Getting ready to apply to college? Sign up for my new online college essay course for a special low price.

Have questions about applying to college? Post them on reddit's college admissions forum.

January 30, 2015

Extracurricular Activities | How to Demonstrate Commitment

Extracurricular activities are one of the biggest parts of your college application. This means it's in your best interest to get the most bang for your buck on the clubs and sports you join.

However, most students don't do much in in their first 2 years of high school and then suddenly join a whole bunch of clubs in their last two. They're trying to cram in their extracurriculars (as well as properly preparing for a significant exam). Unfortunately, it's easy to see why this strategy is not optimal. The person reading your application has seen this sort of thing before and will see through the charade (see: College Admissions | Who is Reading Your Application). Here's a better way to participate in extracurriculars:

This philosophy is inspired by Carl Friedrich Gauss (a mathematician), and it signals exactly what you want to show college admissions officers. (Don’t worry, you won't have to be familiar with anything Gauss actually did to follow this strategy.) Gauss was arguably the greatest mathematician of all time. In his published mathematical works, he used this very simple phrase as a preface, “pauca sed matura,” which translates to “few but ripe.”

Gauss, while a prolific mathematician, was not a prolific writer. He refused to publish anything he considered to be incomplete. He would find one strand of research and follow it all the way to the end. Then, he'd only publish what he learned if he reached the end. (Someone following this advice for *academics* would easily fail high school for failing to turn in assignments, but that's beside the point.)

Learn from Gauss, and make this your guide to extra-curricular activities. Your objective is not to join a large number of clubs and sports. You don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Instead, join fewer clubs and and remain in those clubs for at least 3 years. Get super-involved and rise to a leadership position within those clubs.

Admissions officers aren't stupid. If they see that you did nothing in your first few years of high school and then that you suddenly became a member of many clubs in the last, they'll know why. They hate these people.

The best solution? Do what our friend Gauss did: signal commitment, passion, and leadership by sticking with fewer things and doing them better as a result.

By sticking with 2 or 3 activities for 4 years rather than 6 or 7 for only one, you demonstrate that you have a lasting passion for an activity and are motivated enough to pursue it even when there is no immediate payoff. (Boost in college admissions chances) You also show that you're willing to make a commitment and pursue the things you enjoy. If you manage to rise to a leadership position within the club (and honestly, this is not difficult), then you can make this a big talking point in your application. So when joining clubs, keep in mind the Gaussian philosophy; “Few, but ripe.”

January 26, 2015

College Application Supplemental Material | What to Include, What to Leave Out

Aside from all the required parts of the college application, there are the supplemental / optional parts. One of these is the option to include something extra that will give the admissions committee added insight into who you are, beyond the main parts of the application. Examples of extra material that you might include: poems, pictures, stories, tapes, and articles you've written — the sky really is the limit. But, how do you decide what, if anything, to include?

First of all, remember that less is more. I know that this can be frustrating — you are a complex person, and a few pieces of paper can hardly begin to sum you up. It might be tempting to add as many extras as possible, to try to show the admissions committee every facet of yourself. However, please, do not give in to this urge.

Admissions officers only have a limited amount of time to spend on each application, and if you add too much, they will be more annoyed than impressed. One Ivy League admissions officer I knew had a mantra, “the thicker the application, the thicker the applicant.” Don’t be that thick applicant—be selective about what you include.

What should you include in your college application, then? The best things are those that show off a creative talent or important aspect of your personality that can not be captured by the main parts of the application. Have you been playing piano since you were two, and your piano teacher thinks you are the next Beethoven? Include a CD of your best song. Are you a gifted photographer/painter/writer? Great! Include a photo/painting/poem/short story. Just don’t include your whole portfolio---choose one or two of the best!

What should you leave out? Articles detailing awards you won are unnecessary—you can list those in your application and on your resume. Also, if your talent is something you dabble in and not a real passion, it might be better not to bother. You can still list whatever it is on your resume. Be conservative about extra materials that you include. The last thing you want is for the admissions officer to wonder, “Why is this applicant wasting my time?”

Remember that including supplementary materials is exactly what it sounds like—optional. The application is designed to include al the information that the committee really needs to know. There is no harm in not including anything at all. Only include things that you consider to be really important and special. Do not include things just for the sake of it!.

Finally, if you decide to include something, make sure it represents your very best work. This is your one shot---put your best foot forward. Good luck!

January 20, 2015

College Essay | Show, Not Tell

It's common knowledge that you're supposed to show, not tell, in your college essay.

Admissions officers read tons of essays, and many of them are similar to each other. You want your essay to stand out and be interesting, not boring or cliché.

Still, anyone who has written a college essay can tell you that this is easier said than done!

Keep these three tips in mind:

1. Before you start, write down a list of the things that make you special.

While it may seem like this is unnecessary (you already know yourself), this can be very helpful later on in the essay-writing process. When making the list, think about your passions, character, and personality traits, rather than your accomplishments. After all, the admissions officers already saw your transcript, test scores, and resume. Things to include are your tenacity, creativity, close bond to your family, love of tuba-playing, rugby, finger-painting, or whatever applies to you!


2. Choose your topic carefully.

Sometimes (as on the Common Application), you can pick your own topic. In this case, choose carefully. Look at your list, and think about a topic that will give you the best opportunity to showcase your passions and personality traits.

However, if the school to which you are applying does not give you much flexibility on topics, don't worry! Schools spend a lot of time picking topics that they think will inspire a good essay that shows your personality.

Usually, application essay topics are open-ended and allow you a lot of space to be creative. If they require a particular topic, think about how to write a response that will best exhibit the qualities you listed in step 1. Even if it's something simple like asking you to talk about your favorite book, you can write of a story explaining your love for this book. Just do it in a way that showcases your personal qualities. Remember to pick an essay topic that you are excited to write about, as this will show through in the essay.


3. Tell a story.

When writing your essay, it is easy to fall into the trap of approaching it as if it is a thesis essay about why you are so great, and why College X should accept you. Laying it on too thick is unconvincing and could reflect badly on you. More importantly, it is also boring for the reader.

Always keep in mind that the admissions officers reading your essay are overworked and forced to read hundreds of similar essays. The goal of your essay should be to engage the reader, to make yourself stand out, and to make him or her want to meet you. The best way to do this is by telling a story. The story does not have to be an earth-shattering tale of pulling a child from a burning building or climbing Mount Everest.

(If you have a story like this, great! However, if you're like 99.9% of us, and don't, there's no need to worry.)

Some of the best essays recount seemingly boring events that were important to the applicant. Make sure your story is detail-rich. Include colorful anecdotes, talk about your thoughts and connect your essay to your dreams and who you are as a person.

January 14, 2015

How to Become President of a High School Club by 12th Grade

Even if classwork and standardized tests aren't your cup of tea, there's still hope. Extracurriculars are the area where people skills wins out over book smarts. However, if everything you do in extracurriculars happens behind the scenes, it's hard to show admissions officers YOU were the mover and shaker. This week's post gives you a road map to help you get that prized leadership position.

Let's pretend you're an admissions officer. It's Friday afternoon, and you've been sitting in a cramped room all day reviewing applications. You're about to leave when your fellow admissions officer calls you over to choose between two applicants with identical GPAs and SAT scores. Their extracurricular activities lists are the following:

Applicant #1 (Procrastinating Paul):

9th Grade: Member of Model Congress

10th Grade: Member of Model Congress

11th Grade: Member of Model Congress, Member of Chamber Orchestra (2nd semester), Member of Varsity Track Team (2nd semester)

12th Grade: Member of Model Congress, Member of Chamber Orchestra, Member of Varsity Track Team



Applicant #2 (Ambitious Annie):

9th Grade: Freshman Representative of Model Congress, Member of Math Club, Treasurer of Amnesty International chapter (2nd Semester), Member of JV Track Team

10th Grade: Treasurer of Model Congress, Member of Math Club, Member of Amnesty International Chapter, Captain of JV Track team

11th Grade: Vice President of Model Congress, Member of Varsity Track team

12th Grade: President of Model Congress, Co-Captain of Varsity Track team


Who will bring more to a college - a leader or a follower? Who sounds more impressive?

You'll notice Procrastinating Paul was only involved in one activity in 9th and 10th grade. Colleges know that to be a member of a club, all you have to do is join an email list and attend a couple of meetings. It wasn't until the middle of 11th grade that he actually started doing something. It looks like Paul woke up one day and realized colleges want to see applicants with extracurriculars. Unfortunately, it was too late for him to get any leadership positions because students like Ambitious Annie already had a track record of involvement.

Whether leadership positions are determined by student voting or application, whoever does the selecting wants to see someone who's already demonstrated dedication. After all, if your peers haven't selected you, why should colleges?

Annie got an early start with extracurriculars at the beginning of high school. Within the first month, she ran for, and won, the position of freshman representative of Model Congress. She was also interested in Amnesty International, so she went to a few meetings but didn't have time to do much more first semester. However, when the sophomore who held the position of

After a sophomore who held the position of Treasurer became too busy with AP classes to fulfill his responsibilities, Annie stepped up and volunteered to be Treasurer for the rest of the year. At the end of her freshman year, she ended up running for and winning the position of Treasurer of Model Congress for sophomore year. Her track coach picked her to be captain of the JV team, so she decided not to run for treasurer of Amnesty International. However, she stayed on as a member because she's made some friends in the club.

For 11th grade, Annie won the position of Vice President of Model Congress, so she became too busy to stay in the Math Club or Amnesty International. She maintained her involvement in Varsity Track because she had won a few races and enjoyed it. Her teammates respected her and knew she was dedicated to the team's success. Given that she'd already served as JV captain in 10th grade, they picked her to be captain of the team for 12th grade.

Annie didn't let her Model Congress responsibilities slip, though. She attended Model Congress conventions throughout 9, 10, and 11th grades, bringing home several awards. She was voted President for 12th grade, and she became the first Model Congress President to host a convention at her school.

Colleges like to see dedication to a few activities rather than membership in many. It's okay to be involved in several during 9th and 10th as you figure out what your interests are. However, as time goes on, it's important to pick a few to stick with, building the relationships and skills necessary to take your involvement to the next level.

Lessons Learned:

-Run for positions as early as possible. Take some initiative and risks.

-Get involved in several activities early to determine your interests (and see where there may be opportunities for leadership).

-Do something new and interesting like organizing a conference or creating a newsletter.

-Prioritize. You won't be able to stick with every club AND keep your grades up, so pick a few activities as school gets busier in 11th and 12th grade. In 11th grade, you'll have the SATs and, potentially, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.


College Recommendation Letters | How to Ask Teachers

Many of my students feel timid about asking teachers to write them recommendations. It is natural to feel awkward about this---you are asking an authority figure to do you a favor, one that could impact your college admissions. However, there's no reason to freak out. Follow this step-by-step guide to get top-quality college recommendation letters from your teachers.


Step 1: Be prepared before you ask.

The teacher will be much more willing to write a good recommendation if you make it easy for them. This means preparing a little bit before you ask anyone.

First of all, make a list of all of the colleges that you are applying to, with the deadlines written for each school. Provide the teacher with stamped envelopes addressed to each school. In addition to being polite, these steps will ensure that the teacher gets the recommendations in on time.

It will also help if you provide the teacher with some information about yourself. This way, the recommendation will be more informed, personal, and detailed. You don’t want to overwhelm them with information that they won’t have time to read—do both of you a favor and leave out every newspaper clipping since middle school and your dance recital videos. However, if you prepare a resume and give them a copy of your personal statement (if you have already written it), it will help them understand your interests and motivations.


Step 2: Ask politely.

Teachers, like anyone else, are going to respond better if you are polite.

Ask as far in advance as possible. The end of junior year, or the very beginning of senior year, is a good time to ask. Teachers, like all of us, are busy, and if you do not give them enough time, they may do a quick, sloppy job on the recommendation. They will appreciate a lot of advance notice.

When you ask, there is no need to prepare a big speech. Just ask them to meet after school or during a free period. When you meet, say something like, “Ms. X, I really got a lot out of your math class and feel like you know me better than most teachers. I was wondering whether you could write me a strong college recommendation.” This gives them an out if they think they do not know you well enough to write a good recommendation (which, believe me, you want to know before they commit!), and is also polite and non-presumptuous.

99% of the time they will say that they would love to write you a recommendation. At this point, you can give them the materials you prepared in Step One. Also, ask them if there is anything else that you can do to make their job easier. (For example, they might ask for writing samples or a copy of your transcript.) The more prepared they are, the better the recommendation can be!


Step 3: Follow Up

As I said before, teachers are busy! It will help to give them a gentle reminder about one month before the recommendation is due. Make sure not to sound like you are nagging them, or nervous. You can say something like, “Hi, Ms. X, I just wanted to check if you need any more materials before submitting the recommendation on December 15th.” The teacher will appreciate the reminder.

After they have written the recommendation, write a thank you note! A nice, hand-written one is best. In the note, stress how much you appreciate them taking the time to write the letter, and how much it helped you.

As you can see, asking for the recommendations is no big deal. You might even say it is the easiest part of the college application—you don’t have to do any work! So don’t worry, and seniors, if you have not done so already, go ask your teachers now!

January 12, 2015

College Recommendation Letters Advice

The letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of your college application. Besides the college essay, it is the main window into the intangibles of who you are as a person in and out of the classroom.

It can seem like you have little control over how these letters turn out. After all, you can’t write them yourself (unless you have an exceptionally lazy/generous teacher.) Nevertheless, you do have more control over the quality of these letters than it might seem.

Choosing the right recommenders can make the difference between lackluster letters that don’t make an impression and convincing letters that make an impact. Here are the two most important things to consider (that most students overlook!) when choosing the people to write their letters of recommendation.

1. How much effort will the recommender put in?

Many students just choose teachers based on who gives the easiest grades, but this is often not the best choice. Admissions officers will get your transcript, and (for better or worse!) will read it quite carefully. The role of the letters of recommendation is not to reveal your objective ability as a student, but to give clues into your character, work ethic, integrity, and all those other qualities admissions officers love.

A short, vague letter from a teacher whose class you got a 101% in is a lot less helpful than a long, detailed letter detailing your personal strengths from a teacher whose class you had more trouble with. So, ask yourself: what type of letter would Recommender X write, for any student? Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. You can’t ask recommenders to audition. Still, there are important clues.

Is the potential recommender a senile, grumpy old fart? Do they race out of class at the sound of the bell before the students do? Do they read out boring lectures in monotone taken directly from the textbook (or Wikipedia)? If so, don’t even think about asking them. It doesn’t matter if you were the #1 student in their class. They will most likely put the same level of effort and enthusiasm into writing your letter as they do into their other teacher duties.

On the other hand, if the potential recommender gives vibrant, thought-out presentations in the classroom, has students over for dinner, and is the faculty advisor for a billion clubs, they are likely to write a good letter. A recommender who loves, and puts a lot of effort into, teaching and students, will also do so in your letter.


2. How is your relationship with the recommender?

Admissions officers can sniff out a phony letter from a recommender who didn’t really know you all that well pretty easily. They see these letters all the time. A letter from a recommender that thinks you are a good student and likes you—enough—just won’t be enough.

Try to think of the teachers/advisers with whom you had the most contact and the best relationships. Maybe it’s the faculty adviser of the newspaper of which you were editor, or that science teacher you went to extra-credit lectures with, or just someone whose class you participated in a lot. The more personal contact you had, the more specific and believable the recommendation letter will be.

Also, since you can send several letters of recommendation, think about what each recommender can uniquely contribute in showing the overall picture of you. Ask your lacrosse coach, who can talk about your teamwork and sense of humor. Then ask that math teacher who saw how you struggled with derivatives, but worked hard to finally conquer them. Ask the English teacher/lit mag adviser, who can talk about your creative side. Choosing the right recommenders can show admissions officers the strengths not shown in the other parts of the application, and make a big difference. Choose carefully!


January 6, 2015

The Ivy League Guide to Extracurricular Activities

Colleges want to accept students who will excel not only in academics but also in real life. Academics are important, but what you do outside of the classroom will show the admissions officer that you can make a meaningful contribution to campus life and to the world as a proud college sweatshirt-wearing alum.

If you're ambitious enough to be reading this blog as a high school freshman or sophomore, the following tips will help you to make choices now that will put you on the path to success. If you're reading this as a junior or senior (as I expect most of you are), these tips will help you to present yourself in the best way possible on your applications.

1. Think accomplishments, not titles.

The most competitive colleges receive thousands of applications from eager students who were President or Vice President of 5 (or more!) clubs in their high school. Admissions officers will wonder if you actually had to do anything in these roles. Elected positions are vehicles by which you can accomplish things, but they are not the ends unto themselves. Show that you did more than just win a popularity contest among your peers. Use your resume to describe what you've done. It's great to be Editor-in-Chief of your school newspaper, but how do you stand out amongst the many Editors-in-Chief who apply to your dream school? Did you start a new section? Improve the quality of the staff editorials? Double advertising revenue? Let the admissions officer see how this role has shaped you and helped you to develop skills that you can bring to campus.


2. Identify a need and start something new.

A good sign that you're ready for a competitive college is that you've outgrown what your high school has to offer. A good sign that you have something to offer your future campus is that you've left a mark on your high school and done something to make it a better place. As you read through your school's list of clubs and activities, what's missing? Is there an issue or cause that matters to you? Get others involved. Start a club, organize a fundraiser, invite a speaker to your school, or put together a conference.


3. Branch out.

Extracurricular activities aren't limited to the walls of your high school. Be an active member of your community. Volunteer for a political campaign, start a non-profit organization, run a business. Show your dream school that you can work with others and get things done.


4. Remember the big picture.

It's easy to get so caught up in the day-to-day life of a high school student that you may not often stop to reflect on what it is you're doing and why it matters. Try to be mindful of this. If you can understand how the roles you play in your school and community fit into larger issues, and if you've thought about the challenges you've faced and how you've worked to overcome them, you'll be well on your way to presenting yourself as a top-notch applicant.