The following was posted on 10/13/20 on the academic test prep site,


Back in 1981, The Clash asked a timeless question, a version of which a lot of college students are asking themselves in 2020: Is now the right time to go to grad school? COVID-19 has upended all the conventional wisdom about when, how, and why to apply to graduate school. Here are the three most important things you need to know as you consider applying to professional graduate schools like law, medical and business school, during a pandemic.

1. Hiding out is not a reason to go to graduate school

If you are considering graduate school out of fear of the future, then your entire candidacy is going to be drenched in fear. Flip the narrative and focus on finding a proactive reason for applying to graduate school that has to do with you and your goals, not a reactive one that is responding to a moment in time. 

We are living in a pivotal time for education, where politics, law, healthcare, finance and business, and religion can come together to solve problems. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it best: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” If graduate admissions seeks to do one thing at its core, it is to take your measure, thus your search should start by taking measure of yourself and your goals.

So, the first step to this whole process is to do some personal reflection and find out where the idea of going to graduate school is coming from.

Take this test:

  • Are you in college and fear your job recruiting prospects?
  • Has your job search come up empty? 
  • Did you recently get furloughed or lose your job?

If you said yes to any of these questions, you have a great reason to be considering graduate school right now. But none of these reasons would be compelling to a graduate school admissions committee. You need a proactive, confident, vision-based foundation to your candidacy. That is the key to the kingdom and lies at the heart of the “personal statement,” “goals essay,” or “academic statement of purpose” asked by every flavor of graduate school. 

Personal statements (or the “goals essay” or “academic statement of purpose”) are the foundation of your entire candidacy. They sum up who you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. Here are some examples of great “vision-based” reasons for attending professional school programs you might be considering:

  • Business school: I want to transform the business climate and policy around the adoption of clean-energy incentives.
  • Law school: Teach for America taught me how wealthy versus poor parents gain access to Individualized Education Plans, and I want to advocate for people who can’t afford the support of traditional law firms.
  • Film school: Netflix has created a new platform for telling highly personal stories that would never make it on broadcast television; I want to learn how to tell stories of people and communities that have been marginalized until now.
  • Medical school: Bioinformatics and data analytics are the future of medicine; I want to combine my engineering degree with new technologies to advance how telemedicine can be used as a more powerful tool.

2. Ask for recommendations early

Everyone loves being asked to write a recommendation…but nobody actually enjoys writing them. COVID-19 has made asking for recommendations harder than ever, because you might not be physically near your recommender. A year ago, you would have swung by your favorite professor’s office or your supervisor’s desk to have a quick chat about why you would be honored for their letter of recommendation. You would start a dialog about your deadline for the letters, negotiate some qualities or attributes to highlight, and remind them of great moments in your history on the job or in the class. 

Nowadays, your exposure to your professor or supervisor may be limited to Zoom calls, texts, and emails. These media are very impersonal, easy to ignore, and tempting to put off. You should lock down your recommenders as soon as possible, anticipating a longer-than-usual turnaround time. Your recommenders are stretched to the limit, learning how to navigate this new world (whether it’s professors creating tech-friendly curricula or bosses who are understaffed due to furlough). Build in extra time and plan to send a gentle reminder or two (and, of course, a genuine thanks when the letter is in). 

But there’s a catch. By this point in the game in a ‘normal’ year, most graduate schools would have already released applications for fall 2021 admissions; this year, however, many are very behind in releasing applications. If you want to initiate the recommendation process but you have no active application to link your recommender to, there is an excellent service called Interfolio Dossier. You can create an account there, invite your recommenders to submit their recommendation into the Dossier, and then connect the Dossier to your application form when it comes out. There’s an added benefit: The Dossier will store the recommendation for as long as you keep an account active—which means you can use the same letter if you need to reapply or if you need a letter for a Fellowship or Scholarship application after you are accepted. 

3. Extracurriculars still matter – even if they are only online

The fundamental question behind every application for admission is, Who are you? Admissions committees want to know what you value and what kind of contribution you want to make. Your community service, campus/workplace leadership, and personal interests paint a picture of who you are. They are vital components of your narrative.

Graduate schools want to fill a class with people who are agents of change. While college is often a time of exploration, graduate school is all about focus and making an impact. So, if you have been waiting out the virus, now is the time to find a way to get to work demonstrating that a global pandemic will not get in the way of your goals.

Sitting on the sidelines is also just plain bad for your psyche. A University of Idaho study released in September found that getting off your couch is good for your mental health. “Fear surrounding COVID-19 largely predicted negative psychological health and was significantly correlated with PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety and stress,” said Clarissa Richardson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Idaho’s Department of Psychology and Communication Studies. 

We have heard students complain that their hands are tied during this time, when most organizations have closed their doors. Your job is to find a creative way to open those doors, or create doors of your own. If our college-bound high school students can create a food drive for the homebound, or can gather all their friends to tutor elementary school kids learning at home, then imagine what you can do with your extra wisdom, maturity, and experience. 

There are a million platforms to find online volunteer activities. Here are a few of the best:

You need to be confident, decisive, proactive, mission-driven, and vision-based in your application to graduate school. Manage the process the way you manage your life, and don’t let fear drive you. You are going to do an amazing job.

What follows is a transcript of an important conversation I had earlier today about registering for the ACT next week (week of July 27, 2020) with one of the most highly respected test-prep CEOs, Sean Quinn, of Onsen Education.

Sean: I totally understand the anxiety about registering for the ACT, especially this year, but relax. Everything’s going to be okay.

Auntie: Okay??? Are you joking? Nothing about testing under Covid-19 is OKAY!!!

Sean: The ACT has announced that it opens registration the last week of July (the week of July 27th), but they haven't confirmed an exact day/time on their website. So make sure you and your parents are signed up to get an email alert from this link: When the ACT does open registration, you and your parents will receive an email notification (not a text, #Snowflakes!).

Auntie: Wow. Thanks, Sean. I think that—

Sean: Auntie, stop interrupting. There’s more.

Auntie: Ouch!

Sean: First, Auntie, students’ phones and their parents’ phones should be set up to receive email alerts. (You should do it too, Auntie.) Second, pay attention to any communication that lands in your Inbox with the word "ACT" or comes from Third: Even without receiving an email from the ACTin the rare case that the email alert is delayedcontinue to check the ACT website for registration twice a day, every day, starting Monday, July 27—once in the morning around 9am, and once in the afternoon around 4 or 5pm.

Auntie: What do we do once we get the email alert?

Sean: Head directly to the ACT registration website and register as soon as you can for the dates that most interest you! The dates are listed below. Onsen Education generally recommends that current applicants register for one in September and one in October. And by the way, students should ask themselves, “Do I really need to take the test now?” If you’re a rising junior, for example, you might get some really good karma if you step aside and let the rising seniors take first shot at registering. Rising sophomores, definitely step aside.

Auntie: What if the date I want is already booked?

Sean: Not to worry—the ACT has effectively added 5 test dates this year, for a total of 7 possibilities between September and October. Of course, you may have to try all week long! The server will be congested and likely to go down multiple times. Don't give up! 



    • Saturday, September 12 
    • Sunday, September 13 
    • Saturday, September 19 


    • Saturday, October 10
    • Saturday, October 17
    • Saturday, October 24
    • Sunday, October 25 

Auntie: Thanks, Sean. You are amazing, Thanks for taking the time today to answer my questions. I am sure there are many of my colleagues and students who have found your words very calming and your instructions easy to follow. Please send us more photos of your munchkin toddler, Cala.

Any have any other questions? Please feel free to contact Sean at or 443-631-3338, or contact Forster-Thomas or 212-741-9090.

The 2020-2021 Common Application questions for college have been released!  The College Board now updates prompts every two years instead of every year, giving them more time to evaluate feedback from students and educators. Therefore, the prompts and word counts are the same as last year.

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.


1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Read this prompt carefully.  This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong.  Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2.  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The common App has softened this prompt, perhaps after a bunch of complaints of being triggered by even thinking about past failures … 😊  So now, you can write about a challenge, setback or failure. But guess what – you should still write about a failure. If you don’t feel up to it, or don’t think you have a strong failure to discuss, then call us. But seriously, if you don’t have a strong failure, you should pick another prompt, you certainly have plenty to choose between.

OTOH, if you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression.  Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay?  We cover this at length in our MBA admissions book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about.  The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute.  It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance).  You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here! 

3.  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application.  This, too, has been weasel-worded down to a softer “questioned or challenged”, but your story about that time you asked the teacher if you really had to sit at the front of the class all year is NOT good essay material, trust us.

If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt.  If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt.  Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive.  This is the wrong approach. The question-writers are giving you a very big clue when they ask you to describe what prompted your thinking – they want to understand how your mind works. The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4.  Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth.  There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly.  But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience!  Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts.  Worked on a social issue overseas?  Spent eight months living with the Amish?  Shadowed a researcher at CERN?  This could be your prompt.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well.  No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest!  Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important.  It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only.  In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it became a period of maturation.

It’s also worth noting the emphasis on understanding others. Surprising or difficult events often deepen our ability to empathize with others’ struggles – if you have a story that involves learning to see the world in a new way, this could well be your prompt.

6. 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? 

This prompt is for those of you who are just 100 percent not comfortable talking about yourselves in any way, shape or form. Now, before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush off to write yet another paean to microbiomes or Martin Luther King, let us insert a caveat. This is usually the wrong kind of prompt to choose. For most people, most of the time, you’re going to get an essay that’s dry, technical, and reveals nothing about the candidate – in other words, a waste of word count.

In order to write a good essay about an idea or concept, you have to loop in … feelings!  Yours and others.  Talk about the people who share your passion, or the ones who inspired it. Talk about the key moments in the development of your favorite obsession – how did it all begin, where do you see it going?  Relate it back to larger themes in your life. How has this experience helped you to grow and mature?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

This is what we call an open-ended prompt. You can do whatever you want with it, which most folks find utterly terrifying. Not to worry – this should really be a last resort prompt if you have a fantastic essay already written that just doesn’t seem to fit any of the other prompts.

The Covid-19 Question

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.


So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!


There is a famous quote from the poet Robert Burns, paraphrased thusly -- "The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray."  That's certainly how it works when it comes to your essays. You may think that you have an unstoppably brilliant idea, only to sit down and find that you can't actually write a word of it!  Or perhaps, you've got too many ideas (and you know it), but narrowing the field is proving nearly impossible. Or perhaps you're going through the umpteenth tweaking of your essay -- you've changed the "the" to "as", then back to "the" again, about fifteen times at this point. Only to finally, depressingly conclude that you just can't make this essay work. It just won't click.

You have three choices: one, you can forge ahead with an essay you know isn't your best. Obviously, we don't recommend that. Two, you can give up, curl up in a ball and cry. Satisfying, sure, but it doesn't get you any closer to your goal. Or three -- you can start your essay over from scratch.

Assuming you're on board and ready to start over again, here's the process you need to run through.

What was it that you fundamentally were not getting from the previous draft?  Was it a feeling, an idea, a sense of cohesion? What is the number one thing you need to focus on? Make sure it's only one -- the last thing you want is to try to fix everything, you'll end up right back where you started.

What is the simplest, best possible version of yourself that addresses this issue?  Say, for example, you're trying to make a school understand how sensitive and thoughtful you are. Maybe you want to write about the charity you created devoted to animal welfare, or the shelf full of paperback romance novels you've read over and over again. Well, maybe not that second one. :)

Forget about getting it right -- just write. When starting over, it's especially important not to get bogged down in first draft perfectionist syndrome. Instead, just tell the story to the best of your ability, set it aside for a couple of days, then return to it with fresh eyes.

So that's it!  3 simple steps and you'll be well on your way to (re)writing the essay of your dreams!  And if you have questions about how to proceed, give us a call.

Well, here you are again, Last Minute Larry. You can't claim innocence -- as usual, you did it to yourself. The deadline you've been dreading is now staring you in the face, and it ain't pretty. On the contrary, it's terrifying. And that big blank white computer screen isn't going to fill itself with words. So what do you do?

Whether you've got a week, a day, or only an hour, here's a simple plan to help you make the most of the time you have left and put your best foot forward.

STEP ONE -- FORGIVE AND FORGET. Yes, you are a bad, bad boy or girl or genderfluid person. Naughty, no biscuit. But forget that noise, because the cycle of self-recrimination and avoidance is what got you here in the first place. You need to forgive yourself for the past, and forget everything but what's in front of you right now. Write it down so you won't forget. X minutes to midnight. Time to get serious.

STEP TWO -- SHUT OUT DISTRACTIONS. I know, I know, you're busy like Lady GaGa. You got so much going on right now it's not even funny. Well you know what would be really funny?  You missing that deadline and having to explain to your parents why you're not going to college/grad school this year. I'd enjoy being a fly on the wall for that conversation, because yes, I'm jaded like that. So lock the door, kick out your cat, shut down your Insta feed and get to work already.

STEP THREE -- WRITE VERY BADLY. Yes, you're a brilliant, clever perfect person who must always and forever be admired. But forget that salient fact for just a minute. Because right at this moment, "you" are a space where some words should be. And it's time to fill that space with words. And no, they're not going to be the best words. In fact, they might be some of the worst words. But that's OK. Because you have to start somewhere, which is exactly what you've failed to do up until this point.

STEP FOUR -- FINISH WITHOUT SELF-CRITIQUE. Write the whole thing, right now, don't stop, don't think, just write.

STEP FIVE -- SHUT DOWN AND WALK AWAY. Go have fun, have a snack. Now, if the worst happens, you can hit submit. Even though you probably wouldn't want to.

STEP SIX -- COME BACK FRESH AND IMPROVE. Come back when you're refreshed and read your bad words. Now it is OK to be a judge, but try to come with solutions, not problems. Say -- I think I could tweak this. I think I can punch up that. Not -- I hate myself and this is so bad.

STEP SEVEN -- FIRE AND FORGET. OK, you've revised, it's 10 minutes to the deadline. Time to send it off and forget about it. I know, now that it's been rattling around in your brain because of how long you spent NOT doing it, that might be tough. But just remember you did the best job YOU were capable of doing AT THIS TIME. And that's always enough. Next time, perhaps, you'll be better. Or maybe you'll be worse.

Good luck!

PS: If you procrastinate and you know it -- maybe get some professional help with that.

Photo by Dinesh Raj Goomani

Often, people are surprised when we suggest they write about their Greek experience in a graduate school admissions essay. After all, they reason, there's nothing academically impressive about kegstands and hazing rituals, is there?

Well, if you're letting Animal House cliches blind you to the wide range of fraternity experiences, maybe it's time you re-examined the role of Greek life on a modern campus. Aside from their social functions, fraternities and sororities also do charity work, balance budgets, provide professional training, create and host events and elect leaders, fundraise and recruit. The leadership and organizational challenges encompassed in actually running the day-to-day business of a fraternity is not all that different from running a law office, medical office or managing a division of a business. You need to be persuasive, persistent, innovative and able to work with a wide range of personalities and ideas.

As you already know -- because as a fraternity brother or sorority sister, particularly if you assumed any kind of leadership role, you have been responsible for many or all of these challenges.

Now, do you see how this might become MBA, JD or even MD application essay material?

No one is saying that acting as the social chair of a fraternity is a comparable level of responsibility to, say, CFOing a company. But most twenty-two to twenty-seven-year-olds applying to graduate school haven't been given much professional responsibility yet. Rather than writing about being a tiny cog in a big machine, filing away papers and earning somebody else lots of money, write about the personal challenges involved in persuading alumni to donate $100,000 to keep the lights on, or getting fifteen to twenty people to agree on the theme for an event. Admissions officers will learn a lot more about you that way.

In no way are we endorsing the idea that you should ignore your professional experience when applying for a professional degree!  But you might need to supplement your professional experience with other areas of your life where you had more authority, and fraternities are a great one to consider.
If you're interested in learning more about possible topics and how to write amazing essays, give us a call, we'll be happy to walk you through the process in detail.

The college admissions process is stressful in so many different ways. One of the biggest challenges for many college students is the sudden pressure to decide what they're going to pursue as a career. After all, students are quick to point out, I haven't really had a chance to try many things -- or maybe anything at all!  Why are schools asking me in supplemental essays what I want to study, and what I want to do with my life?  Is this some kind of test?

No, it's not a test. And no, you do NOT have to have, at age eighteen, a clear and firm idea of what kind of work you want to do after graduating. That said, for certain disciplines, it can be very helpful to have a general sense of what interests you, and which direction you want to take your career. 

But it's important to remember that nothing is final!  Just because you write about something in an admissions essay, or talk about it to an admissions officer, doesn't mean you're 'locked in' -- you always have the right to change your mind!


Here are a few common career paths we encounter at Forster-Thomas, including our advice on each.

IF YOU PLAN TO BE A DOCTOR, you need to start laying the groundwork even before applying to college. Medical school is unbelievably competitive, and most successful candidates are already shadowing and taking relevant coursework at sixteen or seventeen years old. If you're in this camp and applying to college, it's a good idea to let your school know what you're planning to do.

IF YOU PLAN TO BE A LAWYER, don't go into too much detail about it during your undergraduate application process. Express a general interest in law and justice, but leave it at that. And don't pursue pre-law as a major, it generally works against you, rather than for you. Philosophy, engineering and various liberal arts degrees are the most common feeders into law school.

IF YOU PLAN TO GO INTO BUSINESS, again, you don't need to go into very much detail while applying, nor do you need to write about what kind of business you want to pursue. It might be a good idea to join relevant clubs and fraternities shortly after getting on campus, though, since networks make business careers.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE ARTS, study whatever you like, BA or BFA, but create lots of really good work while you're in college, and take internships as a way to shake hands and start meeting people in your target industry. For classical musicians and theater types, there is some advantage to pursuing relevant BFA programs, although it is not decisive, and certain film BFA programs also confer professional advantages.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN STEM, the proof will largely be in your academic prowess and the history of things you have created and made, competitions entered, et cetera. These are very hierarchical, grade-focused fields, and so it helps to specialize early.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN A TRADE, such as ELECTRICIAN, PLUMBER or AUTO REPAIRMAN, your career path may not involve college at all. In that case, you definitely want to have a pretty clear idea of which trade you'd like to pursue and why you'll be good at it, since you'll probably have to spend a decent chunk of money on training, and it won't be transferable to any other profession.

IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DO AT ALL, you should start to try and figure it out. Undecided is OK, clueless is not. Narrow it down to three or four possible paths, without attempting to eliminate any, prioritize any, or choose between them.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN ANY OTHER CAREER, write briefly about it while applying, and indicate a relevant major preference if you have one. But don't get too specific, and be open to other possibilities that may arise along the way.

Need help crafting great college essays?  Let us know!


"Harvard is my top choice, but I have decided I'm willing to settle for U.Penn."
AKA, how to create a college application list that doesn't suck.

So, you've begun the college application process! Congratulations!

You're thrilled with your grades, proud of your SAT/ACT score, satisfied with your complement of extracurriculars. And now, you're hunting for a school that offers a good complement to your skills and temperament. Of course, your parents are 100 percent behind you -- they don't care about the status symbol of a brand-name on their bumper sticker. Why, just the other day Mom said, "Wherever you think you're going to thrive, honey, we're behind you all the way. Even if it's community college." 

After extensive research, carefully comparing schools, weighing the professors and extracurriculars they offer, refusing to get distracted by celebrity alumni or vague rumors of 'networks', you are ready -- not to choose, but to apply. You know, of course, that the final choice will come further down the line, but you're confident that you will have good options to choose from, since you have applied to a wide range of programs. Now, everything is taken care of. There's nothing to do but fill out the applications and wait, calmly and patiently, for your answers.

Sounds great, doesn't it?  The above is a perfectly accurate description of ZERO PEOPLE'S COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS. In fact, here's what you're going through right now --

* You're behind on everything. Not just on your applications themselves. Everything. You haven't showered in a week. You're eating takeout and you're not even sure what week it's from.
* Every campus tour is turning into a pitched battle. This one has a bad location. That one just didn't seem very accommodating. The other one doesn't have good 'career options'.
* People you haven't spoken to in years are coming out of the woodwork to jam their oars into the process. "You know, you should really think about Cornell. It's so easy to get in there. What do you mean it's changed since I applied 30 years ago?"
* You can't seem to get a handle on the basic facts and differences between schools. How are you supposed to know what's marketing and what's real?

Welcome to your personal Hell -- college applications.

On this site, we have covered many aspects of the college application process in detail, but one thing we haven't written much about is creating a school list. This is your master list of places you will apply, and everybody needs one (even you!).

The reason we haven't written much about it is that it is (or should be) a very personal, non-cookie-cutter process. It is impossible to come up with a great school list without carefully analyzing who you're creating it for. That said, there are a few rules of thumb we can share to help you avoid the nightmare scenario -- not getting in anywhere you actually want to go.

RULE ONE: Spend 4x as much time researching and applying to safeties as reaches, and apply to at least three THAT YOU WOULD ACTUALLY WANT TO ATTEND.  People hate this rule. Nobody likes thinking about their third, fifth or seventh choice school. But a great safety list = a great school list. And the fact is, everybody already knows about your reaches, including you. They're the same as everybody else's reaches. But no two applicants' safety lists are identical, because different 'safety' schools are strong in different areas. Safety schools force you to sort out your priorities. Posit that you can't have everything -- what's the one thing you can't live without?  Location, school size, academic rigor?

RULE TWO: Apply to AT LEAST 10 schools. You only go through this process once, and the entire point is to give yourself options. Research until you come up with at least ten schools that excite you.

RULE THREE: Understand what differentiates the schools on your list from one another. No two schools have the same strengths or weaknesses. If you follow the above instructions, you're going to have options. So plan out how you would spend four years at each school you're considering. How would you fulfill your academic needs? What social opportunities on campus look promising?

RULE FOUR: Avoid early decision unless you're SURE that's the school you want. There are strategic advantages to ED at most schools -- but that is completely useless unless you're completely certain that your ED school is the one you want to attend, AND that money is no object, since you're sacrificing a shot at scholarships at other schools.

RULE FIVE: Apply early action everywhere you can, and always apply in the first week of a rolling deadline. If your target school has a rolling application, don't wait -- apply as soon as it opens. You'll get a leg up on the competition, and it doesn't cost you a cent, unlike ED. Early action, which is not binding, offers the same advantages.

RULE SIX: No procrastination. Alongside magical thinking, procrastination is the biggest college candidacy killer. The moment you know what work you need to do, create a calendar and start getting it done. No excuses. Nothing is higher priority right now for you than this process. Your future depends on it.


Obviously, this list just barely scratches the surface, and feel free to contact us if you have more questions. But hopefully this can get you started on your path to the ideal college fit!

And you thought you were hiding it so well!

Because personal essays are, well, personal, they often bring out psychological aspects of yourself that you’re only partially aware of. If you’re a naturally arrogant person, your essays might contain a lot of stories about how right you were to fight with your boss all the time, or manhandle your interns. If you tend towards depression, you might be writing drab, cliched stories, as if to say – really, there’s nothing interesting about me, I swear! All of these psychological tendencies are easy to pick up on for an objective reader, and can hurt the first impression you make on an adcom.

But perhaps the most insidious feeling of all is anxiety. The college admissions process makes almost everybody crazy, and the more high-achieving of a student you are, the more likely it is to drive you round the bend – unfortunately, coming across as an anxiety-prone wreck in a college admissions essay is all too likely to result in a ding.

What are the warning signs of showing too much anxiety in your college essays, and how do you combat them?

  1. You’re trying to cover up for perceived weaknesses elsewhere in your application. Are you using half of your essay’s word count to address your GPA, standardized test scores, lack of volunteering or some other aspect of your candidacy? Are you telling the adcom, directly or indirectly, all the reasons they shouldn’t be concerned about admitting you? Sorry, but you’re letting your anxiety get the better of you – instead of assuaging their fears, you’re pointing a spotlight at them. So, just stop.
  2. You’re asking lots and lots of people for advice, and despairing when those people disagree -- with each other! Opinions are like … um … backsides. Yeah, we all know the adage. The point is, those people don’t have the first clue what you were trying to say, they only know what you actually got out on the page. The less ability you have to control your message, the more your ‘essay’ actually becomes a Rorschach test of your reader. Mom is going to think you’re just not reminding them of how sweet you looked dressed in plaid on your first day of high school. Your hard-driving uncle the attorney is going to think you had better put your professional experience at the delicatessen chopping sirloin first and foremost on the resume. Both of these readers are well-meaning, but useless. Why? They’re speaking to their own hobbyhorses, not asking you what you were actually trying to say in the first place!
  3. You’re giving up on one first draft after another. Rather than letting your ideas develop, you’re letting your analytical brain shoot down everything your creative side is coming up with. Bad move, right brain! Pick an idea that feels right, and then commit to it. Give it time to flourish. Anyone can critique an idea, but it takes a courageous writer to actually go all in on one.

These are just a few of the ways anxiety can cripple your ability to write honestly and openly. Ultimately, the best thing you can do if you’re struggling with these issues is seek the advice of someone you know and trust.

Some of you may have heard that the Ivy League is need blind – IE, they will review your application without considering your financial status. That fact places them in rarefied company – relatively few universities operate in this manner. Nevertheless, each Ivy differs in precisely how this policy is implemented. Here is each school’s policy.

University of Pennsylvania
Penn will be need-blind if the student is a citizen or legal permanent resident of the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.

Cornell University 
Cornell is need-blind for all U.S. citizens and permanent residents and for those with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status. All other international applicants to Cornell are reviewed on a need-aware basis.

Brown University 
Brown is need-blind not only for all U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and DACA recipients, but also all undocumented students. It is, however, need-aware for international applicants.

Columbia University & Dartmouth College
Both Dartmouth and Columbia are need-blind for U.S. citizens, undocumented students, and eligible non-citizens residing in the U.S, including U.S. nationals (includes natives of American Samoa or Swains Island), a U.S. permanent resident with a Form I-551, I-151, or I-551C (Permanent Resident Card, Resident Alien Card, or Alien Registration Receipt Card), also known as a “green card”, Individuals who have an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) showing, a “Refugee,”  “Asylum Granted,” “Cuban-Haitian Entrant, “Conditional Entrant” (valid only if issued before April 1, 1980), or “Parolee” (you must be paroled for at least one year, and you must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose with the intention of becoming a U.S. citizen or permanent resident). Also --

-Individuals who hold a T nonimmigrant status (“T-visa”) (for victims of human trafficking) or your parent holds a T-1 nonimmigrant status. Your college or career school’s financial aid office will ask to see your visa and/or certification letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

-Individuals who are a “battered immigrant-qualified alien” who is a victim of abuse by your citizen or permanent resident spouse, or you are the child of a person designated as such under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

-An individual who is a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau. If this is the case, you may be eligible for only certain types of federal student aid:

>Citizens of the Republic of Palau are eligible for Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and Federal Work-Study.

>Citizens of the Federal States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are eligible for Federal Pell Grants only.

-To qualify for federal student aid, certain eligible noncitizens must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that they are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose with the intention of becoming a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

-Certain Native American students born in Canada with a status under the Jay Treaty of 1789 may also be eligible for federal student aid.

All other applicants to Columbia and Dartmouth are reviewed in a need-aware manner.

Harvard, Princeton, & Yale
Universally need-blind.

Got a question about which schools are need-blind? Call us.

Photo by Peter Widdon.