The three most common college essay mistakes

For seniors who are still working on college essays, make sure you avoid the three most common college essay mistakes. 

1.  Injecting deep meaning into an event that wasn't all that meaningful at the time.

2.  Claiming an experience taught you a valuable lesson you didn't actually learn, or don't seem to be using today.

3.  Writing the essay in a formal and academic tone that doesn't sound like you.

All three of those mistakes come from students trying too hard to be impressive.  Worry less about what you think they want to hear; worry more about what you want to say. 

You can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Don’t punish the group based on an individual

My favorite quote from one of my favorite books this year:


The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy.  'Someone's wearing shorts!?  We need a dress code!'  No you don't.  You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again."


For senior families: This is the time to start the financial aid process

Most students will submit their applications for admission before applying for financial aid (so you actually apply to college without necessarily knowing exactly how much each college is going to cost).  And a lot of families fixate so much on the admissions deadlines that they aren't aware of what they'll need to do to apply for aid. 

If you're a senior (or the parent of one) who wants to apply for financial aid, here are a few things you should do now.

1.  Visit the financial aid sections of your colleges' websites.

2.  Find out exactly what forms (FAFSA, profile, or school-specific) are required and when they're due. 

3.  Look for information about other requirements, like submitting business statements or providing step-parent information.

You want to enter the new year knowing exactly what you'll need to do to apply for financial aid and when you'll need to do it.  Getting that information ahead of time will make the process of actually applying faster, easier, and less stressful.


Don’t let fear hijack your college applications

We've noticed that a lot of students, particularly the highest achievers, hijack their applications.  They hold onto them as late as possible, claiming they want to make just a few more changes, or add a few more edits to their essays, or show their drafts to just a few more people. 

Most of the time, that's fear talking.  The students just don't know it.

The harder you've worked in high school, the scarier it is to submit an application to a school you really care about.  When you still have your application, nobody's judging you yet.  You're safe.  You're still in control.

But once you submit it, it's out there.  No turning back.  The college has it, they're going to read it, and eventually they're going to say yes or no. 

You might have to deal with rejection. Or you might have to face the reality of leaving home and going someplace new.  The finality of submitting an application can be scary.

But it's important to understand two things when you do something as important as submit a college application.

1)  It's normal to feel nervous. 

2)  Waiting longer to take the last step won't make those nerves go away. 

Taking big steps always come with some nerves.  That's normal.  Don't expect that you're every going to edit and revise your way to a sense of comfort.

Those application hijackers aren't any more sure of themselves one week or three weeks or six weeks later.  Their applications usually don't get any better during that time.  Just older.  

I'm not saying you should rush your applications. Give them the time and attention they deserve.  But at some point, you've just got to acknowledge that you've done everything you can do.  There's no amount of editing or input from outside sources that's going to make your application any better.

The nerves go away within a few days after you submit it.  At that point, you have no choice but to accept that it's out of your control.  But until then, be ready to recognize when you're really done.  And when you reach that point, hit the "Submit" and feel good about it.  Don't let fear hijack your applications.

Frozen yogurt and college admissions

If you're ever in Costa Mesa, CA, check out America's Cup yogurt in the Harbor Shopping Center.  And if Garbriel is working, get ready to be impressed.

Gabriel looks like your typical teenage kid doing a fairly typical teenage kid's part-time job.  But the way he approaches his job is anything but typical.

When you walk in, he smiles big and says, "Hi!"  In fact, he never stops smiling, not when he's wiping the counter, or refilling the toppings or ringing up your order. 

He engages with all of the customers, saying things like, "You want a napkin for the ride home in case you spill a little?" and, "You should start eating yours now–there's no reason you should have to suffer just because your boyfriend is still deciding what flavor he wants."  

He acts like there's just no place else he'd rather be on a Wednesday night at 8:30 than right there at America's Cup.  And I really can't describe what a difference it makes. 

I don't know anything else about this kid other than what he's like at his part-time job.  But I know that kid is going places.  And I don't care what his grades and test scores are.  He's the kind of person this book was written about. 

Enthusiasm is available to anyone and appreciated by everyone.  You don't have to be the smartest, strongest, highest test-scoring, fastest kid to be enthusiastic about what you're doing.  Come to class with a smile on your face.  When you're at soccer practice, bring a great attitude along with your cleats.  If you're cleaning up after the homecoming dance with the rest of the elected officers, be the one who's not grumpy and actually seems happy to be there.

If you bring more enthusiasm, you'll find that:

1) You'll enjoy what you're doing even more. 

2) Other people will enjoy what they're doing even more (enthusiasm is contagious) 

3)  People will always want you around because you make everything more enjoyable.

That's a great trio. 

Making up for our gaffe

If you missed us last night on College Admissions Live for our scheduled show, "How to Make a Great Last Impression:  Improving your chances of admission after you apply," well, that's our fault.  We were there.  We recorded a show.  But we did something stupid and aired it on the channel we set up to test, rather than actually broadcast, our shows.  We're pretty embarrassed about it.  If you tuned in to watch, we're really sorry.  One thing college applicants and their parents don't have a lot of today is free time, and we're sorry to have wasted yours. 

In order to make amends, we have two offers for you. 

First, here's the video we shot.  We had to do it in two parts since the video inexplicably cut out six minutes into the programming (it is becoming glaringly apparent how much more we know about college admissions than we do about online media). 

Part I:

Watch live video from thinkopenroad on 

Part II

Watch live video from thinkopenroad on 

And our second offer is going to be based on the honor system.

Since Arun was in charge of the technology, he's taking the blame for our screw up last night (it was both of us, really, but I appreciate his mea culpa).  If you tuned in for our no-show, here's his offer.

From today until Tuesday, December 14, Arun will answer 1 question per viewer via email, free of charge.  Arun worked as an admissions officer at University of Chicago and Caltech, and was an admissions reader for UCLA.  He's an expert on both the art and science of college admissions, and I encourage those viewers who missed us to take him up on his offer.

But in order for this to be fair to viewers and to Arun, we just have a few guidelines:

1. Please only send a question if you really did tune in to watch.  We've never had more than 50 viewers to our show.  So if Arun gets 400 emails, we'll know something is amiss. 

2. There's a one question per viewer limit.

3.  Please don't ask him to edit your essay or your college application–those aren't questions.  If you'd like him to read your essay and just give you his general thoughts, he'd be happy to do that.

Submit your question via email to Arun at: He'll accept questions until Tuesday, December 14 at 5 p.m. PST.

Again, we're really sorry to have let anybody down who turned in to watch.  But we hope we can make up for our gaffe by giving away even more great advice. 

Join us for the next episode of College Admissions Live tonight

Arun and I will be hosting our next episode of College Admissions Live, our free online show, tonight.

How to Make a Great Last Impression:
Improving your Chances of Admission After You Apply

With Kevin McMullin of Collegewise and Arun Ponnusamy of Open Road Education

Tuesday, December 7 at 6 p.m. PST.

On our free online channel

We'll talk for about 30 minutes and take questions for 15 minutes.  We hope you'll join us.

For colleges: What if you showed instead of told?

Colleges spend a lot of time and money marketing to kids.  They all promise wonderful educations and experiences.  But when schools all make the same promises, colleges all start to sound the same.  So here's an idea for those in charge of college marketing efforts.

Why not prove it to your prospective students by showing–not telling–them?

All colleges claim to have great professors.  What if your best math professor did a ten-minute video once a week for a semester to show high school kids just how easy trigonometry can be?  What if your most popular writing instructor gave weekly tips to help high school students write better papers?

Your Nobel Prize-winning faculty member could help 11th graders make sense of chemistry.  Your most published history professor could help kids be more prepared for the AP exams. Spanish, French and German professors could make basic language instruction more memorable by sharing subtleties of the vernacular that are common knowledge in the respective countries not normally taught in the high school classroom.  A drama or music professor could share tips on how to nail on audition. 

If your school claims to have great services to LD kids, why not have that office produce a monthly newsletter sharing ways kids can overcome test anxiety, or advocate for themselves, or better manage their disabilities?  Would the students (or their parents) who became reguarly viewers be much more likely to apply later?

Even admissions officers could get in on the act and teach kids instead of marketing to them.  You could show students what goes on behind the scenes of an admissions office.  Let them hear your version of why "Soccer taught me to commit to me goals" is a cliche topic, or why you ask kids to write an essay about how they would contribute to the campus community, or ways kids could better choose their teachers to write letters of recommendation.

Any college who did this would build a willing audience of students who come back week to week to learn from you.  Show them you can teach them now, and you'll spend less time and money telling them why you should be the college that teaches them later. 

Five writing reminders

I had to write two very short proposals yesterday and it took me all day to do it.  I couldn't get the wording right.  I didn't like how it sounded.  I couldn't compress it into the allotted maximum number of words.  It was a frustrating exercise. 

But that frustration was a reminder that good writing is supposed to be hard.  If it wasn't, everybody would be doing it.  And I pushed through it by following a lot of the same advice I give to kids when they're writing their college essays. 

1.  Say exactly what you mean.

Clarity is more important than anything else.  Don't leave any room for misinterpretation–come right out and say what you want to say.  And for the love of everything, get to the point.  No long windups.   

2.  Sound like a human. 

When you write, "Attached, please find the attached attachment," you sound like a machine.  Always sound like a human being.  

3.  Sound like you.

Your writing shouldn't just sound like a human; it should also sound like you.  Some people might actually say the words, "Thank you very much for considering my proposal."  If you'd be more likely to say the words, "Thanks so much for considering me," why not just write that?

4.  Don't write a page when you only need a paragraph. 

Brevity is a mark of good writing.  The proposals required that I describe my offering in 50 words or less.  That's a brilliant requirement, because for just about everybody, limiting something to 50 words is much harder than coming up with 200 words of description.  You've got to get rid of everything that's not absolutely necessary and get right to the point.  You have to constantly ask yourself, "What's really important?", which is the most important question you can ask about anything. 

5.  Editing is harder than writing.

Getting it down on the page isn't the hard part.  The editing–the rewritting, whittling down, refining and compressing–that's the hard part.  It's important to remember that when you've been working on the same sentence for 30-minutes or the same paragraph for an hour.  You're not lagging; you're editing.