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December 5, 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!

December 2, 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.

November 28, 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.

November 21, 2014

How To Answer The “Why Do You Want To Go To This College?” Essay

Many schools (several of the Ivy Leagues, and many liberal arts colleges) have a supplemental essay that asks you to talk about you want to go to their school. They ask this question for a lot of reasons, but there are 2 big reasons, one cynical, one more warm and fuzzy.

The cynical reason is, bluntly, they want to accept students who will accept their offers of admissions. The higher the percent of students accepted that go there, the less they have to accept from the wait list, the lower their acceptance rate, and the better they look.

The other reason is less self-serving, and it's more about the students. Schools are not just looking to accept the best, the brightest, and most interesting, but also to find the students who are the best matches. They want students who will thrive on campus, not transfer out (which will hurt their rankings!), and who will contribute to campus life.

The moral is, these essays are important, so spend some time on them. If the school that you’re writing about is actually your safety, don’t let it show in your essay! Here are some tips to help:

Do research the school. It is important to show that you know a lot about the school. Look at the website, read their catalog, look at what college books say about it, talk to someone from your high school who went there, and visit if you can. The more little details you know, the more it will seem like you really want to go there (even if you don’t) and like you care.

Don't recycle the same essay for all the schools. I know it’s tempting---You’re busy and writing these essays is not a day on the beach. This essay, though, is all about showing how much you want to go to, and why you are a good match for, the SPECIFIC school. If you recycle, the essay will be broad and unspecific, and could end up hurting you.

Do talk about yourself. I can’t stress it enough: it’s an essay about why YOU will thrive at the college. They admissions committee already knows their school is great, what they want to know is why the school is great for you, and you for them. So, write about how you will contribute to campus life, how you can enrich the community, how you will take advantage of the college’s offerings, and how the college will help you to achieve your goals. If you visited the school, write about your personal reflections on the campus, students, and classes. Anecdotes and details are always the best approach. Show the admissions committee why you are the perfect match!

Don't bash other schools. Negativity is never good, and won’t impress anyone. In fact, it’s best to mention other schools at all. Be positive, and focus exclusively on why this school is so perfect for you. Leave the comparisons out.

Do talk about clubs, sports, curriculum, departments, professors, student body diversity, size, campus community, internships, study abroad, research opportunities, campus culture, class size, and location. There are more than enough specifics you can mention to fill this short essay!

Don't talk about parties, tailgates, easiness of professors, or hotness of the girls/guys on campus. Maybe those are factors in why you want to go to the school, but that will not impress anyone on the admissions committee!

November 17, 2014

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.

November 10, 2014

Recommendations for Getting College Recommendation Letters

Here's the who, what, when, where, why, and how of asking for college recommendation letters.

Who to ask: your guidance counselor, teachers, coaches, employers. Basically, anyone in a position of authority who's supervised you in some way. They should know you well, like you, and respect you. Most importantly, however, they should be reliable. A great recommender is one who actually writes and submits the recommendation letter on time.

Who NOT to ask: parents, other relatives, your friends, famous people you don't know well. In short, anyone who's clearly biased and anyone who doesn't actually know you.

What to ask: Explain what you hope to achieve in college and ask if the potential recommender is willing to write a positive letter for you. If the answer is yes, give them a brief list of potential "writing points" for the letter. This list can include any research papers you've written, any insightful comments you made during class, etc. Give the recommender this list. Make writing the letter as easy as possible for them. If they offer to let you write a draft, that's great, but never bring up this idea yourself. Also, give them addressed and stamped envelopes for each college.

What NOT to ask: "I really need a strong rec letter because my grades are terrible. I know I haven't done all the work and I've turned things in late, but I'm really going to turn things around in college. You'll write a good letter for me, right?...No?...well, how about I just write it myself and you'll sign it?"

When to ask: EARLY! I can't emphasize this enough. The nicest teachers (the ones most likely to write gushing rec letters) are likely to get a ton of requests. Beat everyone else to the punch and ask at the end of junior year. This also gives recommenders plenty of time to write a nice and detailed letter for you.

When NOT to ask: Anytime from September to January of senior year. If you're reading this, and it's already the fall, ask the potential recommender ASAP. Other bad times to ask include when the teacher is in the middle of a lesson, when other students are standing around, when you've recently bombed a test or when you've recently gotten into trouble during class.

Where to ask: Ideally, in the recommender's classroom / office after school or during an off-period.

Where NOT to ask: In the cafeteria, in the parking lot as the recommender is running to his/her car, while you're sitting in the detention room

Why to ask: Because colleges require recommendation letters! These letters help admissions officers get a fuller picture of you.

Why NOT to ask: If you want to sabotage your college admissions chances by not including everything the application requests.

How to ask: "May I stop by during your off-period or after school to chat for a few moments?" Then, you actually ask them in the course of a one-on-one conversation about your goals and future.

How NOT to ask: "Hey teach, can you write me a rec letter? It's due next week."

November 6, 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.