Common Application Problem — Beware!

College Admissions, College Applications
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I had a tutoring student recently run into a problem with the common application.  He had submitted the application online through the common application website, and the website said that he had completed everything necessary for application to a particular college.  The only problem?  He still needed to do the ACT writing section for the school.  Fortunately, he was able to petition the admissions office to make an exception for him so that he could take the SAT this January and use the results from that, but it was a really close call and he was nearly denied admission on this technicality. 

The lesson?  Double check the online common application requirements with those on the actual college admissions website.  The common application is not going to be held responsible if you miss a piece of the requirements – they have an extensive disclaimer.  With the increasing complexity of college applications, be sure you have completed each and every requirement by double checking the requirements yourself. 

What are the Most and Least Important Factors in College Admissions?

College Admissions, College Applications
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According to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling 2010 College Admissions Report, here is the ranking of factors that go into the college admissions process, from most important to least important:

  1. Grades in college prep courses
  2. Strength of curriculum
  3. Admission test scores (SAT, ACT)
  4. Grades in all courses
  5. Essay or writing sample
  6. Student’s demonstrated interest
  7. Class rank
  8. Counselor recommendation
  9. Teacher recommendation
  10. Subject test scores (AP, IB)
  11. Interview
  12. Extracurricular activities
  13. Portfolio
  14. SAT II scores
  15. State graduation exam scores
  16. Work


It is important to realize that this was a survey of colleges all across the country – elite colleges are much more likely to put a higher emphasis on factors like extracurricular activities and subject test scores.  Why?  Because elite colleges have applicants who have much higher academic credentials on average, it is not a question of whether the applicants can handle the collegiate workload but more a question of whether the applicants will add diversity and passion to the university environment.  Elite colleges also pay much closer attention to how strong a student’s curriculum is – they want to be sure that a student is taking the most challenging course load that his or her school makes available. 

Another interesting finding is that the general rule among colleges is that larger, public schools are more interested in grades and test scores and smaller, private schools are less interested in grades and test scores and pay more attention to factors lower on the above list. 

I hope this gives you some clarity when it comes to the college admissions process. 

Best of luck, Brian Stewart

College Application Checklist

College Admissions, College Application Essays, College Applications
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Everyone knows that you should have transcripts, letters or recommendation and ACT and/or SAT test scores for college applications.  What are some things you may not have considered that could be really helpful in applying to college?

1.       What is your Ethnicity?  There is an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case that will give further guidance to colleges about affirmative action.  In the meantime, colleges will continue to value ethnic diversity among class members.  While it may seem that you should know your ethnicity without giving it a second thought, things are not so simple.  Many students have mixed-race heritages.  If you are from a traditionally underrepresented ethnic group – Native American, African American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander – be sure you make this clear on your application.  Based on my research, it seems that if you are at least ¼ of a particular ethnicity (i.e. one grandparent of that ethnicity), few would question that you could identify with it.  You can check off multiple ethnicities if needed.  The one exception to the ¼ status appears to be that of Native American – for whatever reason, a smaller fraction is necessary to claim identity.  The Common Application has started requiring students who claim Native American status to answer whether they are “enrolled” in a tribe, probably because many students claim Native American background without any basis.  If you know that you have some Native American ancestry, find out about tribal enrollment here:

2.       Any Legacies in your Family?  Many colleges value having students who have had family members previously attend.  They believe, and probably rightly so, that such students will bring a great deal of school spirit and dedication to the university community.  Ask around in your family and be sure that you know if you have any relatives who have attended the college to which you are applying.  It certainly can’t hurt anything to make note of it in the application.

3.       Have you been thorough in listing your extracurricular activities?  The college application is no time for humility – remember that it’s the application that gets in, not the student.  Admissions officers will only know that you have done something if you tell them.  It never fails to amaze me how many students fail to realize this and leave off significant work experience or extracurricular involvement off their application.  Some common things that people omit:  babysitting experience, church activities, involvement in the family business, devoting significant time taking care of sick or elderly relatives, and travel experience.

4.       Do you have application supplements, like a portfolio or recording, that you can submit?  If you are a talented artist, musician or writer, a line on an application cannot convey the extent of your abilities.  A recording, a link to your blog, or an artistic portfolio will.  Colleges will often have faculty members evaluate the materials so that the admissions staff can determine just how significant a contribution you can make to the culture of the college.

5.       Is there anyone who might write an extra letter of recommendation on your behalf?  Sure, there are three mandatory recommendations in almost every case.  But is there anything that says you can’t have someone else who knows and respects you write a letter that they directly send to the admissions office?  No, there’s not.  By having them send the letter directly, you will avoid looking desperate.  Don’t go too crazy with this – keep it to 1-2 extra letters or it will begin to look like an orchestrated effort.  I’ve known students who have had everyone from a local orchestra conductor to a former U.S. President write letters on their behalf.  What do you have to lose?

6.       Have you had an in-person meeting with someone at the admissions office to explain your unique situation?   Maybe your ACT and SAT test scores don’t reflect your true academic talents.  Maybe your parents were going through a divorce during your junior year and your grades suffered.  Perhaps you had an ACL tear that caused you to lose your starting spot on the team.  If you have unique circumstances, it won’t hurt anything to have a direct meeting with someone on the college admissions staff to make your case.

7.       Have you built any relationships with anyone at the college?   If you are already filling out your applications, it is probably too late for this.  If you are an underclassman, why not attempt to cultivate a genuine intellectual relationship with a professor with whom you would love to study?  You could be a research assistant, go to a public lecture that a professor is conducting and introducing yourself afterwards, or converse with a professor through their blog or social media.  Make sure you are not being weird or annoying – instead, demonstrate genuine intellectual curiosity in the professor’s field of study, and you will have a powerful advocate on the inside when it comes time to apply for admission.

8.       Are you going to fill a needed niche at the school?   Colleges want well-rounded classes, not necessarily well-rounded students.  Match your talents and interests to niches that certain colleges will have difficulty filling.  Consider sports, activities and potential majors – do research to determine what the college in which you are interested needs and help them make it happen.

9.       Is your application professional and free of any errors?   Don’t give the admissions staff any reason to easily dismiss your application.  Be certain that you have had multiple people proofread your application.  The more you procrastinate, the more likely it is that you will have undiscovered errors in your application.  If you are sending in a hard copy of your application, make sure it is on nice paper.

10.   Have you completed the Common Application Supplements?   Many colleges, especially elite ones, require essays and information beyond the normal common application.  Don’t wait until the last minute to begin your work on these. 

I hope you found these suggestions helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

5 Tips for Your College Essay

College Admissions, College Application Essays, College Applications
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With deadlines for college applications right around the corner, here are 5 key things to focus on when you write your college application essay:

1.       Make it Unique.  Remember that colleges are looking for a well-rounded class, not just well-rounded students.  Demonstrate that you have a unique background that will enable you to make significant contributions to the diversity of a university community.  If you don’t have superficial uniqueness, show the uniqueness of your intellect, attitude or experience.  (Remember that unique doesn’t necessarily mean weird or offensive!)

2.       Make it Well-Written.  One of the things that has stood out to me as I have read the elite college essays on this site is how it doesn’t appear to matter quite as much what you say as how you say it.  Your college application essay gives admissions officers the opportunity to evaluate the quality of your communication and your thought process.  Just because you have a killer topic doesn’t mean that you can slouch when it comes to the actual writing.

3.       Stay Focused.  In high school classes, the occasional digression in writing can pass by unnoticed.  Why?  Because while you are accustomed to word minimums for high school term papers, how often do you have word limits in your high school essays?  With only 500 words for the common application essay, you must make every word count.

4.       Be Genuine.  Remember that the admissions officers reading your essay will likely have read thousands and thousands of similar essays over the years.  In the same way that an experienced English teacher can detect plagiarism based on have an outstanding feel for what high school students are capable of, a college admissions officer can detect a lack of sincerity a mile away.  Don’t try to be what you think they are looking for because they will see right through it.  Be yourself and let it shine.

5.       Entertain your reader.  Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer who is reading countless essays during college application season.  They are much more likely to respond favorably to an entertaining essay that breaks up the monotony of boring essay after boring essay after boring essay. . .  Entertaining doesn’t necessarily mean funny – it simply means that it is written in such a way that the reader actually enjoys  reading it.  Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and you can’t go wrong. 

For over 1,500 actual successful essays to help get your ideas flowing, please check out our College Application Essay Collection.    

How to Use Your PSAT & NMSQT Results

ACT and SAT Test Prep, National Merit, PSAT
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Most schools will pass back the PSAT/NMSQT results to students soon, if they haven’t done so already.  How can you use these results most effectively?

Be sure you receive your test booklet and score sheet – all guidance counselors should have this material available.  The test booklet will be the same one you actually used when you took the actual test, so you can see any problem-solving approaches you may have written down on the math section.  The score sheet will tell you for each and every question if you missed it, and if you did miss it, what the correct answer was. 

Go through all the questions you missed to learn from your mistakes and to see if there were any patterns in what you missed.  There is simply no diagnostic test better than an actual test, so don’t let the opportunity to learn from missed questions go to waste.  When I tutor students, I love having the opportunity to work through the PSAT with them to help them look for trends in their though processes on which they can improve. 

You can also use the PSAT results to see if you would prefer to focus more on the SAT or ACT going forward.  How?  Take a look at the percentiles of your performance on the PSAT, which juniors take, and the PLAN, which sophomores take.  The PSAT corresponds to the SAT and the PLAN corresponds to the ACT.  If the percentiles are relatively similar – say within about 10-15 points of each other – you may as well try both the SAT and ACT.  If one is clearly a better fit for you, however, then you may not want to waste your time taking both exams.  Focus on whichever test will give you the better opportunity to showcase your talents and abilities since colleges all across the country will accept either test.

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