, and medical school admissions rates, I realized that I value visiting my family at least once a month just as much. I will miss my family and the thought of being able to reach them in a few hours is comforting to me. So a key lesson from this experience is don't be afraid if you panic -- embrace and overcome it. It could bring out the best in you.

Oh, and for those of you who are similar to me in that you experience the same anxiety during interviews, here are some tips: research, look sharp, smile, respect your interviewer and take pride in what you've done. When struggling, give yourself some time to think and don't be afraid to move into familiar territory. Drive the question towards topics that you know well and make your eyes sparkle. Be curious and ask questions that have been lingering in your mind. Also, if you prefer quiet settings rather than a loud, crowded café where everyone can hear you, make sure you and your interviewer coordinate this. I, for one, do not like talking over the sounds of people munching on their sandwiches and sipping their coffee.

Now that January's here and I'm halfway through senior year, I feel calm and confident in myself and the colleges I applied to. Sure, the process has given me stress, mini heart attacks, sweaty palms, and two sleepless nights, but I feel a great sense of accomplishment, as if I have built a house or two with my own hands. Next, I'm going to take on financial aid, scholarships and hopefully more college interviews.

At the end of this journey, I'll have to wait until March unfolds to get decision letters from Macaulay Honors College, State Universities of New York (SUNY) such as Stony Brook and Binghamton, and the private colleges I've applied to this past fall. I can say that having been through the early QuestBridge process (and not being matched), I feel more ready and open-minded to face the results of Regular Decision. Fellow seniors, let's move forward, have fun and not let senioritis get to our heads!