College Applications

How To Find Your Organizing Principle (Even Without A Helpful Giraffe)

So you know you need an Organizing Principle to show your dream school who you are…but how do you find yours? Especially on your own? I’m giving you a road map to articulating the hidden sense of self that will help you show colleges who you are.

There Are No Breaks in Test Prep Now (Unless You Plan Well)

New SAT and ACT dates means that college applicants don’t have the enforced summer break that they used to. This makes testing-timeline decisions EVEN MORE COMPLICATED (hey, thanks!). I’m breaking down the factors you need to consider to keep your sanity (and maybe even plan that break in there after all).

6 Easy Steps to Get Into College

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Whether you’re about to begin your Junior year of high school or you’re only a Sophomore or Freshman and have considerably more time, I want to give you a quick landscape of the major steps to get into college that you need to take.

My intention here is that if you know what the crucial milestones are, you can methodically work to knock them off your list one at a time and not be a total anxiety-ridden stress case!  I’ve gone ahead and listed them in chronological order, though some steps may be ongoing and thus overlap with other steps.

Moreover, I’ve tried my best to provide an ideal timeline of when you should be doing each step and about how long it takes.  Keep in mind that “ideal timelines” may of course vary depending on where you are right now and your personal strengths and weaknesses. With my private clients, I can tailor this process to the perfectly bespoke little black dress of college admissions prep timelines—go here for an Ace the Test: Game Plan. However, if I do not know you personally, realize that you may have to adjust the dates just a modicum to apply perfectly to you.

Step #1: SAT I or ACT

Unless you are specifically researching colleges that don’t require standardized tests, you are going to have to take either the SAT I Reasoning Test or the ACT. (To find out which one, either go here or click on the cute teal pop-up in the bottom right of your screen.)

SKILLS NEEDED:

You are going to need to brush up on your math, grammar, reading comprehension, vocab and essay-writing abilities for both tests.

For the ACT, you should also brush up on interpreting charts and graphs and basic scientific method facts for the Science section. (NOTE: If you’re currently a Sophomore, you’ll need this skill too, regardless of which test you take, since you’ll be choosing between the ACT and the Revised SAT.)

IDEAL TIMELINE:

August before Junior year, if not before: Start reviewing content weekly.

January/February of Junior year: Focus on taking mock and practice tests (between 4-6) and going over them.

March/April of Junior year: Take first SAT/ACT for real.

May: SAT attempt #2

June: ACT attempt #2

Fall of Senior year: Attempt #3 if needed.

Step #2: SAT II Subject Tests (Depends on School)

Depending on the schools on your college short list, you may be off the hook for SAT II Subject Tests. Or, if you are applying to Harvard, you may need 3 of them!  Each college has its specifications, so make sure you do your research and write them down.  (Need help? An Ace the Test: Game Plan will do it for you!)

IDEAL TIMELINE:

May/June of Sophomore year: If you are taking any classes that would aptly prepare you for a Subject Test, go ahead and take it.  Give yourself about 2 months’ study time, and pick the test date that is as close to your final exam for the class as possible.

June of Junior year: Take another 1-2 Subject Tests in subjects that correlate to classes you are taking.

Fall of Senior year: If you still need to take more subject tests or improve a score, take them after you have secured the SAT I or ACT score you desire.

Step #3: College Visits

You want to make sure you get a feel for the type of academic environments ideal to your growth and development before you craft your entire testing timeline around them!

IDEAL TIMELINE:

June/July between Sophomore and Junior years: Try to do some of your college visits at this time to set your testing targets and complete all your requirements in a mellow, stress-free manner.

June/July between Junior and Senior years: Do the rest of your college visits at this time.

Step #4: College Application Process: The Activity List

This is where you break-down all of your passions, interests, community involvements, leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, jobs, volunteerism, sports, and talents so that the people in the admissions office know a) what you have to bring to the table at their institution and b) how exactly you’ve spent your time the past four years.  This is where you have the ability to explain some odd-ball hobbies and interests that make you YOU (competitive Pokemon, anyone?).  This is also where you get to demonstrate the actual number of hours you have devoted to your passions and the depth to which you have ventured to explore them.

IDEAL TIMELINE:

July/August between Junior and Senior years: Start keeping a running tab of your activities, denoting the description, length of time you were involved, hours per week, leadership positions and notable accomplishments.

November 1st: This is the beginning of early decision application deadlines.

January 1st: Most regular decision deadlines are due around this time.

Step #5: College Application Process: Common App Essay

Formerly called the Personal Statement, you’ll use this essay for the Common App but can tweak it for applications that are NOT on the Common App, too. This is the main college entrance essay you will write that will give the readers in your dream school’s admissions office a glimpse into you, your hopes and dreams, your mind, your life, your accomplishments, your character, and your essence. All in under 650 impeccably-written words! Have fun!

IDEAL TIMELINE:

July/August between Junior and Senior years: Start brainstorming and ideally have your first draft done before school starts.

November 1st: This is the beginning of early decision application deadlines.

January 1st: Most regular decision deadlines are due around this time.

Step #6: College Application Process: Supplemental Essays (Depends on School)

As delineated by the admission requirements of your particular dream schools, you very well may have additional “essays” to write and include in your application.  I say “essays” with quotation marks, because some are incredibly brief, like describing yourself in 5 words.  Stanford University has a supplemental essay like that.  In fact, Stanford has 10 supplemental essays! (Don’t worry, they’re not all mammoth.)

IDEAL TIMELINE:

August 1st: The Common App opens.  You will be able to look up your list of colleges and compile all the supplemental essays you have to write.  Please plan ahead before you start typing away – can one essay for one school be marginally tweaked and reused for another supplemental essay?  Let’s be a little pragmatic, shall we?

November 1st: This is the beginning of early decision application deadlines.

January 1st: Most regular decision deadlines are due around this time.

So, yes, this DOES seem like a lot, and you may be wondering how I dared to claim these were “6 Easy-Peasy Steps”… But seriously, if you take a long-range look at these, there are a few tests, a few trips, and a few essays that just need to happen at a few designated times.  If you start doing what you can during Sophomore year and the beginning of Junior year, you will be sitting very pretty by the time those acceptance letters start rolling in.

I hope this was able to ease some of your high school stress and help you plan. Remember that though I’m able to offer this one-size-fits-most information for free, you can get more tailor-made advice by working with me. And if you found this helpful, please do me a huge favor and pass it on to 3 of your friends!

Xo,

Kristina

Common App Essay: 15 Questions to Ask Yourself if You're Stuck

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As you may have already read in my previous post, college admissions officers want to know what you're passionate about,where you've taken initiative, how you've transformed, and what makes you YOU. However, as I know from countless hours of helping students frame themselves in the best way possible, you may very well still be stuck getting started with your Common App essay. After all, a blank computer screen can seem scary! If this is where you are right now, never fear. You DO have plenty of things to talk about—we just have to find them. Take out either a blank document or piece of paper and write your answers to the following questions:

Common App Essay Tip: Look at how you spend your time

1. In class: What are your academic and intellectual interests?

2. Outside of class: What are your favorite hobbies and activities? Why do you like to do them?

3. Over the summer: Have you done any programs, classes, cool trips, or taught yourself anything?

4. To relax: What do you do when you just want to take a break from it all?

Because these comprise the natural fabric of your life, you may take it for granted that you personality type everyone in your school or that you knit scarves for each of your best friends to take your mind off Pre Calc homework. But believe me, most people don't go to Myers-Brigg temperament sorters or yarn stores to relax. This is a YOU thing that makes you stand out.

Common App Essay Tip: Look at your special interests

5. Do you have any unusual talents or skills? If so, how did you develop them? How did you get into them in the first place?

6. Are there any topics or global issues you're passionate about? Why? What are you doing about it?

Again, you may assume that since thoughts of saving the stray pit bulls in your neighborhood constantly run through YOUR head, everyone must be thinking the same thing. They aren't. Or if you're perpetually obsessed with counting cards and teaching yourself the finer rules of poker (and all the statistics involved), you may assume that's just typical. It isn't. That's special, and you should consider writing about it.

Common App Essay Tip: Look at your achievements

7. What accomplishment are you most proud of? What did you have to do to accomplish it?

8. What was the most challenging ordeal or event you've gone through? How did you get through it?

9. When or how have you shown leadership?

More than how "big" an achievement appears, it's the work you put in that's impressive to the admissions counselors. Not everything you want to do in life (and college) will come easily to you. In fact, even if you start out with a "natural" talent, you'll still only improve through hard work. What shows your character is how you roll up your sleeves and embrace the challenge—especially when success is not guaranteed and you had to take a risk.

Common App Essay Tip: Look at pivotal moments in your life

10. What was the best experience you've ever had? Why was this the "best"?

11. What was the worst experience you've ever had? Why was this the "worst"?

12. How have you changed over the past few years? Was there any event or person who caused/facilitated this transformation?

There aren't always major life events or "Aha!" moments that alter the course of your life and personality. However, if there are, the key is to look for the positive in the situation: how did you make lemons out of lemonade? How did you grow up, even though a situation may have sucked? Or if something phenomenal happened, how has this made you a more appreciative and grateful person?

Common App Essay Tip: Look at your personality

13. How are you unique or different from other people you know?

14. Is there anything about you that doesn't fit the stereotype, or that's unexpected?

15. Do you have any principles or beliefs that guide your actions? What are they?

The admissions officers want to know what kind of person you are and where you'd fit in. They want to know what makes you tick—and bonus points for being self-aware enough to already have some ideas about this in high school! Are you philosophical and spend time deliberating about your own values? That means you think for yourself, which will serve you well into college and beyond. Do you surprise people by being different from what they'd expect, like the all-star lacrosse player who is obsessed with following Anna Netrebko's operatic career and listens to Verdi in her spare time? Cool quirks like this will make you stand out—and help you get into your dream school!

After writing down the answers to these questions, you should see a few common threads emerge. If one topic keeps coming up, chances are, that's what you should write about to let the admissions officers know exactly who you are and why you're special!

I hope this helped you solidify your Common App essay topic, and more than that, assure you that you have several unique qualities that you probably take for granted, but that others would find fascinating. Though I'm able to give out this advice for free, sometimes you need extra one-on-one help to get the guidance and confidence you need.  To find out how I can help bring out the real YOU in your Common App and supplemental essays, contact me here.

Common App Essay: What Should I Write About?

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It seems like the most daunting task: staring at a blank page and trying to figure out how to encapsulate your entire personality, activities, passions, life experiences thus far, and worthiness as an applicant in under 650 perfectly-curated words that some adult halfway across the country will impersonally read and judge, determining your undergraduate fate. Yet, if you're reading this, you know all too well this rite of passage that happens Senior year of high school: The Common App Essay.

With every student I've ever worked with, it's the initial staring at that blank page that seems almost crippling. "What do 'they' want me to say?" is the refrain that forms an endless loop in those initial writing sessions. And this IS a rather crucial question, considering that your essay will only get read for a couple minutes at best. You must make an impact, and the admissions staff must be able to figure out the gist of you in those couple minutes.

WHAT THE ADMISSIONS READERS WANT:

Admissions officers want a well-rounded CLASS, not a well-rounded applicant.

I'll say it again: colleges want a well-rounded CLASS, not a well-rounded applicant.

Think about it: 70 students who are all fairly okay actors and also mediocre lacrosse players are NOT going to form a world-class drama department with exceptional student-run plays and also be able to compete against the other universities' lacrosse teams. They need AMAZING actors in their drama department and SUPER-HUMAN lacrosse players for their team, who can win them trophies. Fantastic teams and departments instill pride in their university and encourage their alumni to donate big bucks. This is ideal! Thus, for admissions purposes, it's better to be exceptional at one thing than "kind of okay" at several things.

And believe it or not, "they" really really *want* to like you. It would be no greater joy to the college admissions readers to determine that you are exactly the right fit for their school, ensuring that their acceptance pool has one more top-tier student for the next matriculating class. So, how do you convey that YOU are indeed the perfect fit?

USE THE COMMON APP ESSAY TO SHOW HOW YOU ARE EXCEPTIONAL

You may not be an all-star rugby player or the top math student in your state or have bonafide awards to SHOW how skilled you are, but you have myriad personal qualities that are desirable to a college. The key to figuring this out is to ask yourself a few basic (though philosophical) questions:

1) What are you PASSIONATE about?

Like, really love? How did it start? Is there an activity or interest that you'd be lost without? This doesn't have to be something that wins awards or that you get credit for. I've seen very successful applicants write about ComicCon cosplay and owning their inner "geek," to baking lemon bars and working in a bakery, to learning chess because it was intriguing, even if they never played to wunderkind levels. Basically, if you truly love something, it will show on the page, and the college admissions advisors will know you have the capacity to be passionate about other activities at their school as well.

2) Where do you show INITIATIVE?

As in, where you do go above and beyond to find opportunities outside the classroom and school? If you claim to feel strongly towards volunteering, it means much more to an admissions reader that you started your own group or located a charity all on your own to train rescue dogs several days a week every summer, than it does that you participated in your school's already-organized trip to the homeless shelter or tutored younger kids in science for required community service hours. Do you spend all your time competing in triathlons or swimming competitions, when your school doesn't even offer these things and you had to nurture these interests yourself? This shows a take-charge, can-do attitude that colleges want on their campuses. It means you might be the future student who starts a bowling league or university garden-to-cafeteria movement.

3) What experience, person, or activity CHANGED YOU the most?

If there's someone or something that transformed you into the person you are, the admissions readers want to know! Did your relationship with your best friend teach you how to kindly disagree and stand up for yourself, and now you want to advocate for the environment? Did coping with your learning disability teach you that you can overcome any obstacle, and now you want to be a learning specialist yourself? Did taking acting classes teach you how to deal with uncertainty in life, and that you can only control the things within your power and should let go of the rest? If anything contributed to your personal philosophy, write it down!

4) What makes you YOU?

More than anything, admissions officers want to understand your heart and soul, the personality behind all the activities, grades, scores, and accomplishments—things that they just can't glean from the rest of your application. Are you likable, positive, and curious? Are you a person they'd want to have a conversation with? What type of roommate would you be, and who would they even match you with? And where do they see you participating in their campus community?

And you know how you can tell from a text message if someone was annoyed or joking? They might use different punctuation or put certain words in all-caps for emphasis. Well, admissions officers can tell from the tone of your essay—your VOICE, if you will—if you take yourself too seriously, are kind, funny, compassionate, self-aware, snarky, etc. So more than any facts you write in your essay, make it sound like YOU.

I hope you’re on your way to finding or tweaking your Common App essay topic, if you haven’t already. Sometimes, a little free advice (like this), is just the nudge you may need to start writing. Other times, you may still feel overwhelmed with how to package yourself to admissions officers. Luckily, I spend countless hours helping seniors and parents do just that. To find out how I can help bring out the real YOU in your Common App and supplemental essays, contact me here.