More stuff = more fluff

“Can I send an extra letter of recommendation?” is one of those questions to which many families protest the answer, which is why I come back repeatedly here to a consistent theme—follow the application instructions; don’t decide that you have a better way. If a college wants extra letters of rec (or any extra materials), they’ll tell you.

This post from the University of Virginia about letters of recommendation is worth a read whether or not you are applying to UVa. First, they address the notion of sending extra, unsolicited materials to any college:

“I promise you that colleges ask for the items they want to review. There is no hidden message that we really want something else.”

The remainder of the post also does an excellent job explaining the roles of the teacher and counselor letters of recommendation in the UVa admissions process. And while the writer is not claiming that those details are necessarily true for other colleges, unless your chosen colleges tell you otherwise (there’s that theme again), applicants would be well-served following the advice in the post.

Work with what each college gives you in their application and essays. Spend your time clearly and thoughtfully answering their questions. Don’t resort to sending unsolicited extra materials in the hopes that more information will actually make you a stronger candidate. More stuff equals more fluff.

Our 2016-17 Common App Guide is here!

CommonAppGuideCovRevToday, we’re releasing version 1.0 of the Collegewise Guide to the 2016-17 Common Application—revised and updated to reflect the most recent version. We’re announcing it to blog readers first, and once again, it’s available to download free of charge. You can get your copy here.

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 each of 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

We want to do even more to make sure students and parents have access to good college planning information, even if they can’t afford to pay for a service like Collegewise. Since we started giving our Common App guide away for free last year, over 4,000 students, parents, counselors, and administrators downloaded it, and we’d love for this guide to help even more people this year. So if you know a family, counselor, PTA president, community-based organization, etc. who could use it 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.

More advice from fewer sources

I came across an article yesterday preaching the importance of demonstrating interest in your chosen colleges. It included a list of colleges where this is supposedly crucial during the admissions process, as well as advice about just how to demonstrate that interest. And almost all of it ranged from questionable to factually inaccurate.

As much as the internet has done to give us the information we want whenever we want it, the downside of information overload in college admissions is that families feel like they’re always just one tiny missed piece of information or advice away from blowing it. What if one expert, one article, one source has that magic last piece of the puzzle that will make the difference between admission and denial?

The college admissions process has gone past the point where we can call it simple. Things aren’t like they used to be. There are so many colleges, so many different steps to take, and so many instructions to follow. I understand why families feel like they need to absorb as much information and advice as possible, regardless of the source or the veracity. If your neighbor claims she heard from a reportedly trusted source that School X prefers musicians who have also demonstrated leadership ability and a commitment to community service, it feels risky to ignore it.

But the truth is that most offers of admission to college don’t happen because of one little-known-tactic, one secret that an applicant unearthed and capitalized on. Yes, you’ll hear stories about these—the student who applied under a special major, or who connected with an admissions officer, or wrote some off-the-wall essay that “got him in.” But most of those stories are exaggerated and completely unconfirmed. And the few that have some truth to them account for a very tiny percentage of the applicant pool and apply to students who had a unique circumstance—the information that helped them would never have helped you, even if you had known about it previously.

Thankfully, you can avoid almost all of those conflicting, confusing, potentially damaging pieces of advice by doing just two things.

1. Visit the websites of the colleges that interest you.
If an admissions office wants you to do something, they almost always tell you so explicitly. What do you need to submit—test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.? When are the application and financial aid deadlines? Are there special requirements for students entering into specific majors? All of this will be spelled out on the admissions office’s website. Nobody knows how to get into a specific college quite like the admissions officers at that school.

2. Visit your counselor to discuss your chosen schools and your proposed course of admissions action.
Even if you attend a large school where your counselor doesn’t know you well, he or she has almost certainly been through this before. They’re familiar with the former applicants from your school and with their admissions results. Your counselors can verify that you’ve chosen appropriate colleges and that you’re taking the right steps to apply. And in the rare case when School X is admitting left-handed tuba players above all others, your counselor will probably know.

Those two steps will ensure admissions accuracy for 99% of applicants. And even the remaining 1% will never have been steered wrong by following the same advice.

Yes, college admission is more complex than it used to be. The fear—and reality—of missing something is real for many families. But taking in even more advice from more sources just exacerbates the problem. Instead, get focused. A few trustworthy sources are all you need for the best admissions advice.

Here are two past posts with advice about good (and bad) sources of college admissions advice, and a third from the University of Virginia’s blog.

And a final one with my own advice about how to show interest in a college.

Future fun

At Collegewise, we’re always espousing that the college admissions process should be an exciting time for families, not an anxiety-ridden rite of passage. There’s a sense of wonder and adventure in finding the right place to learn, grow and have fun for the next four years. Why not embrace that part and enjoy the ride to getting there?

But for most kids, the act of completing the applications themselves has never been the fun, wondrous part. That’s the drudgery, the part that feels like completing a homework assignment. It’s necessary, and you want to do it well enough to get due credit. But you’ll certainly be happier when it’s done and behind you.

But the one way to make applications much more stressful than they need to be is to try to complete them too close to the deadlines. And the best way to make them easier and less cumbersome? Do as much as you can during the summer before you head back to school.

Seniors will be busy this fall. You’ll have honors and AP classes. You’ll have activities and other commitments. You’ll have people telling you how important it is to keep up the good work if you want to hold on to your admissions to colleges that accept you. There will almost certainly be plenty on your plate this fall without having to sit down and complete applications and essays from scratch.

College applicants, you’ve got just over one month left before you head back to school. Now you get to make a choice.

Start tackling those apps and essays now, even just an hour or two worth of work a few days per week, and you could pretty easily log 15-40 hours of application work in total by the time you head back to school.

Or you can compress all that work into the school year, finding ways to fit it in around everything else you’re doing. It will almost certainly be a nights and weekends affair at that point, too.

I won’t claim that this part is easy or fun. But imagine what your life will be like if you submit these applications—all of which have been completed perfectly—in the early fall months before the deadlines. That’s a lot of future fun to look forward to.

A guide to personal letters of rec

Colleges that require letters of recommendation from applicants usually specify between two desired sources—counselors and/or teachers (I’ve written many blogs covering those topics, which you can find by searching “letters of rec” in the box to the right). Colleges are looking for specific information from those sources, which is exactly why students should follow directions and send only the requested number of letters, and do so from the requested sources.

But there’s a third letter of recommendation that some colleges allow or require in addition to, or instead of, a counselor or teacher letter—the personal rec, one that typically comes from a coach, boss, pastor, or anyone that has interacted or worked with the student in some capacity.

If you’re applying to a college that requests a personal rec, here are three pieces of advice for students, and five tips to share with your personal rec writers.

Advice for students

1. Personal beats famous.
The content of the letter is far more important than whether or not the person is famous or powerful. Asking the famous actor your mother treats at her medical practice to write a letter for you will not help your chances of admission if the A-lister barely knows you. This isn’t a contest to see who can drop the biggest name. Find a personal rec writer who knows you well and can speak to some important aspect of your life, whether that’s an activity, job, or other commitment you care about.

2. Think carefully about what this person can add.
The best personal letters shed light on things that an admissions officer would never know from your application. Let’s say you want your basketball coach to write a letter for you. What do you hope she can say? That you came to practice, worked hard, and were a good kid? Guess what—that describes most varsity basketball players (if players don’t do those things, they get cut from the team). But if your coach could talk about why she selected you as the team captain, or what you did to earn the “Most Inspirational” award, or how you responded positively and earned your spot back after the kid that transferred in took it away from you, those are things the admissions office would love to learn about. When in doubt, have a chat with the potential writer and find out if you’ve done the kind of work that would translate into a strong letter of recommendation.

3. Remember that optional means you can opt out.
Many colleges that use personal letters of rec make them optional, yet few students pass up the opportunity.  I understand the inclination to include any seemingly positive addition to your application that the college allows. But before you race out and secure that optional personal letter, review tip #2 above. Can this person really add something to your application that the admissions office won’t already know?  Can they share aspects of your work, personality, or character in a way that the college won’t have learned from reading the rest of your application and your essays?  If not, you’re probably better off opting out of the optional personal letter.  If the rest of your application is strong and has created a good impression, why make that impression any less impactful by adding in a personal letter that adds nothing new? Opting out doesn’t automatically hurt your application. In fact, it can often help it.

Advice for personal rec writers

1. Focus on what makes this student stand out.
Colleges will assume that unless they see evidence indicating otherwise, most athletes work hard, part-time workers have done what’s asked of them, most actresses learned their lines, etc. So what makes this particular student stand out to you? What has he or she done that you don’t necessarily see from every player, volunteer, worker, etc.? These might be big things, like the first teenager you’ve ever asked to write a column in the community paper. But they can also be small things, like the way the customers at the coffee shop know this kid’s name and love to chat with him. Don’t worry about whether the college will consider it noteworthy. If it stood out to you, they’ll want to know.

2. Support with specific details.
Generalities suck the life out of a letter of recommendation; details inject life back in. “Joseph is very responsible” is a generality. The reader has no idea what Joseph’s responsibility actually looks like. But, “Joseph is one of the few employees at my shop that I trust enough to leave in charge when I can’t be at work, and that includes giving him the keys to the store and the combination to our safe where we keep the cash”—now we see just how responsible this kid is, and how that makes him stand out.

3. Tell a story.
College admissions officers are reading hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of applications. Facts and short descriptions are easily forgotten, but stories stick. Using our example from #2, imagine that the writer then went on to describe one particular instance where Joseph’s responsibility was put to the test, when the owner was on vacation, a manager fell ill, and Joseph stepped in without the necessary training and ran the store for the day. That’s a story that will get repeated when the committee deliberates: “Let’s talk more about the kid who ran the coffee shop for a day.” Use details to back up your praise. Then use a story to illustrate one example of this student doing exactly what you’re praising.

4. Communicate impact.
Colleges are looking for students who will make things happen on campus. One of the best ways to communicate that potential is to explain what impact the student has made on your organization, the people you serve, the co-workers or teammates, etc. Is there a fundamental difference or improvement you can point to that this student drove? For example, a coach might describe the way a player mitigated conflict between teammates. A director might describe how an understudy stepped in and saved the day. A pastor might describe the way a youth group’s membership grew as a result of this student’s work. Show the impact this student has made in your world, and the college will gain confidence that she can make a similar impact in theirs.

5. Close with the legacy.
When this student leaves for college, what will you and your organization, your people, or your customers miss about her? And is there any aspect of her work that will continue to benefit those who remain? That legacy, the impact and change a student leaves behind, is an effective way to close a letter. Maybe you’ll miss the confidence she inspired in her teammates even when the game seemed out of reach. Maybe the shop just won’t seem the same without him high-fiving the kids as he served them ice cream. Maybe you’ll need to search for another teen with the talent to speak about religion and get fellow teens to listen. While you might have a sense of what this student will do in the future, you have a unique and qualified perspective about the legacy they’ll be leaving in their past. And sharing that perspective is one of the best ways to help a college envision this future student on their campus.

Our new Common App guide is on the way!

Last year, we released our Collegewise Guide to the 2015-16 Common Application. It took applicants through every section of the Common App, line by line, sharing all of our admissions expertise to make sure they were presenting themselves in a compelling way. And for the first time since we began producing an annual guide back in 2011, it was free to students, parents, and counselors.

Our counselors have recently been getting two questions about the guide: Will we be releasing a new version this year, and will it also be free?

I’m happy to report that the answer to both of those questions is…yes!

Arun and his team have been working away on this year’s update to reflect the most recent changes to the Common Application. We’ll be releasing it to the general public in early September, but my blog readers will get your access in mid-August.

If you’d like to be notified when the new guide is available, you can check back here regularly, or just subscribe for updates—the box to do so is on the left.

How to prevent application mistakes

Author Dan Pink shares this tip to help you anticipate (and prevent) big mistakes when working on an important project—do a premortem.

While a postmortem is what a medical examiner does after a death to determine the cause, a premortem is anticipating the factors that could cause an important project to fail, then addressing those factors preemptively.

For families of seniors applying to college, here’s how I’d apply that technique to your application process.

Imagine your college application process is over and it can only be described as an abject failure. What would that look like? Here are a few examples:

  • The student procrastinated until there was no choice but to race to beat the deadlines.
  • The entire process was stressful.
  • The student failed to take responsibility for their application process.
  • The parent hijacked the process from the student.
  • Parents and kids argued constantly.
  • You didn’t seek out good advice and made mistakes because of it.
  • You missed deadlines.
  • You failed to apply for financial aid and can’t afford the colleges that accepted you.
  • You weren’t admitted to enough (or any) colleges.
  • You have regrets about the entire process and wish you could do it over again.

That would certainly be a failure of epic proportions. But thankfully, just about all of those things can be prevented with a premortem.

Have honest family conversations about college and the process of getting there. Parents, step back. Students, step up. Seek advice from people who know what they’re talking about, like your high school counselor, admissions officers, or a qualified private counselor. Commit to moving forward with your essays and applications so that procrastination doesn’t leave you sprinting to meet the deadlines.

On the other hand, if your imagined version of an epic application failure is “I didn’t get into an Ivy League schools,” you have a different problem entirely, but one that can also be addressed premortem.

No matter how strong your application, the odds are not in your favor of being admitted to any school that denies almost all of its applicants. I don’t mean this to be discouraging. It’s just math. Take your best shot if you believe you fit with one or more prestigious colleges. But you can only influence, not control, what any college decides about you. Focus your vision of failure on things you can control and change. Broaden your list, change your definition of success (and failure), and have the confidence in yourself to know that hard work and character always pay off no matter which colleges say yes.

Finally, if you’re reading this now (in July), make the most of what might be the single biggest advantage you have—time. A family who wakes up in December and realizes they’re headed for a failure can’t do a premortem. All they can do at that point is try to necessitate their process and get back on track. But you’re way out in front of this college application process. And you have every opportunity to get it right the first time.

Do the premortem now, and instead of doing a postmortem next spring to figure out what went wrong, you’ll almost certainly be celebrating your success.

What gets in, what’s left out

Putting together a great college application means selecting what to share and how to share it. And to do that well, you have to be a curator.

While an art curator maintains a museum’s collection, her objective isn’t to show visitors every piece of that art. That would be like charging people to view a giant storage locker. Instead, she creates a specific shape and feel to the exhibit by choosing which pieces will be displayed, and more importantly, which pieces will be left out. Curating means creating the most impactful combination of items from a large selection. What’s left out has just as much influence on the visitors’ experience as what’s left in.

Many college applicants try to jam as much information as possible into their applications. They’ll include activities they haven’t engaged with since freshman year. They’ll attach a resume, send additional letters of rec, and include press clippings or portfolios, all without concern for whether or not the college invites those items to be included. They assume that more stuff makes their application more compelling. They don’t want to leave anything out.

But letting everything in makes it difficult for admissions officers to get a sense of the shape and feel of your high school career. Those applications are like storage lockers of information instead of compelling displays.

You’ve likely amassed quite a collection of interests, achievements, and experiences during your three years of high school. Now, you have to select from those items and create a compelling application display.

The best way to do this is to stop thinking of your application as a marketing vehicle that can be reverse engineered and then polished to create what you think admissions officers want to read. Instead, it just has to represent the real you.

If you could only share five things from your high school career (assume that your transcript and test scores are required and, therefore, don’t take up spots on the list), what would you share?

Chances are, those five things would represent what has defined your high school career. The activity you couldn’t live without. The volunteer work that changed how you saw the world. The part-time job where you’ve been successful, the circumstance that impacted your college trajectory, the mentor who changed your path, the achievement that makes you proud—if other items in your collection just can’t compete with these five, why not leave them out?

Five isn’t a magic number—your application may include information about more or fewer things. But it shouldn’t include everything. Compelling applications are curated collections. Choose what gets in. And more importantly, choose what gets left out.

No blame games

One of the best things about working with so many Collegewise counselors who had jobs as admissions officers is that they can provide real-life anecdotes to substantiate our advice.

We often discuss with families—and I often write here—that one of the least endearing things a student can do in an application is to try to explain away less-than-stellar grades by blaming the teacher(s).

As one of our counselors described it in an email to our group recently,

The ones that killed me (and this happened more than once) were the students who, when they did not receive the grades they would have liked, assigned blame to their teachers. I definitely wrote that down in the “reasons why we probably would not want this student on our campus” column. 

If there’s an explanation for your bad grades, please share it. But there’s a difference between a valid explanation and an excuse. And if you’re blaming someone else, you’re likely edging into excuse territory.

Impact doesn’t need a spokesperson

Students (or their parents) often ask us this question about letters of recommendation in college applications:

Can I submit a letter of recommendation from someone who’s not my teacher or counselor (like a coach, a boss, a pastor, etc.)?

The answer is yes, if a college specifically invites you to do so. But it’s far more common for colleges to ask for letters from teachers and counselors. Most colleges clearly state in their application instructions what they want you to send them. Ignoring those instructions or deciding that you have a better way is one of the surest ways to annoy an admissions officer and even hurt your chances of admission.

But you don’t need a letter of recommendation to prove that you made an impact.

Did you organize the fundraiser for the basketball team?

Were you promoted to assistant manager after only four months at your part-time job?

Did your pastor specifically ask you to become a youth group leader?

Then say so.

Mention it in the “Activity” section of the application as part of the description for the involvement. Share those relevant impact details if you write about the activity in an essay. When your college interviewer gives you an opportunity, give her the backstory about how you ran the fundraiser, or what you did that made you stand out at work, or what your pastor said when he chose you to run the youth group.

A letter of recommendation is just one way to describe an impact you made in an activity. Concentrate first on making an impact in whatever you’re doing. Be so good, committed, or just plain positive that people would notice if you stopped showing up. Then use the pieces and parts of an application to share not only what you did, but also the specific ways you made yourself indispensable.

When you make a real impact, you won’t need a spokesperson to describe it.