Admissions Essays
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Admissions Essays Blog
Through our very own editors and guest writers, this blog will discuss the INSIDE scoop on the admissions process of various schools and programs. If you wish to ask a specific question, please write to us, and we will make every attempt to address your questions in our future blog discussions.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The Mission Trip Essay
It's not often that radio shows trot out specials on college admission, but this week I found one. The interview was with an admissions officer at a big university in the Southeast. He talked about the eye-rolling essays, the eye-catching essays, and the essays that are just well, bad.

Somewhere along that spectrum is a theme. One that shows up so often, the admissions officers gave it a nickname. The Mission Trip essay.

It's that essay about the kid who takes a trip with a charity-often a church group-usually to somewhere in Central America. The take-away is invariably a truism about how they expect the trip to be about giving of themselves, but are surprised at how much they get back.

I chuckled.

I've read this essay myself. A lot. There's usually also something in there about learning to recognize privilege. Many of these kids were raised in middle class America. They've never seen a kid living in a shack. It is revelatory for them. Sadly, for readers, it's a cliche.

The problem for today's crop of high school seniors is that the admissions-process hamster wheel has been spinning in overdrive for a few decades now. The essay that got someone into college 20 years ago, has now been done and re-done a million times over. All the while, the stakes for "getting in" have gotten higher.

Today's kids need new material, but it isn't really fair of us to expect them to have any. Sure, parents these days are pushing their college-bound teenagers into more and more application-padding activities. But as that becomes the norm, so too will the Mission Trip Essay.

Colleges can't really have it both ways. Seventeen-year-olds have limited repertories. The message from the colleges is that they have to be unique, they need to have good grades, good test scores, good extracurriculars, and insightful essays. Maybe the kids are simply doing the best they can.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Changing Face of Business School Applicants
Think business school is all about finance and management? Well, sort of, but that doesn't mean the latest crop of incoming students are versed in any of those areas. Not exactly, anyhow.

Traditionally, students seeking graduate degrees in business come from parallel backgrounds. That is, their undergraduate or professional work tends to be in the areas of consulting, accounting, or general business administration. An MBA is an opportunity to round out their existing skills, or give them a leg up the corporate ladder.

A recent Kaplan Test Prep survey of over 140 business schools in the U.S. and Canada revealed a shift. For the 2013-2014 admissions cycle, more than half of the accepted students come from STEM backgrounds-that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

While it may be a notable change, it also makes sense. The tech industry is burgeoning. Graduates fluent in the languages of both business and technology have a real professional edge.

Some experts speculate the demographic shift may lead to more highly specialized graduate school programs, with finely honed professional trajectories. Certainly, the intellectual diversity will enrich the overall quality of the education. Arguably, by turning out students with a broader range of abilities, business schools can bolster their reputations as fertile professional training grounds.

Finally, opening up the channels between historically disparate fields like engineering and business may help the overall health of the schools' professional networks. Whatever the long-term effects, the trend is a reminder that business school--like the marketplace it feeds--is constantly evolving.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013
B-School Essay is No Place for Jargon
I want to start this post by promising to tread lightly on my soap box on this one. But please, business school candidates, consider my plea.

I do not have an MBA and have never entertained the idea of business school. I don't work in the "corporate" realm. This places me in the shoes of many, many admissions officers-even those reading your business school personal statement.

What this means is that I don't know what the phrases "supply-chain-management", "complex distribution channels", or "procurement" mean. Yes, I know the definitions of those words, but the phrases themselves land gently at my feet as I read them, and I'm really too apathetic to pick them up. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. If you don't care what I think, at least consider your reader.

It isn't that it's bad to "think outside the box", or leverage assets, or implement "best practices". It's that all of these phrases are bubble wrap. Their only function is to fill up space in the box and prevent your reader from seeing what's really inside the package.

I understand that many business schools ask about your real world experience. They also ask about your goals. I think it is possible to describe both without using corporate terminology. There's a place for "core competency" and "price points" (I guess), but what does either really say about you, your skills or your ambitions?

Sometimes I think b-school types just can't suffer the glittery sparkle of creative writing. Ok. You're taciturn. You loathe talking about yourself. You prize brevity above all else. Fine. Just don't let these qualities strip your essay of all vibrancy and life.

And please, please, don't substitute substance with jargon.

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Monday, November 18, 2013
Finding a Reason Not to Go to Law School
How about a thousand of them?

The Chicago Tribune reports that a local personal injury attorney Matthew Willens is launching an "Anything But Law School Graduate Scholarship", awarding $1,000 each year to students who pursue graduate studies in a non-legal realm. Publicity stunt? Sure. A thousand dollars a year might buy a grad student some textbooks. But his point is clear.

The legal job market is not improving. Law school applications were down 18% last year. Things are not better for newly minted lawyers. At least not generally speaking.

Is Willens going to turn the tide? Of course not. He is a practicing personal injury attorney (enter venomous internet snipes), and this will raise his profile. Publicly, he's trying to ward students off from the monumental investment in a law school education, given the diminishing returns in the current job market.

He's also making an economic point. If the supply of lawyers outweighs the demand for their services, well, then you have a bunch of unemployed lawyers. The remedy? Fewer lawyers. Go to grad school to do something else.

Each time this conversation bubbles to the surface, it's eventually followed by talk about how law schools can reverse the tide. Sure, leveling out the supply/demand balance will help. But how about better equipping law students to practice law?

Fresh out of law school law students have very few practical skills. Law firms that are bleeding money no longer want to take the several years required to train new associates. Why not churn out law students who have more to offer to the market, and right away?

Seems more effective than a $1,000 scholarship to another grad school, but, touche, Mr. Willens. You got us talking.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Colleges Look to Social Media to Vet Incoming Students
Some colleges use social media to vet students in the college admission process. Sometimes. And no one really knows why or how much. In fact, while many colleges admit to rejecting students based on negative social media profiles, some pay no attention to it at all.

The NY Times published a warning article on the subject this week which has gone fairly viral: NY Times . I couldn't help but wonder why this was so newsworthy, given that this isn't new news.

As usual, emotions seem to run hottest in the comments section.

Some people seem bothered that schools would reject students based on an offensive Twitter post, without first telling them. Like it's some kind of due process violation. It seems to me colleges have been rejecting students for years without ever having to divulge their reasons. The college admissions process has never been fully fair.

Another constitutional fear seems to be the potential restriction on free speech. Um, okay. Students should be allowed to post what they want on Facebook without fear of retribution from the college that hasn't yet accepted them. That's a little like streaking through Microsoft's boardroom for your interview, not getting the job, and then grumbling that the company's cramping your freedom of expression.

To me, the take-home message here is simple. If your college of choice is reading 80,000 applications for 10,000 spots, they probably don't have time to comb through your Twitter feed.

If you're applying somewhere smaller, maybe you take your beer bong pictures off your Facebook page. Will drunken pics hurt your chances of college admission? Who knows? I certainly can't think of a scenario where they'd help.

Finally? It's okay to be young and dumb. Sometimes that has consequences, and sometimes it doesn't. Growing up is about measuring those sorts of risks.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013
How Not to Waste Essay Time
I love unearthing good essay tips. As an editor, I'm constantly trying to reshape the feedback I give to students. How can I give a critique that is actually helpful? How can I articulate it when something just doesn't sound right?

Cruising the interwebs, I skidded over this gem from an educational consultant: many students waste too much time starting their engines. Yes. And yes. I feel strongly about this one because it is an easy trap. I trip over it each time I sit down to write a 300-word blog.

When I do it, it's because I don't really know what I want to write about. It's because I want to just get it done. It's because I haven't lassoed my "point" before I start typing. Students do this in admissions essays all the time.

Often times, students meander through several paragraphs of drivel before finally reaching their thematic destination in their second-to-last sentence. There's gooey center-it's just not in the right place.

I know, it's hard. You eat through your 500-word count limit by paragraph three. You don't want to trim any of that gold you've already written because it took forever to come up with it.

Dry as it sounds, I think the best antidote for the long warm-up is an outline. It doesn't have to be extensive. It's just your hook, your build-up, your little-anecdote, what-you-learned-from-it, and conclusion. Know what each of those components will be, before you start writing. Don't wait for divine inspiration.

But here's the thing. Each of those sections should have pretty equal weight. No one part is really more important than the next. You can't have a branch without a trunk. In a perfect world, you also write about the leaves. So before you start that admission essay, stop. Think. Sketch. Breathe. (Now, hurry up).

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Time to Give the Common App Some Competition?
It's been three weeks since healthcare.gov was rolled out, and things still aren't looking good. Glitches usually resolve quickly. Three weeks spells systemic problems, which calls for wide-scale solutions. And as John Dickerson of Slate noted yesterday, "It's hard to untangle Christmas lights by committee".

The Common Application should take note. With the Early Decision deadline of November 1st looming, the website is a mess. As if college applicants needed something else to worry about. Over the past two weeks, the website has been plagued with problems. Students are being double-charged for application fees. Applications are failing to submit, confirmations aren't coming, and web support is failing.

On its Facebook page, the Common Application has been posting daily updates on the system disruptions. They are being flooded with comments and complaints. People are not happy. Students and parents alike are not impressed with the Common App's slow and perhaps inept reactions to solving the problems. Lots of promises to fix, but no fixing.

In response, universities using the Common App have extended filing deadlines. Some have threatened to jump ship. In an application environment where the Common App is pretty much the only game in town, universities are starting to get a roaming eye.

Certainly, the government and private enterprises alike ran into broad operational problems. Part of their job is to learn how to allay the concerns of the public and how to remedy messes before the wake of destruction gets too unmanageable. But the consumer expectations in our internet society make all of us more impatient with imperfection. We're particularly peeved when we have to wait. This site took 7 1/2 second to load? Seriously? I don't have all day.

There's a lot of puffery without follow-through from agitated consumers. On my last international flight, for instance, I spent hours (literally), plotting my angry complaint letter to the airline for a litany of customer service offenses. By the time I got home, life got in the way, and I never sat down to write it.

Whether or not students or universities will be dissuaded from using the Common App long term-that's something that remains to be seen. But in an era when working websites are pretty darn important, it may be just the shake-up that's needed.

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Monday, October 14, 2013
Getting to the Specifics
Over the past decade or so, I've read a lot of admissions essays. Since they're required to conform to certain guidelines, they tend to have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The critique I find myself leveling more than any other? It sort of has to do with specifics. Each time I give this sort of feedback, I struggle with a better way to articulate it. The problem? "Be more specific" isn't terribly specific advice.

The thing is, many young high school writers get mired in generalizations. "Being a camp counselor taught me about life". "Becoming an Eagle Scout taught me about perseverance". "Art allows me to be myself". These statements aren't wrong-they just aren't interesting. More importantly, they aren't illustrative.

If these are the peaks in the topography of an admissions essay, they're doomed to a quick skim. Sometimes I can practically feel the reader slipping it into the "maybe/next time" pile.

Usually, I give examples to guide students. Instead of "My grandmother taught me everything about my Irish ancestry", try, "I can still smell my grandmother's fresh-baked soda bread. She'd never let us take a bite without a steaming mug of hot tea".

Recently, however, I stumbled across an expression I really like. "Transforming experiences into moments". (Credit to Carol Balash of the "Story to College" blog). Moments resonate with a reader. It gives your reader something visually tangible. They won't get that from, "Water polo taught me about teamwork", but they might remember the first time a student "wrung the water from my swimsuit after my first win". Water polo is the experience. The first win is the moment.

A good essay should be about an experience, but it should be comprised of a series of moments. That's what makes it personal. That's what makes it interesting. Is that specific enough?

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Looking Forward to a Few Good Essays
I don't recall whether it was high school or college or law school, but I do remember how I felt. My legs were heavy in my chair and my heart was racing. I tried to look stoic. Relaxed, even. The teacher was handing back graded essays.

I tried to gauge the faces of my classmates. Were they relieved? Unsurprised? Humiliated? Our professor was slapping the essays face down on each of our desks with a little too much force. Or maybe that was just my imagination.

I turned the corner of the essay over, in search of the scarlet letter. The memory again recedes.

Sometimes it was good news. Sometimes it was disappointing. But the teacher/professor's response was always the same. "I wanted these to be good. I really, really wanted you all to do well". Sure you did, I'd grumble inwardly. Sadist.

Now that I've been editing essays for over a decade, I get it. Every time I read a new one-especially by a young-high school student-I really want to like it. Really. I genuinely feel disappointed when I don't. It irritates me to have to critique them. I don't need it to be Pulitzer-Prize winning stuff. It just needs to be age-appropriately competent.

I'm assuming this is what admissions officers feel. Jaded, from reading too much mediocrity, for sure. But seriously craving some mind-blowing prose. Something hilarious, insightful, moving, clever, or genuinely unique.

I recently heard an admissions officer on an NPR show remark that about 1 out of every 20 essays he read was good. That's pretty pitiful. For all of us that hate standardized testing as a gauge of intellect and potential, it may be a good reminder of why colleges still rely so heavily on it as a measurement tool.

Just food for thought as you sit down at your keyboard.

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Monday, October 7, 2013
Are Colleges Asking for Too Much
French novelist Anatole France wrote: "An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't." What don't you know?

This was Brown University's Supplemental Essay prompt from a few years back. (All Brown applicants are also required to submit an essay through the Common Application). As a writer and an editor, I love this question. It is miles better than the describe-the-world-you-come-from blather offered by so many other schools.

Then again, I'm not really the target audience. For me, college was twenty-odd years ago. There's no way I can climb back inside my 17-year-old psyche and remember what it was that galvanized me in those days. I probably would've started to shut down as soon as my eyes grazed the "French novelist" portion of the prompt.

A recent Twittosphere blog took the position that colleges are asking for too much with prompts like these. And perhaps they are. College is supposed to be hard, but it is also supposed to be fun.

Maybe it says something about the company I keep, but most of my friends and I look back on those four (ish) years with nostalgia for the lifestyle. It is a coming-of-age epoch like no other. My memories aren't tied to senior year seminars but to the treasure chest of life experiences which seemed somehow richer and brighter then.

But like most challenges in life, it's easy to look back on them with a shrug. Getting into college these days is daunting. Maybe terrifying. So is it fair for colleges to expect adult-like essays from teenagers?

I say, why not? There is no right answer. If you're seventeen and you're applying to college, you need to at least know how to muse. Perhaps understanding what you don't know is the first step to a successful college career.

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Monday, September 30, 2013
Making Your Essay Dramatic
I still remember being seventeen. Well, pretty much. I loved to write, and back then, applying to college wasn't the Everest climb that it is these days. For a start, I only had to write one for most of the schools I applied to. Only the Stanfords were requiring supplementals, which now are standard.

In the intervening years, I've read and edited hundreds, if not thousands of essays. Most high school kids struggle with the same problem; they don't have anything dramatic to write about. I'll go out on a limb here to add that many (most?) kids applying to college are coming from pretty stable homes. So fortunately, their lives have been pretty bereft of extreme highs and lows.

To remedy this, many of these students dig into the well of accomplishments for essay fodder. So we read about winning the swim meet, volunteering in Venezuela, working as a camp counselor. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that most of those experiences will be listed elsewhere on the application.

If you run cross-country, you might not actually want to write about it. Doing so is a missed opportunity to reveal something else about your personality. Something that can't be distilled into one-word on the application packet.

Don't underestimate the power of simple observation. Think small. Write about a smile from a stranger on a crowded bus. Or the stifling heat in the kitchen at last year's Thanksgiving dinner. Why you hate sharing a room with your little sister. Nothing is uninteresting if it's helped you to notice something about yourself or your world.

Done well, an anecdote about a bratty sister will tell your reader a lot more about you than a rehash of your triumph at the spelling bee. It might also take some of the pressure off. You don't need to be the best at anything to get into college.

So trust that who you are and what you observe is enough. There's no need for drama.

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Monday, September 23, 2013
It's Time for Rankings, Again
The first week of September has zoomed past us and with it, a new set of rankings from the hallowed periodical, US News & World Report. It's the kind of news that tends to keep zooming past most of us. Fortunately, my alma mater gives me Facebook updates. And guess what? They're tied for #2 in some illustrious category.

So for a quick second, I feel a surge of pride. It may have been a couple of decades, but, dang, my school is IMPORTANT. It made me feel a little important. I kind of wanted it to be known that I was an alum. I almost even "liked" the picture on Facebook. Then reason brought me to a screeching halt.

The rankings are stacked on a house of cards! They are constructed from subjective data by a single magazine that has somehow picked up steam as the Most.Reliable.Source.Ever. (Too much Facebooking for me?)

Rankings are a cash cow for the universities. It is a marketing tool. It is not a set of objective metrics upon which hopeful students should base a significant life decision. My own alma mater managed to suck me into the vortex using a simple marketing strategy.

Over the past several years, colleges have proven that they will massage almost any data into something that will boost their rankings. They get it. Selecting a college is a tough decision. If you're doing it right, it involves a lot of research, campus visiting and soul-searching. If you're not up for all that, you just lean on the rankings. Colleges know that.

David Hawkins, Director of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, offered this (fantastic) quip: "Using "input" variables, like SAT/ACT scores, to assess a college's quality is like judging a person's character by the wealth of the people they associate with". See his entire op-ed here: US News

I agree, take a breath. Log out of Facebook, close the rankings page, and start looking for the college that's truly your match. That's where the hard work begins.

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Monday, September 16, 2013
Law Schools Accepting Fewer Students
The down turn in the legal job market, and its ripple effect on law school enrollment is not a new story. For the past several years, schools have watched helplessly as the number of LSAT takers and law school applicants have steadily declined.

Not surprisingly, law schools are responding by accepting fewer students. But why? What difference does it make to schools if their graduates can't find jobs? After all, law school is a business venture, and the greater the number of tuition checks, the better the bottom line.

A recent LA Times article quotes Dean Victor Gold of the Loyola School of Law in Southwestern Los Angeles. He refers to the school's "moral obligation" not to knowingly drain tuition money from law students in a bleak job market. But even Gold acknowledges that his school's decision to accept 5% fewer students in the 2013-2014 academic year also had to do with keeping up appearances.

Law students pick their schools based largely on national rank. A major metric considered by the ranking system is the number of graduates who are actually employed following graduation.

So it becomes a cost-benefit analysis for the law schools. Do you lose the tuition check today by turning away students, or do you lose it in the long run when your school drops in the rankings? At Loyola, the drop in enrollment of 20 students equals a loss of approximately $1 million. But last year, the school also dropped 17 places in the US News & World Report's rankings (from 51 to 68).

The net effect for law students is greater competition. Not only are there fewer available spaces, but there is also a greater incentive for law schools to matriculate students who are more likely to find work after graduation. Good for the overall market, but a tough pill to swallow for hopeful lawyers.

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Monday, September 9, 2013
Deciphering the Admissions Process
Let me deflate the balloon at the outset here-I don't have the answer. If this weren't such a loaded enigma, there would be no college consulting industry.

So for a hot second, I was intrigued to come across this from Yale University's Dean of Admissions, Asha Rangappa. Slate

In an apparent act of helpful humility, she notes that it's up to the admissions officers to "lift the veil" on the process. Super. Please do. But she doesn't, or can't. Yes, I understand that each application is so case-specific and subjective that there is no appropriate catch-all advice. Yes, she thinks college consulting is an overpriced scam. She offers a few tips, but nothing that isn't available from, ahem, a good college consultant.

She's read through more than 25,000 applications, so there's no question she has insight to offer. But she doesn't, or can't, or won't.

I've always wondered how the process really works, from start to finish. I don't mean platitudes like "we evaluate each application objectively and holistically". I mean, really, if a university gets tens of thousands of applicants, who sits down and reads all those essays? Grad students getting paid $10 an hour? Is there a round-table discussion of the good essays? Is there a trash-heap for bad essays? Is there a special trash-heap for bad essays written by students with perfect SAT scores?

Rangappa scoffs at the "rabid" competition, and snipes at the racket of college consulting, but what does she expect? The Ivies have admissions rates of around 6% and no one really knows why anyone actually makes the cut. Of course students are rabidly competitive. You think universities like Yale don't benefit from this desperation?

So the search for transparency continues. In the mean time students, be yourselves, be honest, and do whatever you need to do to feel empowered in this overwhelming process.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013
A Message for Parents of College Hopefuls
This is the sentence that first hooked me: "At the very moment when teenagers are invited to offer what they've learned and who they've become, their voices are hijacked by well-meaning adults who think kids can't possibly be allowed to risk answering these questions on their own".

This writer is a college consultant, and her entire article can be found here: Wall Street Journal

What a divine point. You've been preparing to go to college for years. You've invested time into school, sports, art, service, travel and living life. You've thought about where you want to go, and why. Now you're sitting down to chisel out a personal statement.

It may be one of the most important essays you ever write. And your parents don't want you to do it alone.

That might be wise. The stakes are much higher these days, and the coveted number of spots is fewer. But there's something to be said for the idea of hijacking a young voice. There's an innocence, a rawness, and an authenticity that a seventeen-year-old possesses, which most forty-year-olds no longer have.

How then, can an adult impose the filter of their own experiences on those of someone half their age? They can't, and letting go involves a certain leap of faith. I'm not sure I'll be able to do it by the time my kids apply.

Yet it's the risk itself that makes applying to (and attending) college such a pivotal experience. Perhaps the essay should reflect that. Which is to say, you can offer to help polish it, but the words-imperfect as they may be-need to come from your teenager's heart. The colleges can take it or leave it.

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Monday, August 26, 2013
Beware of Too Much Sincerity
Oscar Wilde quipped that "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal". No doubt, many of the admissions essays of our time would cause the great 19th century author to turn in his grave. Proof, perhaps, that society changes quickly, but human nature much less so.

Why?

Because most people can smell insincerity a mile away. And it isn't pretty. It offers a blueprint of a person who is, at worst, manipulative and at best, unimaginative. Neither are qualities very appealing in a student candidate.

You may have volunteered at the homeless shelter in order to pad your resume, but if you weren't really invested in the experience, that insincerity will come through in your writing. It's hard to write about personal growth in your admission essay if you really didn't have any.

Lack of introspection often comes across most painfully in those essays that attempt to wade into weightier emotional waters. I'm talking death of loved ones, siblings with disabilities. If you are going to tackle something serious like this, tread lightly on your words, unless you really mean it. This is sensitive stuff.

Frankly, if you are a writer prone to hyperbole, the admission-essay writing process could offer an important learning curve. There is almost never room for too much sincerity in any formal written work. You just don't need it. It isn't persuasive, it's distracting.

If you're trying too hard to wrench meaning from something insignificant, it will be obvious to your reader. Some of the most emotionally understated works of literature are the most moving. So think carefully about your tone as you set pen to paper.

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Monday, August 19, 2013
How to Really Get to Know a College Campus
This week HuffPost offered a tip-list for students planning to tour college campuses in preparation for application season.

I liked it, but couldn't help wanting to add a few thoughts of my own.

When I was in college, my school offered something called a Little Siblings Weekend. The name is pretty self-explanatory. Students living in the on-campus dorms could invited their younger siblings to stay with them for a weekend in order to get a flavor of college life. My brother, who is 9 years younger than me, took advantage of the occasion, and loved every minute of it.

When you're 11 years old (and perhaps older), the joy of the dorms is pretty simple. Stay up late. Play video games. Get fruit loops and hot chocolate down in the cafeteria. But truly, there's more. I took my brother with me to my classes. He did get a window into dorm life and life with actual college students. I took him to the sporting venues, the coffee shops, the massive library, the local college village.

Incidentally, he ultimately graduated from the same school as me. I don't attribute this to my skills as a tour guide. I do think that this early visit demystified the experience for him in a very palpable way.

HuffPost offers all the sage advice. Take the campus tour. Take notes. Pay attention to financial aid packages. The thing is, when I was 18, this stuff mattered less to me than the "feel" of a place. Research is important, for sure. But once you've narrowed down your choices using external metrics such as academics/affordability, you should really test-drive it.

Understand that a campus tour may not be enough to help you make that decision. You may not have a sibling to shack up with for the weekend, but get creative. See whether or not you'll be happy spending four years there.

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Monday, August 12, 2013
It's in the Details, Silly
If anyone ever asked me what my most frequent critique is, I would say this. Essays that don't actually say anything. That sounds unkind. What I mean to say is that many students get stuck in what I call the vortex of platitudes. They write an awful lot without saying much at all. This universal weakness makes sense to me. Students applying for an undergraduate degree are young. The college admission essay almost sets students up for failure by asking them to delve deep into a reservoir of life perspective and extricate something meaningful and compelling for show-and-tell.

For this reason, students get caught up in one of two categories. The first: cram-everything-I've-ever-done into 500 words. The second: write about my week at survival camp. Neither are complete recipes for disaster, if done well, but that's a tall order. But for those of you leaning towards option #2-remember this. No one wants to hear how survival camp made you a stronger person/stretched the limits of your perseverance/taught you how to appreciate your life opportunities. It isn't that these things aren't valid. It's just that they are too broad.

What you need to do instead is use them as paragraph starters. Survival camp made me a stronger person. As I grabbed onto the tattered orange rope and stepped onto the bridge, all I could think about were the jagged rocks in the water, 50 feet below.

This works for every subject. Maybe you're writing about your favorite cat Morris. Don't talk about how much he meant to you without also talking about the white goose-down masquerading as fur around his tiny claws.

People are drawn to visual imagery. You don't have to make a sweeping statement about the world around you. If you're stuck, focus on what you know, and how well you know it. You'll be surprised at how well the small things flow from your brain to the keyboard.

While this doesn't mean you should ignore the mechanics of structure and persuasive prose, it should help keep you on track for writing something that your reader will savor and remember.

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Monday, August 5, 2013
Is Getting into College the Hardest Part
A friend of mine is the mother of a 17-year-old high school senior. He's a talented musician. He's already taking college courses at the local community college. What's more, he's polite, driven, and focused on his future. So is she.

She is a single parent of an only child, which carries with it its own dynamic. She's managed to raise a strong, smart, ambitious child without much help from his father. Finances are tight, which is part of the reason she sees academic success as a road out for him. Right now, she's spending a fortune on a college consultant; she insists it's worth every penny.

According to her consultant--getting into college is harder than college itself.

Do some light reading on the college consulting industry and you'll find a million different perspectives. The most vociferous critics call it things like the New Snake Oil Industry. The middle ground says, if it gives you peace of mind, it's worth the money. Others, like my friend, say that advisers are the lifeblood of the process. Without them, you're just not getting in. I always like to think the truth is somewhere in the middle. You can do almost anything in life without a broker, so long as you do the research yourself. That doesn't mean that buying a house isn't easier if you use a real estate agent.

Is getting in the hardest part for the student or the parent? Is it intellectually challenging, or just a cruel battering of your nerves? Is it a non-issue if you can't afford it? I'm not sure there's a single answer for anyone. If it works for you, great. The fact is, admissions has become more challenging. There are people with varying degrees of knowledge of the process. If you chose your help wisely, the "getting in" part shouldn't be nearly as hard as being a college student.

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Monday, July 29, 2013
Unveiling of the Essay Topics
Forget the Royal Baby Watch. If you're a high school senior, summer is ready to come to a screeching halt in just a few short days.

Ok, not exactly. But it may be time to get your head back in the game. Kate and William will release the little prince's name, and your life will go on as normal. Then reality kicks in. School starts again in a month or so, but this year-your senior year-you have a few extra things on your plate.

Like your college applications.

They aren't due, of course, until Fall, which may feel light-years away. But the Common Application and many universities have their eyes squarely on the deadline. On August 1st, the Common App releases its essay questions for the 2014-2015 admissions cycle. Essay prompts from high profile colleges have begun to trickle out.

Bear in mind that even if your schools of choice use the Common App, they may also require the submission of supplemental essays. So even if you have no intention of hitting the keyboard until October, you should pay careful attention to what is required of you.

While some schools have attracted recent press for scaling back the essay requirements (Harvard eliminated it, Georgetown's MBA program is inviting a tweet alternative), the vast majority of them still want a good old-fashioned admission essay. Not many schools will ask you to spill 500 words about your favorite kind of mustard.

You're more likely to get a standard like this one from the UC: "Describe the world you come from -- for example, your family, community or school -- and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations."

It doesn't exactly get the creative juices flowing. And yet, in a few months' time, you need a good response. Starting early may not sound good, but it's a whole lot better than finishing late.

Just because it's summer, doesn't mean you shouldn't keep your eye on the ball.

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