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September 19, 2014

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!

September 16, 2014

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!

September 8, 2014

“Any Questions?”: The Final College Interview Question

The last question of every college interview is always the same: “Any questions?” If you are unprepared, this part can be scarier than the interview itself. However, if you’re prepared, this can be a chance to shine.

Interviewers can get as much information about you from this part as from the rest of the interview. If you ask good, thoughtful questions, you will seem smart, prepared, mature, and curious. On the flip side, if you look around nervously, stall, and say “ummmm….no, I think that covers it,” you could undo the gains made by an otherwise good interview.

The best approach is to think about, and write down, some questions before the actual interview. That way you’ll be prepared before they pop the inevitable question. Here are three types of questions you can ask. Feel free to mix it up, and ask one or two questions of each type.

Type 1: Research-Based

The first type of question asks for more information about the college’s offerings. This type of questions shows that you did your homework and care about the school, and that you are ambitious and motivated. If done right, it can also emphasize your interests and strengths.

In order to think of topics for these questions, look at the website and college catalogue for facts about the school. Find out the things the school prides itself on, whether it’s the broad liberal arts curriculum, the massive internship program, or the host of study abroad options. Think about which of these things are most relevant to your interests and goals, and then ask about it.

Now that you have the topic, it’s time to think of the actual question. Do not ask anything that is answered on the college website, or that the interviewer could answer with one word. The best question of this type shows you researched the school, highlights your personal attributes, and displays thought. The interviewer should need at least a few sentences to answer it. (Bonus: This takes up time and you don’t even have to say a thing!)

Here is an example:

“College A’s career development program is very attractive to me. As a future engineering major, I was wondering whether you knew of what types of internships other engineering students have held, and how this helped them academically and on their career path?”

This question shows you’ve done your homework, are ambitious, focused, and motivated.


Type 2: Personal Questions

It’s a fact of human nature that everyone loves talking about themselves. Since the interview is basically about getting your interviewer to like you, this is a good tactic.

No, I’m not saying you should ask them about their relationship with their wife or whether they’re self-conscious about that bald spot. However, asking about their personal experiences at the college makes you seem interesting and engaged, and allows them to open up to you.

This works best if it’s a student or alumni interviewer, but you can even use this tactic on an admissions officer.

For a student interviewer, you can say something like, “I’ve done a lot of research on College X and it sounds like a great fit, but I’m interested in hearing your perspective. What are some of your favorite and least favorite things about College X?”

For an alumni interviewer, you could say something like, “My dad always says it’s not students, but alumni, who can give you the most valuable information on a college. How did your experiences on campus shape your career and life experiences after graduation?”

For an admissions officer, it’s a little trickier. You can’t ask about their experiences as a student, but you can ask about their views on the college at which they work. For example: “Your viewpoint is especially valuable because you work at College X. How would you describe the campus culture and student and faculty community at the college?”


Type 3: “I Listened” Questions

These questions follow up on something the interviewer already talked about to show that you are engaged and a good listener. If they talked about sports, the mentoring program, the libraries, whatever, ask for more details. Just make sure to ask for more information on something they already talked about, not to ask a question that they already answered.

August 28, 2014

How NOT to Write a College Essay

Here are some of the most common mistakes students make, and why you should avoid them:

Repeat info covered in another part of the application.
Students often repeat themselves in the college essay "just to be safe." However, admissions officers have already read, or will read, the rest of your application. Reading the same thing twice is boring. Trust them to do their job and read the application as thoroughly as necessary. Give them some insight into your motivations and how they indicate your abilities. If you mentioned something briefly on the application, you can go into it in more detail in the essay.

Don't do this:
"In freshman year I was in Key Club. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about helping others. I also joined the lacrosse team, which took up a lot of time. However, I still found time to volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend. All of this demonstrates that I am responsible and capable."

Whining about circumstances instead of explaining why/how you overcame them.
Nobody likes a sob story, no matter how true or heartbreaking it is. Don't look for pity. Instead, show admissions committees how you surpassed difficulties to achieve a high GPA, leadership position, or some other accomplishment. Impress them with your determination.

Don't do this:
"Because my parents had to get rid of the babysitter after we had money issues, I had to quit the soccer team to watch my little sister. It was a real shame to have to leave my teammates and give up the chance of being state champions, but family comes first, so I didn't mind making the sacrifice."

Talk about how you want to go to a particular college because it has a great reputation or you want to make money.

Many students want to go to a top school and make money. Why does this make you special and different? Self-promotion is a given. Instead, distinguish yourself through your desire to intensively study the subjects that interest you or to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas.

Don't this this:
"University X is well-renowned, and many famous people like _____, ____, and ____ graduated from there. With a degree from University X, I'll be sure to be a success in life and make my friends and family proud."

Misrepresent your achievements and goals in the essay.
If you graduated in the middle of your class and have no extracurriculars/recommendations to back up the following...

Don't do this:
"I was one of the top students in my school and hope to reduce world hunger or find a cure for cancer."

The following need no example:

Use "cute" techniques to stand out.
Covering your essay in glitter and perfume, enclosing a link to a YouTube video of yourself performing goofy antics, or writing the entire essay in Pig Latin.

Say you want to go to College X in College Y's application.
It'd be a shame to mix up the two essays and get into neither one as a result. Double check.

Include careless grammatical errors, overly wordy phrases, and clichés.
You already know the stakes are high when it comes to college admissions. Show admissions officers that you care enough about the process to write an amazing college essay.

August 22, 2014

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.


August 21, 2014

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.”

5 Steps to Starting Your College Essay

"Where do I start?!" is probably the most common question students have about the college essay. It's not like anything you've written before. It's not a tweet, and it's not an essay about "Great Expectations" or "Romeo and Juliet." It's something in-between: personal AND professional. How do you toe the line? I'll cover that combination in future blog posts. For now, here are 5 tips to help you start writing the dreaded college essay.

1. Don't start at the beginning.
Write any random potential anecdotes, details, or ideas as they come to you. You can work on connecting them later. It's possible (and highly likely) you will write the most effective sentences of your essay only after a great detail of free-writing. Feel free to use any format that works for you in the brainstorming stage - it can be bullet points, an outline, or just a word or two. Your goal is just to get as much down on paper as possible.

2. Ask a friend to interview you.
Find someone you know and trust to ask you several questions about your passions, experiences, hobbies, authors, TV shows, etc. This is much more effective than the broad (and scary!) question: "What do you want to do with your life?" After having this focused interview, your "interviewer" will be able to give you extended feedback on your interests, strengths, and weaknesses. This will be helpful in figuring out your essay topic.

3. Use writing prompts.
Filling in the blanks can help you overcome writer's block. Ex. "I like ____ because it makes me feel ____." "A global issue that excites me is _____ because ______." "I enjoy learning about ____ because ______."

4. Browse your first-choice college's website.
Since you're probably passionate about your first-choice school, looking over its website may help you figure out themes to discuss in your essay. If the school specializes in business management degree programs or humanities, then you might want to tailor your essay accordingly.

5. Make a list of your passions.
You'll notice the idea of passion comes up a few times here. That's because passion is necessary for engaging writing. If you don't enjoy what you're writing, the admissions officers probably won't either. On the other hand, if you're clearly excited about whatever it is you have to discuss, it's more likely the admissions officers will be, too.