May 22, 2015

How Many Extracurriculars for College Admissions?

It's all about quality, not quantity. Focus your time on a one thing (or a few) that you truly care about. Pick something you'd enjoy doing even if you knew that colleges wouldn't ever learn you'd done it.

Too many students join a million clubs simply to "build their resumes," do nothing significant in them, then list them on college applications. Those don't "count."

If you want an extracurricular to "count," you should do something that you enjoy. Otherwise, you won't have anything compelling about it to include on your application.

A single extracurricular could end up consuming all your free time (leading you to have only one). However, you'll be a much more compelling applicant than one who "did" several, but did nothing truly meaningful in any of them.

Suppose you're a student interested in marketing. Here's one step-by-step approach I might recommend to help you discover an extracurricular that will stand out and make for a compelling story:

  • Talk with lots of small entrepreneurs / nonprofits in industries that interest you.
  • Keep a list of the ones you like.
  • Propose an idea you think your favorite would like and offer to carry it out for them.
  • If they say no, see if you can figure out something else for them.
  • If not, move on to your next-favorite.
  • Repeat.
No one else can suggest a specific extracurricular for you. The ones you'll really excel in are the ones you're passionate about and discover for yourself - not ones someone else told you would look good.

If you truly care about an extracurricular and become involved in organically, that passion will come across in your application. You'll do a better job in it (and in the college admissions process) because your heart is truly in it.

May 15, 2015

How to Discover "Secret" Local College Scholarships

Towards the end of the school year, many high school seniors are featured in local newspapers. Articles about them typically mention which colleges they'll be attending in the fall.

Pay attention to these articles. They'll often mention local scholarships those students received.

Keep a list of these scholarships. The organizations that give them away will likely be running these scholarship competitions again in the fall. Apply for those scholarships.


The applicant pool for local scholarships is much smaller than the national scholarships that receive thousands of applications. Your high school's guidance office may also have information about local scholarships on file. Also, look into any niche scholarships you can find.

When it comes to applying national scholarships, it's most efficient to write a relatively smaller number of essays that you can re-use for multiple scholarships. In other words, focus on applying for scholarships that will allow you to use essays you've already written for others. You don't want to write essays that can only be used once!

However, local scholarships have such a small applicant pool that may be worth writing something customized for these. I've seen students win local scholarships simply because they were the only ones to apply for them!

May 12, 2015

College Application Checklist for High School Seniors

I've published a college application checklist and timeline to take you through the college admissions process from start to finish. This is the seventh and final article in the series. (Read the first article.)


2-3 months after submitting your college applications

You should have received some kind of notification from schools indicating that your application is complete. If you haven't received one from a school to which you've applied, check in to make sure that your file is, in fact, complete.  

3-6 months after submitting your college applications

You'll start hearing back from schools. The timing of the schools' decisions will depend, in part, upon when you submitted your application. (However, some schools may not even let you know of their decisions until the summer, for their own reasons - their need to fill their incoming class with the strongest applicants possible.)

Getting waitlisted has become more common in recent years. If you've been waitlisted from a school that you really want to attend, send a Letter of Continued Interest. Also be sure to provide them with any important updates to your application file. These may include grades you've recently received, awards, extracurriculars, employment changes, etc. You may also consider submitting an additional letter of recommendation. If possible, visit the schools if you haven't already, if for no reason other than to provide additional evidence of your interest.

If you accept an offer of admission from a school, be sure to withdraw your application from those to which you've applied but will not be attending. Aside from being proper etiquette, you're actually required to do this.

Evaluate acceptance offers as well as any accompanying offers of financial aid. Consider the school's U.S. News ranking, the cost of living in the area where the school is located, and whether the scholarship offered by the school is conditional or guaranteed. It's especially important to consider the school's employment statistics for recent graduates, including the percentage of graduates employed full-time in a job where a degree is required or preferred.

After deciding where to attend college 

Relax! You did it. Now all you have to do is make it through college. Enjoy.

May 11, 2015

College Planning Schedule - Senior Year

I've published a college admissions timeline to take you through the college admissions process from start to finish. This is the sixth article in the series. (Read the first article.)


1-2 months after submitting your college applications 

Submit any applications for financial aid, scholarships, private loans, etc.

In December, file your taxes (or have your parents file their taxes). You'll want to have the information in your tax returns in order to complete FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in January (when that year's FAFSA form becomes available). If, for some reason, you're not able to complete your taxes in December, estimate the figures as best you can. You'll be able to update the form later after you've filed your tax returns. (You'll receive an email reminder to do so in April.) 

You may also have your college interview during this time. See these tips on how to prepare.

In early January, fill out FAFSA (available Jan 1). It's necessary in order to get government loans for tuition, and you might have to wait 6 weeks to receive a response to your FAFSA submission, so the earlier you submit it, the better. In a few months, you'll be in a better position to determine whether a school's financial aid offer is sufficient if you know the amount of money you're getting from other sources. (Schools won't always give you a lot of time to decide on their financial aid offers, so you want to have the relevant information as soon as possible.)

Also in early January, provide schools with updated transcripts reflecting your grades from the fall. (You'll need to request another transcript from your school’s guidance office.)

May 8, 2015

Applying to College Timeline - Senior Year

I've published a college application planning timeline to take you through the process of applying to college from start to finish. This is the fifth article in the series. (Read the first article.)


1 month before submitting your college applications:

Check your application account(s) to determine whether your recommenders have submitted their recommendation letters for you yet. Also, check whether your high school has sent over your transcript. It should only take a couple of weeks for this to be processed. If the appropriate documents aren't designated as "received" in your account, follow up with the appropriate people. Email, call, or even visit their offices in person - whatever you have to do. They're often overwhelmed with requests and need reminders.

Put the finishing touches on your college essay, diversity statement, optional essays, etc. Give them another read and make any changes you think might be appropriate.

When submitting your college applications 

Enter all the essays and other parts of the application that you’ve written into each college application. Make sure everything is formatted correctly and that you haven’t mentioned the wrong school in a particular essay or application (it happens). 

Triple-check everything before hitting "send."

Congratulations - you're finished! Pat yourself on the back.

Don't forget to thank your recommenders and those who helped with your college essay. A box of chocolates and thank you card go a long way.

May 7, 2015

College Application Plan for High School Seniors

I've published a college application planning timeline to take you through the college admission process from start to finish. This is the fourth article in the series. (Read the first article.)


3-4 months before submitting your college applications:

Focus on your college essay. Write an initial draft of 1300-1500 words, wait a few days, then aggressively reduce its length so that it will be concise, yet full of substantive content. Print draft after draft. It's often easier to make revisions on paper than on the computer screen. Show your college essay to trusted friends, family, and your guidance counselor to get feedback on your rough drafts, and, ultimately, your final draft.

Look at your résumé further and make sure that it's current. Edit it for both style and wording. 

2 months before submitting your college applications:

Take another look at the applications for the colleges to which you're planning to apply and make sure there haven't been any significant changes from last year's versions.

Determine whether you might be able to write a diversity statement. Of course, most people who write them consider themselves under-represented minorities (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.). However, even if you don't fall within one of these categories, you might be able to write one if you've had an unusual life experience or can bring diversity to the table in another way.

Check whether each school asks a question along the lines of "Why do you want to go to our school in particular?" (aka "Why X?") If they ask this question, be sure to answer it. To gather the specifics necessary to answer this question, visit the school's website. Visit the school in-person, if possible. Talk to current students and alumni, and be as specific as possible in your reasons for wanting to attend the school.

Schools will typically allow you to write an optional essay or addendum on any topic (including weaknesses). If there's a topic you weren't able to cover in the other essays, consider doing so here. (If a school doesn't ask a "Why X?" question, you can provide your answer to such a question here.) 

All of these essays should be reviewed by trusted family/friends, as well as your guidance counselor. 

Check your application account(s) to see whether your recommenders have submitted their recommendation letters for you yet. If they haven't, follow up with them.

Request your high school transcripts. Your school will have to submit transcripts directly to colleges.

May 6, 2015

College Admissions Timeline for High School Students

I've published a college admissions timeline to take you through the college admissions process from start to finish. This is the third article in the series. (Read the first article.)


5-6 months before submitting your college applications 

Open a Common Application account. Fill out all the simple stuff you can complete now, like your personal details (address, etc.).

Look at the full applications for the colleges to which you're planning to apply. Even though the applications for this admission cycle may not yet be available, those from the previous cycle are. Applications change relatively little from year to year. Besides, the college essay topics are generally open-ended anyway.

Meet up with your potential recommenders (or speak with them via phone) about your college plans. Otherwise, email them. After they agree to write a recommendation letter, email them with a bulleted list of topics they might mention in the recommendation letter (and/or provide them with a printed copy). Give your résumé (list of extracurriculars) a brief look (more if you have the time) and make sure that it's current, then give it to your recommenders as well (either email or hard copy).

Be sure to also provide your recommenders with a printed copy of the college’s recommendation letter form, since they'll have to submit this along with the letter itself. The easier you make this for them, the sooner they're likely to finish and submit it. (If you're applying early, tell your recommenders that you'll need the recommendation letter by August, as some schools will allow you to submit your application on September 1. The earlier you apply, the better).

Start to brainstorm at least a few college essay topics. Write a 300-word paragraph on each and determine which ones flow most naturally and feel the strongest. Get feedback from trusted friends and family, as well as your guidance counselor, on which topic is best.