College Admissions


Start Planning Your Summer

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Summer may be months away, but it not too early for high school students to start making plans. There is so much anxiety around college admission that choosing the “best” summer activity can be intimidating, but there are no rules about how you should spend the summer.

Perhaps there is one rule. The more money you have to pay for a summer experience, the less impressive it will look on college applications. Admissions officers want to see what the student has done, not what kind of experience her parents have bought for her. They are looking for evidence of initiative, leadership, intellectual curiosity, creativity, long-term commitment, impact on the community.

Academic programs that are selective and require an application with teacher recommendations, like the California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) or California State Summer School for the Arts, enhance college applications.

Internships can be a great way to explore a potential career. One student completed an internship in a science lab, and her work was compelling enough that she was invited to present it at a conference. The experience enabled her to write an essay that demonstrated her intellectual curiosity as well as the impact she was already making in the field.

Work experience is also valuable. I have heard admissions officers say they would love to read an essay from a student who spent the summer bagging groceries. In addition to learning how to manage time and take on responsibility, students who have a job gain confidence as they find they have something to contribute to a workplace.

Taking a summer course at a college is a way to explore a possible future major or study interesting subjects that aren’t offered in high school. Some colleges offer online courses. If you want to experience life on a college campus, attending a residential program at a college is an opportunity to try life in an urban environment or a college town. Some of these programs offer enrichment courses, which do not provide college credit but allow you to explore a subject you find fascinating. If your high school grades are not as strong as they need to be, taking a course for college credit can help demonstrate that you are capable of college level work. This strategy only works if you are willing to work hard during the summer, so choose a course you are excited about taking and commit to doing well in it. One student whose grade point average was a bit low for the college he wanted to attend took a summer class at a local university, and because he picked a subject he loved, he not only got an A in the class, he got a strong letter of recommendation from the professor, and best of all, he ended up getting into his favorite college.

Students who have a demanding course load during the school year often devote more time to community service during the summers, and that’s certainly a worthwhile activity. A long-term commitment to one organization, where you have taken on increasing responsibility each year, has more impact than occasional volunteer days at a variety of places.

While more colleges become test-optional each year, test scores are still an important factor in admission decisions at most schools and summer can be a good time to focus on test preparation.

There are so many possibilities. Be careful not to overload your schedule. Admissions officers are looking for quality, not quantity. More important, you don’t want to have a miserable summer. Protect your mental health by building in some time to relax and hang out with friends.

Visiting Colleges During Spring Break

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Spring break will be coming up soon and that’s the perfect time for a college tour since colleges are usually on a different vacation schedule.  You will have the opportunity to see the students and get a feel for the atmosphere on campus.

The more colleges you visit, the better you get at evaluating whether the school is a match.  That’s why I suggest starting with local colleges, even if they’re not on a student’s list.  After visiting a few schools, you’ll know what to look for and will be in a better position to assess what you’re seeing.

On college trips, it’s hard to resist the temptation to see as many schools as possible.  But visiting more than two schools a day becomes a frantic rush from one college to the next, with no time to fully experience each school.  Plan on spending at least three or four hours on campus so you have time for a tour, information session and a meal in the dining hall.  When possible, it’s also helpful for parents to give students a little time to experience the campus on their own.

Sitting in on a class is something few students do, but it’s a great opportunity to get a sense of academic life on campus.  If you plan to major in psychology, you might sit in on a psychology class at each college.  You’ll see if students are engaged in discussion or sleeping through a boring lecture.  You can also ask students about other professors in the department.  Great teachers who are excited about working with undergraduates can transform a student’s life.

Many colleges list tours and information sessions on their website, and often you can just show up, but it’s a good idea to call the admissions office and let them know you’re coming, especially if you want to sit in on a class.  Be sure to sign in when you arrive so that they know you were there.  This is important at colleges that track demonstrated interest.

While student tour guides are very knowledgeable and will usually answer questions honestly, they’re also likely to put the most positive spin on the school.  That’s why it’s important to talk to other students on campus.  All of these students have gone through the college admission process in the last few years, and most are happy to share their wisdom.  I always ask students what other colleges they applied to and why they chose this one.  How has the school met their expectations or disappointed them? What kind of person is a good fit for this college?  What are their three favorite things about the school and what are three things they wish were different?  If you know your major, you might want to ask about the reputation of that department.

You also want to know if students have trouble getting courses they want.  While a student might expect to be shut out of popular classes at a large state university, it can also happen at small colleges that are committed to keeping classes small.  Get a feel for the intellectual climate by asking what the best classes are and how much time students spend studying.  It’s also important to get a sense of what they do for fun.  I like to ask students what they did last weekend.  Check bulletin boards and pick up a school newspaper to see what lectures, concerts, and club meetings are scheduled.

Look at the people.  What kind of community is this?  Do you see groups of students talking or are most people walking alone?  Do students look anxious and stressed, or like they’re enjoying life? 

Be sure to check out the surrounding community.  Can you walk to a movie theater and market?  If not, how far is the nearest town? 

For a prospective student, ultimately it comes down to a gut reaction.  Do you feel excited being on this campus?  Can you see yourself walking to class, hanging out with these people, being part of this community?  If you feel good about yourself while you’re visiting this college, if you see people you’d like to get to know, you’re that much closer to making a good match.

Keep Working On Applications While Waiting For Early Decisions

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Many students are anxiously awaiting the results of their early applications before they invest time in other applications.  This is a big mistake.  Many colleges received more early applications this year, and competition for admission will be intense.  Early Action applications were up 14 percent at Northeastern and 25 percent at University of Chicago. Schools with binding Early Decision plans also saw significant increases.  Early Decision applications were up 15 percent at Northwestern, 17 percent at Emory, almost 20 percent at Boston University, 23 percent at Duke and 33 percent at Pomona.

Not all colleges had more early applications. Yale saw an 18 percent decrease in Early Action applications, which is probably because Harvard offered an Early Action option this year, and these schools don’t allow students to apply early to other colleges.  The new Harvard early option probably also accounts for modest decreases in Early Decision applications at Columbia and University of Pennsylvania.  But all of these schools may see increases in Regular Decision applications.  Students need to submit their strongest applications.

That’s why it’s important to keep working throughout this month.  Getting a rejection in mid-December can be a crushing disappointment, and it is very hard to recover from that emotional blow and do your best work on seven other applications when you have just two weeks till the early January deadlines.  While it may be difficult to push yourself to work on applications now while you’re waiting to get into your favorite college, it will be much harder after a rejection.  If you have finished your other applications and you are denied or deferred by your early school, you will be very relieved that your applications are ready to submit.  Best case scenario is that you are accepted at your early school, and in that case you will be so excited that you won’t care about the unnecessary work you did on other applications.

Students who did not submit early applications really have no reason to wait, and if they haven’t completed an application yet, it’s especially important to get started.  In addition to writing essays, you need to complete the activities/community service/work experience section, and you want to write those descriptions concisely and accurately.  Admissions officers appreciate an application that is clear and easy to read.  Print out the application so you can proofread it.  You may find that some of your activity descriptions are cut off, requiring you to rewrite them.  All of this takes time.  Add the stress of rushing to finish seven supplements in the last few days and you are more likely to make mistakes.  You also risk your computer or the server crashing, or a winter storm that knocks out your electricity right before the application deadline.  

Once you submit the Common Application to one school, you cannot make changes to that application.  If you applied Early Decision/Early Action and now want update your awards, activities or test scores, or would like to tailor your application to one college, you can create an alternate version.  After you log in, go to the Instructions page and scroll down to “Application Versions” for step by step instructions.  The alternate version will have all the information from your first version and you can edit as you wish.  However, any documents you uploaded will not transfer to the alternate version, so be sure to upload your essay to the alternate version.

Remember that with the Common Application you need to submit the application, supplement and payment separately.  Students sometimes think that once they submit payment, the application automatically follows.  Since it can take up to 48 hours for your payment to be processed, waiting until the day of a deadline means your application might not be submitted in time.  Check the My Colleges page to confirm that your applications have been submitted.  You can also see if your counselor and teacher have submitted their forms.

If you have questions as you’re working on the Common Application, the “Help” button at the top of the Common Application will take you to the Applicant Support Center.  If you don’t find the answer to your question there, you can contact technical support.

Starting Your College Applications Now Will Mean Less Stress During Senior Year

Friday, August 5th, 2011

School will be starting soon, and for seniors who will be applying to college, the more they get done now, the less stress they will have throughout the fall. There are a lot of tasks to be completed when you’re applying to college and the process can feel overwhelming. It’s important to make a list of everything you need to do, and then you can create a schedule.

There are a number of changes this year which will impact the college application process. University of Southern California has joined the Common Application. The good news is students won’t have to complete a separate USC application (although there will still be a USC supplement). The not so good news is that applications are likely to increase, resulting in a lower acceptance rate.

University of California will no longer require scores from two Subject Tests. That doesn’t mean you should forget about Subject Tests, since strong scores will enhance your UC application, and they could be important if you are applying to certain programs, including engineering. Subject Tests are still required or recommended at a number of highly selective colleges.

While UC, California State University and many other public colleges don’t require recommendations, you will need a teacher recommendation for any school using the Common Application. Teachers can be overwhelmed with requests, and some limit the number of letters they will write, so be sure to ask your teacher early in the school year.

The Common Application is online now. Start filling out the basic information like name, address and high school. There’s something very satisfying about finishing at least part of the application, and once you are in application mode, it may be easier to get into the essays.

While the UC and Cal State applications won’t open until October 1, the UC personal statement prompts are available now at

Your goal in an application essay is to convey something you want admissions officers to know about you that they won’t learn from the rest of the application. You may need to go through several ideas before you find one that works. Keep brainstorming until you’re excited, because if you’re excited about writing an essay, it’s more likely to be exciting for the reader.

It helps to break the process into manageable parts. For each essay you might schedule several days for brainstorming ideas, a week to write a first draft, and another week to revise the first draft.  I tell my students that essays don’t take shape until the third, fourth or even fifth draft. This process takes time and that’s why you need to start now.

Give yourself a final deadline for each application that is at least one week and preferably two weeks before the real deadline, so that you have built in some extra time in case you get off schedule because of a major test or paper. Having your applications completed well before deadlines will mean less stress for everyone in the family.