May Action Plan – By Grade

With AP exams, the SAT/ACT prep, and finals coming up, May is a busy month so the action plan is light. Juniors should be gearing up for essays in addition to finishing up testing!

Juniors:

  • Consider this process as you would a class from here on out! You’ll need to carve out time for it every week.  Starting early means you can be flexible—but this won’t be the case later this summer and once school starts.
  • Have you pinpointed two teachers to ask for letters of recommendation? Now is an excellent time to decide who to ask.
  • Some colleges have opened up their on-campus interviews. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. And optional should not be considered optional!
  • 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.

Sophomores & Freshmen:

  • Firm up summer plans and a tutoring schedule if you plan to start prep for the SAT, ACT or Subject Tests.
  • Work on your resume!

Recommendation of the Month:

Someone recently reminded me of the power of Ted Talks. I was sent this list a while back. I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to do a quick search on TED for talks in your areas of interests. They are fascinating, and, great fodder for essays.

 

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How to Really Get to Know the Colleges on Your List

Over the years, I have found that students who take “extra steps” consistently get into their top schools…and many more.

The students we work with who engage in extended research and outreach do extremely well in the college admissions process. Maybe it is because they know the schools they are applying to in ways other students do not; maybe it is because knowing schools well helps them craft smaller, more targeted college lists; or maybe it helps that they have gone above and beyond to get to know a school and see if that school is the best fit for them and vice versa.

Since I am no longer working in admissions, I can’t say for sure. But I can say with confidence that engaging in extended research and outreach can make a substantial difference, both in your applications and outcomes. It also has one other major benefit: it means you can walk away from this process knowing you did everything you could, you pulled out all of the stops, you did not rush the process. And when you walk away feeling proud of the process, in our experience, it makes it easier to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.

Consider the following for the schools on your list. Why? Because all of the above, and, many colleges use demonstrated interest as a factor in their admissions process. When two files are side-by-side, the applicant that has the most touch points with the school will likely be deemed more interested, and that might give them an advantage during file evaluation.

Ways to engage in extended research and outreach (aka network with colleges and get to know them really well):

– Don’t forget your regional reps! They usually read your file, so keep them in the loop throughout your admissions process, from the time you visit through while you are waiting for your decision. Send them an update after campus visits, or to say “nice to meet you” after those visits or college fairs. Keep them posted on new accomplishments or awards after you submit your application. They should be your go-to person in admissions throughput the application process.

– When you receive email from colleges, open it and click through. Many schools track whether you open their emails or not and if you click through. Open them!

– Reach out to faculty in your department of interest. Faculty members are busy and so not always the most accessible, but it can’t hurt to try. Your #1 reason for applying to any school should be academics. Reaching out to individuals in your intended major is a great way to learn more about what your academic life at school X might entail. You might also want to try reaching out to a specific research center or institute of interest. If you email faculty, copy their department or program coordinator. The emails of the individuals in these roles are often available online. If you are planning a trip to campus and it is a bit short notice, reaching out to the department or program coordinator will be your best bet for an on-campus meeting. Again, these interactions and the information gained from them could be helpful when it comes time to write your essays or interest letters (see below) and will certainly serve you well as a talking point in an interview. A quick email sample (but please, make it your own!):

Dear [name],

My name is [enter name] and I’m a [year] at [high school full name]. I will be visiting [college] on [date] and I want to learn more about the [enter program or major name] while on my visit. Would it be possible to meet with you or someone else within the department (or even a current student) while I am on campus that day? If not, anyone you can connect me with via email would be excellent.

Thank you so much,

[name]
[phone #]

*Don’t forget to send thank you emails to everyone that you speak with—even if by email only.

– Make peer and local connections. Do you have friends at the schools on your list? Talk to them about their experiences, meet up with them on your visit to campus (if possible), and use them as a resource to get to know more about the school (especially about aspects you can’t glean from the website or official tours).

You can also check (via an easy Google search) to see if the college/university has a local alumni group; if so, reach out to them and ask to be connected with someone for an informal informational interview—a great option if you do not know anyone at the school that is a current student. Use this meeting as an opportunity to learn more about the school, and to demonstrate your interest in attending. Some regional groups host events and attending one that interests you (for example, a talk by a professor), if you can get an invitation, could be a great learning experience—and an excellent addition to a supplemental essay or interest letter.

– Write an interest letter (email) after you apply. This letter should contain information you were not able to present in the required application materials (resume, essay, etc.). It is a beneficial way to show a school a little extra love and reiterate your interest. Citing the contacts you established above (if you haven’t already discussed them at length in previous materials), can work well in these letters. An interest letter should be sent after you apply, and can also include any relevant updates since the time you applied, such as awards, etc. Many schools allow you to upload additional information on your “portal page” after you apply, so this letter could be uploaded there; if not, you can email it to your regional rep and CC the general admissions email. Please note: some schools explicitly state they do not welcome additional materials. Do not send interest letters to these schools.

– Take advantage of virtual tours and local college fairs/college nights. Not everyone can get to campus, and even if you can, school’s virtual tours sometimes offer perspectives in-person tours do not. You can also tour colleges from the perspective of actual students by taking tours via CampusReel.org. If a school is attending a fair near you, and you know you won’t be able to get to campus in person, go meet your rep at the fair/college night.

 

 

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Starting the Common Application

You can now roll over your Common App account from year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account, get familiar with the system, and get some of your app work completed.

Create Your Account

There is no preparation required for this step, so you can create your account as early as you’d like. All you’ll need is some basic profile information—like your name, date of birth, address and phone number. And of course, you’ll need to provide a valid email address.

 Note: Your email address will become your username and the Common App’s primary method of sending you updates and reminders, so make sure that you provide an email address that you check on a regular basis (every day).

Gather Your General Application Information

While every school has a different list of college-specific requirements, the general application information (for the Common App) will remain constant for all schools on your list.

You’ll be asked to list your activities, entrance exam scores and exam dates, parent or legal guardian and sibling information, and for some schools your high school grades and courses. Get a head start and save yourself time by collecting this information before you fill out the application.

Specific Requirements

Just like every student is unique, so is every school. We know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. No two schools will have the exact same requirements—so work to understand these requirements early on.

How? The first thing you need to do is read the Application Instructions on each school’s website. Please take the time to read the application instructions in their entirety. On the Common App, you can also check out the Requirements Grid and download the Requirements Tracker worksheet.

Add Schools to Your Dashboard

The Common App presents you with the opportunity to search from more than 700 schools (private, public, large and small), find the ones that meet your needs, and then add them to your My Colleges list—a convenient place to track the work ahead of you.

Once you log in, simply click on the College Search tab to find schools based on their name, location, deadline, or distance from your home.

Note: If you add schools to your Dashboard before the Common App refreshes for the 2019-2020 application year, any data you fill out on the school-specific pages can and most likely will be erased. If you add schools to your Dashboard after the refresh takes place, your information will be saved for the duration of the 2019-2020 application season.

 

For Common App support, join our FB page, Conquer the Common App. Check out the files section to see what an app looks like filled out. Pay special attention to how you can maximize the impact of your Activities section—a section that many students don’t take too seriously!

 

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April Action Plan – By Grade

Juniors:

  • If you are still planning to apply to a summer program and have not completed the application, please work on it now. Programs will fill up, so don’t wait to submit apps at the deadline.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but with a rise in the use of platforms like ZeeMee in college admissions, you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). You’ll also want a LinkedIn account up and running when you start college, so now is a good time to get it started.
  • Now is also a good time to do a social media audit. Connecting with colleges on social is a way to demonstrate interest, but only if your profile is squeaky clean. Before you tweet to any of your top schools or like them on FB, follow them on Instagram, etc., review all of your accounts.
  • If you plan to visit schools and interview, prepare. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative.
  • Continue to prepare for standardized tests and think ahead to AP exams.
  • Update your resume.
Sophomores:
  • Have you thought about what major(s) you will mark on your application? You can only have a clearly defined “story” for your college apps once you know what major(s) you will be marking on them. This is a critical part of the process that should begin to think about now. Even if you don’t know an exact major right now, you should be able to articulate what excites you academically and be pursuing those interests through your coursework and outside of it via clubs and other activities. As you approach 11th grade (and through it), you want to begin to narrow your academic interests and hone in on one or two viable options for your apps.
    • Please note: marking undecided is always an option. However, you still need to talk about specific possible majors if undecided is what you choose. When you look at your resume, does a theme jump out at you?
  • Keeping working hard in your classes. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application. If you have room for improvement, colleges want to see you improve (upward trend!)!
  • Make a firm plan for preparing for standardized tests and think ahead to AP exams.
  • Also, firm up your summer plans. You should be doing something this summer, and, hopefully, something that helps you explore your academic interests.
  • Continue working on your resume.

Freshmen:

  • Keeping working hard in your classes. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application. If you have room for improvement, colleges want to see you improve (upward trend!).
  • Firm up your summer plans. You should be doing something this summer, and, hopefully, something that helps you explore your academic interests.
  • Think ahead to preparing for AP exams or subject tets if you plan to take them.
  • Continue working on your resume.

 

 

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Our Favorite Test Optional Schools

More and more schools are going test-optional—and we love that. More than 220 colleges have de-emphasized the ACT and SAT since 2005, and the list keeps growing. Even uber selective schools like the University of Chicago have dropped standardized testing as a requirement*. Why? As the recent Chronicle of Higher Education ‘Trends on the Horizon‘ report notes:

One reason the list is likely to keep growing: data, data, data. Colleges are using ever more sophisticated statistical analyses to better understand how their students perform. On many campuses, deep dives into enrollment data have helped admissions offices determine which pieces of information they collect from applicants actually help them predict a variety of student outcomes, such as first-year grades and progress toward a degree. Chicago found that ACT and SAT scores didn’t tell it much about who would succeed and who would struggle.

*Always a caveat!!! Although we wholeheartedly support the test-optional movement, we have reason to believe that not all test-optional policies are created equally. Many skeptics of test-optional policies see them as applicable only to certain student groups, for example, students who are disadvantaged in the admission proicess—not middle to upper-class students who have access to test prep and other resources but just don’t “test” well. We have heard through the grapevine that this is the case at quite a few schools. If this is true, it is just one more way that the college admissions process lacks transparency. We are working on finding data that reveals who is admitted without test scores at some of the schools in question (Chicago, Wake Forest, Bowdoin, Wesleyan) but it is not readily available.

Anyway, we want to shoutout a few of the test-optional schools that we have found to be genuinely test-optional, and where we have students who are thriving both inside and outside of the classroom. They are:

  • Pitzer College
  • Drew University
  • George Washington University
  • The University of Arizona
  • Whittier College
  • University of Delaware
  • New School

For a comprehensive list of top-tier schools that are test-optional, and to stay up to date on the test-optional movement, head to FairTest.org.

 

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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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5 Ways to Thoroughly Research Colleges

Subtitle: For when you can’t get to campus or want to go beyond what a traditional campus visit can provide!

The in-person campus tour is not the be-all-end-all of college research. Neither is that gigantic Fiske guide, College Confidential (that site is horribly stress-inducing please stay away from it, same with Reddit), or what your older sibling told you based on findings from their college search process. From my experience, most college research can take place from the comfort of your own home, but it takes time and effort. And planning, a little bit of starting early and planning!

College/University Websites

Read the websites of the schools on your list, and not just the admissions and financial aid pages. I would read those—but for the purpose of understanding how to apply, not why to apply. Unless it is one of the admissions office/officer’s blogs that I talk about here; those might help you see why you’d want to attend. If class visits are offered those can be very informative, but you’d need to get to campus to attend. I will talk more about how you can get a look at a college’s classrooms and student life later in this post.

I suggest starting with the pages of the department in which you hope to study (or think you might hope to study). What does the curriculum look like? How many and what type of classes are offered? Are there affiliated clubs, events, other special programs of interest? Find a faculty member who is undertaking research in your area of interest and reach out to them with three or four questions you have about the program or their research that you can’t find answers to online. If they are unable to speak to you, ask if they can suggest someone else who might be able to help. Can’t get through to any faculty members? Contact the department’s administrative assistant or department coordinator and see if they can help you make an initial connection. For example, here you can find the contact info for the program coordinator of Penn’s Department of Psychology. If not, ask your regional rep to help you get this information.

I also suggest pinpointing two or three clubs you might want to join. See if you can connect with a current student or faculty lead within each to learn more. Most clubs general admin contact info is posted online. Here is the contact info for Fordham’s Finance Society, as well as a zillion contacts for USC student clubs.

Lastly, you might want to get a sense of what the campus looks like, and can do so via a virtual tour if you can’t go in person. Many colleges provide virtual tour options now. For example, here is one created by Santa Clara University in California.

CampusReel

Speaking of tours, whether you can get to campus in person or not, you will want to check out CampusReel for an insider look at the colleges and universities on your list. Real college students submit their own video clips that take you through a day in the life, dorms, dining halls, classrooms, and so on. For example, I enjoyed this video from a UC Santa Barbara student on what she wished she knew before she started. You will also get a pretty good sense of what the campus looks like in reality as the guides are not employees of the admissions office, and what you see is probably closer to what you will get compared to the virtual tour created by the school.

Coursera and edX

If you can’t get to campus and glimpsing a school’s academics firsthand is important to you (it should be!), then head over to Coursera and edX and sign up for a class. They are free, informative, and you might learn something, not to mention they give you an extra talking point (or ten) for application materials and the interviews if you have them.  You will definitely get a sense of what college-level courses entail, and I also see it as a way to demonstrate interest. A few courses I like and have had students take include:

Case Studies in Personalized Medicine

Becoming an Entrepreneur

The Science of Wellbeing

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

A Law Student’s Toolkit

Local Alumni Groups

Don’t know anyone who went to your dream school? Look no further than your local alumni group. If you are not sure your area has an alumni group just ask Google. I entered “NYU alumni club NJ” and got the link to info on the NJ group right away. You will be sending a cold email but I don’t see anything wrong with that. You are showing interest in their alma mater. If someone is a member of their alumni group, they probably like to connect with people like you. You are demonstrating a desire above and beyond other prospective students to get to know the school, and they love their school! That is never a bad look. And if no one replies to you, at least you know you tried. If there is no local or even regional group where you live, try to one closest to you. Again, there is really no downside to trying to connect with alumni to learn more.

Social Media

Not the best way to get to know a school well, but some are not half bad. I follow quite a few schools on Instagram, and the “takeover” stories by admissions office staff and students can be insightful. I particularly like the UChicago and Barnard pages.

 

Everything above being said, if you have the opportunity to see a school in person or meet an admissions officer, regional representative, current student, faculty member, or alumni in person, take it! I wanted to present the suggestions here because not everyone can get to campus, and a standard campus visit alone is not a very good way to really get to know a school. If you believe in finding a school that is best matched with your goals for college (not just a school with a certain name, good sports team, etc.), the above outreach will help you figure out which school that might be—so time to get to work!

 

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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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