Join us at an upcoming webinar

Collegewise is offering a series of webinars for students, parents, and counselors. The schedule and the links to register are below (I’ll be presenting the August 22 college essay session).

I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, August 22: How to Write a Great College Essay
Wednesday, September 20: How to Make Your Common App a Lot Less Common
Tuesday, October 17: The Art of the Short Answer
Wednesday, November 8It’s Not Too Late: How to Complete Stellar College Applications when Deadlines are Looming

Coming soon—our 2017-2018 Common App Guide

Since 2010, we’ve annually released our Collegewise Common App Guide. It takes applicants through every section of the Common App, line by line, sharing all of our admissions expertise to make sure users present themselves in a compelling way. And for the last two years, we’ve given it away for free.

I’m thrilled to report that we’ll again be releasing this guide free to anyone who wants it, including our competition. Collegewisers Arun and Meredith are busy updating this year’s guide to reflect the most recent changes to the Common Application itself, and they expect to have it polished and ready for release the week of August 17.

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

What do you deserve a medal for?

Not everything you do that’s award-worthy actually has an award attached to it. So here’s a useful exercise as you apply to college. Think about how you’ve spent your time in high school—in the classroom, in your activities or jobs, at home, etc. And for each of those areas, ask yourself, “What do I deserve a medal for?”


“I babysat my colicky newborn brother every day for 18 months after school while my parents worked.”

“I brought Abigail back from a panic attack minutes before our jazz band took the stage.”

“I spent every lunch hour for three weeks getting extra help from my chemistry teacher to claw my way to a C in that class.”

“I rode the bench on the basketball team all season, but nobody was more positive about being on the team than I was.”

“I read ten books about World War II last summer because I’m a legitimate history buff.”

“I broke a rib during my black belt test and still took the SAT the next day.”

“I was really scared to leave home for the first time to spend a summer with a host family in Argentina, but I did it. And I came back fluent in Spanish.”

“I created my own concoction at the smoothie shop where I work and now people request it all the time.”

Then, as you complete your applications, essays, and interviews, look for the appropriate places to share these medal-worthy stories.

Seniors, what have you done—and underclassmen, what are you doing—that deserves a medal?

Purported recognition

On Friday, my business partner Arun Ponnusamy forwarded all of our counselors a spam email he received from the National Society of High School Scholars. This was the entirety of Arun’s message (if you sense his contempt, it’s for the company sending the email, not for the families who are asking the question):

“At least once a year, a parent will reach out to me about a letter their kid received in the mail about being selected for a very prestigious honor society that just happens to cost a chunk of change. ‘Is it legit?’ No, it’s not. It’s a marketing database under the guise of some academic entity. Don’t let your students join NSHSS. And please don’t ever let them put it on their apps either.”

Considering that in his life before Collegewise, Arun read applications at the University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, and that he’s now helped hundreds of students through the college admissions process as a counselor, applicants would be smart to follow his advice.

And here’s a collection of my past posts cautioning families against paying for purported recognition.

Taking advantage

Some college admissions advantages are bestowed on select groups. Naturally great test-takers, highly recruited athletes, students with the economic means to avail themselves of test prep and tutoring—while they may have worked to gain (rather than just have been gifted) those advantages, the advantages themselves are just not available to every high school student.

But here’s one potential advantage most seniors can grab. It’s free, it doesn’t discriminate based on your GPA, test scores or résumé, and it doesn’t care where you go to high school or whether or not you intend on applying to highly selective colleges.

You use the summer to start your college application process.

Finalize your college list. Complete your Common Application. Write any essays that your chosen colleges make available. Just get started. I’m not in favor of pushing college prep earlier than necessary. But that application work will need to get done. The only question is whether you do any of it during the summer months or wait until school begins when your days, your schedule, and your plate are already full.

Yes, some students are busier during the summer than others. You may be studying, working, traveling, etc. But chances are that you aren’t as busy or as stressed as you’ll be when the fall schedule of school and classes and activities hits. This fall, you’ll have fewer slots of free time to give to college applications. That’s one of the reasons so many students work on them right up until the deadlines. It’s hard to find the combination of inspiration and relaxation that leads to great college applications when you’re squeezing it in between homework and studying and softball practice.

So give yourself an advantage. Spend just 1-2 hours a week this summer moving through your college application to-dos. Imagine how good you’ll feel, and how much you will have done, if you start your senior year having already logged 10-25 hours of college application work.

You can’t have every advantage. But this one is here for the taking.

For counselors: What’s new with the Common App?

The folks at the Common App held a free webinar for counselors yesterday: “What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements.” If you didn’t get a chance to attend, our counselor Tom Barry shared the following summary for our Collegewise counselors.

You won’t need to find your way around a brand new Common App with your students this year. In fact, the key changes are mostly minor and will not affect all applicants.

1. Students can now self-report courses and grades within the Common App tab.
There aren’t many colleges on the Common App that ask students to self-report their courses and grades, but for those that do, the Common App now offers them a place to do so.

2. Students can upload Google Drive text files directly into the “Essay” boxes. 
This won’t replace the option to copy and paste. But one potential benefit is that uploading a document could help a student avoid those pesky formatting challenges that seemed to pop up so often.

3. The “Activities” dropdown menu will now include “Internship” and “Social Justice” categories. 

4. Students can select up to three advisors who will be granted access to their account in order to evaluate progress. 
This number is in addition to the formal school counselor and the teacher(s) submitting letters of recommendation.

We’ll also be releasing our updated annual Collegewise Common App guide around July 15. When it’s ready, I’ll share it here.

Counselors: Upcoming changes to the Common App

Counselors, if you’d like to get a peek at the changes to the Common App, they’ll be hosting a free webinar, What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements, on June 12 from 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. EST. All the details are here. And thanks to Collegewise counselor Tom Barry for alerting us.

We’re also planning to release our updated annual Common App guide around July 15. We’re waiting until then because the Common App folks plan to continue tweaking the app through July 1st. Once our new guide is ready, I’ll share it here.

Last chance for Common App help

For seniors putting the finishing touches on your Common Application to submit for January deadlines, don’t miss out on our free Guide to the 2016/17 Common Application. From the essay prompts, to the activity listing, to the additional information section, you can use it for everything from an assist with that one section you’re struggling with to a line-by-line review of the application. Get your free copy here.

Unfinished apps? Time to get to work

If you’re a senior who’s procrastinated on your college applicants, you already know that you’re running out of time to complete them. You might also be filled with a combination of regret for what got you here with a fear that you’ll never finish on time. If you’re in that camp, here’s a tool that will help—embrace the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is a willingness to confront the brutal facts of your reality while remaining faithful that you’ll ultimately prevail. Named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking United States military officer to be imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the height of the Vietnam War, the term was coined by Jim Collins, a former Stanford Business School professor who studied the secrets of the greatest companies and the leaders behind them for his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. I would normally never compare enduring life as a prisoner of war with completing college applications. But Stockdale willingly shared his story with Collins for inclusion in a book about how to be successful in business. So I’ll take some liberties to apply it here.

Stockdale spent eight years in captivity, was routinely tortured, and lived in solitary confinement with no idea if he would ever be released or see his family again. He didn’t just survive, but also forged elaborate strategies to help his fellow prisoners survive. As he described it, he found it imperative to confront the most brutal facts of their reality head-on. If a fellow prisoner conjured up a hopeful vision like, “Maybe we’ll be out by Christmas,” Stockdale would respond, “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

But the paradox Collins points out is that in spite of the unimaginable circumstances Stockdale endured, he also had an unwavering belief that he would eventually be released and turn the experience into the defining event of his life.
That combination, the willingness to confront the reality of his situation while simultaneously remaining certain that he would prevail, gave Stockdale the discipline to direct his energies into the few areas that he could control. That gave him and his fellow prisoners some sense of daily purpose, something to buoy their resolve and their chances of eventually making it out alive.

When he was finally released eight years later, Stockdale was reunited with his family, hailed as a national hero, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As Stockdale is quoted in the book:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

So, what does that mean to a senior with a formidable stack of application work ahead of you?

Confront your brutal facts. All that time you had months ago? It’s gone. Those impending deadlines? They’re getting closer with every second that passes. Will completing them be more difficult and stressful than if you’d worked on them months ago? Probably, depending on how much you have left to do. Those are your brutal facts. You can’t deny them. You can’t ignore them. You can’t change them. So it’s time to confront them. Head-on.

But you should also never lose faith that you’ll finish, you’ll come out the other side, and you’ll eventually be a happy freshman in college who’s long since moved on from the application process.

Lots (and lots) of students have been in this situation before you. It happens every year. And just about all of them not only finish their applications, but also get into plenty of schools.

You can’t join that successful group with unreasonable pessimism like, “It doesn’t matter anymore—I’m out of time anyway” or with false optimism like, “I’ll get them done eventually—I work well under pressure.” Neither of those attitudes gets you any closer to completing your applications or to attending a college you want to go to.

The best way to prevail? Face your brutal facts. Don’t ever lose faith. And most importantly, channel your energy into the one thing you can control. It’s time to get to work.

Their relief, and yours

Seniors, if your family just can’t quite put a Thanksgiving moratorium on college application talk, high school counselor Patrick O’Connor offers up some of his typically sage advice in Applying to College? Here’s How to Survive Thanksgiving. Here’s his suggested method for handling questions like, “Do you think this afternoon might be a good time to work on your essays?”

“This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, ‘I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.’”

Not a spreadsheet person? No problem. The particular method you use isn’t important. What’s important is to be prepared to provide more than, “I’ve got this—stop asking me!” Make a list, a schedule, or some other tangible proof that you’re holding yourself accountable. Your parents’ relief will bring you some relief, too.