The best application-completion strategy

In what’s now become a September tradition, here’s my past post sharing Patrick O’Connor’s sane, easy-to-follow system to help seniors do the most important college application-related task—just make progress. No wasted time meticulously over-scheduling your every to-do (which rarely works), or worse, procrastinating until the last minute. Just make progress, a little bit at a time. And that state of progress eventually leads to a state of completion.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you—it’s actually a wonderful hack that can be applied to any worthwhile project, whether you’re a teen applying to college or an adult forging ahead in work and life.

Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard Business School, and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer are the authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. As the title suggests, their research found that the single biggest factor for keeping someone excited and engaged with their work is simply making regular progress, even if it’s just a small win. And best of all, they also found that when you experience that feeling, you also become more creatively productive. The more progress you make, the better those applications are likely to get.

A waiting virtual pile of yet-to-be-started college applications is foreboding. And foreboding is a feeling you want to run away from, not toward. But that feeling of making just a little progress, of just completing that first section of an application, or hammering out that first, albeit imperfect, draft of an essay, or even just making a concrete list of to-dos so at least you know where to start, is a feeling you want to come back to the next day. Once you get a taste of the progress, you’ll chase it repeatedly. And you’ll get even better as you go.

If you’ve slowed, stalled, or not yet started your college applications, don’t focus on the totality of the project in front of you. Instead, find a way to just make progress. When you finish for the day, celebrate that win. Repeat that exercise, feed off your momentum, and you’ll eventually be celebrating your big win of submitting that final app.

When not to find a better way

Finding a better way to do something worth doing is almost always valuable provided that everyone affected agrees that it’s better. Your better way to organize inventory at your part-time job isn’t actually better if your boss and coworkers don’t agree. The better day and time to host your club meetings isn’t better if it makes participation more difficult for the rest of the club members. And the point guard on the basketball team can’t decide that she has a better offensive plan if the coach and the team aren’t on board with the new approach.

That’s why the very best strategy to present compelling college applications is to follow directions. Don’t look for a better way.

You might decide it’s better for you to send extra letters of recommendation, or to write an essay that’s twice the maximum allowable word length, or to write “see attached resume” rather than list the activities in the space provided. But none of those decisions are better for the admissions officer evaluating the application.

Offices of admission spend months crafting their applications to give them the information they need in the manner they’re prepared to best evaluate. Unfortunately, that process is not collaborative. Applicants aren’t invited to weigh in with their own suggestions as to how they can best present themselves. So the only way to ensure you don’t do something that frustrates your reader is to work within the system they’ve given you.

If you’ve found better ways throughout high school, especially those that benefited everyone involved, share them on your applications. But do so using the space and the opportunity as they’ve been provided to you. Follow the instructions and resist the urge to find a better way.

They ask for what they need

You don’t have to apply to the University of Virginia to benefit from this advice on their recent blog entry (bold emphasis theirs).

We ask for the things we know we need to make our decisions. If someone is telling you that UVA needs things that aren’t listed in our application instructions, they are mistaken.”

As the entry explains, unless you are applying to an arts program that specifically requests a portfolio, UVA does not want resumes, abstracts, writing portfolios, etc.

Seniors, as you prepare your college applications, don’t fall prey to the impulse to send more stuff. Instead, repeat this mantra for each college: “They ask for the things they know they need to make their decisions.”

Some will ask for more than others. But they’ll all be clear about what they need.

Collegewise advice on resumes for college apps

Resumes are tricky business when applying to college. Do you need one? If so, what should it look like? And if you do draft one, what’s the best way to use it? We’ve got answers to all these questions in an upcoming free webinar:

So Much Room for Activities: Putting Together Your Resume for College
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees

You can register or get more information here. I hope you’ll join us.

Too early, too late, and just right

When we brainstorm a college essay with a Collegewise student, we always set a deadline for that student to return their first draft to us. Depending on the student and the application deadlines themselves, the average time we give them is 1-2 weeks. But some students are so excited about their topic that they return their first draft in less than 24 hours. We’ve always admired these students for their pluck (finishing early is a lot better than finishing late). But we’ve also learned over the years that most of these early submissions are rarely the strongest of the first drafts we’ll see.

Like anything worth doing, great writing takes time. We don’t expect perfection in a first draft—that’s why it’s a first draft. But the best versions aren’t actually first drafts at all. A student may have rewritten their opening paragraph two or three or five times. They may have worked and reworked a story that just didn’t read well on first pass but tightened up nicely on the second effort. The conclusion that felt forced yesterday benefits from fresh eyes and a fresh start today. It’s a first draft to us because we’re seeing it for the first time. But it often bears little resemblance to the actual first pass.

The early submitters, on the other hand, usually haven’t spent nearly as much time revising and refreshing. They let their enthusiasm carry them from beginning to end, unchecked. What ends up on the screen the first time is what stays and gets submitted. It’s laudable that they don’t wait until the last minute. But what they first submit usually doesn’t represent what they’re really capable of.

College applicants, try to find a balance as you complete your essays and your applications. Procrastinating until the last minute is a terrible strategy—an impending deadline just coaxes your fastest, not your best, work. But there’s also no prize for finishing first. In fact, it often results in a quality penalty. Take your time. Sleep on it. One extra day or week makes little or no admissions difference. But it can make all the difference in the output.

We now remind our students that they should take their time on their first drafts and come back with something that shows us what they’re really capable of. Yes, it’s just the first draft, and the finished product will be the most important piece. But we’ve learned that the best route to that destination is the one that doesn’t get you there too early or too late, but just right.

How to use our free Common App guide

CA guide coverOur Collegewise Guide to the 2018-19 Common Application is here, free to anyone who wants it. I have vivid memories of one full day in July 2011 when Arun and I went line by line through the Common App and considered all the advice we could give for every section. The result was a 64-page Microsoft Word document crafted on a desktop computer. I don’t think either of us ever imagined that Collegewise would still be producing updated annual versions of the guide seven years later or that so many of our colleagues would help us make it even better. And we certainly never imagined that we’d publish it one day with Michelle Obama’s education initiative, Reach Higher. But we’re so happy that our guide has proven to have staying power. You can get your copy here.

Borrowed from a past post, here are a few suggestions for how you might use our guide:


  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help. We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.
  • Struggling with just a particular section or two? Our guide can probably help.


If you are the official college application reviewer in the house, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application (kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them).

High school counselors

  • Looking to brush up on your Common App knowledge? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll be a virtual expert.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a copy of our guide on your desk (or bookmark the link to save a tree) and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Do you have partners, employees, or interns who work with students? Our guide makes a great training tool.

What we ask of you

If you know a family, counselor, PTA president, community-based organization, etc. who could use this guide or who could put it in the hands of those it might help, please share our download link.

I hope you enjoy—and share—it.

P.S.: If you haven’t already signed up, don’t miss our upcoming free webinar, “How to Make your Common App a Lot Less Common” on Wednesday, September 12, from 5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT. All the details are here.

We’ve got advice for your Common Application

Our college counselors have helped thousands of Collegewise students complete and submit perfect Common Applications, and we’ve learned plenty of our own best practices along the way. If you’re a student completing—or a counselor or parent who’s reviewing—a Common App, you’re invited to join us for an upcoming free webinar.

How to Make Your Common App a Lot Less Common
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees

You can get all the information here, and I hope you’ll join us.

Advice for submitting application videos to colleges

Many colleges now invite students to submit optional short videos as part of their applications as a way to inject a little more of their personal voice into the process. Here’s University of Chicago’s invitation:

If you would like to add your voice to your application, you have the option to submit a two-minute video introduction in lieu of the traditional college interview, which is not part of our application process. Your recording does not need to be extensively rehearsed or polished, and the video does not need to be edited. You may record your video introduction using the platform of your choice, and then upload either a file of or link to the introduction into your UChicago Account. If there is any important information relevant to your candidacy you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

It’s hard to give universally applicable advice about videos like this (other than obvious ones, like follow the directions and don’t record anything that would embarrass you if your parents or teachers saw it). Don’t be funny? Don’t overproduce your video? Don’t make anything so out-there that it’s inaccessible to viewers? The truth is that some applicants can pull those videos off, and others can’t.

But at the risk of being a one-trick advising pony, I think our Collegewise advice around college essays applies perfectly here.

1. Don’t try to impress—just tell the truth.
You don’t want the viewer to feel like they’re watching a sales pitch, and much as with college essays, that happens in videos when applicants just try too hard to guess what admissions officers want. So if you’re a musically expressive person who loves writing catchy jingles and you want to sing a personal song while playing the ukulele, that sounds like a pretty honest portrayal of who you are. But if you’re forcing yourself to do it because you are trying to stand out and you think showing off your uke chops will get the job done, that’s trying too hard to be something you’re not. Your goal should be to capture something, no matter how simple or complex, that makes the people who know you best say, “That is so you!”

2. Own your stories/footage.
If it would be possible for 1000 other applicants to shoot the same video, there’s a good chance there will be plenty of others just like yours in the figurative stack when you apply. The way to counter that is to use details. Example: If you’re a basketball player, you could include highlights of hitting jump shots, but there are plenty of other varsity basketball players who could and probably will provide the same footage. Instead, you could begin a video on the neighborhood court where you first began playing basketball when you were 8, explain how you tagged along with your older brothers and how you’ll never forget the day they finally invited you to join, tell the viewers how you spent your entire summer before 10th grade working out here by yourself because you knew that the ability to drive to the hoop with your left hand as well as your right would be a key to your game, and film the spot under the hoop where you tore ligaments in your ankle and had to sit out for your junior season. Another basketball player might have their own similar experiences. But these particular memories on that particular course are yours alone. Details make all the difference.

3. Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.
If the viewer finishes the video and thinks, “That was nice, but I already knew this information,” you’ve just missed a big opportunity. Playing your favorite violin piece is nice, but if you’ve been in the orchestra for three years, that skill is not exactly new information. So either share something that hasn’t been mentioned at all on the application, or use the video to shed visual light on a new aspect of something already mentioned. Example: if you worked at a deli in high school, you don’t need to provide video evidence in the form of, “Here’s the deli where I work.” But if the job gave you a real appreciation for the art of making a proper pastrami on rye—and you haven’t explained that in any of your essays—that is brand new information to the viewer.

4. Sound like you.
If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re quirky, be quirky. If you’re a nerd, let the nerdiness fly. This video is meant to capture you, not to make a commercial featuring a performer playing a part. So don’t say or do anything that feels like acting. Your video should not require a script or intensive rehearsal. Sure, don’t ramble with no end in sight—you should know what you want to talk about when the camera rolls. But the more rehearsed, polished, or otherwise unnatural you appear, the less effective your video will be. And if you’re really not comfortable with the idea of being on a video at all, don’t make one! Colleges mean it when they say that something is optional, and there is no hidden penalty for opting out, especially if you’re uncomfortable with the medium altogether.

5. A bonus tip: Relax.
As long as your video isn’t blatantly offensive or cause for concern over your safety (or the safety of your future college peers), it’s not likely the video alone will torpedo your admissions chances. It’s also equally unlikely that a video alone will shift the admissions tide if the readers were already leaning towards a denial. So let yourself off the hook. Don’t let the video be yet another source of stress where you feel like you’re under the application microscope. If you like the idea of recording something, go record the video that makes you happy and proud to share. Colleges are in the business of evaluating, understanding, and getting to know 17-year-olds. A video that works for you is one that will probably work for them, too.

When applying early means less competition

The sooner someone applies for a job opening at Collegewise, the better their chances of being hired. Obviously, the longer someone waits, the more likely that job will be filled by the time they apply. But there’s a second, more subtle reason for the early advantage, one that can also benefit applicants at some colleges.

When we first post a job, we haven’t received any applications yet. No interviews scheduled. No irons in the employment fire. The field is wide open. For someone who doesn’t leap off the page as a strong candidate but who also shows potential, we’ll probably interview them just to make sure. We’ve got plenty of time and not a lot of candidates yet. Why risk letting someone potentially great get away from us?

But each week after that, the field gets more competitive. Dozens (and for many positions, eventually hundreds) of applications come through. Interviews are scheduled. Eventually, we’ve got 10 or 15 or 30 applicants we’re getting to know and that our Talent Department is evaluating. We can’t hire them all, so we’ll have some tough—but great—decisions ahead of us. At that point, we need to whittle the pool down, not fill it back up.

Bottom line: the longer you wait, the more competition you’ll face.

Does that mean we might ultimately pass on someone who would have been just as successful if not more so at Collegewise? Yes. But hiring employees—like admitting college applicants—is an imperfect practice. Eventually, decisions need to be made. And those who show up earlier increase the chances of those decisions going in their favor.

Applicants applying to colleges that use a practice called “rolling admissions” can use this to their advantage.

While many colleges wait to review applications until the deadline passes (the date you submit yours won’t impact your chances provided it’s before the deadline), rolling schools evaluate applications as they are received, then send admissions decisions back throughout the cycle (sometimes as soon as four to six weeks later). The earlier you apply, the less competition you’ll face—and the sooner you’ll get your answer!

Applying early in the cycle won’t change the outcome for an applicant who just isn’t qualified. But for everyone else, why wait for more competition to show—and more spaces to fill—up? Apply early when the field is still wide open, and potentially get yourself a few offers of admission before the competition. I’ve seen many students who began their senior year having already received one acceptance (or more) from rolling admissions schools. That’s a nice feeling of confidence to carry with you as you complete the rest of your applications.

That’s why our Collegewise counselors usually advise that students complete their rolling applications first, even if those schools are far from their first choices. Your chances of admission will be stronger because there are a lot more spots available at the beginning of the admissions cycle than there are at the end of it (and you never know when the class will fill up).

Like any admissions requirement for any college, the only failsafe way to verify any college’s admissions information is to visit the websites of the schools themselves. But here are a few examples of colleges that have traditionally admitted applicants on a rolling basis:

Arizona State University
Indiana University
Michigan State
Penn State
University of Arizona
University of Alabama
University of Minnesota

Rolling admissions is not a secret—colleges will come out and tell you when they use it. And unlike other admissions programs like “early decision” or “early action,” rolling admissions is generally not an option you must select.

So as you review your colleges’ application requirements, pay attention if they tell you that applications are evaluated on a “rolling basis.” At those schools, remember that as the deadline nears, the competition intensifies.

Bad conversation starters

“Talk to me for a long time about something you don’t really care about.”

“Tell me what you think I want to hear—it doesn’t’ have to be the truth.”

“Your accomplishments encapsulate you, so let’s hear about them. Nothing else.”

“Sell yourself to me. I want to hear your pitch.”

“If you’ve made mistakes, please explain why other people are at fault.”

Nobody who’s actually interested would invite a conversation like this. And yet students often treat their presentation to colleges via applications, essays, and interviews as if this is exactly the conversation that’s been initiated.

The application and its associated elements are the space to have a conversation. So have one. Be clear and proud about your success—this is no time for false modesty. But be the real person, too, not just a perfect pitch.