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.

March 25, 2015

Why Take the SAT/ACT Early in the College Admissions Process

As you likely know, the SAT/ACT requires a significant time commitment. For this reason, under ideal circumstances, you won't have to complete most of the application process while simultaneously studying for the SAT/ACT. Instead, try to get the SAT/ACT out of the way early (during your junior year). Then, you can focus on the majority of the application without having to worry about SAT/ACT prep.

However, if you end up taking the SAT/ACT in the fall of your senior year, you may choose to complete some of the application process as a break from your SAT/ACT studying.

You will have a few weeks between taking the SAT/ACT and receiving your score, so you may use this time to finalize your applications. However, you'll likely want to take a break from anything application-related for at least a few days or even up to a week after taking such an important standardized test. Aside from wanting to relax in its aftermath, you'll probably have neglected many of your non-admission-related obligations (work, school, family, friends, etc.). Once you receive your score, you may want to apply as quickly as possible in order to apply Early Action or Early Decision, depending upon the school.

Note: colleges will not look at your application until it is complete - meaning they have received all required components, including your SAT score. Even if every other part is in, they won't look at it if they don't have that magical number. Why? Because, while they'll (probably) look at all the other parts, the test score is one of the most important factors in determining whether they'll admit you. They won't waste their time reading the college essay, etc., if they don't know whether you scored well or poorly.

March 24, 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!

March 16, 2015

Volunteering and the College Admissions Process

Believe it or not, you don't need to volunteer to get into college. You can show your individuality by starting your own business.

I would be surprised if you weren’t immediately skeptical. Allow me to explain. There are a number of reasons why starting your own business is an excellent sign of leadership and actually much simpler than it appears. Here are 3 reasons you should undertake this seemingly daunting task.

1. Volunteering is getting old.

In the past years, it has entered the public consciousness that the best way to demonstrate impressive extra-curricular activities is to volunteer. To be sure, this is definitely an excellent accomplishment and looks great on your application. Let’s take a closer look, though. Your alleged goal when volunteering is to “help people.” Altruistic goals such as this are sure to impress application reviewers. However, these reviewers are people just like you and me. Reviewers have realized that most high school students' main reason for volunteering is to get accepted to the college of your dreams. They've caught on to this fact in their observation of the steady rise in the number of altruists among teenagers. The bottom line: volunteering doesn’t make you stand out nearly as much as it used to. Starting your own business, on the other hand, immediate shows your hard-working nature and your leadership ability, both incredibly valuable and impressive traits.

2. Starting a business isn’t nearly as difficult as you think.

Today’s generation of applicants lives in a very different environment than that of their parents. In the past, starting a business meant something along the lines of opening a hardware store. This involved securing a large loan, leasing space, purchasing and stocking inventory, hiring employees, etc. Compare this to today. In this age of the internet, the steps are as follows: 1) Come up with an idea/niche; 2) Create your website. Whether your product is a good or a service, all you need is a website. You can use this site to sell t-shirts that you've designed and printed, report local news, or import and resell cheap plastic toys from China.

3. What if your business fails?

This is a large concern for nearly all small business owners. The answer is, so what? Remember, starting a small Internet-based business requires an investment of nothing but time. Your goal is to signal leadership to admission committees, not to become the next Donald Trump. Whether your business succeeds or fails, you'll have achieved your true goal. Furthermore, it becomes an excellent topic for an application essay.

Think about these tips. In today’s world, there is no reason not to give this a shot. Standing out means being unique. There is almost no risk involved, and it is a far superior time commitment than volunteer work or the debate team. Let me know how it goes!

March 10, 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.

March 9, 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!

March 2, 2015

10 Tips To Prepare For College Interviews

Many students tell me that the interview is the most nerve-racking part of the admissions process. No longer are you hidden behind a computer screen or manila envelope; it's just you and the interviewer. You don't even get to bring 3x5 note cards!

With proper preparation, you can ace the interview and leave an impression that can make the difference between a thin envelope and that glossy folder delivered by the FedEx truck. Here are 10 tips to reduce your anxiety and help you shine:

1. Practice, practice, practice.

You may have plenty of interview experience if you've applied for many summer jobs or internships, or this may be your first time in the interview chair. Either way, you will come across as more confident and articulate if you've practiced beforehand. Let a friend, sibling, or parent be your interviewer and grill you with their toughest questions. You'll thank them later.

2. Brainstorm possible questions you may be asked.

Of course there may be some unexpected questions, but much of what the interviewer asks you shouldn't be a surprise. Think up some possible questions and you'll be comfortable and prepared when they come up.

3. Think about ways to answer those questions.

Write your answers out as if they were like any other part of the application. Edit your answers, think them over, and rewrite.

4. Don't try to memorize the answers from #3.

You don't want to sound like a tape recording. It's okay to pause and think before answering a question, and you will sound more natural than if you're repeating back a speech you prepared and memorized.

5. Make sure you're familiar with the school.

In most cases, the interviewer will be a proud alumnus of the school who volunteers his time as a service to his alma mater. He wants to help the school by playing a role in selecting the best applicants, but he also wants to help you get in if you can convince him that the college he loves so much is the perfect fit for your aspirations. Learn as much as you can about the college and talk about how excited you are to experience particular things that make the school special.

6. Prepare questions to ask the interviewer.

You don't want to sit there silently when the interviewer asks if you have any questions for him. Prepare 2-3 things that you'd like to know, and make sure they're not straight-out facts listed on the front page of the college's website. Also, don't ask something that's not particularly important or relevant to your college experience (i.e. "How many books are in the college's library?"). The best questions to ask are ones that involve the interviewer's own experience at the college. Since he's a proud alumnus, he'll enjoy telling you what he loved most about his experience there. Turn things around and let him try to sell *you* on the school!

7. Practice that firm handshake.

It shows confidence, maturity, and professionalism.

8. Take a deep breath.

You've made it through the hardest parts of the application process already. Your GPA, test scores, teacher recommendations, and essays are all done. Along the way, you've been involved in extracurricular activities, maybe had some summer jobs or internships, and you've learned a lot about yourself and about the world along the way. All you have to do now is tell the interviewer things you already know and about which you've already written. If you can be relaxed, that's great, but also know that they're used to nervous students. If that's you, you won't be alone.

9. Just be yourself.

In most cases, the interviewer writes a few paragraphs to the admissions committee sharing his thoughts about you. He doesn't usually make any actual decision as to whether or not you'll be accepted. Don't worry about trying to prove anything or explaining deficits in your application. Instead, let the interviewer get to know you. Share experiences and accomplishments that you're really proud of. Talk about your future plans and goals. Let your excitement be contagious.

10. Smile.

Someone who knows your dream school very well is taking the time to speak with you and learn about your best qualities. They love meeting students and getting to know them. Enjoy the experience!

February 23, 2015

College Selection Tips | Picking the Right College

Many students just want to go to the best college possible. However, how should you define "best"? "Best" isn't simply what the rankings say. It's the school that fits your needs and preferences.

This post will help you figure out how to choose the right one.

Some of the most important factors to consider when choosing the right college for you:
1. How large is the student body? Do you want a large community with a ton of opportunities, or do you want a "small town feel" where everyone knows each other? This will affect the faculty/student ratio as well.

2. How prestigious is the college? The more respected it is, the more opportunities you'll have after graduation.

3. Where is the school located? How close is it to your family? Do you want an urban, suburban, or rural environment?

4. Will the college environment expose you to new experiences? Do you want to challenge yourself in an unfamiliar environment and learn to live independently?

How to find out the answers to these questions
1. Visit the college's website. Look at how the college presents itself.

2. Visit the college yourself. If you might spend four years there, it's worth taking the college for a test drive. Take a tour of the campus, and don't be afraid to speak with the tour guide one-on-one to answer your individual questions.

Of course, these are not unbiased sources. Any information you get from the website or tour guide is likely to present the college in the best possible light. Would a student who disliked the college be volunteering or working as a tour guide? Of course not.

For this reason:

3. Speak with current students besides the tour guide. Where do you find them? They're all over campus! Take some initiative and speak with random students you see outside or in the student center.

4. Speak with recent alumni of that college. They might be the older siblings of your friends, or they might be random people you contact through Facebook. Most likely, they'll be happy to help you. After all, they were in your position only a few years ago.

The above list of considerations is not complete by any means. Next week, I'll cover several more factors in choosing the right college.