Applying to college is a lot like paying your taxes. It's expensive, time-consuming, complicated and there are a lot of papers to juggle and forms to fill out. There's a lot of information about taxes, and deductions and withholding and stuff on the web, if you have time to read it, and if you have an interest. Some people genuinely enjoy the challenge of, or at least feel competent at, navigating the peculiarities of the US Tax Code. I am not one of those people. I keep all my receipts in a box and, once a year, I take the box to my accountant and say, "Here. Now go do that voodoo that you do so well!" (Bonus points if you can name that movie!)
As a college consultant, I am on the other side of that transaction. I'm the one who takes the papers (transcripts, extracurriculars, test scores, essay drafts) and does the voodoo that gets your son or daughter into the best fit college for him or her. Along the way, I form a relationship with your family that allows me to, among other things, make good suggestions about other schools that may interest your student, ways to handle financial aid if family finances change, pertinent deadlines, and ways to turn down the colleges who accepted you but you decided weren't the best fit. This is why I prefer to work with students and families from the junior year of high school or earlier.
Not all families need that level of service, though. Just like with taxes, some parents prefer to do most of the heavy-lifting themselves. For you DIYers, I offer this blog, this website, my Pinterest, Facebook page and Twitter feed, all about college and the college admissions process. I'm happy to answer questions that come in through any of those channels, as they come up. I'm also willing to do short-term, need-focused research and recommendations (college recommendations for special needs students, study skills or test prep evaluation, etc.) for a small fee.
The vision of Your College Your Way has nothing to do with making me rich and everything to do with getting students into post-secondary educations that excite them, educate them and help them grow. Unlike most college consultants, I'm a teacher. I'm all about the one-on-one connection that helps students succeed. Let me teach your teen how to be successful college student.
In the world of acronyms, the PSAT/NMSQT is the biggest mouthful. But what does it all mean?
The PSAT evolved as a practice version of the SAT, but now is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). Only juniors can take the NMSQT, so if you took the PSAT for practice as a sophomore, your scores were not forwarded to National Merit Scholarship Corp. even if you got a perfect score. You also cannot retake the PSAT/NMSQT, as it is only offered once a year. There are other versions of the PSAT: the PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT 10. They all test the same skills, but "in ways that are appropriate for your grade level," which means the questions are likely easier, and the high scores are not as high. These tests are also offered at different times through the school year.
Every year, the NMSC identifies about 16,000 National Merit semi-finalists on the basis of these test scores. To become one of 15,000 finalists, semi-finalists must submit grades, SAT scores and a school official's recommendation. About 8,200 finalists win scholarships from NMSC. Another 1,500 students who are not finalists also win special scholarships. [Source]
You can practice with sample SAT test questions online through Khan Academy. The SAT has the same format as PSAT but with more difficult questions, so practicing for the SAT might make you even better prepared. https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/new-sat/new-sat-tips-planning/new-sat-how-to-prep/a/full-length-psat-to-take-on-paper
You only get one shot at the NMSQT and it can mean considerable merit scholarship money at your colleges. Thus, it can only benefit you to put some work into preparing for it. This year, the PSAT/NMSQT will be administered on October 11 or October 25, 2017. It should be available at your school. Check with student services or your guidance counselor to find out about signing up. Taking the test will cost $15. Find out more about the PSAT on the College Board’s website by clicking the link or cut-and-pasting the URL into your search bar: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/taking-the-tests
Keep an open-mind and be willing to go outside your normal routine. When opportunities present themselves, take them. Is your school putting on a fundraiser of some sort? Get involved. Even if the cause is not inspiring to you, you may find that volunteering/working with people, fund-raising, getting out into the community, and/or making a difference do inspire. Is someone looking for a tutor in a subject you know well? Volunteer. You may discover a passion for teaching, or working with young (or adult or elderly or language-learning) students.
Are you a problem-solver? You don’t have to love education or public service to see a problem in your school or community and figure out how to fix it. One student recognized that the crowded halls at her school were causing kids to be late to class, and the crowds were caused by people on their phones. So she proposed a “texting lane” in the hallways, where the texters could stand still and the walkers could get where they were going.
Think about the classes you have taken or are taking now. What was it about your favorite classes that intrigued you? Would you like to go deeper into a historical time period or scientific concept? Would you like to do more creative writing or perhaps take music lessons? There are competitions for historical research, science fairs, magazines and newspapers that might accept poetry, many performance opportunities you could pursue.
What do you do for fun? How could you expand that activity? One student I worked with loved playing video games, so he proposed a video game review column to his local newspaper (when he was 15, coincidentally). His eventual college was so impressed, they mentioned the column when they were bragging on their new freshman class at the first day welcome assembly. Another student was intrigued by 3-D printing, so he taught himself how to use the software to create his own 3-D printed designs.
There are lots of things you can find that interest you enough to spend a significant amount of time doing them, if you look. You don’t have to find one single thing that you “love.” Just get out there and get interested in things.
Let me tell you a story:
I decided in 9th grade that Northwestern was the only school I wanted to attend. I wanted to be an actress and someone told me NU was the best undergrad program for acting (that didn’t require an audition). So the stakes for writing that essay were really high.
I put off writing the essay so long that my mother actually had to ground me to my room for three days to get me to write it. It took three days because I was completely blocked. The college essay is so intimidating—they’re going to judge me on this piece of writing alone!—and because it was my first choice school, I had built it up that much more in my mind. Total performance anxiety.
I couldn’t think of any way to begin and, this being the era before word processors were affordable, I wasn’t about to type multiple drafts of this thing, so I had to begin at the beginning. Finally, I decided I had to borrow an opening. I sat at the typewriter and wrote three words: (Get ready; you’re going to laugh.)
“Call me Ishmael.”
Yes, that just happened. But wait. I followed it up with literary gold:
“No, don’t. Well, you can, but I might not answer. My name is Lessa S and I’m the daughter of a contralto and an Irish tenor.”
The rest was some stream of consciousness BS that I don’t even remember. I typed one draft, showed it to no one (because I hadn’t left myself enough time and it was too personal, anyway), sealed it in the envelope and dropped it in the mail.
Now that I’m a college counselor, I am both amused and embarrassed by this story. I have no way of knowing if my essay hurt or helped me. Why it could have helped:
Someone stood up in committee and fought for me, maybe in spite of my essay. I had the equivalent of a 33 on the ACT, I had three APs at a time when most people had zero, I was in the top 10% of my really academically challenging high school class, and I wanted to be an actress. Not the typical academic profile of most of the theatre department. I was also economically diverse: I was raised by a single mother and almost a first generation college student (both parents had some college but neither had graduated at that point). Also, while NU was “impossible to get into” back then as well, at the time that meant they accepted 43% of their applicants, not 11%.
The moral of this story is this: Tell a story and leave your voice/personality in. Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy. But also excel academically and extracurricularly so they can’t deny you outright.
You know, the ones that make straight A’s in all upper-level classes, in “National Honor Society”, top-level band or orchestra, graduate at top of their class. What happens to these kids after high school or college? Do they end up being “average," or go on to be CEOs or high earners?
This depends quite a bit on what college the overachievers go to. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer who deals with math and social science, gave a really fascinating speech at the Zeitgeist Conference in 2013 that shows that being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a small fish in a big pond. He demonstrates that students in the top 5% of their class publish research at about the same rate (X papers per year) no matter whether they go to Harvard (which accepts only 5% of their applicants) or the University of Toronto, which accepts 82% of their applicants. Students at the bottom of the class at Harvard are no more successful than students at the bottom of their class at the University of Toronto.
This means that the smart overachiever types who go to Harvard are more likely than not to consider themselves not-so-smart and not-so-overachievers once they get there, and this change in their perspective follows them for the rest of their lives. These students often get what is call “imposter syndrome,” because they begin to believe that, no matter how much they have accomplished in their lives, there is always someone way smarter and more accomplished than they are. Imposter syndrome is the more dangerous cousin of humility. Obviously, we don’t want everyone to believe they are the smartest person in the room. Those people can be insufferable. Nor do we want people to feel like everything they’ve accomplished is a fluke and sooner or later people will realize they’ve been faking all along. Imposter syndrome can lead to depression and anxiety—like the epidemics of depression and anxiety we currently have.
So that’s one thing that can happen to those smart overachievers. I have yet to meet a smart overachiever type who didn’t have a crisis of self-confidence in college.
Some obviously go on to great things, but as often as not, those CEOs of multimillion dollar companies and governmental leaders did not go to the super-elite colleges. This doesn’t mean they weren’t smart or overachievers. Condeleeza Rice is a classic smart overachiever type who went on to be Secretary of State. She attended the University of Denver and overachieved there, too. ;-)
But if you think in terms of pure numbers, there are something like 40,000 high school valedictorians graduating every year. There are 4,000 seats for freshman in the Ivy League; say 10K seats for freshmen if we count all the highly-selective colleges in the country. This means that only one out of every ten valedictorians will be able to attend a highly-selective college (really less than that because some of those seats go to non-valedictorians). Multimillion dollar corporations only need one CEO a piece, when there are more and more amazing graduates coming into the job market every year. It’s just not numerically possible for every smart overachiever-type to be a famous highly-financially-successful-type person after graduation.
Does this mean they’re average? That depends on what your definitions of “success” and “normal” are. Many people choose to step off the “success” treadmill for one reason or another. They want work/life balance, or to be their own boss, or to do something outside the mainstream. I would argue that this does not mean they’re more or less successful than normal. But I think it’s a good idea for us to stop encouraging our teens to be overachievers and instead support them in finding and following their interests. Being happy and fulfilled is more important than “achieving” as far as I’m concerned.
 Malcolm Gladwell - Zeitgeist Americas 2013
Why do colleges care how well you can write an essay? You can be a great student but one of your biggest weaknesses are essays. Obviously if you hate essays, you aren't going to have a career that deals heavily in essay writing. Why single someone out like this? Can't they have alternative options?
The essay in the college application is only tangentially related to how well you can write an essay. The essay is your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee and make your case. Many admissions officers I’ve spoken to have said they like to leave the essay for last, so the student has the last word. (Although some prefer to read the essays first, before they’ve formed an opinion. This is subjective.)
The rest of your application is everyone else’s opinion of who you are and what you are capable of. The transcript and test scores put numbers to your ability, curiosity and drive. Your recommendations give the opinion of your counselor, teacher or other adults. Only your essay answers tell them who you think you are.
Why do they want to know who you are? They’re trying to figure out who you would be on campus. They ask about extracurriculars to find out how you are likely to participate in campus life. They ask for test scores and transcripts to find out whether you are likely to be successful on their campus and come back for sophomore year. They ask for recommendations from your teachers to find out what you will be like in the classroom, and whether the faculty will be glad to have you in their classes. Will you be a good leader, a good roommate and someone they will be proud to have their name attached to after you graduate.
Think of the essay not as a writing assignment, but as a written interview. The interviewer has just asked you “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” (Common App essay #6)
Instead of feeling put on the spot, you have a chance to think carefully about your answer, and get some feedback from others about what you want to say and how you want to say it before you respond. This never happens in an interview! Embrace this opportunity to tell a story about who you are on the inside, and what is important to you and why. Then you’ll do just fine.
Other ways to show you don’t care: submitting right at the deadline (or even late), accidentally naming the wrong school in your essay (i.e. telling Lehigh you’ve always wanted to go to Penn). It used to be that not listing the school first on your FAFSA signaled lesser interest but the FAFSA reporting form was recently changed so it no longer sends your complete list of schools to each school. Thank goodness.
Whether you decide to stay on the waitlist is up to you. If Penn is your first choice, I wouldn’t bother with the others. Even for students who are waitlisted at their first choice, I counsel them to find the best fit college that accepted them and move on. Sitting on the waitlist just drags out the process even longer (often through the summer) and very few students get off the list anyway. Here are some ideas for what you can do if you decide to stay on the waitlist.
There are five huge changes to college admissions for the Class of 2017.
1. Standardized testing--as you probably already know, the SAT has completely revised their test, not just the questions but the whole format. For example, students no longer lose 1/4 point for wrong answers (often call the guessing penalty). So guess away! The ACT has changed significantly in the last year as well, but they did it kind of undercover. You now will have a "paired passage" as one of the four reading passages, where you not only have to demonstrate comprehension, but also the ability to compare and contrast the passages and their perspectives. The ACT writing test has been completely revamped. Instead of a five-paragraph persuasive essay, students are now asked to evaluate three different perspectives on an issue, determine their own perspective on the issue and then write a persuasive essay comparing and contrasting all of them. It sounds more difficult, but actually the new essay is considerably more formulaic, so I think it's easier.
2. Test prep--Free or almost free test prep is now available for both the ACT (in partnership with Kaplan) and SAT (in partnership with Khan Academy) to anyone who is willing to put in the work. This is huge.
3. Applications--There's a new application on the scene: the Coalition App. This application complements the Common App and the Universal App. Most of the Coalition members will continue to accept the Common App and Universal App and, since this application is new, there are bound to be some bugs in it this year. Learn more about it at Coalition for Access & Affordability.
4. Common Application--The Common App has changed their policy to allow students not in their senior year of high school to begin working on their applications at any time. They used to purge all data on August 1. Now, if you've registered as something other than a graduating senior, your data will stay in your account. This is pretty great because it means that you can begin your applications before August 1, when you may have more time to work at it little-by-little.
5. Financial Aid--The federal government is changing their process for determining financial aid eligibility. For the Class of 2016, students had to apply to colleges in the fall, then wait until February or March for their parents to complete their prior year (2015) taxes before they could file the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Schools provide net price calculators to help applicants see how much they are likely to have to pay for each individual school, but filling them out is a tedious process. Now the government has moved to a prior-prior year standard. That means that the 2015 taxes can be used to determine federal student aid eligibility starting in October of 2016 for the 2017-2018 school year. This change effects all students who have to fill out the FAFSA, but benefits the Class of 2017 the most, because they will be the first class in history to know what their expected family contribution will be BEFORE they choose which schools to apply to. No more shooting for the moon and then finding out later that you can't afford it.
Keep your eyes and ears open as these changes are implemented over the summer. It's going to be a great application cycle!
This answer was originally published on Quora on May 7, 2016. Follow me on Quora for more great content!
I think you already know the answer. Desperation is never healthy for you and, as in most cases, can blind you to the bad fit between you and the object of your affection. The reality is that there are numerous best fit colleges out there for you. You can be amazing and have a wonderful experience at all of them. If you feel you have to change yourself to be accepted anywhere: at a particular college, in a group in high school, with “friends”, that’s a clue that being in that place, with those people, is not right for you. You know this deep down, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking this question.
Just like with friends, your best college is one that is excited about you as you are about them. You are an amazing human being. You’re smart and you’re motivated (otherwise you wouldn’t even be considering MIT). You have a lot to contribute to make the world a better place (otherwise you wouldn’t be participating in extracurriculars). You need to be you, and let the colleges come calling.
So to stop obsessing about MIT (you don’t have to forget about them completely but do stop obsessing), and start looking for other colleges that have what you want from MIT. Want to go to school in Boston? There are LOTS of colleges there. Want an engineering school? There are plenty of those across the country as well. Want a school with a famous name—well, that’s going to be harder, unless you already have a famous name, too. (Like Malia Obama or Emma Watson, who could literally apply to any college and be accepted.) The more colleges you learn about, the less you will obsess about a particular college or “League.”
Take a look at the Colleges That Change Lives (ctcl.org). This is a group of small liberal arts colleges that focus on undergraduate teaching. You will get a great student-focused education at any of those. Visit the College Board’s Big Future site and use their “college search” function to find colleges you’ve never heard of that fit your criteria. Create an account at Raise Me, and find out how much merit aid you have already earned at lots of different colleges, and then investigate them. Talk to your school counselor or independent counselor about creating a college list that fits you.
TL;dr Don’t change yourself for anyone. You are perfect the way you are, and there are a bunch of colleges out there that will think so, too!
This answer was first published on Quora on June 19, 2016. Follow me on Quora for more great content!
Lessa Scherrer is an college admissions consultant who has worked with college-bound students for many years. She is a member of NACAC and WACAC and also teaches ACT Prep, speed-reading, college study skills and college-level writing.
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