A word of advice for early decision applicants

Imagine you meet your boyfriend or girlfriend for a dinner date on Friday night and instead of sitting down to eat, you're met with the words, "I'm sorry, but I want to break up."  Ooof.

You'd be hurt, probably surprised, and would likely head home for a weekend of mourning. 

Now imagine that when you got home, you remembered that you have a huge research project due on Monday and you haven't even started.  What would that feel like, having to throw yourself into an important project immediately after your breakup?  Could you do a good job when your head and heart just aren't in it?  Would it make your post-break up pain even worse? 

That's how a lot of students who are applying early decision to colleges are going to feel in December.

Early decision deadlines (the binding admissions program in which you promise to attend a college if they accept you), are quickly approaching.   In return for applying early, you'll hear back from those colleges in early December.  A lot of students apply to one of those schools and then wait with their fingers crossed, leaving all of their other college applications to wait until they get the news back from their dream school.  That's a fantastic system if you get an acceptance from that one school.  But if you don't…

1.  You now have to start all of your other college applications.

2.  You'll only have a few weeks to do them, and you'll be working all through your holiday break.

3.  You'll have to muster the enthusiasm to put all the necessary love and attention into these remaining college applications, all while nursing the emotional hangover from the dream school that rejected you.

Don't do it to yourself.  Plan for the worst.  Work on and complete all of your college applications. If your dream school says "No," you'll be able to take some solace in the fact that at least your other applications have already been submitted.  It will be like having a date with a new person already lined up before your significant other breaks up with you.  OK, maybe that's not good relationship advice, but with your college applications, it's just good planning.

Yes, if your dream school admits you, you'll have completely wasted your time on those other applications.  But which problem would you rather have?

Great college applications are sticky

A great college application is one that makes you stand out from all the other applicants.  The admissions officer remembers it when it's time to discuss who to admit.  In fact, a great college application is sticky.

I just finished reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors, professors of business at Stanford and Duke, define a "sticky" idea as one that people understand and remember, one that changes the way people think or act.  That story about the guy who goes to Vegas and wakes up in a tub full of ice to find that someone has harvested one his kidneys?  It's fake and it's ridiculous.  But it's sticky–people heard it, remembered it and shared it with all of their friends.

They share six principles you can use to make your idea sticky–whether you're doing a sales presentation, writing an article or hunting for a job.  And it struck me how aligned they are with the tips we give our Collegewise students when they're filling out their college applications. 

1.  Simple

A idea is more likely to stick when you make it simple.  You do that by weeding out everything that's unimportant and focusing on the core.  Take the activities section of a college application.  An admissions officer can't remember ten activities that you've participated in.  So don't list JV golf if you only played it for one year back in 9th grade.  If it wasn't important to you, why would it be important to an admissions officer? Use the limited space you have to focus on the few activities that really meant something to you and defined your high school experience.

2.  Unexpected

If you want someone to care about your idea, you have to pique their curiosity.  When someone wants to know something and doesn't, it's like an itch that needs to be scratched.  Starting your college essay, "I have been in the marching band for the last four years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment" is not going to pique any admissions officer's curiosity.  You might as well have just said, "I'm going to tell you a story you've already read over and over again."  But if that same kid started his essay,

"The first time I picked up a saxophone, I actually injured myself.  Really, my mother had to take me to the doctor." 

Now, you've piqued my curiosity.  

3.  Concrete

A sticky idea isn't abstract–it's tangible, something that someone can easily understand and see for themselves. A lot of activities, honors or awards aren't recognizable to an admissions officer.  Listing the "Triton Award" isn't concrete.  Nobody knows what that is.  Tell them that it's awarded to only one student in the junior class each year and that the faculty selects the winner.  Now your reader gets it.

4.  Credible

No idea is going to stick unless someone believes you.  So don't tell a college that you're very interested in science; tell them a story about what it's like to spend two hours looking through a microscope.   Don't tell them you learned how to be a leader in student government.  Share a story about what that one meeting was like when nobody would listen to you.  And don't tell a college they're high on your list because of the "great reputation" and "small faculty-to-student ratio."  Anybody can rely on generalities or recite statistics from the website.  You have to make them believe you.

5.  Emotion

A sticky idea makes someone feel something.  So don't write your essays in a stiff, academic tone.  Come right out and say, "My parents really stuck it to me by not giving me a science gene."  Or "I love it when we're at our busiest, when I'm behind the grill and everyone is running around in hamburger pandemonium."  Or, "I'm not sure my dad understands how much it meant to me that he left work early that day to come watch me play."   When I read those sentences, I feel something.  Put your emotions into your stories, and you'll make your reader feel something, too.

6.  Story

We tell our Collegewise students that details in your college essays help you take ownership of your stories.  But more importantly, they make your reader feel like he or she was there with you.  They understand a little more about you because they feel like they've been a part of something important to you.  The stickiest ideas aren't just facts–they tell stories that people remember.  Just like great teachers tell stories to help explain the material. you need to tell stories to explain you.

You're not like every other applicant–so use your application as a tool to help them understand what makes you different.  Be yourself.  Tell stories.  Share what you're proud of and admit what you aren't good at.  Be confident and self-aware.  That's how you create an application that sticks. 

College application advice for seniors

I gave a talk to the senior class at Palos Verdes High School's "College Day" on Wednesday.  Here were some of the tips I shared. 

1. Don't let anybody else care about your college applications more than you do. 

You're going to college, not your parents, not your counselors, and not your teachers.  Don't wait for one of them to take charge and drive the process.  Yes, they can help you.  And when you need help, you should ask for it.  But if anybody else has to push you to fill out your applications and do a good job, you're putting your college future in the hands of someone else, and that's never a good idea.

2.  Don't apply to too many colleges.

All the bad news about getting into colleges today makes some seniors apply to too many.  The thinking is, "If I apply to 15, or 20 or 25 colleges, my chances of getting into one are better."  But odds don't work like that in college admissions.  Applying to too many colleges just dilutes the quality of your applications.  No student is equally interested in 20 different schools.  No student is as energetic on the 20th application as she was on the first five.  And no teacher or counselor wants to do the work of completing letters of recommendation for 20 colleges, 15 of which are reach schools or schools you aren't sincerely interested in.  Be smart with your college list.  6-8 colleges is reasonable.  And have your counselor look over your list to make sure you have a good chance of getting into at least half to 2/3 of them.  Don't play the college admissions lottery.

3. Start early.

Students who start (and finish) their applications early have a more manageable process.  They're less stressed, they write better essays, and their chances of admission are stronger at schools who admit applicants on a rolling basis (where they evaluate and make decisions as soon as your admissions file is complete).  But more importantly, students who finish college applications early can get on with enjoying their senior year.  So don't make excuses.  Don't claim that you work best under the pressure of a looming deadline.  Start (and finish) early.

4. Remember that people writing your letters of rec are doing you a favor.

It's not actually your teacher's job to write letters of recommendation for your college applications.  So it's important to remember that when a teacher agrees to do that for you, he or she is doing you a favor.  Be mindful of that.  Ask early–don't wait until a few days before the holiday break and force your teacher to make a choice whether or not to write letters over the holidays.  Be nice.  Give thanks and mean it.  Write a thank-you note and be sincere about how much you appreciate the help.  Most teachers are more than willing to help good kids, but that doesn't mean you should forget that they are in fact doing you a favor. 

5.  You're seventeen years old–it's OK to sound like it on your college applications.

Some students transform themselves into 50 year-old philosophers when they fill out college applications.  They mention valuable life lessons they've learned on the wrestling team, how they were enchanted by the lush scenery during their travels, and the epiphany they experienced during a volunteer shift at the homeless shelter.  You're seventeen (or maybe eighteen) years old.  The colleges don't expect you to be anything but that.  So if you wouldn't think or say those thoughts to a friend, don't express them in a college application.  Don't try to sound like something you're not.  I'm not suggesting you should write your essays the same way you would write a text message to a friend, but you're still allowed to see the world the way you really see it.  Colleges will find you much more charming if you're honest than they will if you try to be something you're not.

6.  Remember that it's all going to be OK.

A lot of seniors convince themselves that college admissions is an all-or-nothing proposition.  They have one or two dream schools, and they believe that if both those schools deny them, it will be a college admissions tragedy.  It's important to remember that nobody's life is made or broken by an admissions decision from a particular college.  If a school you loved denies you, you're still going to college.  You're still going to move into a dorm, meet more people than you've ever met, and have four years of fun and learning no matter where you go.  Aim high, work hard, and treat the college admissions process with the respect it deserves.  But remember that no matter what happens, it's all going to be OK.

Ask Collegewise: “How should I fill out the Common Application ‘Activities’ section?”

Ana asks:


Hi there!  My name is Ana, and I am a huge fan of the Collegewise blog! The website is definitely one of the most informative resources for all things admissions, and it gives a levelheaded view that is rare in this often stressful process.  I was hoping you could answer a question of mine in a blog post. How should the extracurricular section of the Common Application be filled out? There is a drop down menu for selecting the type of activity, but where should the more specific title (ex. camp counselor, peer tutor, etc.) go: position held or activity?  What about the short description of the activity? If you have some spare time and could post an example Common App activities form with a few different activities, it would be extremely helpful to me and many other confused seniors!  Thanks for your time and your awesome blog."

Flattery like that will get you everywhere, Ana.  Here are a few tips for the activity section of the Common App.

Let's say your three principal activities are volleyball, writing for the school newspaper, and working as a camp counselor over the summer.  Here's how you might approach those. 

The drop down menu

Select the activity from the drop-down menu.  It's important to let this drop down menu do the work for you.  Look carefully and try to find a category that works before you select "Other club/activity."  There are a lot of categories you might not expect to find, like "Family responsibilities," "cultural," "academic," etc.

 Positions held, honors won, or letters earned

This section is for three things–your roles, titles and recognitions.  For example, if you work as a camp counselor, that's your role.  Put "Camp counselor" here.  If you were the Editorial Page Editor for the school newspaper, that's a title–put that here.  If you were the captain, MVP, and first-team all state in volleyball, those are recognitions.  Put those here.   

Roles, titles and recognitions are short and punchy, like “Varsity,” “Eagle Scout,” "Coach's Award," “Counselor,” “Founder,” “Sports Editor” or  “Captain”.  Anything that takes more space to explain should be put in the next section. 

Details and accomplishments

Ask yourself two questions for this section.  1)  Is it possible that whoever is reading this application might not understand what this activity really was based on the previous two sections alone?  2) Did I or the organization accomplish anything that can’t be summed up with a simple recognition that I listed above?  If the answer to either of those two questions is “Yes,” then you should provide that information here.

For example, let’s say you listed your camp counselor work under “Work (Paid).”  But what if the camp was specifically for children with physical and mental disabilities?  That’s something interesting the reader wouldn’t know just from the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could put the name and description of the camp, like “Special Camp for Special Kids: Camp for children with physical and mental disabilities.” 

And what if your school paper won a state-wide award during your junior year? That’s a cool accomplishment that can’t be summed up in the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could say, “2/2010 issue won the state-wide journalism award, “Excellence in Student Press.”

Somewhat annoyingly, the “Save and Check for Errors” function of the Common App will tell you you’ve made an error if you leave this section blank.  So even if you’ve already described everything necessary about an activity, you might need to just fill this space in with “High school football” just to get past the error message.  Try to include information here that fits the categories I’ve described, but if you just don’t have anything else to say, don’t ruin it by trying to make it sound good.  Just put the basic description in and move on. 

So using the example above, our completed Common App activity section would look like this when it's printed:



A few other Common App activity tips:

  • Make sure you click the “Preview” button at the top of the screen when you finish this section.  That’s the only way to really tell whether your responses fit in the spaces provided.
  • Pay attention to the directions for this section:  “Please list your principal extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities in their order of importance to you.”  It's important to make sure your activities really are listed in order of importance to you.  The first activity you list should be the one you’d pick if you were only allowed to list one activity (that’s a trick we teach our Collegewise students).  
  • “Principal activities” mean activities that were important to you.  And they don't necessarily have to be formal activities.  It's OK to list a hobby that's important to you, too.  So if you played JV badminton freshman year and never played again, it obviously didn't mean enough to keep playing.  Why take up the space with it here?  But if you write a blog, or host a book club, or knit sweaters, and it's something you really enjoy and spend a lot of time doing, it’s OK to list that here. 
  • Don’t try to list everything you’ve ever done.   It’s OK to have blank spaces.  Our sample student above only listed three activities.  But they were the three activities that defined her high school experience.  The reader gets what was important to her.  She doesn't need her to list anything else.
  • Don’t attach a resume.  The directions in this section (“…even if you plan to attach a resume”) make it sound like that’s something the colleges invite.  They don’t.  In fact, most colleges hate resumes.  They’re too long, they come in too many different formats, and they ignore the activity section of the college’s application.  Unless a college specifically instructs you to do a resume, we tell our students not to do one. 

CommonAppGuideImage And (shameless self-promotion coming) if you'd like more help, you might enjoy our Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.  We take you through every section of the Common App and share the same advice we share with our Collegewise students. 

Thanks for your question, Ana.  I hope it helps.

A tip for seniors on managing your parents during application season

Seniors, as you move into the throes of the college application process, here's something you can do to keep the stress levels in your household manageable–talk to your parents about what you're doing.

I'm a big proponent of parents staying "hands off" and letting their seniors take the lead during this time.  And it's normal for seniors to want to assert some independence and tell Mom and Dad to stay out of it.  In fact, that's appropriate given that the seniors, not their parents, are the ones who will actually be going to college next year.

But seniors, understand that stepping back, especially at the time that you're doing something as important as college applications, is a hard thing for a lot of parents to do.  They're worried that something could go wrong and that they'll have to live with college application guilt of not being involved enough when it counted.  That's why parents ask if you've written your essays yet, and if you've started your application to Duke, and if you've seen your teachers about getting letters of recommendation.

You can put your parents at ease by just spending a few minutes every couple of days and actually telling them what you're up to.  That means you need to do more than say, "Mom, stop asking me about this.  I'll get it done!"  Instead, give some detail. 

Update your parents on your progress.  Tell them when you meet with your counselor, when you submit your letters of recommendation, and when you've visiting your English teacher to have her look at your essay.  Show them the information you print out from colleges.  Tell them when the deadlines are, and when you plan to submit yours.  Let them in on what's left to be done, like sending test scores or requesting transcripts or scheduling an interview.  And if you need help organizing all that information, ask your parents to help–not to do it for you–but to help.

If you feel like your parents are standing over your shoulder during this time, and you think it would be a lot less stressful if they would just back off a little, do the opposite of what you're inclined to do.  Instead of telling them to leave you alone, take a few minutes every couple of days to tell them exactly what you're doing. 

Let them in on the process, and they'll be more likely to take themselves out of it. 

More advice on letters of recommendation

There's some good advice on The Choice blog today courtesy of Martha Merrill, Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College, concerning teacher recommendations and how they are used during the admissions process.

Seniors (and their parents) should pay particular attention to this tip:


Follow instructions.  Admission officers will likely read only the required number of recommendations. If you submit too many, you leave it to chance which ones will be read."

A lot of seniors are under the impression that the more information they can share with a college, the better.  So if a college asks for two letters of recommendation from academic sources, but your dad's business partner and your youth pastor have both offered to write recs for you, it's hard to resist just tacking on those additional two letters.  Four people saying nice things about you might seem better than two. 

But we always discourage our Collegewise students from submitting additional letters of recommendation unless the college invites you to do it.  A student who doesn't follow directions, who assumes that he or she deserves the right to submit additional materials while other applicants are following directions, just runs the risk that you'll annoy the admissions officer.

But Merrill makes an even better case.  If you submit additional recs, not only will the college likely not read all of them, but you won't get to decide which ones they read.  Why not maintain as much control over the process as you can?  Follow directions, choose your letter-writers carefully, and be confident that you're being represented as you want to be. 

How to prioritize activities on a college application

If you had the chance to have a ten-minute conversation with an admissions officer to explain everything you do that is important to you, what would you talk about?  How would you sum up the way you’ve spent your life in high school when you weren’t in class?

You probably wouldn’t start with, “One time, I went to a meeting of the Spanish Club.” 

It wouldn’t make sense to talk first about an activity that you didn’t care about or spend much time doing.  Instead, you’d probably begin by discussing your most important activities—the ones in which you spent significant time and energy.

But, you’d be surprised how many students list their activities in no particular order when filling out college applications. 

Listing an activity that meant little to you is like telling an admissions officer that the one week you attended a meeting of the “Ping Pong Club” was just as important to you as everything else you did in high school.

Share things that meant something to you, where you really dedicated time and energy.  List them in order of importance to you.  If something wasn't all that important to you, consider leaving it off.  An admissions officer is a human being–he or she can only retain a certain amount of information that you present.

And remember that the key is to share things that are important to you, even if they may not seem overly impressive to someone else.  I'm not saying you should be open about watching 6-hours of television a day.  But if you write a blog that shares critiques of your favorite reality television shows and you've got several hundred loyal readers, that's something important to you that you should probably share. 

Should you waive your rights to see your letters of rec?

Most colleges that require a letter of recommendation also ask you to fill out a form that the writer sends to the college along with the letter.  One of the questions on that form asks you if you agree to waive your right to access the letter in the future.  If you waive your right, it means once the writer sends the letter to the school, you have no right to view it.  You will never know what the writer said about you or whether it helped or hurt your chances of admission.  I know–that sounds risky.

Still, you should always waive your rights to access. 

Here's what happens when you don't waive the right.

1.  You're essentially telling the writer that you don't trust him or her to do a good job.  And you're making that implication while asking this person to do you a favor.  A teacher or counselor can't help but be a little offended by that.  And offending the person you want to recommend you is never a good strategy.

2.  A writer who's worried that you'll see the letter one day is often less likely to be honest, and more likely to say things that are technically positive but widely recognized by admissions officers as generic statements that mean nothing.  That's bad for you.  It's the difference between…

"William is never going to be a chemist.  That much is clear.  But while he's struggled at times in my class,  he's cheerful, he keeps trying his best, and he's never given up on chemistry.  I like that in a student."


"William has shown consistent effort and is both diligent and determined."

That second example means absolutely nothing to an admissions officer.  You are far better served by an honest and revealing recommendation, even one that acknowledges a weakness, than you are by generic faint praise.

3.  The college will wonder why you didn't feel comfortable enough to waive the right, and what you were worried the writer might say about you.

If you're feeling uneasy about waiving your rights, consider asking someone else to write the letter, someone who's more unwaveringly positive about you.  And if you're still uneasy, try to relax.  Teachers and counselors are out to help, not hurt, students.  Just about all of them will do their best to say something positive about a nice kid. 

Authenticity trumps strategy

There's some vigorous debate going on at The Choice blog right now over their thread, "The Perils of Being Too Cute in Your College Application."  It all started with a question of whether or not you should list something like being president of the Lady Gaga fan club.  Yesterday, a former admissions officer from Stanford even weighed in.

Here's my take.  Authenticity always trumps strategy.  In 11 years of doing this, I have never once seen a student who came off as endearingly cute or funny on a college application by trying to be that way.  Endearing responses always come from students just being themselves–funny, intellectual, geeky, or whatever else they might be.

If you're a Lady Gaga fanatic and you proudly serve as the president of her fan club, you obviously have no shame about it.  Why should you have any shame about it on your college application?  List it.  Maybe even write an essay entitled, "I Go Gaga for Gaga."  That's who you are.  

But if you couldn't name a single artist selling songs right now, and can instead name the last 20 recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics, list your membership in the physics club and fly your physics flag high. It's not better or worse than the Gaga kid.  It's just who you are. 

Trying too hard to be something you're not is pretty much always a bad idea (unless you're, say, a kleptomaniac trying not to be one).  Don't try to be cute, or funny, or intellectual, or anything else on your college application.  Just be yourself and you'll do a great job of sharing whichever of those qualities really are yours.

One place not to find a better way

Colleges spend months creating their applications.  They compose the essay questions and arrange the information until the admissions committee has an application that will provide them the information they want, in exactly the way they want it presented. 

So how do you think an admissions officer reacts when in response to a question that asks you to list your activities in the space provided, an applicant simply writes, "See attached resume."?

There are lots of better ways to approach the application process.  There are better ways to get organized and to put together the information for the people writing your letters of recommendation.  There are better ways to choose the colleges to which you will apply, to write your essays and to conduct yourself in your college interviews.  It's worth considering all of them. 

But never do anything that ignores or contradicts the directions on the application.  No matter how unique you think your situation may be, no matter how much more compelling you think your candidacy would be, if you'd be ignoring their directions, don't do it.  Colleges would prefer you do it their way.