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October 21, 2014

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.

October 17, 2014

7 Ways to Start the College Application Process with a Bang

To sum it up in two words, plan ahead. Far too many students begin thinking about college admissions only when they actually begin the application process. Unfortunately, the beginning of senior year can be too late to turn things around. Here are 7 ways you can get a jump on the college application process and maximize your chances.

1. Keep a "brag sheet."
A "brag sheet" is a list of all your activities and hobbies. It's important to keep track of any recognition you receive so you can list it on your application. Freshman year of high school is not too early to begin compiling this list and thinking about how your academic interests and extracurriculars will come together on your application. The brag sheet and essay are the two "subjective" (interesting) criteria that admissions officers use to understand you.

2. Distinguish yourself through extracurricular activities.
Instead of joining every impressive-sounding club at your school, pick a few meaningful ones. Show a substantial contribution to your school and how that participation or leadership has influenced you. Be able to explain why you're involved in a club and the contributions you made so admissions officers know you weren't just shooting for a fancy title.

3. Look beyond your school to the community.
At top high schools, it can be difficult to gain leadership positions in school clubs when everyone else is going for the same position. If you're in this situation, I recommend you pursue your extracurricular passions outside of school. Think about ways you can engage with the "adult world." Opportunities exist through community organizations, nonprofits, and internships. Many students launch innovative fundraising campaigns for worthy causes or mobilize a group of peers to tackle a problem head-on. Teachers, parents, friends, and college counselors can help to plan and advise these endeavors.

4. Pay attention in class.
It's amazing - if you pay attention in class instead of texting, talking with friends, or napping, you'll actually be able to spend less time studying in your free time. That leaves more time for extracurriculars, SAT prep, and hanging with friends.

5. Cultivate relationships with teachers without being a suck-up.
Of course, #4 (above) is a big part of this. However, it's not enough. Teachers are people, too, which means they like to be liked. Treat them with respect, but don't be afraid to share your interests and passions with them. You might even make a joke or two during class every now and then (if appropriate). Come to extra help and find excuses to stop by and chat for a few minutes when they're on hall duty or on their off period. The other kids will never have to know, and your GPA will benefit as a result. It never hurts to befriend those in power.

6. Visit the campuses of schools that interest you.
When you visit a college, you're indicating your interest in going there. Colleges take notice of this and begin a file on you. One way colleges are ranked in "US News and World Report" is by their yield (the number of accepted students who choose to go to their college). For this reason, colleges accept the best students who are likely to choose their school upon being accepted. Convince them you're one of those people.

7. Take the SAT early, and prepare for it right the first time.
Get the SAT out of the way by studying for it the summer before junior year and taking it in the fall of junior year. This allows you to focus on your GPA, extracurriculars, and relationships with teachers.

October 14, 2014

What to Include in a College Application Résumé

Résumés aren't just for jobs and internships. You actually need one for your college applications as well.

Why? It's a short 1-2 page summary of your accomplishments, abilities, and interests. It's a quick and easy way for college admissions officers to see what you've done during high school and what you'll add to their college.

It's easier to make a college résumé than you'd think. This post will show you how.

Sections to Include in a College Application Résumé:
Academic Profile (high school(s) and dates attended)
Co-Curricular Activities (school clubs, sports, etc.)
Extracurricular Activities (out-of-school groups)
Work and Volunteer Experience
Summer Programs
Honors / Awards
Hobbies / Interests / Travel

Detailed Breakdown of Sections in a College Application Résumé

-includes full name, social security number, address, city, state, zip code, telephone number, and email address

Academic Profile
-all high schools you attended
-city and state of each high school
-dates you attended them
-class rank
-SAT / ACT scores
-Honors / AP / IB courses (optional)

Co-Curricular Activities, Extracurricular Activities, and Work / Volunteer Experience
-each activity, positions held, grades in which you were involved
-specific contributions, duties, and recognition in each activity
-number of hours involved per week

Summer Programs
-short description of each
-month and year attended

Honors / Awards
-short description of each
-month and year you won it
-why you won it

Hobbies / Interests / Travel
-separate category for each
-items that are honest AND make you look good

College Application Résumé Tips:
-List everything in reverse chronological order within each category.

-Be sure to mention any unusual experiences that will impress admissions officers.

-Give a copy to each potential recommender. It'll help them write their letter for you.

-Proofread, proofread, proofread.

October 6, 2014

Factors in Choosing a College or University

I previously covered some important considerations in college selection and promised you I'd write more. Here they are!

How much is the tuition, room, and board? Public colleges and universities often offer significantly cheaper tuition for in-state students.

Can you get merit aid or financial aid? If so, how much?

To what extent can you negotiate with the financial aid office?

Also, don't forget to factor in the fact that if your school is far from home, plane / train fares add up quickly.

What kind of degrees does the college offer?

How strong is the college in your areas of interest? For example, if you want to major in medicine, how reputable is the pre-med program?

Are there any combined undergraduate and graduate degree programs?

How competitive is the student body?

What's the ratio of students to faculty?

What's the average class size?

How accessible are faculty to students (email, office hours, etc.)?

What kind of assistance does the career services office offer?

What's their success rate with placing students in jobs and internships?

What kind of employers typically come to campus to give workshops?

What kind of employers have special relationships with the college for internship programs?

Extracurriculars and Social Life
What kind of student organizations are there?

How prominent is the Greek life (fraternities/sororities)?

How strong are the school's sports teams? How strong is school spirit?

What percentage of students live on/off campus (dorms vs. apartments vs. living at home)?

Student Body
How diverse is the student body (race/ethnicity/religion/national origin/gender etc...)?

What's the average age of an entering freshman?

What percentage of students transfer in (and out) of the college?


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October 3, 2014

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.

September 30, 2014

College Interview | Tips to Prepare for Questions They Ask

or “Tell Me About Yourself…”: Dos and Don’ts for Answering that Inevitable First Question

They say that first impressions are everything. Perhaps, then, it's good that you can prepare well for that first question of the college interview because it's almost always the same one: “Tell me about yourself.”

This question may seem like a no-brainer---obviously, you know yourself pretty well. Still, you should give some thought now to what you'll say, because your answer will set the tone of the interview and determines the first impression you'll leave. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you prepare to answer this question, and examples of good and bad responses to use as guidelines.

DO be confident. I know talking about yourself can be hard, and you might worry about seeming boastful. However, the truth is that interviewers like people who are comfortable with themselves and proud of their accomplishments. So, please, be confident, or at least fake it! Practice talking about yourself in a self-assured voice and channel that pretentious guy in your chem class. While these cocky people may not make any friends in the lunchroom, the sad truth is they are the ones who do best in interviews!

DON’T be too brief or vague. Just stating your year in high school and where you are from will not intrigue anyone. You want to captivate the interviewer’s interest, and make him/her fascinated by you. If you give details that the interviewer can ask follow-up questions about, it makes their job easier, and they will like you better for that! So, don’t be afraid to be specific.

DO give a hook. Your answer to this question should be like a teaser, making the interviewer want to know more about you. Talk about what makes you tick and be sure to include one or two of your main passions. Paint a picture for the interviewer. Make him or her feel like he already knows you, and make him want to get to know you better.

DON’T recite your resume. Yes, I said to give specifics, but this does not mean reciting your resume! If you do this, you're wasting your interviewer’s time—they have the resume in front of them, and they do know how to read. Worse, it will bore your interviewer. Instead, focus on a couple main passions, with specific details about those. Questions about the rest of your resume will come, don’t worry.

Now, for the examples of what not to do:

Bad response #1: “Um, I’m a senior at Springfield High.”

This makes you seem shy and uninteresting, and gives the interviewer nothing to work with.

Bad response #2: “I am a senior at Springfield High, on the volleyball team, in the Eastern dance troupe, a volunteer at the soup kitchen, on the yearbook committee and am Vice President of Students for Economic Justice. I have a 3.72 GPA and a 2160 on the SATs. I am in the top 10% of my class.”

This is boring, and despite all the activities listed, makes the speaker seem like a drone. Focus more on your passions, and who you are. Don’t present yourself as a bunch of stats, and don’t mention your SATs or GPA unless asked!

Good response: “I was born in Egypt, but grew up in Springfield, and am currently a senior at Springfield High. I spent every summer since I was two in Egypt. These experiences have made me obsessed with ancient history and archeology, and I hope to double major in anthropology and history in college. I loved my summers, but one consequence of them was I saw the depths of global poverty. During the year, I have spent a lot of time addressing poverty right here in Springfield, through volunteering at a soup kitchen and being Vice President of Students for Economic Justice. I have also gotten into Egyptian dance, and have performed with a belly dancing troupe at the Springfield theatre!”

This response gives insight into what makes the interviewee tick, and it gives specifics the interviewer can work with, without boringly reciting the resume. The interviewee seems self-assured and confident. They will probably wow their interviewer, as will you after you apply what you’ve learned here in the interview!

September 22, 2014

College Interview Outfits And Clothing | What To Wear

or...Dress to Impress: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to College Interview Outfits

I know that you have a lot on your plate, that you have to worry about grades, extracurricular activities, SATs, and essays, to name a few things. I also know that picking out college interview outfits is not on the top of your list of concerns. Still, I know many students who let this slide, and then ended up freaking out the night before the interview. In the hope that this does not happen to you, I have put together a head-to-toe guide of how to present yourself in your interview.

1. Neck and Above

Girls, if you wear makeup, make sure that it is natural and minimal. Avoid heavy eye makeup and excessive bronzer.

Do not wear too much jewelry. No jewelry is necessary, but girls may wear a pair of stud earrings, such as pearls, and a simple necklace and watch. For boys, a watch is all you need. If you have any piercings besides in the ears, take out the earrings before the interview.

Make sure that your hair is combed and neat. If you are having a bad hair day, do not freak out. Girls, just put your hair in a neat bun, or half up and half down. Also, note to both boys and girls: avoid elaborate hairstyles, too much hair gel, or hair colors that do not appear in nature!

Boys should make sure that they are clean-shaven. While your friends might like your handlebar moustache, admissions officers probably will not.

2. Clothes

These are basic guidelines, which in some cases you can modify slightly. In general, you can be somewhat more casual in alumni or student interviews than you can be during interviews with admissions officers. Also, if you are interviewing for an alternative liberal arts college like Hampshire, you can be a little more lax than you would be for more traditional schools. For interviews with undergraduate business schools like Wharton, you should veer towards the more formal side. However, the following guidelines work for any interview, whether with a student, alumni, or admissions officer, at a hippy-dippy liberal arts school or a more stuffy business program.

In general, business casual is the name of the game. For girls, this means a blouse, twinset, or tailored sweater on top, and slacks or a tailored skirt that reaches the knees or below on bottom. For boys, this means a button down shirt and slacks. Boys may also add a sweater vest or nice sweater if they would like.

Black, white, navy, or neutral colors are the best. Make sure that everything is clean and ironed. The focus should be on you, not on your clothes! Also, make sure everything fits well. No saggy pants or anything too tight! Finally, not to state the obvious, but avoid showing too much skin. Boys, this means you too. (Girlsm while on Gossip Girl it might be okay to show tons of cleavage for a Yale interview. In real life, this does not fly.)

3. Feet

For girls, wear black or neutral colored, clean shoes. Loafers or small heels work well. Avoid shoes that make it hard to walk. You do not want to be remembered as the girl who stumbled and tripped!

For boys, dress shoes or loafers are perfect.

Now that dressing for your interviews is a no-brainer, it is time to start working on what you are going to say! Stay tuned for more on that next week.