You can’t outsource consequences

In 2012, as I was preparing to self-publish version 1.0 of If the U Fits, I hired an outside copyeditor to proofread the manuscript. I wanted to make sure the book I’d spent the last year writing was typo-free. And it was important enough to pay a professional to make sure the job was done right.

Unfortunately, the job was not done right. I discovered only after the book had already been published that the editor had missed dozens of typos. I was angry, I was embarrassed, and I felt stupid for paying far too much money to—and putting far too much trust in—someone who clearly hadn’t earned it.

But as much as the typos may not have been my fault, it didn’t change the fact that my book with my name on it had errors on most pages. Nobody who bought the book would know or care that I’d actually paid for supposed professional editing. Nobody was emailing that editor to point out the errors. No part of her job description included standing publicly beside the work and accepting blame for anything that didn’t go right. I’d outsourced the proofreading work, but the consequences were all mine.

Students applying to college this fall, remember that you can’t outsource responsibility for your application. No matter where you go to school, no matter how much help may be available to you, you—not anyone on your application support team—are the one whose college future is at stake. If you miss a deadline, if you ignore requests for additional information, if a ball gets dropped because you thought it was someone else’s job to pick it up, you’re the one who will bear the consequences. Most colleges will not take “My parent/school counselor/teacher/private counselor was supposed to take care of that…” as a valid excuse.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t trust anyone to help you. You can and likely should seek help from qualified people who have some skin in the game.

But don’t sit back and expect other people to care about this process more than you do. Don’t wait for people to tell you what to do and when to do it. Don’t point at your parents or your counselor and claim this is their job. It’s your college future. These are your applications. This is your responsibility. And the most successful college applicants seek (if not demand) that responsibility; they don’t wait for someone else to offer it to them.

You’ll be less likely to try to outsource the responsibility for getting into college if you remember that you won’t be able to outsource the consequences on the other side.

Make “Why this college?” about you

Of all the questions on college applications, any version of “Why are you interested in attending this college?” could well be the one students struggle with most. It’s easy if you’re the rare student who’s interested in a major or program that very few other colleges offer. But most students don’t have their interest narrowed down that specifically. And that’s why so many applicants end up either expressing vague generalities like “You have a great reputation, top professors, and a beautiful campus,” or composing a list of specific features that they obviously just looked up on the college’s website, like “You have an 11-1 student-faculty ratio.” Neither of those approaches gets you closer to admission.

The best answers to this type of question have a lot more to do with you than they do with the college, and here’s why. The colleges are asking not just because they want to know if you’re a good fit. Even more importantly, they also want to know how likely you’d be to accept an offer of admission if one were extended to you.

Let me propose a scenario to better explain this to students who read this blog.

Imagine you received five invitations to the prom, each from someone you’d genuinely like to go with. You can only say yes to one, but here’s the catch—you’re not the only person each is asking. You have no real way of knowing who genuinely wants to go with you and who’s just playing the odds. You could be the first choice, the backup, or somewhere in-between.

In case this admittedly stretched analogy is failing, let me be clear—they’re the college applicants, you’re the college.

One way to get a sense of who would be most likely to take you up on your acceptance might be to ask, “Tell me more about why you’d like to go to the prom with me.”

Which of these two responses makes you feel more confident that they’d say yes to you if you said yes to them?

You have a reputation as a high-achieving student. You have a good GPA, you’ve participated in lots of activities, and you take four AP classes. You also were named all-league in both tennis and basketball, you’ve won a lot of department awards at school, and I heard that you’ve already started to win some college scholarship money. You have a part-time job, so I think you’ll be able to help pay for prom expenses. Finally, you eat salads at lunch a lot, which is a lot healthier than many other lunch options.

You might be flattered. It’s nice to hear someone say positive things about you. But this person just told you a lot about something you already knew well—yourself. And you’ve still got no sense why or if they really want to go to the prom with you.

Contrast that with this response:

I’m not a social risk-taker. I don’t go to the crazy parties, so I’m not looking to sneak booze into the prom or do anything else that so many other people are talking about doing. I just want to go with someone I like, dance, take some pictures, and have a fun night with our mutual friends that we can look back on and smile about. It’s our prom, and it’s a big deal. I think it can be a lot of fun without doing something that will get us in trouble three weeks before we graduate. I don’t know you well, but we’ve talked enough that I think you’re someone who might want the same thing. So if you want to go with me, I’d love to take you. I think we’d make a great prom night couple.

See the difference? Whether or not that description appeals to you is up to you. But you know where this person stands. You know a little more about them and why they think you’re a good prom match. And most importantly, their response gives you a sense that they might welcome a yes from you.

When you answer a “Why this college?” question, it’s fine to describe aspects of that college that appeal to you. And if you’ve found something specific—a major, a program, a professor, etc. that matches something you’re genuinely looking for in a college, say so! They’re asking, after all.

But remember that admissions officers don’t need you to tell them about the place they work. They want you to tell them about you, what you are looking for in a college, and why you both could be a good fit together.

There are times when it’s OK to make something about you. Answering a “Why this college?” question is one of those times.

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.