The Home Stretch: How to Power Through Fall Applications


The Home Stretch: How to Power Through Fall Applications

I’ve been hearing it (and thinking it) all week: what happened to September?

If it’s fall of your senior year, I have a reality check for you: 

How many weeks do you have to get those applications in?

Let me throw a few numbers at you:

  • Most early applications (both Early Decision and Early Action) have submission deadlines of November 1st. That's five weeks from this Friday.

  • For those applying to California schools, the UCs and CSUs have a submission deadline of November 30th. That's nine weeks from this Saturday.

  • Then, many students' regular decision deadlines fall on January 1st. But who wants to spend the holidays working on applications? Today, we have about twelve weeks until winter break.

Thinking in terms of weeks really helps to put things into perspective, right? You just never have quite as long as you might think you do. 

But here is how you can use this perspective to your advantage: map out a week-by-week schedule of all deadlines and application tasks on your to-do list through the rest of the fall.

It's a tool I refer to as the Home Stretch.

Here are the steps to start your personal Home Stretch timeline:

  1. Open up a blank document and make a list of every week from now through next January (or later, if you have deadlines that fall past that window). Label each with the first or last day of the week, whatever you prefer.

  2. Add all major exams, travel, shows, other commitments that you know of this fall. (Keeping your personal calendar and any of your classes syllabi on hand makes this part much easier.)

  3. Add all of your colleges' application deadlines.

  4. Choose a date by which you intend to finish ALL of your application work.

  5. Choose your intended submission date for each college application — make sure it's at least 3 - 7 days before the actual deadline in case anything is missing.

  6. Make a to-do list at the very top of all the supplements and word counts. Make sure to include items from the Summer College Checklist if you have not already completed them.

From there, you'll want to work backward, breaking each task into the smallest, most manageable pieces possible, and spreading those sub-tasks across the weeks. 

Here's a glimpse at one past student's Home Stretch as he started to flesh it out:

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You can also download a different, more detailed example here.

The longer your to-do list, the easier it is to cross those items off — and get that momentum going to power through the weeks ahead!

Good luck.


How to Make College Essays Both Unique and Relatable


How to Make College Essays Both Unique and Relatable

There's a paradox in the kind of writing that goes into personal statements:

Your writing must be both unique to you as the writer and central character, and yet it must also be relatable—meaning that you must communicate your personal experiences in a way that resonates with others, as if your reader had been there with you in the moment.

Balancing those two aspects can be difficult.

When a piece of writing is too universal, too broad, then it becomes a cliche and reveals little or nothing about the writer as an individual.

On the other hand, if a piece lacks that relatable quality, then there is no way for the reader to share in the experience of the writer; the piece feels dull and distant as a result.

Each year I see both problems come up in students' college essay writing.

It makes me think of when I had a student (let's call her Jenna) come to me with two separate drafts of what might be personal statements.

Jenna's first piece centered on the death of a beloved aunt. The language and some of the details that Jenna used to paint the scene were poignant and poetic—I remember a great anecdote about gifting a set of salt-and-pepper shakers that hilariously turned into something like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie. The problem was that shortly after that, I found myself feeling like I was floating in space; there wasn't anything that tied those sensory details back to the writer's internal experience. I felt like I was on the outside looking trying to look at something I knew was supposed to be meaningful for the narrator...but I didn't really know why.

Jenna's second piece had the opposite problem. It was a whirlwind of the many ways in which Jenna takes in the world around her, from photography to journaling to breathing in the spices wafting on the breeze in an outdoor market. While I, as the reader, have had my own versions of those experiences in my life, when I finished reading, I didn't know what distinguished Jenna's experiences from mine. There wasn't enough detail to make the piece unique and therefore memorable.

I share Jenna's story because I think it highlights the need for three essential components in any effective (and affective) autobiographical writing: concrete details, an angle, and reflection.

Concrete Details:

You've heard the old advice "show -- don't tell," right? Using concrete sensory details in your writing -- including some dialogue here and there -- invites the reader into the scene. Their imagination activates and they can feel as if they're standing right there, taking in everything that you were experiencing in that moment. 

An Angle:

We're not talking about this word in the sense of a hidden agenda; you could just as easily think of it as your "perspective" or "filter." Your angle is where the external details meet your internal thoughts and feelings. It can be the unusual way that you define "leadership," your individual take on required community service hours, or your surprising reaction to your required summer readings. In short, this is where you begin to put your individual spin on the details you include, and set yourself up for looking back and putting your more immediate reactions into a broader context. Which leads us to...


This is the point in your writing at which you fully take a step back and consider how your past experiences have informed the person you are at this moment in time, and the direction you think you're headed in the coming years. The quality of reflection in your writing directly mirrors the quality of your personal growth, and gives meaning to the perspective and details that you've chosen to highlight about your past experiences.



How to Approach College Interviews


How to Approach College Interviews

"The colleges I'm applying to say that interviewing is optional.

How important is the interview in admissions decisions? Should I do it?"

The short answers:
1.) An interview can certainly tip the scales in competitive admissions.
2.) YES, you should interview -- if you're willing to put some work into preparing.

Let me back up.

The most compelling reason, to my mind, to take advantage of interview opportunities in undergraduate admissions is that you will be required to interview for nearly every other education- or career-related opportunity for the rest of your life. 

In other words, get used to it, get comfortable with it, and, most importantly, learn to interview well.

I believe that colleges would generally require interviews if it were (a) fair to students (which it's not, given families' varying backgrounds, resources, and geographic locations), and (b) easily manageable for admissions offices, which it's also not, given the amount of time and effort that already goes into evaluating each application.

Why would they require interviews?

Because there is no substitute for getting an in-person feel for an applicant. 

Demeanor, eye contact, tone of voice, sense of humor, thought process, spontaneity, even how interviewees choose to present themselves in terms of dress, handshake, and preparedness with questions -- these things just can't be conveyed fully on paper.

So what should I be doing right now? 

Two things: research your colleges' individual policies on interviewing so you don't miss your window, and then practice your responses with someone you trust.

The easiest way to find your colleges' interview policies is to google "[COLLEGE NAME] undergraduate admissions interview."

There are generally 5 types of interview policies:

  1. Interview on campus in the months leading up to application season. Those who can't travel to campus usually have the option to interview in their local area through the college's alumni association. If you're applying early, the cutoff for these interviews is often November 1st. DON'T wait until you submit your application before requesting an interview! Check out Barnard's on-campus policy as an example.

  2. Interview once you've applied or during your application. Check out Northwestern's policy as examples.

  3. Interviews by the college's request only. These also take place after your application has been submitted, except the college selects whom it will interview and initiates the process. Check out Tulane's policy as an example.

  4. No interviews offered / informal interviews only. Amherst's take is a good example.

  5. Video introductions in lieu of an interview. Check out the University of Chicago’s “Optional Video Profile” as an example.

All it takes is some forethought and a little practice. Here's how.

Prepare the key points that you want to share by brainstorming your answers to the questions below.

Then give the list of questions to a friend. Have that person ask questions at random and then follow them up with their own clarifying questions. 

Use specific examples to support your answers, and remember that when you're headed to speak with an actual college representative, carefully review your research to demonstrate that you've done your homework on that particular school. (In other words, make sure you have a detailed answer for "Why us?")

  1. Where do you think your academic strengths lie?

  2. What did you do this past summer?

  3. What do you hope to do after graduation?

  4. What is your biggest weakness?

  5. What would you do if you had a free day?

  6. If you could change one thing about your high school, what would it be?

  7. What do you do for fun?

  8. What books have had a significant impact on you? What have you read recently?

  9. What individual (dead or alive, historical or fictional) has had the most influence on you and why?

  10. How do you define success? What needs to happen for you to feel successful?

  11. How do you respond to failure or rejection?

  12. What do you hope to get out of your college experience?


Put a Face with Your Name Before You Apply to College


Put a Face with Your Name Before You Apply to College

Imagine that you are part of a committee in charge of putting together a team for a science competition.

The participants are from all across the country, and you haven't had the chance to meet any team members in person, but they have submitted all of their credentials to you for consideration. You have a record of their past activities, their transcripts, their resumes, and a couple of recommendations from their teachers (whom you've also never met). 

Say that you have one last spot on the team and that you have two excellent candidates to discuss with your committee. On paper, the candidates have similar qualifications. They have taken many of the same classes, they have similar grades, and the cover letters that they've included with their applications make both seem intelligent and friendly.

But then one of them contacts you to see if you have a few minutes to chat.

Because you don't live in the same city, you set up a conversation over Skype. Over the course of fifteen minutes, you ask a couple of questions about the AP Physics course she took last year and the internship she's doing this summer. She asks questions about the competition and what you're looking for in the team members. You even wind up on a quick sidebar about the Netflix show you're both watching.

The next day, you meet with your committee. When it's your turn to present your candidates, which one will you make a more persuasive case for?

A little connection can go a long way.

College admissions counselors want to know their applicants so that they can make the most informed decisions possible about how well those students might fit in.

Every little bit can help. If your admissions counselor knows you on a more personal level, that familiarity can make a stronger case before the committee.

Here are five tips for making a more personal connection with your admissions officials:

  1. Reach out yourself. If you know you'll be applying to a certain college in the fall, jump on the school's website and look up the contact information for their admissions office. Many websites will explicitly tell you which official represents your city or region. If not, call the admissions office general line and ask to speak to that person. CAUTION: DON'T leave this step to Mom and/or Dad!

  2. Show up in person. Most admissions counselors either live in or travel to the regions they represent each fall. Find out if they'll be coming to your high school for an information session. If not, are they doing any other local events, like a college fair? After their presentation, make sure to walk up and introduce yourself. Which brings me to tip #3...

  3. Practice your introduction. Aside from your name and high school, what are one or two things you want your admissions counselor to remember about you? Are you interested in cognitive science? Are you a committed tuba player? Will you be applying to their college early decision? Make sure that your talking points roll off the tongue -- it usually takes some repetition, so practice at home with a friend or parent.

  4. Ask great questions. If you're reaching out to the admissions office for the first time, perhaps you'd like to know if your possible field of study is in high demand and therefore has tougher admissions standards. Maybe you'd like to know how many people are in the program or if you might have a conversation with a faculty member from that department. Maybe you'd just like to introduce yourself to your admissions rep, let them know you'll be applying in the fall, and ask if it would be okay to contact them directly if any questions about the application process come up. IMPORTANT: DON'T ask questions that can be easily answered with a Google search or glance at their website.

  5. Remember that they want to know and help you. Don't be shy. It is perfectly okay to express your interest in a college directly or even to say that you simply wanted to put a face with your name. It's not cheating or gaming the system; it's about showing professionalism and an understanding of how this system works. That said, be mindful of the fact that college reps have very busy schedules, be concise, and make sure to show your gratitude for their generosity with a thank-you note.




How (and When) to Ask for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation


How (and When) to Ask for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation

One important step for college-bound students wrapping up their junior year: request those letters before the year is out!

When do recommenders typically write letters?

The vast majority of recommenders write their letters during the fall. However, there are some very industrious and forward-thinking recommenders who will actually write at least some of their letters over summer. Remember that (a) your teachers who write your rec letters do it as a personal favor (i.e., they're not paid for the time they spend writing); (b) it's always better to give someone doing you a favor plenty of time to do it so that they don't feel rushed; and (c) the earlier your recommender writes their letter about you, the more energy and enthusiasm they're likely to have while doing it. 

In other words, regardless of when your recommenders will write the letter, the sooner you can make the request, the better. 

What do they need from me?

Most high schools put into place a series of deadlines by which you need to have requested your recommendation letters and submitted some supplemental materials, such as a brag sheet, cover letter, and/or list of colleges you'll apply to. Some recommenders will actually supply you with their own questionnaire so that you can spell out exactly what you'd like for them to convey about you. 

Don't skimp on the work that you put into these materials! Remember that your recommenders, because of their adult perspective and area of expertise, add a lot of dimension to your overall application. If you have all the content teed up that helps put your best foot forward, using it will make their workload much more manageable.

When do I request them?

NOW, before the end of junior year -- before finals, if possible. Don't wait. Be among that first wave to ask.

How do I request recommendation letters without either coming off as pushy or like some sort of kiss-up?

That's the money question. I would suggest working off of a basic script like this:

"Do you feel like you could write me an outstanding letter of recommendation for my college applications this fall?"

The most important part of the whole thing is the superlative (look it up!) you use to describe the letter of rec. Think about it: you don't want anything less than the best that this potential recommender has to offer. Any ambivalence on the part of the person endorsing you will immediately let the wind out of your sails. A lukewarm letter, while not outrightly negative in itself, will create a strong contrast to the tone you're working to strike up through the rest of your application, and that can blemish (and effectively ruin) the picture you're trying so hard to paint.

If your prospective recommender hesitates or flatly uses the opportunity to beg out of the job, look somewhere else. Trust me. If, on the other hand, you get an unflinching yes, well, score one for you! Ask what you can do to make the job as easy as possible, and what sort of timeline they plan to work on so that you can follow up appropriately.

To recap, here are your next steps:

  1.  Identify your recommenders ASAP. (Not sure who or how many letters you'll need? Check out this handy guide.

  2. Prepare your brag sheet (or junior questionnaire, as it's called at some high schools) with talking points about yourself. (Don't have a brag sheet at your school? Check out the questions that Santa Monica High School asks.

  3. Build your personal rapport (without overdoing it) with your intended recommenders, and, before the end of junior year, ask if they'd be willing to write an EXCELLENT letter of recommendation for you for the fall.

  4. Ask away! Be among the first students to ask for your recommenders’ time and careful thinking, and make sure that you’re ready to supply everything needed to make the job easy.




Have You Started Setting Goals for Your Future?


Have You Started Setting Goals for Your Future?

College is one part of a much bigger picture — a fact that, for teenagers, can be easy to lose sight of.

Preparation for the admissions process often becomes all-consuming in high school. It seems like everything you’re doing comes down to getting into college, rather than what actually happens during college — and all the years afterward.

If you can get some clarity about what you want out of your adult life, years down the road, then you can better define how college will support that vision. Here are three broad areas to consider:

  • Your professional aspirations. For now, your job is school, so for the next five years (at least), academics essentially are your profession.

    • How clear do you feel like your path is? What are your top priorities in your work? Wealth? Recognition within your field? A published body of work? A business of your own? Do you like to work with computers? With other people? Do you want to make the world a better place?

  • Your social needs. Look at your social life now: do you maintain a lot of friends and social activity outside of school? Do you do better in small-group situation? Do you keep just a few, very close friends, or perhaps even a single best friend? What about your relationships with your family members?

    • In college, what do you envision? Parties at the fraternities? Activities with the other residents in your dorm? Going to sporting events with the crowds? Study buddies at the library? Hanging out in your room with your roommate? Meeting your future spouse?

  • Your personal needs. What do you need in your life, whether or not it's part of your profession? What do you choose to do with your free time? What do you wish you were trying more of now?

    • Quiet time? Live music? Daily exercise? Thrill seeking? To be in nature? Reading time? Video games? How do you recharge your batteries? What do you gravitate toward in your free time?

Now, think of one thing you want in each of these areas. What is one concern that you have about achieving it? What is one thing you know about yourself that makes you feel confident about achieving it? 

  • In fall of your freshman year in college, how do you envision having progressed toward each goal?

  • Now think about each goal in 5 years.

  • 10 years?

No matter what decisions you have to make ahead, if you check back in with your guiding goals — like navigating the seas according to the stars — you know you're headed in the right direction.



A Response to the Scandal


A Response to the Scandal

One thing I love about working with teenagers is that they're still malleable, still open to positive change, still looking for meaning and to make a difference in the world for the better.

My experience is that that desire still lives in them, no matter how they've otherwise been conditioned. That's because there is still plenty of innocence in teenagers, no matter what they've done or witnessed, because there is inevitably so much that they have not yet done or witnessed.

And yet, they're old enough to take a substantial degree of responsibility for their impact on the world and the people around them, and, in facing the end of the high school years, they are at the perfect crossroads to begin taking on the question: what do they want that impact to be in the long term?

What the admissions scandal reveals is the extent to which parents often sacrifice their child’s agency, most times ripping it away out of fear or anxiety, whether or not they or their kids are aware of it.

It’s certainly important to recognize the good in parents’ intentions, that the actions they take are in the name of securing a promising future for their kids—at least, what the parents perceive as the most direct path to success.

But here is where the waters get muddy: it's that demand for “a clear and unambiguous path to success” that many parents, peers, and even mentors have instilled in teenagers, coupled with the effort to assert control over the unpredictable circumstances that life throws at us, that sets the whole tone for the conversation that we're having about the state of admissions and this scandal today.

Everyone can relate to that desire for security, and perhaps also to the problem inherent in it: there is no direct, unambiguous path to success, because there is no such thing as security in the permanent sense. There will always be uncertainty. Life will play its hand.

All we can ever do is prepare to play the cards in our own hands as well as we can in light of what's falling on the table.

There's a big problem, whether the ace in their sleeve is deemed legal or not, when parents swoop in to take their kid's turn. It not only signals a deflating lack of confidence in their son or daughter, but it distorts that young person’s own sense of their abilities.

Without a context of both successes and setbacks, a person cannot know what they're capable of. If they never learn what they genuinely can or cannot accomplish, they'll struggle to find meaning in their pursuits. Without a sense of meaning, one lacks purpose. Without purpose, we drift at best and, at worst, we collapse into tragic self-loathing.

Transitioning to college should be a time for excitement, for discovery, for anticipation of the possibilities brimming in a yet-unknown future. As with all things unknown, there will be fears and insecurities that naturally float to the surface. This is the time to meet those fears with a curious mind, acknowledge them, learn where they come from, question what they're about, and treat them as a true test of one's integrity and courage.

Transitioning out of high school into the first stage of adult life should be a time for reflection: what have I been doing and why? What inspires me, compels me to action, gives me a sense of forward momentum in my daily life? What do I value? How will my future environments reflect what I'm all about? What do I need to grow? What do I hope to experience to build a more complete vision of my future, and what will help me to lead a richer, more fulfilled life? What role will my continuing education—both formal and informal—play?

Which brings me to the pride that I take in the work I do as an ethical and professionally affiliated college consultant.

Our central objective is to empower the students we work with. We provide resources, most often in the form of accurate and timely information, to apprise students of their options, and we assist them in making informed choices in order to realize the transformational potential of the transition to college.

We soundboard as students begin to articulate their goals for and pose questions about college and their future life. We hold up the mirror as they learn to describe what they value and how they uniquely benefit the communities they become part of. We challenge them to become sharper advocates for themselves, to discern, attain, and ultimately make the most of the opportunities that the college experience offers in order to maximize their potential as students, peers, and citizens.

We create a safe space, where vulnerability is not just welcomed but essential, so that students can share their dreams, anxieties, and questions without a fear of judgment. We demonstrate—often by modeling it ourselves—how potent authenticity can be when rallying others to our cause.

We encourage calculated risk-taking and illuminate how to diversify options. We provide perspective and re-balance egos in the face of rejection; we celebrate our students’ hard work when it brings good news.

We cultivate resilience in the young people we work with—because that, above any particular college’s pedigree, is what will sustain them on the long and circuitous path to fulfillment.

We work within a deeply flawed system, to be sure, from the socioeconomic inequalities to the dramatic advantages bestowed on athletes and legacies. Some might argue that independent college consultants are a direct result of the system, whether it’s due to the demand for a leg up on the competition or the discouraging student-to-counselor ratios in most of our country’s high schools.

It’s a system that most of us would agree needs to change based on our collective values that will take everyone involved.

In the meantime, though, we can educate families as to the realities of the system while injecting the admissions process with our own values—helping our students become more effective self-advocates, more connected and caring citizens, and more capable stewards of their own destiny.


What’s Your Intention for the Year?


What’s Your Intention for the Year?

It’s almost February. How are your New Year’s resolutions going?

New year’s resolutions, if you ask me, are overrated.

How many times have you tried setting one in place only to give in with a months or even weeks? They’re just so easy to blow out of proportion, making them so demanding that there’s just no way you’ll be able to sustain that big of a change in the long run.

My recommendation: set a one-word intention for the year.

Think of it as a central theme to your story over the next twelve months. If you’re seeking growth in your life—and all of us are, in some shape or form—identify one essential way in which you feel you have the potential to growth and find a single word for it. 

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Your one word can act as your compass needle: it’s far easier to make decisions when you have one primary principle to consider. It acts as an umbrella, actually, that then encompasses many different areas of your life.

To give an example, my word of last year was “abundance.” My intention was to address this sense of scarcity I felt myself stuck with nearly all the time: there never seemed to be enough money or time or energy to go around. I worried about whether I’d have enough work, whether I was doing enough to strengthen my business, whether I was spending enough quality time with my wife and friends, whether there were enough hours in the day or days in the week to accomplish all I wanted to. 

Coming back to this intention of recognizing abundance and shifting my mindset to invite a greater sense of “enough” did wonders. I wound up with more students, more progress within my business and creative work, more income, and a great enough sense of space in our household for a new member of the family, who is due to join us this month. Keeping hold of my “abundance” intention helped me to recognize when and where my needs and our household’s needs were already being met, when it had been easy to overlook before. And it helped me to make way for more.

For students starting to look ahead at college:

What do you want out of the end of your time in high school?

What do you need to be ready to make the most out of it? Independence? A sense of direction? Stronger focus? Clarity of the vision you have for your future?

For parents:

How do you want to make the transition? A greater sense of peace? Trust in your student to navigate the process of leaving the nest? A tighter sense of collaboration with your student? Patience?

I can’t for the life of me remember where or from whom I learned the one-word intention, but that person deserves credit.

With whatever thoughts you have put forth for the new year, try this one and see what sticks.


Deferred? Show Your Continued Interest!


Deferred? Show Your Continued Interest!

In the wake of early applications, many students have found themselves in limbo with some of their top-choice colleges: neither accepted nor denied, but rather deferred to the regular decision pool of applicants.

What do I make of a deferral? What does it mean?

A lot of students are prone to interpreting a deferral as a rejection. It’s not—emphatically!

In most cases, it actually means that you fulfill the admissions committee’s standards for acceptance—otherwise, they’d do you the courtesy of saying no, and then you’d move on with your life.

It also usually means that you were part of remarkable group of applicants—so many that it was difficult for the admissions counselors to make a decision. By placing you into the regular pool of applicants, they’re giving themselves an opportunity to get more context, and to make sure that they’re not squeezing out other stellar students who have yet to submit their applications.

They may also want to see more from you: how much does that college really mean to you? If you applied Early Action and are not bound to attending if they were to admit you, then how can they feel confident that you’ll attend when given the option?

Here’s where the Letter of Continued Interest comes in. I offer students the following points of advice:

Follow directions! If a college expressly requests that you send no further materials…then don’t. Disregarding their instructions is not going to help your case. If a college states a preference for how to reaffirm your enthusiasm (such as Tulane’s Continued Interest form, for instance), make sure to use that pathway.

Before you begin your writing, do a little more exploration: make contact with current students who share your interests or background in order to gather more details for why you want to attend (you could also reach out to a professor in your department of choice or reconnect with your alumni interviewer).

Make your address personal: make sure that you’re writing to someone specific in the admissions office—preferably your region’s representative.

At the outset of your letter, reaffirm that you’re grateful to be included in the second round of consideration; acknowledge the scope and difficulty of admissions officials’ job, and NEVER show a hint of frustration, disappointment, or other negative emotion.

Present new details on why you’d like to attend; don’t rehash your original application. This is why you’re looking for the inside scoop from current or former members of that campus community.

Share developments in your personal aspirations: recent academic accomplishments (e.g., an A on a major paper and why it was important to you), exposure to new subject matter that impacts your choice of major or minor, or new realizations about what you want from your college experience (and connect them to what that college specifically has to offer).

Make important updates to your application: improved SAT/ACT scores, a new undertaking through your school club, placing in the championship of your sport, breaking a fundraising record during your winter donations drive, etc.

Submit your letter before the end of January. The sooner they receive the letter, the more authentic your interest seems; you replied without hesitation. However, making some time to gather together your research and updates is also important. Since admissions committees will have begun reviewing regular-deadline applications shortly after January 1st, you don’t want to wait much longer to make your letter part of your application.

Need examples? There are plenty of threads online about Letters of Continued Interest: check out these links from ThoughtCo, CollegeVine, and Reddit. Good luck!


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 2020 families be doing now?

Three 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 of your applications 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 free webinar this coming Saturday to help you form a plan.

  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. Set a handful of attainable goals that will help you make a strong finish to junior year. After the holidays, you’ll begin second semester, and if you have your sights set on 3 - 5 ways you can improve your academic performance or strengthen your involvement in extracurricular activities, you’ll be maximizing your chances of acceptance at your top-choice colleges.




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.