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.

After you click “Submit”

We weren’t surprised to see that Sophie Martin’s advice for seniors who’ve just submitted their applications is spot-on. She’s not just a writer at the Tufts University admissions blog and a member of the Tufts class of 2019 who just went through this process herself. Sophie is also a former Collegewise student (a fact she points out in the article).

Well done, and thanks for sharing, Sophie!

Finishing your Common Application?

If you’re still polishing your Common Application for submission, you might benefit from our Guide to the Common Application, which you can get for free here. From the essay prompts, to the activity listing, to the additional information section, I think you’ll appreciate the insightful advice no matter where you’re applying to college.

When there’s nothing to fix

If you write a computer program and it doesn’t run correctly, something is wrong. There’s a fix to be done—you just have to identify it. Electronics, machinery, carpentry—the measure of whether or not they’re done right is whether or not they work well.

But not all college applications work that way.

If you applied in an early application program and were deferred or outright denied, you might be wondering what you did wrong. You might be looking critically at your application and second-guessing your approach, looking for what went wrong, especially if you now have other applications to submit. No sense repeating prior mistakes if you can avoid it. That’s not necessarily a bad instinct. But please remember that it’s also possible that you did nothing wrong at all, especially if you applied to highly-selective colleges.

Colleges that admit fewer than 20 or even 10 percent of their applicants are denying just about everybody. And many of those who get the bad news did absolutely nothing wrong. Their applications were strong. Their essays were compelling. Their grades and test scores and profiles were as good or even better as many of those admitted. That’s the reality of an admissions process where the very best applicants apply to the same very short list of schools, all of which have far, far more qualified applications than they could ever hope to admit. Some applicants have obvious shortcomings. But many more do not.

Did you work hard on your applications? Were you careful and deliberate, making sure to follow instructions and double-check for accuracy? And most importantly, were you proud of what you submitted? If so, there’s a very good chance that you did nothing wrong. Just because it didn’t work like you hoped it would doesn’t mean it was broken.

Sure, you can reevaluate what you did before. But stay open to the possibility that maybe there’s nothing to fix.

The second-to-last minute

“I’m not good at the last minute. It’s really fraught with risk and extra expense. I’m much better doing things the first minute instead.”

Seth Godin

If you’re a senior who’s starting your holiday break with unfinished applications staring at you, the opportunity to complete the work in the first minute passed long ago. I know you’re not happy about it. I know you realized they were important and you wanted to start earlier. And now you’re here, wishing circumstances were different and that you’d gotten much further than you have. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you’re not quite at the last minute, yet. You’re actually at the second-to-last minute. So if this sounds like your situation, (1) Don’t lament what’s happened (or not happened), and (2) Double down on your application efforts.

Regret isn’t a useful emotion for you right now. It will only sap both your energy and your creativity at the very time that you need your full reserves. You can’t change what happened before—you’re better served redirecting all that mental energy towards your applications.

Starting today, make applications your most important daily priority. You still have the opportunity to avoid the frantic scrambling to press the “Submit” button just before the deadline. And even more importantly, an earlier finish will mean there’s more of your holiday break to enjoy, application free.

The first minute may be gone, but the last isn’t here yet.  So make the second-to-last minute count.

Spread the application love

If you don’t make the squad after spending all summer relentlessly focused on training for football tryouts, it’s certainly disappointing. But there is still plenty to feel good about. You went after something that was important to you. There are plenty of other opportunities still available to you. And as a bonus, you’re probably in pretty good shape! You’re not on the team, but your future looks bright.

College admissions doesn’t always work the same way.

If you have a dream school, you should absolutely take your best shot at gaining an acceptance. But some students become so focused on their first choice that they spend all their time refining an already-refined application, often to the detriment of their applications to schools where their chances of admission are stronger. It’s good to be focused and goal-oriented. But you also have to make sure that no matter what happens, you have a college to attend that you’re excited about even if it’s not your first choice.

So seniors, please do an honest check-in with yourself. Are you spending a lot more time on an application to your dream school than you have with any others? Have you actually resisted even thinking about other schools because you’re so excited about what seems to be your perfect fit?

If so, recognize that application perfection is elusive and embrace good enough. Then redirect that time, attention, and energy to other schools. Yes, you want an admission to your dream school. But just in case your affection goes unrequited, spread the application love now so you’ll have some good options later.