College Admissions

December 13, 2016

After the PSAT

Students who took the PSAT in October can access their scores online now, and the test score report can help juniors create a plan for additional testing. Students with strong PSAT scores can relax a bit, knowing that they should be in good shape for the SAT.

There is no reason to panic if the PSAT scores are on the low side. These scores are not sent to colleges. They are just an indication of how a student would do on the SAT at this point. For some students, low scores may mean that the ACT is a better test for them. All colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, and many test prep companies offer diagnostic tests to help students determine which exam is better suited to their strengths. Once students have identified which test is best, they can focus on that exam.

Most students benefit from some kind of test preparation, and there are lots of options. Students who are very motivated and self-disciplined can take advantage of free SAT preparation offered by Khan Academy, in collaboration with The College Board. The program uses PSAT results to identify areas that need strengthening and offers six full-length, official practice SATs. The ACT offers its own low-cost online test preparation program as well as an online live classroom program provided by Kaplan Test Prep.

Many companies offer test prep classes, which are usually less expensive than private tutoring. Some students like the classroom approach, and if they take the course with friends, they can help each other with homework between sessions. Classroom prep programs can be time-intensive, and students need to be available to attend all sessions in order to get the best results.

Individual tutoring can be tailored to each student. Another advantage is that students may feel more accountable and attentive when working with a tutor, and they may feel more comfortable asking for a math problem to be explained several times in the one-to-one meetings. Sessions are typically an hour and a half per week, and can be scheduled at the student’s convenience. Tutoring is most effective if the student completes practice test sections between sessions. Getting the right tutor is also important, and if you are dealing with a test prep company, you can ask for a different tutor if the first one is not a good match.

While test preparation can help some students boost scores by 100 or more points, it doesn’t work for everyone. It may be extreme test anxiety, or just the fact that standardized tests are not the best way for some students to demonstrate their knowledge.

It is understandably upsetting to try your best and still not end up with test scores that reflect your academic ability. But it doesn’t mean that student won’t have great college options. Each year, more schools are becoming test-optional. While it’s true that University of California and most highly selective schools still require test scores, there are some very selective schools that do not require test scores, including Wesleyan University, George Washington University, Wake Forest University, Bryn Mawr College and Bowdoin College, as well as Pitzer College here in Southern California.

You can find a complete list of test-optional colleges at I always encourage students to find a couple of test- optional colleges they really like before they take the SAT or ACT. Then they can go into the exam knowing that they don’t even have to send the scores to schools they’re excited about attending. This helps reduce anxiety, and that can make the entire college admissions process less stressful and more successful.

May 23, 2016

Big Changes in College Admission

There are changes in the world of college admission every year. But in 14 years as an independent college counselor, I have never seen more changes coming at the same time.

In standardized testing, we have the new SAT, which debuted last month. While the exam is now much more similar to the ACT, there are still differences. Test planning has been complicated by the fact that the College Board did not release scores from the March administration until May 10 and the May test scores will not be available until mid-June.

The good news is that more colleges join the test-optional list each year. Skidmore College announced a new test-optional policy a few weeks ago, and there will certainly be more announcements from colleges in the coming months. Students who are anxious about testing should include at least one test-optional college on their college list.

The financial aid application timeline is also changing. High school seniors applying for financial aid will no longer need to wait until January 1 to complete the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Students can apply beginning October 1, using prior-prior year (PPY) tax data. Seniors who will be applying to college in the fall will be using 2015 rather than 2016 tax information. The new policy should enable colleges to provide earlier and more accurate information about what kind of financial aid a student will receive from a college.

There are also changes in college applications. Several popular schools that previously required their own applications have joined the Common Application, including Indiana University and University of Wisconsin. This will make it easier for students to apply to those schools.

But the biggest change will be the new Coalition Application. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success was started by a group of colleges to enhance access to an affordable education and provide early engagement to help under-resourced students. Coalition members are required to meet several criteria, including a minimum 70% six year graduation rate. Private schools must meet all demonstrated financial need for each domestic student they admit. Public schools must have affordable tuition and provide need-based financial aid for in-state students. More than 90 institutions have joined the Coalition. The list includes the Ivies, Stanford and other highly selective schools, as well as more than 35 public schools including University of Florida, University of Maryland and University of Washington.

The additions to the Common Application and the introduction of the Coalition Application mean that students who apply to a number of public universities outside of California may find they will have to complete fewer applications. But new systems usually have glitches, and students should not be surprised if the Coalition Application tests their patience during this first year. In fact, concerns about the new technology have led some Coalition members to delay using the Coalition Application for a year.

The UC has its own changes, and will no longer have a personal statement where students respond to two required prompts with a total of 1,000 words. Instead, students will choose four of eight personal insight questions, and can write up to 350 words for each question. While students may end up doing more writing for the new UC application, the more targeted questions will provide flexibility, and should enable students to provide a more complete picture for UC application readers.

The Coalition has released essay prompts, but not all member institutions will be requiring essays. Prompts for the Common Application essay will be the same as last year. Supplemental essays required by many colleges may change and will become available over the summer. Students who are eager to get started on application essays should verify that they have the correct prompts before writing their essays.

April 2, 2015

Making Your Final Decision

So many students worry about getting accepted to college, but in recent weeks I have talked to seniors facing a different problem. They have 10 or more offers of admission. It may be a good problem to have, but choosing a college when you have so many options can feel overwhelming.

This is the time to visit the colleges, even if you’ve seen them before. The schools can look different now that you’ve been admitted and the prospect of spending four years on a campus is real.

Programs for admitted students can be exciting, and you will meet other prospective freshmen. But these events are designed to persuade admitted students to enroll, and it can be more helpful to visit on a typical day. Ask to sit in on at least one class in your major as well as another class in a different subject. If you don’t know your major, choose something that sounds interesting. If you visit the same class at each college, such as introductory psychology, you will be able to compare the class sizes and student/professor interactions and class discussions at the different schools. This is especially important if you are considering large universities and small liberal arts colleges, as the classroom experiences will be different.

Try to meet students in your major. Ask what they like and don’t like about the program, how helpful their professors are, what kind of internship and research experiences they have had, and if they are seniors, what are their post-graduation plans.

Spending the night in a residence hall can help you get a sense of life outside the classroom. If you can’t do an overnight, make sure to eat in the dining hall and talk to as many students as possible. Ask friends and relatives to put you in touch with current students at the college.

College is a major investment of time and money. You need information about outcomes. Ask about graduation rates. Visit the career services office and ask how they help students get internships and jobs. How do they utilize their alumni network? What companies recruit on campus?

If you are an aspiring pre-med student, schedule a meeting with the pre-health advisor at each college. Ask about the school’s track record with medical school applications as well as how advisers support students in preparing for and applying to medical school. It can be tricky to compare medical school admission rates because some colleges only support and count the applications of students who have a high GPA, resulting in what looks like a higher success rate than colleges which count all students who apply to medical school.

Students who plan to go to any graduate or professional school need to think about where they will be able to earn excellent grades and establish relationships with professors who will write strong letters of recommendation. Whether you plan to go directly to a job or to graduate school, choosing a college where you believe you will be academically successful and feel good about yourself in the college community will help you reach your goals.

If you can’t visit campus, do your research online. Read course descriptions and make sure there are enough classes that interest you. Check general education requirements as well as requirements for your major. Go the department website and find out if any professors are doing research that sounds fascinating. Ask the department chair about research and internship opportunities as well as where recent graduates in that major have gone after graduation. Investigate student organizations that sound interesting and email members for more information. Start reading the school paper online to learn about activities on campus as well as the political and social atmosphere.

If you applied to colleges that are good fits, any decision you make will be the right one. Sometimes it comes down to cost. A generous merit scholarship from a third choice college can be compelling. You will probably love it just as much as your first choice school, maybe even more.

January 9, 2015

Take Control of Your College Admissions Process

If you are a high school junior who is starting to think about potential colleges, you have a choice to make about how you approach this process. You can read magazine rankings and lists of “best” schools. You can apply to the colleges your relatives have attended, or the schools your friends are talking about. You can focus on the many colleges sending brochures and emails urging you to choose them.

But these are passive approaches that allow your choices be determined by other people, and that’s not the best way to make a major life decision. It is very empowering to tune out the outside influences and look inward. Think about who you are and what you want in a college experience, and then you can make sure to find the schools where you will be able to have that kind of experience.

You might not know what kind of experience you want, and that’s fine. It can take some time to figure out what is important for you in choosing a college. There are many factors that go into this decision.

If you know you want to study architecture, or nursing, or another subject that is not offered at every college, finding schools with that program will narrow down your options considerably. If you are contemplating majors that are offered at most colleges, there are other ways to determine what kind of college would be right for you.

In what type of environment have you flourished in the past? Think about your favorite classes in school. What made you love them? Is it a passionate teacher who got you interested in the subject? Class discussions where you enjoyed having your say and hearing what your classmates thought about an issue? Do you enjoy talking to your teachers outside of class? You might want a smaller college that offers a lot of interaction between professors and students. Do you like being one of the top students in your classes? If so, you might be happier at a college that’s not overly competitive.

And if you are clueless, no need to panic. Start by visiting some local colleges, both big universities and small liberal arts colleges, and those visits can help you begin to clarify what you want and don’t want in your college experience.

Even if you have it all figured out, you may find that your preferences change once you start visiting colleges. Students who grow up in quiet suburban neighborhoods may fantasize about the excitement of living in the middle of a major city, but sometimes they end up falling in love with a sprawling, peaceful, grassy campus.

Unlike high school, where you go home at the end of the day, college will be your world for four years. It needs to be a world where you are engaged and challenged, and where you feel part of a community. There is more than college where you can thrive, but not every college is a good fit.

It’s all about individual preferences, which is why it makes no sense to use other people’s preferences in choosing which colleges are best for you.

So spend some time thinking about what you want in a college and then you can start researching schools. If you plan some campus visits for spring break, you’ll have a chance to make sure you are on the right track with your college list.

Going to college is a major life decision, and you are much more likely to be happy with your decision if you are knowledgeable and in control of the process.

September 25, 2014

College Application Update for California Students

At the recent University of California counselor conference, admissions directors from each UC campus provided updates, and the numbers continue to be daunting. It’s easier to understand why admission has become so competitive when you look at a graph showing that applications at Berkeley have more than doubled over the past 10 years. Berkeley received over 73,000 freshman applications last year, and more than 34,000 of those applicants had a grade point average of 4.0 or above. The total number of students admitted to Berkeley was below 13,000, so it’s clear that the vast majority of excellent students were denied. The admit rate to the campus was below 18 percent, but it was even tougher for prospective engineering majors, as the admit rate for Berkeley’s engineering school was just nine percent.

UCLA admitted 16.3% of California freshman applicants. Since UCLA plans to maintain a stable enrollment target and will probably receive more applications next year, admission will be even more competitive. Even campuses that have not been highly selective in the past are becoming much more competitive. At Irvine, the admit rate dropped from 41 percent to 35.4 percent in one year. Santa Cruz had a very high number of students accepting an offer of admission, and the admissions office is predicting a lower admit rate for the next freshman class.

While the UC certainly has become less accessible in recent years, the good news is that more colleges around the country are actively recruiting California students. In the last few weeks, I’ve attended meetings with admissions officers from more than 25 colleges that are eager to increase their enrollment of California students, and that’s a small fraction of the schools looking for California students. Some will even subsidize airfare for admitted students who want to visit the college before making a decision. Many schools offer scholarships that can bring the cost down, so that in some cases, families are paying no more than the cost of attending a UC campus. Even if the cost is a little higher, it can be worth it for smaller classes and more personal attention, along with a guarantee of completing a degree in four years.

You don’t need stellar grades and test scores to get into college. It’s true that competition for admission at schools that are in the top 25 of the US News rankings is intense, but these rankings don’t provide meaningful information about the quality of education or the experience a particular student will have at a college. There are hundreds of colleges that offer strong academic programs, as well as great internship and study abroad opportunities. Since so many strong students are no longer able to access the most selective schools, those students are attending and raising the caliber of other colleges. If you are willing to look beyond the usual suspects, you will find colleges where you can get a good education and have an enjoyable four years on campus.

As college application deadlines approach in the next few months, high school seniors and their parents are vulnerable to extreme admission anxiety. It helps to find at least a couple schools that you like and that would be clear admits. If you have good grades but just don’t do well on standardized tests, be sure to apply to some test-optional colleges. You can find a list of test-optional schools at It is also important to make sure you have colleges that are financially accessible. The net price calculator on each college’s website will give you a preliminary estimate of the cost for your family.

March 24, 2014

Admission Decisions & Wait-Lists

It’s that time of year.  High school seniors around the country are celebrating or commiserating as college admission decisions are released.  Application numbers at highly selective schools continue to break records.  Despite a predicted decline in the number of California high school graduates this year, applications from residents of the state were up at the University of California. UCLA’s freshman applications jumped from 80,000 last year to over 86,000 this year, resulting in the admit rate dropping from 20 percent to 18 percent.

With more students applying to more colleges, it’s difficult for colleges to predict how many admitted students will actually enroll.  Many schools are being conservative with offers and using wait-lists to round out the freshman class.

This year, all UC campuses except Merced are using a wait-list.  Private colleges use them as well.  The number of students offered admission from a wait-list varies from one school to another, and can be dramatically different at the same school from one year to the next.

California students are a priority at many colleges, and if a school does not receive enough enrollment deposits from California residents, that could mean good news for some local wait-listed students.  Colleges that are primarily need-blind in admission decisions can become need-aware when they go to the wait-list.  If financial aid resources have already been committed, they can only bring in students who don’t need aid.

Schools have other institutional needs, which can change.  At a recent meeting with an admissions officer from a highly selective university, he said the school is building its athletic program, which means recruiting athletes.  The school has a new art building and would like to bring in more aspiring art students.  So there is an element of luck and timing in applying to college.  If you happen to apply in the year that a college is starting a new bioengineering program and that’s your field, you may have better prospects for admission.

Some colleges ask wait-listed students to write a brief essay about why they want to attend the school.  Even if a college does not ask you to do anything other than opt-in, it’s essential to let the admissions office know that you are very interested in attending the school.  There may be thousands of students on the wait list, which can be bigger than the size of the freshman class.  If an admissions officer is able to take two students from the wait-list, he will choose them from the 30 who emailed him rather than the hundreds of students who made no effort to convey their interest.

If you are certain you would accept an offer of admission, write that that in the email.  If you cannot honestly say the school is your first choice, you can still cite the reasons that you are excited about attending the school.  Rather than focusing on how that college will help you get into medical school or help you get a job, focus on the experience you will have at the college.  Mention an unusual academic program and describe how it meshes perfectly with your interests.  Perhaps there is something about the campus culture that especially appeals to you, like a student run honor code.

Once you have made your best case for admission, send the email and turn your attention to the colleges that have admitted you.  Once you invest emotionally in a school, you will find much to love about it and could very well end up turning down any offers that come from a wait-list.

November 8, 2013

Take Time to Write “Why Our College?” Essay

Demonstrated interest has become increasingly important at many colleges, as they try to predict yield, which is the number of admitted students who enroll in the college. Since the Common Application makes it easy for students to apply to a dozen or more schools, many colleges have added supplemental essays in the hope that students who are willing to do the additional work are seriously interested in the school. One of the most common supplemental essays is some version of “Why are you applying to our college?” 

I have seen hundreds of the “Your university offers outstanding academic programs in a dynamic urban location with great access to internships” essay. It is a very efficient approach, since students can just change the name of the college and use the same essay for each application.

It is not a very effective approach. If the same essay can be sent to different colleges, you are not answering the prompt, which asks why you and this college are a good match. After students have spent many hours perfecting the main college application essay, I can understand the urge to rush through these extra essays and be done with the applications.

But this is an opportunity to set yourself apart from all the other applicants who dash off a generic essay. This question should prompt students to research the school and think about whether it is in fact a good fit.

Flattering the college is not a good strategy. Neither is telling admissions officers what they already know about their school. You don’t need to tell University of Pennsylvania that Wharton School is one of the top business schools in the country. You do need to tell them what unique academic programs, research opportunities, and extracurricular activities make Wharton a perfect fit for your background, interests and goals.

The first step in responding to this prompt is to spend time on the college website. If you plan to major in political science, read about the course offerings and look for any unusual programs and opportunities. Does the school have a polling institute that uses undergraduates to conduct interviews? Have many students completed internships with local government agencies? Does the school offer a Washington semester for students who want to study in the nation’s capital?

The student life section of the college website should list clubs and organizations. If there are any unusual clubs that sound especially interesting, you can name them. Again, the focus should be on why this club is perfect for you. Perhaps you have been on your high school debate team and you are excited about this college’s winning debate team.

You can also access a school newspaper online, and if you read it regularly, you will learn what groups are active on campus and what issues are being discussed in the campus community. How do you see yourself contributing to this community?

Reading about a school’s programs and talking with current or former students is the kind of research students should be doing before deciding to apply to a college, but very few invest the time that’s required to really understand what a college has to offer and whether it is a good fit.

Writing this essay is an opportunity to make sure that each of the colleges on your list is right for you. It is true that if you know you want a small liberal arts college, many of the schools on your list will have similar characteristics. But you should still be able to find something specific that appeals to you at each school. If you can’t think of anything that excites you about the college, you still have time to revise your list.

October 3, 2013

Fear and Uncertainty Can Lead to Bad Behavior on All Sides

At the same time that many families are in a state of high anxiety over the competition to get into college, admissions staffs at the majority of colleges are worried about enrolling enough freshmen.

According to the recently released 2013 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors,  more than half of private, bachelor’s degree granting colleges and public, bachelor’s or master’s degree granting institutions had not met their fall enrollment goals by the May 1 deadline for students to accept an offer of admission. Schools offering doctoral degrees were more likely to reach their enrollment goals.

Some schools, including St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the public honors college in the state, and Loyola University New Orleans, were significantly short of their enrollment targets this year, and will have to make budget cuts because of the loss in tuition revenue. Colleges that don’t have large endowments and are very dependent on tuition are especially vulnerable to fluctuations in enrollment. Nobody wants to lose faculty and staff, and every college will be working hard to meet enrollment targets this year.

Admissions offices at many colleges are likely to be dealing with enrollment pressures for a while. In many parts of the country, the number of high school seniors has peaked, and for the next few years, there may be fewer students applying to college.

Families are no longer so willing to take on big loans for expensive colleges, and this has impacted private colleges as well as nonresident enrollment at some public universities. Some schools are trying to reassure families worried about the costs going up every year by guaranteeing that tuition will remain the same for four years. However, residence hall and meal plan costs can still increase each year.

International recruiting has become more important as colleges seek to broaden the applicant pool. In 2011, the majority of admissions directors backed a National Association for College Admissions Counseling draft policy that would prohibit colleges from using recruiting agents who are paid at least in part by commission. Just two years later, at last week’s NACAC convention, members approved a new policy that will allow the use of these agents, who enable colleges to bring in more applications from international students. Many admissions offices already send their representatives around the world and fly in high school counselors for campus visits. I attended a campus visit program at one highly selective university, where counselors were flown in from Greece, China and even Nepal. This, despite the fact that the university already has an admit rate below 15 percent.

Fear and desperation can bring out the worst in people. When students feel the pressure of competition for college admission, they sometimes resort to exaggerating or fabricating their achievements. Some students even have someone else write their application essays.

Admission offices are not immune to the temptation to cheat. There have been several cases in recent years of colleges reporting higher average SAT scores to the US News rankings, and in the survey, while very few admissions directors say their school reports false data to US News and other rankings systems, the vast majority believe that other schools engage in this practice.

In recent years, as fear of competition and the desire to compare costs motivates students to apply to more colleges, it has been increasingly difficult for colleges to predict how many students will accept an offer of admission. According to the survey, 29 percent of admissions directors admitted to recruiting students who had already committed to other schools. Doing this after the May 1 decision deadline is a violation of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice, and the fact that it was not uncommon this year is a sign of how desperate some schools were to meet their enrollment targets.

While some colleges may be engaging in unethical behavior, that doesn’t mean students get a pass to violate the rules. If knowing that you have conducted yourself honorably is not enough motivation to complete your applications in an ethical manner, be aware that dishonesty could jeopardize your admission. Some colleges may ask for proof of your community service hours or extracurricular activities, especially if the hours you claim on the application seem excessive. Admissions officers will be suspicious if the “voice” or the quality of writing in an application essay is not consistent with the essay you wrote as part of the SAT or ACT, or does not seem to match your academic performance in English classes. Parents who are tempted to provide too much help with essays should know that admissions officers are quite capable of recognizing essays that were written by 45-year-olds.

It can be challenging to stay on an ethical path, especially when other people, and institutions, may stray from that path. But applications that are authentic stand out, and there’s nothing better than getting an acceptance from a college and knowing you earned it.

June 12, 2013

Start Those College Applications

With the school year ending, rising seniors need some time to breathe after final exams and SAT/ACT tests. They should take a week or two to relax. But then it’s time to start working on college applications. 

If you haven’t finalized your college list, this is the time to do more research. In addition to reading about academic programs and student life on the school’s website, be sure to check out the student newspaper. Even if the newspaper is not publishing over the summer, you can read stories from the academic year. The admissions office won’t tell you that students are upset about a housing crunch or cutbacks in library hours, but you will find out by reading opinion columns and letters to the editor. The school newspaper is a great resource for learning what students are talking about as well as what organizations are active on campus.  

Be sure to register with the admissions office, and you will be invited to local information sessions. Most colleges will resume these local sessions at the end of the summer, but Colleges That Change Lives, a group of 40 student-centered colleges, has events scheduled through the summer. For families in the Los Angeles area, the CTCL information session and college fair are scheduled for July 31 and August 1, at the Hilton at Universal City.  

Register with an e-mail address that makes it easy for colleges to identify you, preferably something with your name. You should use the same e-mail address on college applications, so that the schools will be able to track any demonstrated interest. For example, if you have visited a college or attended a local information session, and used one e-mail address for those contacts, but another e-mail for your applications, admissions officers may not know that you visited campus. Many colleges, especially private schools, use demonstrated interest as a factor in admission decisions, though the most selective colleges do not generally consider interest. For those that do, even the time you spend on a college website may be tracked.

While I recommend visiting colleges when they are in session, many families need to schedule college tours during the summer. You will see other high school students on the tour, and these potential future classmates will be a good indication of the types of students who are attracted to this college. But the campus atmosphere is completely different, and can even feel desolate in the summer, especially at small schools that don’t have summer sessions. You don’t want to rule out a college that would be very appealing if you saw thousands of students walking across campus. It’s also helpful to sit in on a class, which you can only do when school is in session. Many colleges begin in August, and if your high school does not start until the end of the month, you may be able to schedule some visits during the first week of the college semester.

In the meantime, even if you haven’t finalized your college list, you can start working on application essays, which always require several drafts. While the University of California application will not open until October, you can access instructions for the personal statement now.

The Common Application will open August 1, but the new essay prompts have been announced.  Additional essay prompts for schools that require supplemental essays should be available when the Common Application opens. If you finish the main essay now, you can focus on the supplements in August.

The more you do during the summer, the less stress you will have in the fall.

April 2, 2013

Bringing Down the Cost of College

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Wesleyan. Families around the country are touring colleges during spring break, some visiting a dozen or more schools in search of that perfect college. While gleaming new science buildings, low faculty to student ratios and beautifully landscaped campuses may be enticing, finding a good college fit also means looking at affordability.

The most selective, wealthy institutions often provide generous need-based financial aid. But very few schools have the resources to meet full need. And at a time when tuition, room and board at a private college can add up to more than $60,000 a year, cost is a major concern even for families that don’t qualify for need-based aid.

The good news is that there are ways to bring down the cost of college. Most schools offer merit-based aid, also known as scholarships. Every year, I see many students receive offers of $15,000 to $25,000 a year. One student was recently awarded a scholarship of $38,000 a year at his first choice college. Some schools will consider leadership and service, but these offers are generally based on a student’s academic record and test scores. It’s important to target colleges that offer substantial merit aid, and you need to be in the top of the applicant pool to receive the biggest scholarships.

If you live in a region that has a tuition reciprocity arrangement, you may be able to attend a public university in a nearby state without paying full nonresident tuition. Qualifying students in California pay 150% of in-state tuition at participating public institutions through the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program. Some students are paying less than $10,000 a year in tuition at these schools.

There are also colleges that have a lower cost of attendance. They may offer less need-based aid and smaller scholarships but charge lower tuition for all students. They may be located in parts of the country where expenses are lower and that’s reflected in the cost of attendance. They may be public institutions that want to attract out of state students and keep their nonresident tuition relatively low. It may take some research to find them, but there are affordable options.

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