Five underutilized college application tips

Start early. Proofread. Some college application advice is sound, but hardly news. Here are five underutilized college application tips for seniors in the middle of, or waiting to start, their applications.

1. Beat—then use—inertia.
The law of inertia says that matter will stay in an existing state—standing still or moving in the same direction—until an external force changes it. That’s true for projects, too. Starting a big project is usually the hardest part. It’s too scary, too overwhelming, and just easier to put off one more day. But once you exert enough outside force to change your still state, it’s easier to just keep moving. Bottom line: just start. Do whatever you have to do. Your application or essay doesn’t have to be perfect right away—it just needs to stop being blank. Recognize that continuing will almost certainly be easier than starting. Here are a few past posts, here and here, with some advice from experts that will help.

2. Rejigger your deadlines.
Deadlines can be good or bad. On the upside, impending deadlines have a way of getting work out of you. They beat down procrastination, lack of inspiration, and general fatigue. But they also raise your stress, and depending on how close you cut it, damage the quality of your application. So here’s how to get the good without the bad—change the deadlines. Make them impending today and treat them as if they were the real thing. You’d be amazed how much you can do.

3. Trim the fat.

Imagine I said to you,

I got three projects done last weekend. I fixed an electrical problem in my house, I volunteered at a local food bank for five hours, and I made a salad.

Wouldn’t that description have had more oomph if I’d just left the salad tidbit out?

Even the best meat can be ruined by too much fat. And even a really successful college applicant can seem less impressive when they bloat their application with everything they’ve ever done in high school. That club that you left after one semester of freshman year? You obviously didn’t care about it that much (which is fine). So why do you think an admissions officer would? Your college application should present your most compelling, meaningful, or proudest work. That doesn’t mean that everything you share has to be an unmitigated success. But if it doesn’t add anything to the application other than fat, trim it off and let the tastier parts come through.

4. Tell the truth.
Yes, it’s bad to lie on a college application. You’re signing your name to a document that you’re asserting is true. If a college finds out, you’ll be out, even if you’ve been admitted and are happily living in a dorm on campus. But honesty is also an underutilized likeability tool on college applications. Were you the slowest runner on the cross country team? Don’t omit that part in an essay about cross country. Did you do something stupid and get suspended as a sophomore? Use the word “stupid” when you explain it in the prompt that asks you to do so. Did your entry into the robotics competition literally go up in flames? Mistakes are human. So is the occasional failure. Yes, there’s a limit to how honest you should be (I would not admit to crimes, a hatred for school, or anything else that would raise caution in a reader’s mind). But it’s a lot easier to like—and admit—a real human than an over-polished applicant.

5. Sleep on it.
Applications and essays sometimes don’t look as good the next morning as they did the night before when you finished them. Use that to your advantage. Start early (see tip #1) and allow yourself a few extra days to come back with a fresh set of eyes. When it looks as good as you thought it did the night before, then you’re done.

Should you apply early decision?

The Tufts admissions blog is one of my favorites for two reasons: (1) they write about things applicants care about, and (2) they regularly serve up unvarnished admissions truths.

Tufts’ Meredith Reynolds’s recent post, Should I Apply Early Decision?, offers what I thought was an honest, helpful take for any applicant pondering that question. And she doesn’t just tackle the easy part of the answer (only apply early decision if it’s your first choice). Within the post, she also gives one of the most honest answers I’ve seen to the question, “Is it easier to get in if I apply early?” And her final takeaway is great advice for any college-bound student, Tufts applicant or not.

“So here’s the take-away, junior and seniors: There is value in taking the time now to determine if you have a first choice school – and if you do, Early Decision can be a really great option. But if you don’t find a first choice school – one you’re sure of and your family has decided they can afford – ED is simply not meant for you. And that’s OK, because the schools that see a fit with you are still going to be excited to admit you in March (and here’s another fact to keep in mind – by sheer volume, we say “yes” to far more people in Regular than we do in Early). And ultimately, this decision is just too darn big to make based on anything other than pure love for an institution and excitement for your future there.”

Last call for our Common App webinar

There are plenty of potential reasons why a college applicant might consider attending our upcoming webinar, Making your Common App Less Common, featuring our Vice-President and Head of Counseling, Arun Ponnusamy. Maybe you have questions about which essay topic to choose. Maybe you’re struggling with the activity section. Or maybe you just want to learn from an expert to make sure you’re putting your best application foot forward.

But there are times when a presenter is so knowledgeable, so generous with their information and advice, and just so good at what they do that I will personally attend no matter what the topic. Arun is one of those speakers. I’ve watched or co-presented with him dozens of times over the last 12 years, and I always learn something when I do. That’s why I’m not just recommending the webinar; I’ll also be in the audience myself tonight.

It’s taking place tonight, September 13, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. PDT. The cost to attend is $10, and you can get all the information here.

I hope you’ll be able to join us.

Join us for a live Common App webinar

For seniors who are (or will soon be) filling out your Common Application, join us for a live webinar, Making Your Common App Less Common. It’s taking place September 13 from 6 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. PST and will feature Arun Ponnusamy, our Vice-President and Head of Counseling, who has read more than 7,500 applications and 20,000 essays at UCLA, Caltech, and the University of Chicago.

The cost is $10 per attendee, and we’re limiting attendance to 200. You can find all the details, and the link to register, here.

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.