Transparency in College Admissions: Essays

Some college and universities do not require any essays to submit an application. These schools do not care about essays.

Some college and universities only require a personal statement, but do not require any supplemental essays to apply. These schools care about essays.

Some college and universities require a personal statement and supplemental essays to apply. These schools really care about essays.

So, essays—aka your voice and personal story, not just your “numbers”—do matter if the schools you are applying to require essays as part of their application. Within these schools, there might be varying degrees of weight put on essays; some schools weight them with greater importance than others. Pro tip: instead of trying to figure who cares about them a lot and who cares about them a little, if they request them, consider them important and put effort into them.

Now, whether they are required or not, they do not matter as much as two other application components: your grades and your test scores (if applying to colleges that require test scores). If you are not in the ballpark with these two components, your essays won’t matter that much. Beautiful prose won’t negate a transcript of subpar grades or test scores that are far below a college’s average scores.

Given the importance of essays, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you write the personal statement, taken straight from the FAQ we give our clients:

I am student body president/lacrosse team captain/editor of my school paper/founder of the Computer Science Club/president of the biggest community service effort at my school/insert something else super impressive here—I’m obviously going to write about that for my personal statement (PS), right?

Not necessarily. The reader needs to walk away from the essay having learned something about you that he/she can’t glean from the rest of your application material, and we will actively discourage you from writing about any academic or extracurricular accomplishments that are already clearly communicated from your resume or the activities section of your application. There will be plenty of other ways to highlight these aspects of your profile, including your application data, resume, interviews, and supplemental essays and/or interest letters, where applicable. If you want to write about being student body president etc. because being president precipitated some serious personal crisis—then, yes, you might write about that. But if you want to write about being student body president because you think it looks “impressive” to colleges, we will steer you away. They will already be impressed by seeing it on your resume!

Should my PS relate to my intellectual interests and potential major?

Again, not necessarily. Cultural, literary or academic references (e.g., an intellectual or academic interest, connection to future major of study, etc.) can add to an essay, but if you have a compelling personal story, they are usually not needed.

What do you mean when you say “show, don’t tell” or talk about “concrete” versus “abstract” language?

A personal essay like the PS should be written more like a short story or a novel than an academic essay. This means it should include vivid, descriptive, and concrete language. When I use the word concrete, I am talking about using specific details. An example of a specific and concrete sentence is: “I woke up at 6am to my phone blaring ‘Come as You Are’ by Nirvana. I’d had the same alarm for six years, and I still loved it.” This is an exciting opening with interesting details that create a sense of a unique voice and personality and makes me want to keep reading.

An example of a non-concrete sentence on the same topic is: “I like to wake up early.” This sentence doesn’t give me any details and doesn’t have much personality; I feel like anyone could have written in it. I’m less inclined to keep reading and already less disposed to like the essay.

An example of an abstract sentence is: “I need to be true to myself.” The use of a conventional idiom makes the sentence boring and vague—what does it mean for you to be true to yourself, in whatever context you’re discussing? I’m not sure. Again, I get the sense anyone could have written it.

A strong PS will need to strike a balance between concrete and abstract (but not cliché) language—between action and narrative (concrete) and reflection on that action (abstract).

And a few general tips for supplements:

What do I write my supplements about?

As with the personal statement, the best supplemental essays (or “supps” as we call them) provide the admissions committee with new insight into who you are. This doesn’t mean you won’t mention anything that’s also on your resume; in fact, you often will be explicitly asked to do so. However, supps are not merely an opportunity to rehash your resume or the activities section of the Common Application. They are a place to go beyond the facts of what you did and when—a place to provide insight into your motivations for pursuing an interest, to discuss obstacles you’ve faced in the process, or even, potentially, to talk about why you quit. So, like the PS, they can be personal when at all possible. The supplemental essays are, above all, a chance for you to ‘supplement’ your personal statement with more information into who you are and what makes you tick. In addition, many provide the perfect platform to highlight your knowledge of—and demonstrated interest in—the school, which never hurts.

Since most are shorter than the personal statement, they will be much easier to write, right?

Many students believe short essays are easier to write than long essays, but in reality, they are much harder because they require you to choose your details wisely; you can’t say everything you might want to say. We suggest you write long essays first not only because they tend to be easier to write, but also because you can recycle long essays whenever possible, and cut them down to work for shorter essays on the same or a similar prompt.

To conclude, essays matter. They are one area of your application that you have complete creative control over, and where you have the opportunity to possibly “wow” the admissions committee. No committee is typically wowed by a perfect GPA or set of perfect test scores—those are not uncommon anymore!

If you want 1:1 guidance to brainstorm for and then write the best personal statement and supplements possible, contact us for a free 30-minute consultation.

 

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Transparency in College Admissions: Disciplinary Records

Defenders of the use of disciplinary records in college admission believe they are an important way for schools to keep students with behavioral or character ‘issues’ off their campuses, while most opponents feel high school disciplinary records have little predictive value and stigmatize students for minor infractions. One thing that remains constant is that many colleges still collect disciplinary information, and most students who report an infraction are very worried about the outcome of their application.

However, what I want to point out in this post is that reporting a disciplinary infraction is not a total application killer! Admissions officers understand that people make mistakes; they were high school students once, too. Most infractions are minor, and colleges are sympathetic if the student is forthright, the incident is thoughtfully explained, and they can meaningfully reflect on their growth from it.

Here is how disciplinary information is currently collected on the Common Application:

Once you check yes, the space to write a short essay appears, as well as one other question:

I have worked with and read the applications of many students with disciplinary records, ranging from academic dishonesty and getting caught drinking to being arrested for a felony—and I have found that not all disciplinary infractions are treated equally. Some infractions are seen as very minor while others are taken quite seriously and could make admission to a top-top school hard. Let’s break down some different types of offenses (of course there are others, but these are a few I have experience with and hear about most frequently from other counselors):

  • Minor incident (common): minor school-based disciplinary matters; drinking
  • Moderate incident (slightly less common): suspension from school; marijuana
  • Severe incident (not that common): expulsion from school; other drugs, academic dishonesty, arrest (misdemeanor/felony), other character-based offenses such as stealing, bullying, sexual assault, etc.

One caveat: how the infraction is viewed will also depend somewhat on the school you are applying to. School’s with strong honor codes (UVA, Davidson, William, and Mary) might view offenses more seriously than other schools, so keep that in mind.

I know students who reported infractions across all three categories, and all of them still got into college. No application process was completely ruined. A few examples: one who reported both a moderate and minor infraction now attends an Ivy League school. One who reported what I consider a severe incident (academic dishonesty) is graduating from a top fifteen school (and was competitive for but denied from all Ivies). I believe each applicant’s disciplinary essay is where they were able to turn a mistake into a positive point of self-reflection that allowed the admissions committee to see their personal growth and commitment to it since the incident. Here’s how I typically have students outline this short, 400-word essay:

  • Explain what happened as concisely as possible (~100 words)
  • Present what was going on at the time, if anything, that might have lead to a lapse in judgment (~100 words)
  • Discuss how you remedied the situation and began to work on yourself to ensure it or something like it will never happen again (~100 words)
  • Reflect on the journey, walk the reader through what you learned (and how you are applying these learnings if applicable), and then close touch on how you have grown from navigated it (~100 words)

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I closely follow the Georgia Tech admissions blog, and often re-post or link to their posts because of the light they so often shed on this complicated process. As I write this, Rick Clark posted about this very topic. I hope his words will also help you see that this does not have to be an application killer:

Ownership.  Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. It is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances.

“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined and bagged them at the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off? We’re listening.

Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation.

Everyone makes mistakes. Some are worse than others and might be an issue if you are targeting top tier schools, but most won’t prevent you from attending college. If you would like help navigating a disciplinary issue or want help writing your disciplinary essay, contact us!

 

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Dear Therapist: I’m Worried the College-Admissions Process Is Rigged Against My Son

Repost! It is a bit long, but Lori Gottlieb’s message is so important for families who are in or approaching the college search and application process. I encourage both parents and students to take 10 minutes to read the entire piece, but if you don’t have time for the full read, here are the main takeaways: Parents, how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your child will respond to it. You have the potential to turn a situation that your child would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s not fine. The messages that you send have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would.
 
Here is the full article:
 
Dear Therapist,  
 
My son is in the middle of the college application process. He has very good grades and very good SAT and ACT scores; he is an Eagle Scout and a captain of the cross-country team. He is also white, male, and upper-middle-class—and that is the problem. According to all of the statistics and reports, he should be accepted at Ivy League schools, but he has not been. He will eventually get into a “good” school, but it is my guess (based on what we are seeing with his peer group) that he will be overqualified for the school he ends up at. He is very frustrated and very upset. How do you explain to a bright, eager boy that the system is rigged against him? For example, his twin brother, who has similar grades and an almost identical resume, is going to the U.S. Naval Academy, and his application process, though difficult, was smooth and straightforward — Lisa, Mendham, NJ
 

Dear Lisa,

The college-admissions process has become so brutally intense in recent years that it can make anyone lose perspective, and I think that’s what’s happened here. Of course, you’re not the only parent who sees her hardworking and accomplished child do everything “right,” imagines him or her thriving at a particular school, and is frustrated when the child does not gain admission. But if you don’t step back and look at the bigger picture, you’ll be depriving your son of an education that will be far more valuable to him in the long run. So let’s back up.

From the moment kids are born, they take their cues from the adults around them about how to respond to experiences in the world. For instance, when a toddler stumbles in the sandbox, the first thing she does is look at her parent for a signal. If the parent calmly says, “Whoops, you fell down,” and then smiles reassuringly, the child will likely get the message that the fall was no big deal and get right back up. But if the adult looks alarmed, yells, “Oh, no! Are you okay?,” and rushes over to check for injuries, the child may, in turn, become alarmed: Wait, am I okay? I thought I was okay, but maybe I’m not! Later, if the child doesn’t get the lead in the school play—despite how talented this child may be—she’ll also take her cue about what this means from the adults around her. If her parents say, “That’s so unfair! Jane only got the part because the drama teacher is friends with her mom,” or “Jane’s parents are on the board,” the girl might think, Yeah, this is so unfair. Jane’s not nearly as talented as I am. The world is rigged. Why even try?
 
If, on the other hand, the parents say, “We know you really wanted the lead and we hear how disappointed you are. You worked so hard preparing for the audition. Maybe you’ll get the lead the next time around, but meanwhile, the part you did get will be fun, too,” their daughter may still be disappointed, but she’ll be learning about resilience. She’ll take in the message that sometimes we don’t get what we want, even when we’re qualified to have it. She’ll learn that sometimes we might be really good at something, but someone else is even better. She’ll learn that there’s not just one thing that can be enjoyable or fulfilling, but many things—like acting in a play she loves, even if she’s not the lead this time around. She’ll learn that the world is not an all-or-nothing place, where you either succeed or fail. She’ll learn that if she really wants something badly enough, she can try again another time and figure out what would increase her chances. She’ll learn that even if Jane got the role mostly because of her talent but partly because the teacher (consciously or not) favored her, there will come a time when she, too, will get something—an award, a job—not only because of her talent, but also because of, say, the boss’s strong relationship with the colleague who referred her, or the fact that they both grew up in the same town, and an equally qualified candidate will be rejected. 
 
The kid who learns these lessons early on will probably still be upset if, despite her stellar application, she doesn’t get admitted to her top-choice school. But she won’t walk through the world feeling as though there’s a conspiracy going on, nor will she walk onto campus the first day of freshman year believing that she won’t be challenged and that her peers are either similarly overqualified or simply beneath her. And if she does find that she’s not getting what she wants at her very good but not Ivy League school, she will know she can talk to an adviser to see what opportunities might be available that she’s not yet aware of, or even apply to transfer elsewhere. Either way, she won’t spend her senior year of high school anticipating how unfulfilling her college experience will be, thereby creating a very unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy.
 
So how do you explain to your son that the system is rigged against him? You say, “Son, the world is an unfair place and the system is rigged against you.” And then you watch him grow into an angry, unfulfilled adult with a chip on his shoulder who will probably have grossly misguided ideas about women and people of color and his own value and worth and abilities. But if you’d like a better future for him, let me suggest the following. Start by getting more accurate information, such as the fact that it’s extremely challenging to get into an elite college, and that the vast majority of applicants to these colleges have very high test scores, along with a stunning array of extracurricular activities and prestigious awards or honors. Dig deeper than anecdotal information and you’ll discover that there isn’t a reliable statistic or report out there that says that an applicant with very good grades and very good SAT and ACT scores who is also an Eagle Scout and a captain of the cross-country team “should” be admitted to a particular Ivy League school—regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Ask professionals in the admissions field, such as an experienced college-guidance counselor, whether a student with your son’s resume who happens to be a woman of color might still be rejected from the school of her choice. You may be surprised by the answer.
 
Having this information might help you separate the reality from the reaction you’re having, and this, in turn, will help you talk to your son in a more productive way about what is, for most families applying to top-tier schools, a grueling and anxiety-provoking process. Remember, he’s taking his cues from you, so if you can view this from a more balanced perspective, so will he. Instead of coming from a place of outrage on his behalf, approach him from a place of curiosity and ask, “How are you doing with this college-application process?” Then listen to what his frustration is about. Is he getting the message (from you? his school? his friends?) that the name of his college defines his worth or is a statement about his intelligence? Does he believe that going to an Ivy League college leads to a better job or a better life or some kind of happiness he won’t find at another very good school? 
 
Help to disabuse him of these faulty notions and explain to him that college is about the right fit, not the most prestigious name, and that no matter where he goes—including an Ivy League school—there will be students just like him, as well as students who are both more and less accomplished on paper, because colleges try to put together a group of outstanding people who will mesh well. Tell him that you have every confidence that he will choose, and be accepted into, a school where he meshes well and maybe even makes the friends he’ll have for the rest of his life.
 
In other words, how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your son will respond to it. It’s true that sometimes there isn’t enough to go around—there are only so many leads in the school production, so many spots at a given college, and so many openings for a job someone really wants. At the same time, parents have the potential to turn a situation that their kids would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s miserable. At that point, it’s the parent creating the child’s misery, not the situation. The messages parents send their kids have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would ever do. You have a great opportunity right now to teach your son well.

Transparency in College Admissions: Playing Sports in High School

I was an athlete growing up. I played a sport every season, but I eventually decided to play just one at a very high level. I never thought about whether it would help me get into college until I was in high school and was winding down competing nationally and internationally. Given the very little that my high school counselor knew about recruiting and the fact that the sport I played was not one that many students were recruited to play (in 2001), it ended up being something that differentiated me but not something that got me into college.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and I want to save all of the athletes out there a little bit of trouble; I want to dispel some myths around playing sports in high school. And this is not based on my experience alone, but the experience of many students I have worked with and the experiences of my colleagues.

Before I get into it, please note: I love sports! I hike, I bike, I snowboard, and I know how amazing they are for the mind, body, and soul—but this post is not about that. It is about whether or not sports help students who are not getting recruited get into college.

Let me outline a few common examples.

Example 1: I was trying to get recruited, but I ultimately was not. The coach knows me and says she will put a good word in with admissions, so this means I am getting in, right?

No. If you are not recruited, you are not recruited. Will coach put in a good word for you? Maybe. But you won’t ever know and should not bank on it because in many cases it either does not happen or does not move the needle.

On the positive side….after going through the recruiting process you likely have been to campus a few times, and, hopefully, have gotten to know the school’s offerings and culture better than other applicants. You can use this to your advantage in the admissions process as you write your essays as well when you interview (if an interview is offered).

Example 2: My son loves sports and 90% of his extracurricular time is spent playing sports. He is a devoted player, coach, and even the captain of a team at his high school. He is not getting recruited, but his commitment to sports will be a differentiator as will his leadership, right?

No. Colleges give preferential treatment to recruited athletes only. High school student-athletes who are not getting recruited get no significant bonus points for playing a sport or even captaining a team.

On the positive side….you have shown commitment to an activity or a set of activities over time and have some leadership to highlight. You can and should highlight leadership skills wherever applicable, and even try to translate the skills you gained in a sports leadership role to different activities (academic if possible) in which you hope to participate in college. You can do this is via your essays. This is just one way to spin the experience to be highly received by college admissions officers. Focus not on the playing of the actual sport but what you gained from it and how that is transferable to other activities in college, or how it helped you grow as a person.

Example 3: My parents told me that colleges want well-rounded applicants and that playing a sport is one way to appear more well-rounded. I have to play even if I hate sports, right?

No. Sports are super time-consuming and tend to detract from academics for many students. They do not help much unless you are getting recruited (see above!). Also, and most importantly, if you do not like sports do not play sports! Do what you love, please do not waste time on activities that do not really interest you.

On the positive side….your parents care a lot about you and are just looking out for your college admissions related wellbeing! Give them a pass on this one, share this post, and explain to them that you will have more time for homework (or something else they will like to hear), and exploring your other curiosities and the extracurricular activities that are meaningful to you—a win-win!

The bottom line is sports only significantly help students get into college if they are recruited or have high potential as a walk on. If you are going to possibly be recruited, you will know fairly early on in high school if you are on that path.

 

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College Waitlist Tips

Some colleges and universities can’t admit all of the students they would like to in regular decision, so many are put on the waitlist. Getting admitted from the waitlist is not easy, but it is possible at some schools. Although I do not suggest being overly optimistic, there are some strategies that have worked for students in the past that I am going to share in this post. Of course, if you want individualized guidance, we can provide it, so please reach out.

First, get familiar with the WL data from past years. How many students are offered spots on the WL? How many accept their spot, and more importantly, how many does school X ultimately admit? Some of these numbers are dismal, but it is best to know what you are up against rather than sit hopefully in the dark. Look at the Common Data Set first (http://www.commondataset.org/). A few other sites to review:

Before getting busy implementing waitlist strategies (below), it is important to deposit at a current top choice school (aka a school where you have been admitted) and get excited about the prospect of attending. Take advantage of admitted student days and other events that connect you with potential future classmates, including joining “Class of 2023” Facebook groups. These forums are often very informative, fun, and can help you take your mind off the waitlist waiting game.

Once you have accepted a spot on the WL, deposited elsewhere, and familiarized yourself with the waitlist data, I suggest considering the strategies below. Not all of them are novel, but without much to lose, why not do all you can so you can look back without any what-ifs?

  1. Write a waitlist letter. This letter should contain information updating the school on what you’ve been up to both inside and outside of the classroom since the time you applied. Consider including:
    1. A paragraph or two of “academic” updates. Spend some time talking about coursework and school projects, and make connections to future courses of study. You can even drop in related courses you’d like to take at school X, like those you’d include in a Why School essay, but only do this if you did not submit an essay of this type when you applied, otherwise you are being redundant and that is not well-received.
    2. A paragraph or two of “extracurricular” updates but only if significant and can be connected to how you will add value to the school where you are deferred. This includes school and non-school clubs, service commitments, and/or other leadership experiences you can highlight. Like the academic paragraph(s), making connections to similar opportunities you plan to undertake in college can be helpful additions. For example, if you talk about a new project you spearheaded as VP of your school’s Interact Club, you may want to include that you hope to lead a similar project within a specific club or group at school X. Being very specific is important.
    3. A paragraph that talks about the additional ways you have connected with and continued to get to know school X since you applied. This could include setting up an informational interview with a local alum, a current student, reaching out to your local regional alumni group (more on this below), or continuing to connect with your regional rep via email.
    4. A paragraph that reiterates your interest in the school, and that if admitted, you will attend. *If you are not 100% committed to attending, do not say so in the letter.
  2. Send your waitlist letter to your regional rep (if an option) or upload on your applicant portal. Ask whoever you address it to if they have any advice for you as a waitlisted candidate. Keep this line of communication open; do not email updates every week, but stay in touch to continue to demonstrate interest.
  3. Ask your guidance counselor to call the admissions office and advocate for you, as well as provide any additional information they may have that will support your candidacy.  Ask them to back up what they say on the phone in an email if they have time and are willing. Make sure they send updated grades/transcript promptly. Your grades should have remained the same or gotten better, not dipped.
  4. Obtain and have an extra letter of recommendation sent, but only if the school welcomes extra LORs (some schools explicitly state on their WL docs they do not welcome or want extra LORs). A teacher, coach, or someone else close to you who can speak to your potential contributions to the university could draft this letter. *Side note on alumni letters­ and letters from well-known and or famous people. Many students ask if these are helpful to send, and the answer is no unless the person knows well you or they are a very high-level donor with solid connections to admissions (even then why count on someone else?!?). If you think that a big name vouching for you will help, it generally doesn’t as a stand-alone factor, and officers can see through these often brief and less than meaningful notes.
  5. If you did not already, visit the school and swing by admissions to reiterate interest. Sit in on a class, stay overnight, take advantage of any admissions events/programming, and try to meet with students/faculty in your intended area of study.

Consider the following strategies in addition to the tried and true tips above:

  1. Check if school X has a local alumni group (Google search) and if so, reach out to them and ask if there is anyone willing to meet with you for an informal informational interview. Use this meeting as an opportunity to learn more about the school, and demonstrate your interest in attending.
  2. Use social media to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to follow your WL school on FB, Instagram, Snap or other social channels, or Tweet to them your desire to attend. Don’t forget to open all email correspondence from the school, as some schools track opens/clicks as interest.

I’m often asked if I think doing everything on this list is too much, and I do not. All of these strategies are acceptable forms of demonstrating interest even when combined. Accepting your spot on the WL is a standard, required communication. Sending a waitlist letter, and even a follow-up email after a few weeks (for example, to inform admissions of an award at school, National Merit, a promotion at work, or admission to a selective internship/summer program) is not communication overkill. When a counselor calls a school on your behalf to advocate for you or facilitates the sending of an extra letter of support sent, it’s not viewed as bothersome.

Now… showing up on campus and begging, pleading, showering everyone in the office with gifts, staying for two hours until someone meets with you, or other over the top gimmicks or antics would be looked down upon, so please understand that this type of behavior is not appreciated or welcomed. Ultimately, you want to look back on being waitlisted and feel like you gave it your best shot!

More questions about the WL? Email us!

 

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Transparency in College Admissions: On Being Well-Rounded

Being well-rounded is beneficial in many ways, and might help you connect with people out in the real world, but colleges are looking for students with something unique—specific talents, skills, or developed interests to add to their next class. Students who drill down on their interests early on in high school will be better positioned to tell a clear, focused story in their college applications (and may speed up ‘time to graduation’ in college, too). By doing so, you hand the reader of your file precisely what they are looking for—you make it easy to see your value add.

Think about it this way: You may love all five clubs you joined, as well as the two bands you play in, and of course, enjoy the three sports you play, but how much can you meaningfully contribute to all of these activities?

Sometimes less is more.

In my experience, the answer tends to be not very meaningfully. I suggest that students try to narrow their interests and corresponding activities by the end of 10th grade. Think about how you can engage more meaningfully, and at a higher level, with the set of activities you love the most. Maybe it’s your Relay for Life work or the independent research you are doing with your science teachers, or maybe it is your job as a tutor for elementary school kids. It’s a bonus if the activities you decide to drill down on relate to your potential college major, or support it in some way!

Drilling down on your interests to develop a clear narrative for your college application goes a long way in the admissions process, and is one of the focuses of our college counseling work with high school students, especially in 9th and 10th grade. By 11th grade, you still have some time to narrow. However, as most things go, the earlier you start, the better.

Most importantly, the earlier you start to think about your interests and do the exploration and reflection needed to narrow your focus (or determine a few in the first place) the more likely you are to craft an authentic application that best highlights 1) the time you have spent “figuring” it out and 2) how that time has been meaningful to your personal and academic development. Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. Often, this is one of those times.

Also remember that colleges seek to build a well-rounded class comprised of students with unique talents and skills, not a class full of generalists. They are not looking for well-rounded students.

Want us to help you drill down on your interests, or figure out how to best develop them in the first place? Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation call. 

 

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5 Action Items for High School Juniors

We’ve seen too many students wait until the summer after 11th grade to try to develop and implement the strategies needed to tackle the college application process successfully and with ease. Often, there is just not enough time to do the pre-work that results in the most effective essays, outreach, and positive admissions outcomes.

The best time to start prepping to apply? Now. Seriously!

Juniors, right now you can:

  • Develop relationships with admissions officers and regional reps (the people that make key decisions on your application) as well as current students and faculty (ask us why these connections are so important)
  • Create a testing plan that has you ready for apps due on 11/1 and not taking tests last minute
  • Make the best of campus visits and leverage contacts at colleges on these visits
  • Craft a preliminary college list that maximizes the 5+ application plans colleges now use
  • Open up a Common Application account to get familiar with the system

We hate seeing the second half of junior year go to waste. Email us to discuss what you can do now to always stay a step—or three—ahead of the game.

 

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Three Terms I Agree We Should Stop Using In College Admissions

Brennan Barnard recently wrote about Six Terms to Stop Using in College Admissions, and I could not agree more. However, there are three I want to say a bit more about here: fit, well-rounded, and passion. All three of these are garbage as they are commonly understood and used!

Barnard writes:

“Fit” is one of the most overused terms in college admission, and while the intentions are admirable, it can be misleading. By emphasizing “fit”, educators try to move students and families away from a focus on selectivity, rankings or the notion that admission to college is a prize to be won. However, it can often be misunderstood as suggesting that there will be one school that fits perfectly like a glove, and it can be intimidating to students when this type of fit eludes them.

“Fit” is not applied in the same way across its uses in college admissions. There is no single definition or explanation fo it is is used. From my experience, one applicant might be deemed a better “fit” by admissions because of the high school they attend, or if they have “legacy,” or that they meet some other type of institutional need. Many students and families do not realize that fit goes beyond the numbers and also includes factors that you have no control over. You can look at different factors and deem yourself a perfect “fit” as far as your test scores, GPA, and even as far as how what you’ve taken part in throughout high school demonstrates your understanding of the mission and values of the school you are applying to. But you will never be able to gauge exactly how admissions are using “fit” as they evaluate your application because it varies from student-to-student.

If applicant A and applicant B are held equal across data points, but the school you are applying to needs a flute player, and A plays the flute, A might be deemed a better fit and admitted over B. If applicant A and applicant B are not held equal across data points (let’s say A is a less stellar student all around), but the school you are applying to needs a flute player, and A plays the flute, A might be deemed a better fit and admitted over B. This second scenario touches Barnard’s point: you never really know exactly what “fit” is at any given point in time, and some students miss out on possibly being a fit at certain schools because they deem themselves not a fit based on a few data points alone. “Fit” is a garbage term on many levels and is one that can be confusing.

On being well-rounded, he notes:

“Well-rounded” is another term that is misused in college admission. The perception is that colleges and universities are looking for applicants who have a bit of everything. Assumedly, students should have a balance of excellent grades and test scores with a perfect spread of activities and involvement in a wide range of areas. These “wonder children” should be able to sing, dance, play soccer while holding their fiddle and volunteer using multiple languages, right? Wrong says Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University. He explains that “colleges do not seek well-rounded people; we want angular individuals who create a well-rounded class.” So, let’s allow the overscheduling and pressure of resume building in the name of well-roundedness to pass with 2018.

Well-rounded has not been something a student should strive for in a long time—even in the time of “holistic” admissions (another garbage and misleading term). But let’s be more specific: well-rounded student is the term that needs to go. Colleges want students who beyond the grades and test scores they look for are more narrow, not broad. We tend to see specialists win over generalists. Like Einstein says above, colleges seek out well-rounded classes—this is true. But they do not seek out well-rounded students. Well-rounded classes are made up of individuals with areas of expertise, unique value-adds, not a bunch of people who are just “good” at the laundry list of things on their resumes.

Lastly, on one of those most overused terms out there:

“Passion” is a word that makes high school students cringe. When they hear college admission offices talk about finding or demonstrating passion, they are often paralyzed by the perception that they must know what they will do with their life, or that they need to have identified their one big thing. The pressure to know and achieve is stifling and we need to think about involvement or engagement in different terms.  Courtney Skerritt, director of college counseling at The Hockaday School agrees, saying, “I’m reading ‘Enough as She Is’ by Rachel Simmons and she does an amazing job outlining what is wrong with using the word ‘passion’ with teenagers and how, instead, we should have conversations about ‘purpose’”. Skerritt adds, “Simmons’ work struck me, as this conversation has been happening with girls at Hockaday for over 100 years and with focus through our Institute for Social Impact. Students are craving an engagement in their future, but in ways that don’t make them feel like they have to figure it all out today.”

Most high school students are not passionate about anything (or anything that a college would find appealing). What a loaded and silly word as it pertains to college. Full-disclosure: in the past, I used it because I thought that was the goal, but I have known for a while now that I was wrong. Colleges want to see students who have developed interests. That is it. They do not have to be full-blown passions or life’s work. I mean, let’s be real, most adults don’t even have passions. I also know that beyond it being an inaccurate representation of what colleges seek in applicants it can be hurtful to throw around so lightly.

Students should aim to get out into the world and explore their interests whether they turn into a passion one day or not. That is what makes an interesting applicant: a student who has the motivation and curiosity to get out into the world and learn about what they like even if that means they eventually learn they do not like it so much. Now, bonus points if by around grade 10-11 you have found something you enjoy and you can narrow your focus to explore it more deeply, but if not, just keep exploring 1 or 2 things and don’t worry about being a well-rounded applicant.

 

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Juniors: Prep Now to Write Your Story for College

My January recommendation for juniors?

Sign up for YouSchool’s new Backstory course. Over four weeks, you will be guided through a series of video exercises with questions and prompts to self-reflect about all the foundational elements of your backstory. From it, you will better you understand how the elements of your backstory have set you on your path in life.

The process works: YouSchool has taken thousands of people through it and knows that if you do the work, you’ll gain a clear sense of what story you’re living in. You are also provided the structure to engage in deep conversations with people you trust (parents, teachers, friends, college counselors!). Backstory is a fantastic way to gear up for personal statement writing.

 

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January Action Plan – By Grade

Seniors:

  • If you have RD applications due in mid-January that you did not submit, finish those up ASAP. Same goes for 2/1 deadline apps; there is no reason to wait!
  • For RD schools, consider writing interest letters, and make sure your school sends midterm grade reports where required.
  • If you were deferred, work on your deferral letter this month and aim to send it mid-month.
  • Thank everyone who helped you with your college process, and take some time to enjoy what is left of high school.

Juniors:

  • Testing: Once you are in prep-mode it is best to just keep going. The sooner you are finished testing, the sooner you can begin to finalize your college list. If you have a preliminary list, February break is a great time to visits colleges. Plan some visits.
  • Confirm your summer plans. Next summer is a wonderful opportunity to do something really meaningful (and perhaps even fun!) that will help you tell your story to colleges.
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.
  • Start to think about your senior year schedule. Do you know what you will be taking? Your senior classes should be the most challenging of your four years.
  • Resolve to check your email daily. Why? Colleges communicate with students via email. Most schools track whether you open emails and if you click through them; more engagement is seen as more interest (schools use interest in the admissions process). Make checking and engaging with any college-related email a habit in 2019.
Sophomores & Freshmen:
  • Are you planning to take SAT subject tests in May or June? If so, come up with a prep plan now.
  • An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor at most colleges. Study hard.
  • Speaking of courses, when do you pick your courses for 11th grade? Keep in mind you want to take a more rigorous course schedule each year.
  • Now is the time to build your story for college! Have you gotten more involved with any of your extracurricular activities? Have you thought about what you might want to major in? A great place to start exploring your academic interests is Khan Academy.
  • One way that your “story” is conveyed in your app is through your resume. Work on your resume now.
  • Many 2019 summer program applications will open soon. Begin thinking about your plans for summer 2019 now so you can get ahead of deadlines and work on applications if needed.
  • Replace one hour of social media, Netflix, or TV per week with time on Ted ED. Explore what intrigues you! Maybe it’s the history of cheese, particle physics, or what makes a poem a poem. Whatever you find interesting, take some time to be intentional about learning more in the new year!

 

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