Researching College Academics for Why Us? Supplements


Researching College Academics for Why Us? Supplements

When you’re working on the most common supplemental prompt in college applications, remember that you’re building a case in three parts:

  1. What you bring to the table;

  2. What the college has to offer;

  3. Why and how you’ll make the best use of those opportunities — so that everyone wins.

Because college is and should be about academics first, that’s what I encourage students to focus on through the majority of their why us? responses.

A student that I've been working with attended her school's info session for my alma mater, Northwestern University. Erica came back thrilled about NU, specifically about the cognitive science program and the cross-disciplinary nature of studies at the university.

She had already developed a template for tackling these supplements with her goals for college, but wasn't entirely sure where to go next with her research. So we dug into the Northwestern website together.

Here are some tips for students trying to sharpen their understanding of how a college might meet their academic interests:

1. Start with an overview of the curriculum of a program or two of interest, which you can usually find on the department's main page from the "Academics" tab from the school's landing page. Look at how the courses progress from foundational classes to more focused subject matter. The program may even divide into different concentrations. That's where the good stuff is: the courses that you’ll get to customize your studies with.

 Erica's attention went directly to the Neuroscience, Psychology and Learning Sciences concentrations, so we looked to see what courses fell under those umbrellas.

Erica's attention went directly to the Neuroscience, Psychology and Learning Sciences concentrations, so we looked to see what courses fell under those umbrellas.

 Because of Erica's volunteering experience teaching dance to children with learning disabilities, the Intro to Learning Disabilities class was a natural draw.

Because of Erica's volunteering experience teaching dance to children with learning disabilities, the Intro to Learning Disabilities class was a natural draw.

 Cognitive Development in Atypical Learner was interesting, too, because of research she'd done in school about well known minds such as Einstein and Edison, who in today may have received diagnoses such as Aspberger's or dyslexia.

Cognitive Development in Atypical Learner was interesting, too, because of research she'd done in school about well known minds such as Einstein and Edison, who in today may have received diagnoses such as Aspberger's or dyslexia.

2. Look for course descriptions. Generally the best place to find them is in the course catalog, although some colleges’ catalogs are anything but user-friendly. If you run into trouble, go back to Google and search your course name.

This part was a little slippery for Erica because the Cog Sci department is by nature interdisciplinary, and so we had to go digging in other departments. But there were a few.

 Sometimes the link isn't readily available from navigation, so go ahead and search for "course catalog."

Sometimes the link isn't readily available from navigation, so go ahead and search for "course catalog." was a start. It left us with some questions about how the proseminar works, which is taken in fall of sophomore or junior year. Does it mean that Erica potentially has an opportunity to do research as an underclassman? GREAT question to reach out to the admissions office with (and demonstrate interest) in order to see if they will connect us directly to the Cog Sci faculty! was a start. It left us with some questions about how the proseminar works, which is taken in fall of sophomore or junior year. Does it mean that Erica potentially has an opportunity to do research as an underclassman? GREAT question to reach out to the admissions office with (and demonstrate interest) in order to see if they will connect us directly to the Cog Sci faculty!

3. See what the faculty are up to. There was a link to the CS faculty page, and from there, Erica was able to click through links to some of the professors' landing pages. Faculty web content can be very hit or miss -- often too jargon-y, sparse, or outdated, or the link is broken altogether. Again, sometimes it’s better to go back to good ol' Google to look for news or articles about faculty elsewhere. 

But we turned up a few interesting things that she can reference in her NU supplement. Erica came away from the process with a better idea of how far-ranging the field of Cognitive Sciences is, and with loads of questions she can reach out to the faculty with (by way of the admissions office). If NU continues to track student interest in the way that they say they do, then it will be all over her record by the time Erica applies!

 Of course someone studies the links between the brain and sense of smell. It was just that neither of us had really ever given it much thought.

Of course someone studies the links between the brain and sense of smell. It was just that neither of us had really ever given it much thought.


Have You Finalized that College List?


Have You Finalized that College List?

I don’t know about you, but the beginning of this school year seemed to come out of nowhere. Suddenly, summer was just over.

While many seniors are clear about their top college choices (and are hard at work on those applications), I’m finding that a number of students have been asking about how to make sure their list is balanced.

At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that you have options. In the meantime, it’s also about balancing your obligations — school, applications, activities, etc. — and making sure you don’t overextend yourself during these busy months.

I typically recommend that students lock in a list of 6 - 10 applications total.

That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to applying to ten colleges overall; if you can submit to multiple campuses through a single application — for example, the University of California schools — then I’d count that as one application.

The same goes for any college you can add to one of the big application platforms, like the Common App, without having to write any additional supplements: it doesn’t increase the count because you don’t have to do any additional work.

To make sure you have a balanced range of selectivity, I suggest the following guidelines:

  • at least 2 likely schools: 75% chance or above that you will get in

  • at least 2 target schools: 35% - 75% chance that you will get in

  • at least 2 reach schools: under 35% that you will get in

How do you determine those numbers? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that there is no way of knowing those numbers with a high degree of precision. Any number of factors can affect admissions decisions from year to year, from the number of applicants you’ll be competing with to the specific backgrounds admissions officials are seeking in prospective students.

The good news is that there are many tools out there to help you get a better sense of your chances. Here are some suggestions of what to use and how to use them:



Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure, first, to ask whether the colleges on your list recalculate GPA. If so, what is their methodology? Again, to use the UC system as an example, those schools evaluate only your grades from 10 - 12th grade. They do weight for approved honors classes, but they cap the total number of extra credits that can be counted toward that weighting. If you want quick assistance with GPA recalculation, check out this tool from the website Alfouro.

  2. Next, check out the scattergrams that plot acceptances in terms of GPA and test scores. Naviance does this, if your high school has an account, but you can also look at or at individual school profiles.

  3. Last: go to and create a free profile. Take your time with this one! This is a company that securely transmits official transcripts between institutions like high schools and colleges, and so they have the insider's scoop on the kinds of profiles students who are accepted, denied, and waitlisted at various colleges applied with.

Bottom line: if you haven’t yet finalized your list, put that action item at the very top of your priorities list. Doing so will enable you to determine exactly how much application work you have ahead, as well as allow you peace of mind knowing that you’ll have options when everything is said and done.


Applications Are Open! (Time to Dive In.)


Applications Are Open! (Time to Dive In.)

It's August! Welcome to college application season.

If you are about to start senior year and are figuring out where to dig into your application work, the best way to ease in is to begin with the applications themselves.

They're usually pretty straightforward once you get going. What students tend to underestimate is the time they'll actually take to complete -- something you'll certainly want checked off of your list once you're trying to find time for homework and all your other commitments.

I'd suggest approaching the main applications (saving the college essays and other supplemental requirements for later) in the following steps:

Identify which application platforms you'll use, and open the accounts. Check the schools on your college list to see which application type(s) they accept. The Common App; the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success; the University of California; and others all require different accounts. Most open on August 1st.

Gather your required materials. This list that the Common App puts out is a great way to make sure you'll have everything you'll need. 

Fill out the basic information. Two maximum-efficiency ways to approach this. If you have a parent or someone else to help you, open multiple accounts and fill out all the applications at once, using the same information. The other option is to go all the way through one application, and then generate a PDF print preview that you can copy and paste from.

Save the Activities section for another sitting. This segment often takes more time than all the others combined (except the Writing). You'll need to write a very concise description for each activity, in addition to reporting how much time you spent in each throughout the year.

If you're filling out the Common App, add your colleges and waive your FERPA rights. For a college you'll be submitting letters of recommendation to, under "My Colleges," choose that school's name and select "Recommenders and FERPA" on the left. Choose "Release Authorization" on the next page, and then check the box to acknowledge the statement. On the next screen, check the box at the top to authorize all schools to release their records, and when it pops up, select the first radio button ("I waive my right to review...") and sign in the box below.

Long story short, according to the Common App, "waiving your right lets colleges know that you do not intend to read your recommendations, which helps reassure colleges that the letters are candid and truthful." If you want to learn more about the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, head to this page.



10 Resources for this Summer If You're Applying this Fall


10 Resources for this Summer If You're Applying this Fall

For the phase of the year that's supposed to be relaxing, summer tends to be a bit crazy.

There's so much that we WANT to do, that we've dreamed about doing all through the rest of the year, and yet still so much we often still HAVE to do...especially if it's summer before senior year. 

So it's important to strike up the right balance. Do the work that needs to be done, but don't neglect that need to relax and recharge a bit.

I'm going to be doing just that. I'll be on hiatus from the CCP blog through July 2018, starting back up the second week of August. 

In the meantime, I wanted to share some of my favorite resources for the families about to take the plunge into college applications this fall. No matter what part of the process you're currently working through, and no matter what medium you prefer most, there's something for everyone!

Enjoy, and get some rest -- see you back here in August.

10 Resources for Summer Before Senior Year:

  1. Working to get ahead of your college application tasks before senior year starts? Check out the Teen LAUNCH blog on the Summer College Checklist for a step-by-step guide each week.

  2. Meet your regional admissions counselors at a local event! The National Association of College Admissions Counselors, the Colleges that Change Lives consortium, and the Regional Admission Counselors of California all host college fairs and information sessions throughout the year -- put them on your calendar now!

  3. If you have an aspiring visual artist, don't miss the opportunity to get pro feedback on the all-important portfolio at National Portfolio Day.

  4. For the stage performers out there, mark your calendars for National Unified Auditions 2019 and contact your top-choice colleges to find out if they participate -- it can make a world of difference in managing auditions!

  5. Parents can get a handle on what they'll be expected to pay for college using Big Future's EFC estimator; don't forget to visit your favorite colleges' Net Price Calculator (just Google it) to get an even clearer picture.

  6. Get an insider's perspective on what readers will be looking for (or hoping to avoid) in this Khan Academy video playlist.

  7. Get the facts straight on college rankings with this article, or make your own on the Chronicle Rankings Mashup site

  8. Learn about the college-going process from A-Z from the best-selling author of How to Raise an Adult on this podcast.

  9. Finding scholarships can be like taking on a second job. If you're a Californian, this guide is the place to start the search.

  10. Trying to figure out how to describe yourself in college essays or alumni interviews? Take this free personality test to start building the right language. 


Crowdsource Your College Research


Crowdsource Your College Research

I don't know about you, but it's pretty rare these days that I commit to something -- a new product, a meal, a night out -- without reading the online reviews first.

Yelp, Amazon, Rotten name it. We rely on others' intel for just about everything we do, before we do it. 

So why should researching colleges be any different?

When I get my students started on their research, I suggest three main resources: the Fiske Guide, the colleges' own websites and course catalogs, and online reviews from current and past students.

Here are my three go-to sites for reviews:

Cappex: at-a-glance report card

Cappex is handy for a single snapshot of what the college is all about. Different aspects of the college experience appear as categories on the left-hand side and are rated on a scale of 1 - 5 stars, then paired with brief comments on the right side. 

Scroll down on the left-hand side to the "Student Reviews" link. You'll need a free account to see them all.

NU Cappex Report Card.png


Niche: apply your filters

The Niche website got a recent overhaul that is now shaping up to be one of the more visually appealing and user-friendly experiences for college research. They administer polls that gather information about different aspects of the student experience, and then allow readers to filter by category. You can read through all the respondents' perspectives on things like academics, housing, food, and even party scene.

They also rank on a scale of 1 - 5 stars. Just search your college and click on "Reviews" at the bottom of the left-hand column.

NU Niche Reviews.png


Unigo: Q & A style

My longtime favorite review site, Unigo publishes a section where current and past students answer questions that push to differentiate their college and particularly the student body. If you want to know what the perceptions are of the types of people who attend, look no further!

To access the Most-Answered Questions, scroll down on the college's Unigo page past the average ratings and Recent Reviews. Near the bottom of the page, you'll find a field that looks like this:

NU Unigo Most-Answered Qs.png
NU Unigo Review.png

As with all online reviews, I always suggest taking them with a grain of salt. We are all familiar with the occasional reviewer who posted out of rage or disappointment over a bad experience.

The key is to skim through as many reviews as possible, looking for the ones that are most substantive, detailed, and unbiased as possible. The recurring themes that pop up across a range of reviews are where you will get the most reliable information. There are also some skilled writers on these sites who provide very nuanced descriptions -- often with some humor.

Happy hunting!


Why Your Major Matters in College Applications


Why Your Major Matters in College Applications

In the previous post, I spent some time digging into why the major your choose in college probably won't matter all that much to your future employers. 

So is major a factor in the application process?

Yes. On a few different levels.

The most obvious impact is when you are applying to a direct-entry program with very limited spaces. Many colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees in areas like engineering, architecture, nursing, pharmacy, business, or the visual/performing arts often require students to apply directly into those programs, adding more stringent standards and in-depth application tasks in the process. 

There is also the issue, more broadly, of programs or campuses that are considered to be impacted, meaning that they consistently receive more applications than they have spots available for some or all degree programs. Here in California, most majors within the Cal State University system are officially impacted for first-time freshmen, and many of the more popular campuses are impacted across the board.

Both examples above are purely a matter of numbers. But, for students who are considering a course of study in traditional liberal arts programs where spaces are plentiful, what does major matter to the admissions process?

In my experience, starting to think about the subjects you want to study -- and WHY you want to study them -- is the first step in taking the reins in planning your future as an independent adult

Researching the programs out there -- learning what they have to offer, what subjects resonate with you, how those subjects play to your strengths but also fulfill your needs -- and communicating your findings and thought process through your application says a lot about you.

You're thinking ahead. You're taking control, exercising self-awareness. You're striking up a balance between moving in a more defined direction while also leaving yourself the flexibility to recalibrate the trail you're blazing as you learn more about the person you are.

To admissions committees, on top of everything that you're conveying about your character, you're also providing evidence for why the fit is right.

And in admissions, fit is everything.

Why is XX college right for you? What are you prepared to make out of the experience?

Why are you right for XX college? What will you bring to their community? Why are you someone that admissions officials should bet on, literally staking their jobs on the likelihood that you will not only choose to attend, but that you will be successful at -- and contribute to the overall success of -- their institution?

There are many different factors in determining fit, but remember that college is, first and foremost, an academic experience. Often the best way of making the case that you belong on a certain campus begins with how you will make that academic experience your own.

So dive into your online research. Head to the course catalogs for your top-choice schools and starting reading through the classes offered in the subject areas that interest you. Learn what kinds of research or industry initiatives the professors are engaged in. Beyond the introductory courses, what courses would you elect to take as you advance through a program of study? What professors would you like to work with on a more personal level, and why?

Many colleges will then give you the space to articulate some of your findings in the supplemental writings section. Have a look at a few examples below -- and get going now!

  • How do you imagine yourself living and learning at Bard?
  • How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excited you?
  • Which aspects of Tufts' curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: "Why Tufts?"
  • Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.
  • Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.



How Much Does Your Major Matter After College?


How Much Does Your Major Matter After College?

As spring wears on and the full realization sets in that college applications are coming up, I find that many students find themselves in a state of crisis. It's usually brought on when they are suddenly unable to make it through a conversation without the old question coming up:

What do you plan to study in college?

There are so many ways things can go wrong from there. You toss out that you're considering political science and your physician uncle asks what you plan to do with a poly sci degree -- "there's no money in it." You say that you might want to study art, and your well-meaning parents hesitate just a little too long before voicing their support for "whatever you choose to do." You mention that you're thinking about engineering and then the questions start flying: "do you know how competitive those programs are?"

Maybe you just don't know -- and as soon as you admit that to yourself, that nasty little voice inside your head starts telling you that your entire future is about to be decided in the coming months...and you're completely unprepared.

Does any of these sound familiar? Any way the situation plays out, it can feel like an awful lot of pressure.

Let me send some reassurance your way. What you ultimately choose to major in during college has relatively little correlation with the success you'll have in your future field of work. Here are a few things to remember:

The employers looking to hire you right out of college tend to place more weight on your hands-on work experience (see graphic below). Their thinking is that you completed your degree, which meant succeeding in a range of different courses. They can assume that you have the ability to learn and perform in an academic setting, so chances are that you'll be able to continue learning in a new environment. The big question is whether you can apply what you learn in real-life circumstances -- outside the classroom.

  The Role of Higher Education in Career Development  from the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012

The Role of Higher Education in Career Development from the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012

No matter what you designate as your major, with a liberal arts education, you'll still be exposed to a variety of different subject areas, and along the way, you'll develop skills that will help you succeed no matter what content you're focused on. That has to do not only with your experiences inside the classroom, but also your extracurricular activities and your socializing during college. Those transferrable skills are also highly sought after by employers filling their entry-level positions (see below).

  Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success , Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2015

Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success, Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2015

In fact, it can often be that exposure to other, seemingly less relevant subjects that can make workers such assets to their companies. The tech industry has made a strong case for seeking graduates with liberal arts degrees, and it's worth noting that a surprising number of doctors were actually English majors during their undergraduate years. 

In terms of salary, it's true that majors in the STEM fields tend to have a higher median salary directly after college graduation than most other majors, given their high degree of specialization. Once you project further into the future, however, things aren't so clear-cut. Studies show that there are clear benefits to completing an advanced degree in terms of earnings, for one. Also, don't forget about the risk to highly technical jobs: automation

Last thing: you have plenty of time to change your mind. Lots of people do, both during college and afterward, which reflects a broader trend in the number of different jobs more recent graduates hold after college. It requires a different type of preparation than perhaps your parents underwent years ago -- so take what your doctor uncle says with a grain of salt.



How Juniors Can Demonstrate Interest to Colleges Now


How Juniors Can Demonstrate Interest to Colleges Now

Picking up from where we left off in the last post, we are now entering the season in which high school juniors (soon-to-be seniors!) should begin to engage with the colleges at the top of their list.

Many colleges and universities -- particularly the small to mid-sized private schools -- keep track of how much each individual applicant has done to express their interest in attending. When the time comes to read through applications, often the very first page of a student's file is a log of the date, time, and form of each contact that student made in the months leading up to the deadline.

Remember that, while demonstrated interest takes a backseat to criteria such as GPA, difficulty level of classes, test scores, etc., it can tilt the scales between two otherwise evenly matched candidates. In other words, you want to be on your top colleges’ radar well before you actually apply.

First thing’s first: find out which of your favorite colleges look at applicants’ level of interest. To learn the most convenient way of determining whether a college tracks demonstrated interest, visit this CCP blog entry.

Then get to work! Here are the six ways I encourage my students to connect with colleges and make their interest known:

  1. Sign up for a tour & info session. When you’re touring or even taking a day trip out to a local campus, it often feels most convenient to drop in whenever you happen to arrive, entirely on your own schedule. RESIST THE TEMPTATION! The first thing colleges want to know is whether or not you visited and took the formal opportunity to learn about what they offer. When you know your visit dates, the first thing to do is book a tour, usually through the school’s website. Your registration will often go directly into your file, and you’ll even have the chance while you’re there to meet members of the admissions office in person. 
  2. Call the admissions office with questions. If you can’t make it to campus for a visit (which admissions counselors are very understanding of, if you live far away and the costs are too much), let them know. Use that call to ask the kinds of questions you would have otherwise asked in person. If you do visit and later find that you have follow-up questions or inquiries for particular departments or faculty members, call the admissions office anyway. If they don’t have the information you’re after, then they’ll usually be happy to connect you with the person who does.
  3. Connect with your regional representative. College websites now often have a directory that lists admissions counselors by the region that they represent. Do some online research and if you can’t find that direct contact, again, call the admissions office to request an introduction. Call or email your representative, let them know who you are and where you attend high school, let them know how you intend to apply in the fall (if you know you’re aiming for an early deadline, that’s important!), and, if you don’t have any more in-depth questions at that moment, ask how best to reach them if any further questions about the college or application come up.
  4. Join the e-newslist. Nearly every college has some sort of bulletin or newsletter that they send out periodically. Make sure your email address is in their database; it’s helpful to be in the know about what’s happening on campus, as well, for when you interview or have other direct conversations with college representatives.
  5. Follow on social media. As with the e-newslist, this is one of the easiest things for colleges to track and store in their contact log, and it’s often the best source of the most up-to-date information about the latest news.
  6. Request an interview. While the interview is considered an optional piece of the application process — more of an opportunity to get a better feel for your personality — taking the initiative is important for showing that you’re interested and serious about applying. Check out my breakdown of the different types of interview procedures, or these tips for preparing to learn more.


What Your Top-Choice Colleges Want to Know About You...Right Now


What Your Top-Choice Colleges Want to Know About You...Right Now

With National College Decision Day coming up, admissions offices across the country are holding their breaths, waiting to see what this year's yield will be.

If you're not familiar with "yield" in the context of college admissions, Wikipedia puts it well: "Yield in college admissions is the percent of students who choose to enroll in a particular college or university after having been offered admission."

On the other side of the admissions scene, students and families tend to obsess solely over acceptance rates. But issuing acceptances, denials, deferrals, and waitlist spots is only part of the equation; those choices come with a great deal of uncertainty for most colleges.

If too few students decide to attend, the college can find itself without the funds it needs to operate properly -- which is terrible for obvious reasons.

If, however, more students choose to enroll than there are actual spaces available, then it creates a different sort of nightmare scenario for the college. (The fiasco with UC Irvine's rescinding of hundreds of acceptances in July 2017 is a good example of that outcome.)

So, for all the students out there looking at this fall's application season, wondering what you can do to help your chances at your top-choice schools, I have a suggestion: start showing your interest now -- especially at colleges that consider the applicant's level of interest.

 "Demonstrated interest" has become a more prominent factor in colleges' admissions decisions over the past decade.

"Demonstrated interest" has become a more prominent factor in colleges' admissions decisions over the past decade.


How to determine whether a college considers "demonstrated interest":

  1. Visit CollegeDATA online.
  2. Enter your desired college into the search bar & click its name on the next screen to pull up its profile.
  3. Click on the "Admissions" tab.
  4. Scroll down until you see the "Selection of Students" grid. Look for the row called "Level of Applicant's Interest."
Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 9.17.12 AM copy.png

That's it -- tune back into the next blog for a checklist of ways to start showing your interest to colleges now.



Strange Times in California College Admissions


Strange Times in California College Admissions

The Fall 2018 admissions decisions are in. While the Laura Ingraham - David Hogg controversy following Hogg's UC rejections may be taking up the national headlines, this year's results across California are baffling even veteran counselors.

"Had a student accepted to Stanford who was waitlisted at UC Davis. Huh."
"My student who was waitlisted at UC Davis and Cal Poly was accepted at UC Berkeley."
"And a student admitted to UC Berkeley who was waitlisted at Cal Poly SLO, Santa Clara and Pepperdine."
"Have a student admitted EA to Stanford, denied at UCSD."

These are some of the comments bouncing around the national listserve for college admissions counselors -- experts who have assisted students of every background, year after year, in determining the probability of successful college admissions outcomes. When they're caught off-balance, you know that major change is happening.

Why? It's all about the numbers.

Here's what to remember:

  • California probably hasn't seen peak numbers of freshman applicants yet. Acceptance rates will not be getting any more generous or predictable, so diversify your options.
  • Unless you have a top-notch academic record and you're considering UC campuses that still accept around 50% or more students (Santa Cruz, Riverside and/or Merced), no school in the UC system can be considered a "safety."
  • Start your responses to the UC Personal Insight questions early, and make sure you're loading them with all the information a reader can take in a 5-7 minute review.
  • If you're planning to apply to the Cal State University system, make sure you do your homework on which campuses and individual academic programs are impacted.
  • Include a range of out-of-state colleges among your applications. For Californians considering college cost, that might mean exploring the Western Undergraduate Exchange for options of universities in other states that offer tuition breaks that more closely resemble in-state rates.
  • Remember, too, that many mostly smaller liberal arts colleges offer merit aid as an incentive to attract out-of-state students -- consider opening your search to some lesser-known names that are known for their generosity.




Tips for a Great College Visit: While You're There


Tips for a Great College Visit: While You're There

Picking back up from our last blog entry...

Whether you'll be on a junior-year sampler tour or doing targeted senior-year test-drive visits to campuses that have invited you to attend, there are a few things to keep in mind for getting the most from your visit.

It's most about how you engage while you're there, and then how you evaluate and catalog your experience.  Three main things to remember:

Ask many, many questions, and speak to as many different people as you can.

  • If you can get a minute with a professor, a student passing by, or even someone working in the dining hall, you'll be able to get a very honest, unvarnished take on daily campus life.
  • It's not to say that admissions and tour guides AREN'T honest; it's just that they've been trained on a script to highlight certain (very positive) aspects of the college.
  • Speaking to others can provide a more balanced picture, so don't hesitate to ask about the things they wish would change.

Feel out the atmosphere on your own terms.

  • Get a bite to eat! Try out the on-campus dining options yourself, & while you're at it, do some people watching to see what students are like in their natural habitat.
  • Take your own walk on campus, imagining yourself among the students there passing from one class to another.
  • Check out the campus bulletin boards & take a glance at the school newspaper headlines—what's on students' minds?

Document your experience carefully and consistently.

  • Pictures & note-taking are great—if you have a parent with you, ask if they'd be willing to handle those tasks during the visit so that you can give it your undivided attention. (You'll write down your own impressions afterward.)
  • Make sure to ask a standard set of questions. I suggest at least 3 - 5 that you ask both on and off the official tour. (If you're wondering what kinds of questions, you might check out, the National Survey of Student Engagement, for suggestions.)
  • Score your colleges -- in other words, force yourself to come up with a standard rating, even when you feel like you're comparing apples and oranges. I arm my students with a simple scorecard, which might work for you.

One last thing for juniors...

Connect with your regional representative at the college.

  • After the tour, ask if your geographic region's admissions counselor is on campus.
  • Even if that person is not there, say that you would like to introduce yourself, because you would like to open up a line of communication if questions come up as you're getting ready to apply.
  • Ask about the best way to contact that person in the future—email or phone or both.
  • If you have unanswered questions from the tour, ask away.
  • Once you're finished, thank that person for the time spent with you.


Which Type of College Tour Is Right for You?


Which Type of College Tour Is Right for You?

Spring break is right around the corner. For the upper classmen in high schools around the country, it's a prime opportunity to visit college campuses.

Juniors are just diving into college research, getting familiar with the options out there. Seniors are just hearing back from their regular-decision colleges. Both juniors and seniors can get a lot of benefit from visiting colleges -- but with very different mindsets.

It's why I like to encourage families to think of college visits in two different categories: "sampler" tours, and "test-drive" tours

“Sampler” Tours: These tours are for when you are still building an understanding of your options: learning what your college criteria really feel like in person.  Second semester of junior year is perfect timing for the sampler tour. They're part of casting a wide net; after you return home, you should have a much sharper sense of what you must have as well as what is a deal breaker when it comes to your college choices.

The following items are typically true of sampler tours: 

  • They take place before (or very early in) senior year.
  • They enable you to test out a lot of different options.
  • They span a variety of campuses (usually about 5 - 10).
  • They mix official tours/info sessions with “drive by” visits, & stops for fun.
  • They help you to experience the different variables in determining the right-fit college, such as student body size, campus locale, & institution type.

REMEMBER: knowing what you DON'T want is often just as valuable in the college-application process as knowing what you DO. The campuses you visit on these types of tours, therefore, do NOT need to be a perfect match, or all campuses that you already think you have your heart set on. Just get out there and check out the variety of choices you'll have!


On the other hand, once you've reached second semester of senior year, it's time to make the final decision about where you'll spend the next four years, you might want to think about a test-drive tour.

“Test-Drive” Visits: These tours aim to immerse you more deeply in campuses' social and academic atmosphere in order to develop an up-close-and-personal sense of what life as a student will be.  This IS about narrowing down your options & focusing your ability to make the final decision.

You can think about test-drive tours in the following ways:

  • They take place after you’ve received college acceptances. 
  • They focus on a smaller range of schools (sometimes one at a time).
  • They happen after you’ve done all your investigation into a college's offerings and correspondence with your contact at each school.
  • They include overnight stays, sitting in on classes, meeting with professors.
  • They often lead to a gut feeling that this is the right school for you. 


The idea is to clarify your intention behind visits before you go.


How to Choose Courses that Are Right for You


How to Choose Courses that Are Right for You

Some of the most fulfilling meetings I have with students are less focused on college than on what's immediately ahead in high school. 

They're also a great opportunity for students to put a framework in place for an important set of choices in college: course selection.

In our meetings, the process of weighing students' choices of future classes happens in a fairly conversational way. But as I've thought back over those conversations, I've recognized that there are six important steps every high school student should cover:

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  1. Research the course progression pathways and graduation requirements at your school. If you look at the sample chart above, you can see that there are four fairly distinct tracks for four years of math at Santa Monica High School (tracks that are similar to those of most high schools). Here you're getting the birds' eye view so that you can determine where you want to wind up by the time you graduate. I find that it's much easier to stay on track with the work I'm doing during any given semester if I have a sense of where it's leading.
  2. Think about your interests. What types of classes do you typically like? What subject areas are you eager to explore? What topics grab your attention right away? Make sure you're taking the time to really listen to that voice in your head while still taking into account what will make you a strong college applicant. Where do you stand to benefit personally from a particular class? How will you start to develop the life skills that not only colleges but future employers will want to see?
  3. Get a sense of what colleges require and recommend. College prerequisites are usually not the same as high school graduation requirements. If your goal is to be competitive for the Ivy League or an Ivy-like school, remember that most successful applicants take a minimum of 8 - 10 AP courses over their high school career, depending on what's offered at their high school. That's a hefty load. One good resource for checking to make sure you're on target for your top colleges is -- look up your college of interest and head to the "Admissions" tab.
  4. Do some class and teacher reconnaissance with friends who are older. It's always striking to me how many students tend to overlook this step, given the fact that it's usually the teachers who make or break their experience in current classes. Ask around! If there are multiple teachers running a single class, who will you fit with? What is their teaching style and philosophy like? Are they tough graders? Do they pile on the work? Do students tend to feel like it's worthwhile or more like it's a bunch of busywork? How many hours of work do they tend to assign each night or each week for homework? How much writing is there in class?
  5. Lay out your entire schedule and assess your commitments and capacity realistically. Once your options start to shape up, lay them out in one place, along with all of your other commitments outside of school. I recommend doing this in two formats: (1) on a calendar for the full school year + summer; and (2) on a weekly template. The full-year layout will show you clearly your seasons of overload and lightened pressure; the weekly template can give you a much more realistic picture of the hours you have in the week to commit.
  6. Strike up a good balance. For the students who have their sights set on the elite schools, this is a near-impossible task because the competition is so stiff, and because the system is essentially set up to weed out anyone who can't handle almost superhuman workloads. For everyone else, it's about challenging yourself to a degree that gets you outside of that comfort zone slightly, but still affords the opportunity to enjoy your high school years while actually learning a few things that feel interesting and relevant. This type of balancing act will be an ongoing challenge for you throughout life -- now is the time to start giving it the attention it's calling for! 


How to Get Ready for Graduation...from College


How to Get Ready for Graduation...from College

My Teen LAUNCH partner, Kristine, and I gave a presentation last night about the way in which the actions you take now can actually help prepare you for life after college graduation. 

Yep. For those of you still in high school, I'm talking about the year 2022 or later.

Let me be clear: I don't really expect you (or anyone, really) to be thinking with any regularity about the details of your life five or more years down the line. It's difficult enough to envision the end of the day tomorrow...let alone next next month...let alone years from now. 

Setting your guiding goals is an important step -- having some idea of what you'll want to have in place in the academic, professional, social, and personal realms of your life by the time you finish college. But on the day-to-day level, I've found that the most important tool for making my way in life and work is to have a solid framework for making decisions.

One place to start is by thinking about what principles or qualities you hold most dear in yourself and in others: your core values. Bearing in mind your top 3 - 5 values always helps to ground your decisions in your own inner truth -- which in turn will serve the bigger picture of your life.

Beyond that, however, it's important to remember that we're constantly exploring, and in the process of exploring, we're refining our understanding of our individual needs, preferences, and ideal circumstances. Especially in your teens and twenties, when you're that perspective can make any experience valuable for the sake of learning.

No matter what, keep up your involvement in your activities in and outside of the classroom. If there isn't one thing you love to do beyond everything else (which is the case for most of us), then keep adding your range and variety of experience.

Remember that it's just as valuable to know what elements of a team, activity, or work environment you DON'T enjoy as those that you do.

We'd suggest that, for the sake of clarity and momentum, each time you're making a choice about involving yourself in a new activity, you break the process down into four steps:

  1. Identify the interest that you want to pursue next: what's one thing that you have always wanted to try out (for example, learning how to compose music)? Or, in what field do you think your future professional path might lie (e.g., the medical field)? Try to articulate why these interests come to mind: what aspects of those interests specifically appeal to you?
  2. Assess the time & opportunities available: summer before senior year, for instance, is a prime opportunity to dive into a new interest. What other commitments are on your calendar? How many days of the week and hours of the day will you have to commit? Or perhaps you want to start now with a computer coding class at a local community college. What after-school or weekend time blocks can you spare?
  3. Take action: jump on the registration website, call the enrollment office for more information, put together your resume, fill out the application, etc. Be proactive and even if you're not 100% sure it's the perfect fit, the key is to try something that holds some excitement for you.
  4. Evaluate the experience: evaluation is all about finding the value in the experience—remember that learning what resonated for you as well as what you DIDN'T like are equally valuable.
         - What aspects of the experience did you enjoy?
         - What aspects would you like to avoid in the future?
         - How did the experience change your perspective on your original interest?
         - How might you explore your redefined interest in the future? 



5 Things to Remember: What College Is All About


5 Things to Remember: What College Is All About

Since it's the "off-season" for college applications, this is the time of year when families have the chance to be very reflective of what the college experience will stand for.

If you're sixteen or seventeen, it's really the first instance in your life when it's up to you to fill in the blanks about where you'll go and what you'll do next.

If you're headed to college, the nice thing is that you don't have to plan it down to the last detail. Your undergraduate years are set up to help you develop the tools you'll need to manage your adult life. And while getting a job that will enable you to support yourself after graduation is certainly important, it's not the only game in town.

The role that college plays in preparing you for the "real world" isn't exactly a matter of going from Point A to Point B, either.

For most students, college is a more complex, subtle, and often indirect means of getting ready to live a meaningful and fulfilling adult life. I've found that many students tend to find a new degree of confidence and relaxation when we discuss some of the benefits of a liberal arts education that aren't always obvious:

  1. You learn to follow your authentic interests.

    While you'll have some general education or "distribution" requirements, sometimes in subject areas you're not all that crazy about, you still get a range of different courses you can choose from to get those credits. Say you're not a math person but can take Statistics in Sports Management, or perhaps history isn't your thing but you can take Geometry from Euclid to the Modern Cityscape, learning to approach a subject from a preferred angle can make any experience more enjoyable. It's when you get to choose your electives and upper-level courses, however, that you discover what you're really all about -- and often that informs your career path in ways you never could have expected.
  2. You get much clearer about your "types" of people.

    The social aspect of college is really no less important than the academic. When you thoroughly research your college's culture and come to understand the values you share with your future classmates, that self-knowledge pays off for many years to come. (For me, encountering other Northwestern alumni in Los Angeles has become one of the greatest blessings my alma mater could have given me.) Not only do you have overlapping experiences that help you relate in conversation, but you start to understand more of the nuances of people and the kinds of relationships you're most likely to form (i.e., you know who'd make a close friend, a solid roommate, an effective collaborator in a business venture, etc.).
  3. You become more fluid among different fields of thinking.

    College is when you really dive deep into your coursework -- you learn about the distinctions among different schools of philosophy; the defining characteristics of a generation of writers; the various dialects of a parent language; or even the applications of multi-variable calculus in real-life scenarios. You acquire vocabularies and systemic understandings of the ways that people from various walks of life have made sense of the world around you. Which brings us to...
  4. You greatly improve your communication.

    With that range of exposure and new terminology, you begin to think in different ways. You practice building arguments. You are pushed to be razor sharp in the way you articulate your thoughts, both in speaking and in writing. Because you have had a better glimpse into the ways in which other people's minds work, you have an easier time finding the language you need to reach those minds. Those skills are the foundation for your ability to integrate yourself into every future organization or community you wish to become a contributing member of.
  5. You learn how to learn -- independently

    Perhaps the most important skill to acquire amid all the work, study, and exploration that you'll do during college is becoming a self-directed learner. Understanding how you can best find, process, and retain important information is only the start; more crucial than ever in the internet age is knowing where the most credible sources can be found, and how to verify and cross-reference your information. It's not just reading online articles or checking out books from the library; it's also connecting with mentors who can help guide and teach you along the way. Ultimately, what we're talking about is your ability to grow and make meaning out of your life -- for the rest of your life. 



Juniors: Your Upward Trend Starts Now!


Juniors: Your Upward Trend Starts Now!

Many high school juniors, as they starting off second semester, realize that it's time to start thinking about college application season in the fall.

However, the timing often feels a bit awkward: junior year, for most students, tends to be the most challenging time to this point in their high school career. There are the SATs and ACTs to juggle along with challenging courses like AP exams and extracurriculars.

I had a student a couple of years ago -- we'll call her Shayna -- who had a tough start to junior year. The difficulty of balancing study time for three AP courses alongside her responsibilities as co-captain of her soccer team was a lot to handle. When her first semester grade report came in with two C's, there was a lot of angst in the household.

I got to join her team that January of junior year, and my mantra for her was simple:

A strong finish is everything.

We talked through where she'd fallen short in classes like AP Euro and Calculus, and set in place some strategies for how she could better manage her time and improve the quality of her studying while still keeping on top of her game on the soccer field. She finished the year with just one B, and her team team made it to the semi-finals that March.

However, it didn't stop there. Shayna had a research position lined for the summer, but was very careful to arrange her schedule to have a couple of weeks after the school year ended to catch her breath. After an intense but rewarding several weeks in the lab, she had just enough time in August to dive into writing her personal essay for colleges, and set up a weekly college app task list for the fall. 

Fall semester of senior year was her best yet. Shayna finished with straight A's, submitted a handful of early applications for peace of mind, but waited until the regular decision deadlines for her top choices so that she could bring the full weight of her academic performance into play. (She also wanted to retake the ACT, which paid off with a 33!)

The result was that she got into three of her top four colleges, and ultimately went with the option that provided the most generous financial aid package. She's thriving in college, taking courses she loves, and, of course, still killing it on the club soccer field.

The point of the story: a strong finish is what really counts. And because this is the time that the challenge really presents itself on many fronts, it's also the time that yields the most opportunity for juniors.

What really makes you stand out to colleges? That you're ready and eager to rise the the challenge.

Just make sure that you stay on an upward trend from now through the fall.



Happy Holidays!

Whew! It's been a busy application season.

I'll be taking a break from the CCP blog through the holiday season to recuperate, work through all the office-y tasks that have backlogged, and spend some time with family. 

Happy holidays to you and yours, and see you in 2018!




Where Does the Path to College Begin?


Where Does the Path to College Begin?

Once junior year rolls in, whether you're a parent or student, the buzz about college applications is often inescapable. You hear it everywhere you go, from other students, parents, friends, even teachers. So many people saying so many different quickly starts to feel like this ever-present, anxiety-ridden static.

Some of it is for good reason. The landscape of college admissions is always changing, and there are a lot of mixed signals:

  • Colleges are receiving a greater volume of applications than ever — in part because individual students are applying to more colleges on average.
  • Average tuition at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 1990. However, average financial aid packages have also grown.
  • While acceptance rates at the top-ranked U.S. universities continue to drop, the national average acceptance rate is still about two thirds of all applicants.
  • Lastly, the total number of first-time freshmen enrolling in fall is on the decline. In other words, the pool is getting less crowded, although there are millions more in that pool than when most parents were headed to college.
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But what does it all mean? What should Class of 2019 families be doing now?

Two things:

  1. Start learning about the stages of the college application process. In one year, you will be neck-deep in your application work. Learning what happens when and how to approach each piece is the single best way to alleviate the general feeling of stress. If you're ready to dive in, my Teen LAUNCH colleague and I are offering a slate of free events to help you form a plan. (The next one will be November 18th, 2017.)
  2. Start taking stock of everything you have going on at this moment in time. Think about the trajectory you're on, the story that you're already telling through your classes, grades, and involvement in your activities. Think about how those items will be perceived by admissions readers; if there is anything you'd like to change, now is the time to set that in motion. If you'd like a handy self-assessment tool, check out this Teen LAUNCH blog for a free download (scroll to the bottom).




3 Simple Steps to Start the Most Common (and Important) Supplements


3 Simple Steps to Start the Most Common (and Important) Supplements

After the Personal Essay, the next big hurdle in the writing process for college applications are the supplements. As you've probably realized by now, there is one question that colleges tend to ask far more frequently than any other. 

There are many variations of this particular question, depending on the angle colleges want students to take in their response. Here are a few:

  • "How do you imagine yourself living and learning at Bard?"
  • "Why are you interested in Kenyon?"
  • "How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excite you?"
  • "Which aspects of Tufts' curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: 'Why Tufts?'"

As you can see in the last example, no matter how the prompt is worded, it all comes down to one central question:

Why us?

However, it's not all about the college. There are two sides to the equation, and so when I approach "why us?" supplements with students, I encourage them to think about it in three parts:

  • What is it that I am bringing to the table?
  • What does this college offer that will uniquely satisfy my goals and needs?
  • Why am I a perfect match for this particular community?

If you look at the question from each of these angles, you can see that they're asking you to make a clear, sharply reasoned case for why the fit is right. Your job is to show that the colleges was worth the time you invested researching its unique offerings and to sell them on why admitting you would lead to a win-win arrangement.

Here are the three key steps for writing these responses effectively:

  1. Lead with your big goals: what do you want to have accomplished for yourself by the time you graduate? I think about these in three main areas: academically/professionally, socially, and personally. 
  2. Match the college's specific features to the pursuit of your goals. What majors, minors, courses, facilities, study abroad programs, research opportunities, etc. would fulfill your needs throughout your four years?
  3. Provide concrete reasons for being drawn to the college's offerings. It's not enough to use as justification, "This would be an excellent field for me to enter," or, "This class is a very practical choice for future success." Go in depth: "I'm drawn to the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program because I wish to analyze economics while incorporating the moral and humanitarian views of philosophy and politics, while learning how economics affects the world. I feel this program would teach me to find solutions for economic tension without neglecting justice and human welfare."


The Number One Way to Make Sure Your Personal Statement Stands Out


The Number One Way to Make Sure Your Personal Statement Stands Out

Whether you're just starting to think about possible topics for what you'll write or you are neck-deep in writing your main college essay, here's something to think about.

Imagine you're an admissions reader.

It's the week after the final submission deadline, and your office has just received thousands of applications to review. It's time to divide and conquer. You have only a few weeks to read through everything, and, as a committee, decide who is accepted, denied, and put onto the waitlist.

In order to get through everything on time, you have a quota to meet every day until the deadline. You will need to make it through a minimum of 50 applications each day -- more if you want to have a day off here and there.

You block out a couple of hours to get started, and you sit down with a pile of applications, reading one after the other. It is a lot to keep straight: grades, GPAs, activities, schools...and then the personal essays:

They're a real mixed bag. Some of them are written like five-paragraph academic papers or are simply a rehash of student resumes. Bleh.

Others just seem to bleed together -- a hodge-podge of "eye-opening" travel stories, volunteer experiences that revealed "how fortunate I have been," game-winning goals, nerve-racking moments on stage, the death of a beloved grandparent or pet. Ugh. 

But then, every so often, all of a sudden, a student's piece seems to jump off the page. It's energizing. Refreshing. Striking. 

Why? Because, as the reader, I got to join the writer on a little journey. I learned something about that person -- something that feels essential to understanding who that person really is. It stuck with me. Now, I feel connected to that person. I'm invested.

But I have other applications to read, and by the time I get through my 50+ applications for the day, I am spent. My brain feels a little mushy, and it's tough to remember any applicant with absolute clarity. But there were a few people who still stick in my mind.

So it goes for admissions counselors at peak season. For the students who want to be the ones who stick in their readers' minds, however, you have one central question to address:

What is the ONE thing I want my reader to know about who I am?

In other words, what's your headline

I like to differentiate a headline from a topic. Identifying the topic is simple: it's the noun that a writing piece centers around. For example, I had students last year who came into coaching wanting to write about these topics:

  • my love of reading
  • discovering writing
  • keeping secrets

Topics in themselves are too simple, however, to communicate something essential about you. In order to determine the headline, we're asking for HOW a verb relates you to the topic. It's your topic in action -- in other words, your story as it centers around that topic.

Here's how the topics above evolved into these students' headlines:

  • how rejecting the literary canon helped me rekindle my love of reading
  • how discovering empathy for others through writing characters gives me a sense of place in the world
  • how examining the secrets I was keeping enabled me to be more honest with myself and others.

Your task: name the thing that your personal statement is about, and then create your own headline, a statement about HOW you grew in regard to that topic. It's the surest way to make sure that you stick in your reader's mind.