and/or “soft skills” like responsibility and time management.
Academic curiosity: this can mean taking a class through summer school or a dual enrollment class at a college (2- or 4-year). You can take a class that will lighten your load come fall, but I’d recommend you take a class that you’re really interested in or in the area of your potential major. It will feel more like you actually have a summer if you’re spending your time actively engaged in learning, rather than yawning through calculus because you thought it would look good to admissions committees. (It will, but it’s a quick way to burn out if you’re not a total numbers geek.)
Summer camps: Summer camps are great learning experiences. Whether you attend an academic summer camp—debate camp, coding camp, foreign language immersion with dragon boat racing, compressed AP class in an area of interest—or a sports clinic, performing arts program or even just working as a camp counselor, you can show leadership, curiosity and skill development at camp.
Get a job: Working is great for getting experience in a potential major or career, plus you’re demonstrating those “soft skills” I mentioned earlier. If it’s an unpaid internship, that’s great; paid work is even better, since you’ll have that much more money socked away for college. If you’re STEM-minded, contacting universities and research labs in your area can be a way to spend the summer doing research, either paid or unpaid.
Colleges love to see students who have some background experience in their major, whether that's business or neuroscience.
Volunteering/service-learning is a great way to spend your summer. You can work with kids if you’re interested in education or social work. Just want to drive around with your new license? Consider driving Meals-on-Wheels with a friend. You get to drive and hang out, as well as brighten the day of some housebound individual who really needs you. A leadership project like organizing a pool party for kids in summer daycare, a scrap drive for recycling or a performance for people in the hospital or at a nursing home looks great on a college resume.
Speaking of projects: give yourself a project for the summer. Like to code? Set yourself a goal and write an app or other project. Potential business major? Create a business, or at least write up a business plan for one. Set a goal: read all of Shakespeare’s plays or A Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses. (The Mensa Foundation’s Excellence in Reading program is a great resource for prolific readers.) Write a novel, plan and paint a mural, choreograph a dance or put on a show. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to document it. Keep a journal: either written, or through photos and video.
No matter what you do this summer, be sure to have fun and stretch yourself. That way you’ll be sure to have something interesting to write about on your college essays. Good luck!
Back in my day (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) (also, get off my lawn!), most colleges had their own application. They were made of something called paper, and we filled them out using things we called “typewriters” and “pens.” As you can imagine, when it came time to write the application essay, lots of white-out and cursing was involved to make a good impression.
In 1975 (which was way before I went to college, just so we’re clear), several private colleges realized that most of the information on these various applications was repeated: contact information, gpa, how many years your father spent in college. (It was when I was filling out my applications that I discovered that while both my parents had attended college, neither had actually graduated. Horrors!) The Common Application was born (still on paper), making it easier for students to apply to college more efficiently, by chiseling info onto the stone tablets once and then photocopying them to mail to the member colleges. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Common Application joined the computer age.
Although it has a couple competitors, the Common Application (known to its friends as the Common App) is the Big Daddy of undergraduate college applications. Accepted by more than 600 member schools in the US and around the world, the Common App is meant to streamline your application process by allowing you to fill out one application for every school you apply to. Obviously there are more than 600 colleges in the US, so the App is not common to all of them, but most of the highly selective colleges and major state schools do accept it.
What do they want to know?
The information on Common App is pretty general. There are questions about who you are, how to get in touch with you, your family, your education, your extracurricular activities, your standardized testing. And then there is the Writing section, where you are asked to upload a personal essay of between 250-650 words on one of their predetermined, very broad topics. The application essay is the subject of another blog post so I won’t go into that here.
Essay? No, thank you!
Yes, sorry. Depending on where you apply, it may be the only essay you have to write (Bard, Middlebury) or it may be just one of a number of other short and long essays (Yale, UChicago). The Writing section also asks about your disciplinary history (and a short essay explaining it if you have one) and “Additional info” which is where you explain anything important you want colleges to know about you that has not already been covered elsewhere in the application.
What are supplements?
Most colleges that you apply to through Common App also have a supplement (sometimes called the writing supplement) for you to complete. The supplement has questions specific to the college: what extracurricular activities will you participate in on campus, are you related to any alumni, etc. This is also the place where you designate the people who will provide your letters of recommendation (only after asking them to write a letter for you!), so those people will get an email from Common App with a link where they can upload their letter. (Sending recommendation letters through snail mail is so 2005.) There will probably also be at least one additional essay in the writing supplement.
What else do I need to apply?
The Common App is free for you to use, although each individual school you apply to will probably require an application fee or fee waiver when you submit your applications. You do need to arrange through your school for a transcript and school profile to be sent. (That usually happens through Naviance or Parchment if your school has those things.) Even though you reported your test scores, you will still need to ask ACT or SAT to send official score results to the schools. Depending on the school, you may also need to submit the CSS/PROFILE, FAFSA, and other financial documents before your application is considered complete.
Are their other common applications?
Yes! The Universal Application debuted in 2014 with about 50 member schools. The Coalition for Access and Affordability is supposed to bring their new application online with 80 member schools on April 1, 2016. I would point out, though, that many highly-selective schools, like the Ivies, will accept any of these applications. There is also one common application for colleges in Texas (ApplyTexas) and for colleges in California system (The UC Application and CSU Mentor).
Thanks to Dwight School (https://www.dwight.edu/) for letting me use their infographic!
Most students ask: “Is it better to get a B in an AP class or an A in a regular class?”
The answer I always get from college admissions officers is: “It’s better to get an A in an AP class.”
I interpret this to mean that there is no good answer to this question. If they say it’s important to get an A, they’ll get transcripts full of A’s in Mickey Mouse classes. No bueno. If they say it’s okay to get a B in an AP class, students may not take that course load seriously. Also no bueno.
character. Are you the kind of person who enjoys a challenge? Because college will be challenging. Can you manage your time well? Do you have study skills? Both of these things are vital to the successful college student. And, frankly, they don't want to admit a student who is likely to wash out after first semester.
Sign up for the most difficult classes available to you that you will do well in. This means take that AP or dual-enrollment college class in an area of interest or an area of strength, because that makes it easier handle the workload. Take the hardest English composition class available to you. You will thank me when you get to college. If you’re looking at a selective or highly selective school, take that fourth year of math, even if it’s not required and you’re not planning to major in anything mathy. Same goes for science. This is not the year to check off your graduation requirements and blow off anything you “don’t need.”
As if college admissions wasn't confusing enough, at many colleges you have your choice of dates to apply. This sounds like a good thing, until you realize your first application deadline might be in October or November of your senior year!
Don't panic! With a little bit of knowledge, you got this.
Early Decision: If you apply Early Decision (ED), you are agreeing that, if the college accepts you, you will attend. No questions asked. This is a binding agreement that can only be undone if your financial aid award is not sufficient. Many schools accept a higher percentage of students from their ED applicant pool because they know they can count on them to show up in September, which is not the case for regular decision applicants.
Early Action: Like Early Decision, Early Action (EA) is also really early. The difference is that early action is a non-binding agreement. You can apply to many EA schools and not agree to attend until May. This helps with financial aid, because you'll know exactly what the school will cost you before you agree, unlike Early Decision. College usually accept a greater percentage of Early Action students than of the regular application pool, but not always. Check the individual college you're thinking of because assuming you have a better chance going EA.
Single-Choice Early Action: This variant of early action requires you to apply to only one college early. You are still not obligated to attend, and you get the benefit of early admissions, but the school has less competition in this scenario. Applicants who are not accepted SCEA will often be rolled over to the regular admissions pool.
Regular Admission: Most colleges have application deadlines in January and February, otherwise known as the Dark Night of the Soul. Don't put off applications until winter break or you'll ruin your vacation.
Rolling Admissions: Many state colleges have rolling admissions, which means you can apply anytime before their final deadline (frequently in March). Be aware that these schools may have financial aid deadlines that are earlier than their last-chance application deadlines. Apply for financial aid early to get the best chance at a good award.
Open Admissions: Open admissions schools will take anyone who applies. You generally find open admissions at community colleges or very small state schools. Apply anytime.
The Bottom Line: There can be good reasons to start your college planning in your junior year, especially if you want to apply to a highly-selective school. Being ready to apply in October or November can give you a leg up in the admissions process. Be aware that its unethical for a college make you apply before October 15 or accept admission before May 1.
Do you have a friend wondering about all the different kinds of college deadlines? Use the share button to pass this along!
"Mom, the people who run our cafeteria also run kitchens in prisons!"
Not that there's anything wrong with that! While some colleges have famously good cafeteria food (St. Olaf is one), most dorm food can get a little tedious after awhile, and all that pizza and pasta can lead to the dreaded "Freshman 15" pound weight gain. How can you make that assembly line food taste a little more palatable?
TOP TIP #1 Bring Your Own Condiments
I'm not talking about ketchup and mustard here. Bring steak sauce and teriyaki sauce (or teriyaki steak sauce). A little worchestershire sauce can add that umami flavor that baked steak lacks. (You didn't think they had a grill back there, did you?) What about a little Sriracha for those steam-table eggs that were just about to turn green? It's entirely up to you whether you want to share your flavor boosters, but sharing is a good way to make friends in the cafeteria.
TOP TIP #2 Spice Blends
Just like tucking a bottle of Lea & Perrins in your backpack will make your mouth happy, spice blends will do the same. I like Penzeys Spices for these. They have a number of blends for every taste, they come in convenient glass or plastic bottles with shaker tops and they're also easy to take along with you to the cafeteria. My sons' favorites are Sandwich Sprinkle for pasta, Pizza Seasoning (duh), Beef Roast Seasoning for beef and Old World Seasoning for chicken. You can order a set of four or eight as a gift set. The Kind Heart gift set has a nice assortment for those who can't decide what to pick.
Now imagine it's winter, and the cafeteria requires a walk through the snow or the rain for food that's not so spectacular anyway? Or you end up studying late at the library and don't get home until after the cafeteria closes? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to cook something for yourself, when you're hungry? Most, if not all, college dormitories forbid open flames or heating elements in the dorm rooms. This means no hot plates, no rice cookers, no toasters, no toaster ovens and, many times, no coffee maker. (Don't worry, caffeine addicts, there will be at least one coffee shop on campus.) Most dorm rooms are small enough that small electric appliances would just be in the way anyway. What you cannot live without are a dorm-sized fridge and microwave.
TOP TIP #3 Check with Housing Office what size fridge/microwave is acceptable before you buy!
There's nothing worse than dropping a couple hundred dollars on a fridge only to have it taken away on move-in day. This information is usually on the "What to pack" list, but if it's not, it will be somewhere on the website or in the housing packet.
Decide with your new roommate in advance who is going to bring the fridge and who will bring the microwave. When choosing a fridge, look for one with a separate door for the freezer compartment. That will help keep your frozen foods frozen no matter how many times the door gets opened.
Microwaves are easier; they only need to fit the required wattage. However, if you have a microwave, you need microwave dishes to cook in.
TOP TIP #4 Some high quality dorm cookware
I'm going to recommend three Pampered Chef products, simple because I've been using mine for 15 years and they're still perfect. The Small Micro-cooker holds 1 quart of soup or ramen and has a strainer lid for pasta, mac-n-cheese or steamed vegetables, or to let steam escape when popping popcorn. The Large Micro-cooker holds two quarts and also has a strainer lid, for larger servings of whatever. And the Rice Cooker holds three quarts so makes up to 9 cups of rice at a time. Amazon reviews would have you believe it can cook a whole (small) chicken. I have not tried that, but you could certainly steam a chicken breast in there (or in the large micro-cooker) if you wanted.
As I mentioned, I'm calling out Pampered Chef because that is what we've used, and what I sent my boys to college with. The links and pictures are from Amazon, but you may well be able to get a better price from eBay or your local Pampered Chef consultant. Amazon also offers a number of other versions of these products. In addition to the cookers, you'll want to have a mixing spoon and spatula of some kind available. The cookers can double as mixing bowls, and they nest to save space under your bed.
TOP TIP #5 Check if your dorm has a shared kitchen and whether that kitchen is stocked with supplies
I've seen kitchen set-ups that run the gamut from a single kitchenette for the whole residence to two fully-stocked kitchens per floor. If you have the luxury of a fully-stocked kitchen, you probably won't need the cookware until you move out on your own. If the kitchen is lacking or inconvenient, sometimes it's nicer to heat a can of Spaghettios in your room instead of running down to the kitchen. Btw, both these kitchens are at the same college. The difference is the age of the dorm.
How about you? Do you have any must-haves for eating in the dorms? What about favorite recipes that require no heating elements? Leave a comment below, then check out my Dorm Cooking Pinterest board, and feel free to add links to your favorite recipes!
Admissions Committees have two ways to get to know the real you: your essays, and your letters of recommendation. (Three ways, if you interview, but not everyone can do that.) Colleges want to know the living, breathing, learning, pizza-eating, Netflix-binge-watching student who will wander their campus, stay up all night studying in the library and play beach volleyball in the residence quad. As with the essays, colleges want to know: Who are you? Will you be a good roommate? How will you contribute to campus life?
A simple transcript doesn't answer that question. Your essay presents that information from your point of view, but the letters of recommendation from your counselor, your teachers or other adults who know you well can make the difference between a place on the waitlist or an offer of admission. So here are some tips to keep in mind to get great letters of recommendation.
1) Start Early
Most students don't even think about getting recommendations until fall of senior year, when they see the application requires them. Then they approach the teacher in their hardest class, thinking that having a letter from their AP English or Calculus teacher will look good to the Admissions Committee. Stop right there.
While I'm sure your AP English teacher is a lovely person and writes really good letters, he or she has only known you for a month or two. Probably not enough time to get a feeling for you as a student, much less you as a person. Admissions committees can tell when the recommender doesn't know the student well, so it comes off as a lukewarm recommendation, even when the letter sings your praises.
A better idea is to approach your junior year teachers in the spring, after they've had you in class for an entire year and have really gotten to know you and your classroom habits. If you have one, approach a teacher in a core class (English, math, social studies, science, foreign language), who has known you over multiple years. Not only will they have more to write about, but they can also offer perspective on how you've grown and matured since freshman year.
2) Be polite
Remember, you're asking your recommenders for a favor. Be polite: ask in person first whether or not the person feels they can write you a good recommendation. Hopefully they will be honest with you. A poor or vague recommendation can actually be worse than no recommendation at all.
3) Give your recommender plenty of time
Contrary to elementary school suspicions, teachers don't live in their classrooms or get put away in the broom closet at the end of the day. They have lives and families and other responsibilities (shocking, I know). So your request for a recommendation is the equivalent to a big homework project: they're willing to do it, but it's going to take some time to fit it in. Give your recommenders at least six weeks lead time before the letter has to be in the mail/submitted via Naviance or the Common Application. This is another reason why asking at the end of junior year is better than fall of senior year. Your recommenders have all summer to work on your letter at their convenience, so you're likely to get a better product. In the fall, you're competing for time with other seniors' letters, plus homework grading, lesson planning, Parents' Night and all the other things teachers have to do to start off the new school year. (You didn't think teachers just taught the same lessons in the same way year after year, did you?)
4) Give them plenty to write about
Many teachers ask (or require) you to fill out a "Brag Sheet" for them to refer to when writing your letter. This is a way for them to fill in any gaps in their knowledge about you, and a way for those senior year teachers to have something to say about a student they may have just met. If you've been keeping your activities resume or website up to date, this would serve the same purpose as a brag sheet. Better to write a personal letter or email to the teacher, thanking them for agreeing to recommend you, and reminding them of one or two things you have identified as important for the admissions committee to hear. Demonstrated leadership and academic achievement are almost always good topics. Have you distinguished yourself in classroom discussion? Has this teacher singled you out for praise for a project, paper or other accomplishment, or invited you to do something special (join an academic team, take a more advanced class, teach Spanish to preschoolers)? Mention that in your request letter. (If not, you might consider whether this is the right teacher to ask for a recommendation.) Here's a sample of what the recommendation request might look like:
With your request letter, you need to provide stamped envelopes addressed to the school the letter is going to. Multiple schools need multiple copies of the letter, so mention all the schools in your request. If you're using Naviance or the Common Application, mention in your letter than you will send them email links to upload their letters. If you like, you can ask your recommenders to seal their letters in envelopes that you will then include in your application package, but since paper applications are pretty old school, that can be weird. Having multiple sealed hard-copies is quite handy for scholarship applications, though, as many of those are not as internet-savvy.
A Note About Naviance and other online applications:
Web-based application programs allow you to just list your choice of recommenders, who are then sent an email by the program with a link to upload their letter. This is meant as a convenience for the recommender. However, it makes it way too easy for students to let the program do the asking for them. DO NOT LIST ANYONE WITHOUT FIRST ASKING THEM IN PERSON AND FOLLOWING UP WITH A REQUEST LETTER! There is no better way to get a terrible recommendation letter--or no letter at all--than to essentially summon your teacher's recommendation.
5) Follow up with a thank-you note
About four weeks after you send the request letter, send a (preferably hand-written) thank you note to the teacher. This accomplishes two things: a) reminds them how awesome you are, in case you decide to apply to more colleges or to scholarship competitions and need more copies of the letter in the future, and b) reminds them of the deadline, in case they've become so busy they forgot. Teachers are usually pretty organized and great at multitasking, but things happen. A polite note can keep your applications on track without nagging.
BONUS TIP: While it can be convenient to have non-confidential recommendations, admissions officers generally give more weight and credibility to confidential letters. This doesn't mean that you can't ever see your recommendations (some teachers will show them to you anyway), but indicating on the application that you have not seen the letters is better.
The college essay, for undergrad or graduate school, is the most dreaded, and most important, writing you will do senior year. The dread is in direct proportion to the importance: if it was just any old essay, who cares? But no, this essay, this one or two page piece of writing, determines your. entire. future.
The admissions essay is how you distinguish yourself from the crowd of other students the Admissions Office has never met, and whose numbers all look the same. The Committee wants to know: what makes you special? Will you be a good roommate? Will you contribute in the classroom? On campus? Who are you and why do you want to go to our school?
Your college essay doesn't have to be monumental, it just has to be true to you. Just like your Facebook page and your Twitter account (which you have cleaned up, right?), the essay is your chance to put your best foot forward and show what is unique about you. Since college is the place to re-invent yourself, consider this your first opportunity. Who do you want to be when you get to college? Write that person's essay!
Rules for making your essay the best it can be:
1) Don't be afraid to show your personality. If you dropped a draft of the essay in the hallway between classes, would your best friend know you wrote it? You can (and should) ask for proofreading help and reactions from your friends, your parents, your admissions consultant and/or your teachers, but the final editing decisions must be yours, in your authentic voice. The Admissions Committee can spot a parent-written essay a mile away. (HINT: They usually sound like "Jeremy has been a model student with a 3.8 GPA...")
2) Pick a topic you feel passionate about. Was your bar mitvah or quinceanera super important to you or was it just an excuse to have a party? (One of the new Common Application essay topics is on a "coming of age" ceremony in your ethnic background.) Was working at the soup kitchen that one Thanksgiving really the turning point in your life?
If these really were transformative experiences, then write about them. But if you're writing about something because someone told you that's what Admissions Committees want to hear, forget it. There will be thousands of warmed-over soup kitchen essays, and writing the same essay as everyone else is not the way to distinguish yourself.
3. Don't wait until the last minute.
Seriously, don't wait until the day before your application is due. Not only will it cause considerable stress and probably ruin your winter break, but you'll lose the opportunity to get feedback from others. I know what I'm talking about, my mother had to lock me in my room to get me to write my essay. #real talk
TALK BACK! How's your essay coming?
Perfect standardized test scores and grades are not enough to gain entrance to the most selective colleges. Due to grade inflation and test prepping, quantitative perfection is becoming commonplace. To be successful, you must also show the school what kind of person you are. This is why getting the admissions essay right is so important.
While the undergraduate essay is the focus of many books, the graduate school essay is equally, if not more, important to your acceptance into graduate level programs. Colleen Reding has helped to fill that gap with her new book Grad’s Guide to Graduate Admissions Essays, published by Prufrock Press. This collection of essays provides grad school applicants with models of successful medical school personal statements as well as successful essays from law school, business school and general graduate school students, all of whom attended Georgetown with Ms. Reding for their undergraduate degrees.
Why do higher education programs even ask for essays? A good essay will give a sense of who you are as a person, and what you may contribute to the school’s student body. Are you a leader? Do you have an interesting background? Are you able, and willing, to make a contribution to the intellectual and social life of the college and the particular program to which you are applying?
The examples in the book go beyond the standard “I have always wanted to be a lawyer” and “I really just want to help people” essays, instead weaving personal experiences into the story of why the applicant is the ideal candidate for admission. Readers will get a good sense of what competitive graduate programs are looking for in applicant essays, and models they can use when drafting their own. Equally helpful are the writing tips provided throughout explaining why the essay was particularly effective—writing style, use of theme, choice of examples, approach to the prompt, etc. I especially like the notes about using a unifying theme for your essay. Don't believe them when they say the writing is fantastic, however. A word to the wise: if every noun needs an adjective to make it sparkle, you should use stronger nouns.
TALK BACK! Have you read this book? Did you find it helpful? Let us know in the comments!
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