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October 31, 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.”

October 27, 2014

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.

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.