One of the most nerve-wracking parts of the medical school application process is choosing and contacting recommenders. Unless you’re Gordon Gekko or Cersei Lannister, you don’t really go through life thinking about how best to spend emotional capital you’ve built up with your profs. But remember that every single doctor working today had to go through what you’re going through now. If they can do it, so can you.


So assuming you’re popular enough to have several academic recommenders to choose from, who should you approach first? While the go-to formula here is two science professors and one humanities, your first concern, always, has to be the strength of the friendship. In other words, your best ally is, very literally, your best ally in this process.  If you are superhuman and rocked all of your sciences and all your profs love you, then go with one physical science, one life science and one humanities prof.

If you’re not buddy-buddy with a professor yet—start creating that relationship, now. Sit in front, ask questions, show up for office hours. Make it easy on yourself by choosing a subject that already interests you.  Keep an eye out for profs you know when you’re walking around campus—don’t be all millennial and bury your face in your Angry Birds. That’s not how you get a job, or get ahead, even in 2016.

But let’s say you can’t do any of this. Let’s say your teacher is the invisible man. You can still be fine. Just pick the subjects you did best in, and the teachers you had twice instead of once, or saw for office hours a couple more times. Do the best job you can do. That includes listening to your instincts. If someone feels wrong, they are wrong.


If it’s getting close to your target date and your professor hasn’t submitted her letter, don’t be shy. Send a polite reminder. Remember, she has about one million priorities that rank above you, so you need to be persistent. You are the driver of your application process. Don’t give up the wheel to a bystander.

Sometimes your teacher will have a TA write the letter and then sign it. DO NOT have a panic attack. While this is not ideal, if it’s your only choice—go with it. Med schools are clear that they do not want TAs writing recs—BUT it’s a poorly kept secret that this often happens. But we will deny that we ever gave you this advice—just between us.

Once in awhile, a professor will ask you to partly or even completely write your own recommendation. This is extremely uncool, and if you have backup options this may be a good time to approach them. But if you have no choice in the matter, try to do a comprehensive, limited job of it. What the heck does that mean? It means you should send details and evocative stories drawn from your memory of the professor’s class, assignments and office hours. You should describe your best qualities and give detailed examples. You should not, unless explicitly requested, draft a letter. You want as much of your recommender’s voice in there as possible.


The recommendation process is a funky blend of academic excellence and social engineering. It’s plenty nerve-wracking, but think of it this way–you’re doing wonders for your bedside manner. If you’re running into trouble with a recommender or you need more detailed advice, reach out to us and we’ll be happy to help.

Article by Kirsten Guenther, Image by Evan Hahn


By Kirsten Guenther, photo by Dan Dickinson

April is here again, and medical school admissions are in full swing. Just like every year, there are some people coming in well prepared. Others? Not so much.

One of the big stumbling blocks applicants tend to trip over is AMCAS’s misleading language about dates and times. You're probably aware that June 1st is the ‘earliest’ deadline for AMCAS submissions. Theoretically, however, you can wait until July 15th to submit everything.

Forget theory. Here’s the ugly truth; June 1st is a drop dead date. In fact, forget the whole ‘date’ thing. You know those people that put out lawn chairs and sleep on 5th avenue the night before the Thanksgiving Parade? That needs to be you. You should submit your application the second you are able to—June 1st, 9:30 AM. 

I know what you’re saying to yourself – can a minute really make a difference? In this game, absolutely. Our Forster Thomas clients that submit at 9:31 AM get verified the same day, but I’ve heard tales of people submitting at 9:40 AM that end up having to wait two weeks for verification. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TO BE YOU. You don’t want to have to wait two weeks to find out if your recommenders submitted or your MCAT score came in. The goal is to get verified quickly and move on to the next stage of your application.

At Forster Thomas, we make sure our clients have triple checked their applications by May 31st so that first thing June 1st all they have to do is submit. Remember, you have to self-report your course work, so if your transcripts don’t match what you submitted exactly you will end up having to appeal a correction. Next thing you know, it’s August and the game is over.

We've written a lot on medical school in the past, and we're going to be writing more in the future, but we'll never tell you a fact more important than this one. Submit your AMCAS at the earliest possible moment.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Why pursue a fine arts MFA?

Article by Susan Clark, Photo by Angie Harms

What are some reasons people go for an MFA?  Some artists say they want an MFA to teach, but that’s not so easy -- thousands of applicants compete for a handful of available college professorships, even in out of the way places. Recently the University of Central Arkansas received nearly a thousand applications for a position to teach drawing.  An MFA can also help to land teaching positions at private schools, but you’d still have a better chance at a K-12 job with a state teaching license. What enables artists to get the good professorships is a thriving career, so some artists go to MFA programs to gain recognition.

Then there is the networking value, both perceived and actual, of a top MFA.  I attended Yale and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program to improve my ability to connect with those working at a high level that I admired, and hopefully to have them connect with my work. Artists want and need exposure to a broad range of views and a broader network of other artists, critics and collectors.  

But ultimately, we make art because we love it, and we would do anything possible to achieve breakthroughs, including working the midnight shift at the Empire Diner, to afford it. (I was the head waiter there many years ago, before I was a professor and a Forster-Thomas consultant.)  The best reason to get an MFA is to improve as an artist.

If you want to talk to me about your plans to pursue a fine art MFA, hit me up!


Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Ah, the diversity essay. Prompts like “How will your academic background and experiences will help to contribute to the school’s diverse environment and program?” are an evergreen in the admissions world, and they have been popping up more and more frequently of late. Law schools, in particular, seem to love them as optional prompts, but MPH programs, architecture programs, medical school programs and a wide range of other graduate degrees ask variations of these questions.

So how do you answer it? There's no one size fits all answer, but here are a few important factors to consider.

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color. Diversity is, at its heart, refers to the experience of being different, being in a minority, because of some aspect of your life over which you have little (or no) control. Think about that definition – it’s broader than it appears at first glance. Women are a majority of human beings on Earth – but female drill sergeants are a distinct minority, and have a diversity story to tell. Contracting an unusual disease, being born with a skin condition, spending a long time living abroad, traveling frequently for work (or because of your parents’ work) … Everybody has a story about being different.

What does it mean to be different? Once you have identified what it is that’s different about you, what makes you stand out from the pack, and described the experience in detail (write more than you think you’ll need, for every essay ever – get the story clear on paper first), the next step is to think about what it meant. What specifically changed in your behavior or your thinking because you had this experience? For instance, the female drill sergeant might write that her experience taught her how to use her unique voice to assert herself and demand respect. Someone struggling with MS might write about adjusting to the experience of feeling ‘watched’ all the time, of coming to terms with being many people’s worst nightmare come to life.

How will you contribute?  One very important component of any diversity essay (and one of the most commonly overlooked) is how you plan to use your experiences to enrich your target program. Schools, like employers, care more about what you’re going to do for them than what you’ve done in the past. Help them make the connection from your past to your present by citing specific examples of how you can improve their school if you are accepted. Talk about student-led clubs you will join, volunteer opportunities you plan to take advantage of, or anything else that catches your fancy.

Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to me anytime.


Article by Ben Feuer. Photo by english106.

The 2016-2017 common application questions have been released into the wild, and they're the same as last year's questions -- so our advice is the same as last year's advice!

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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

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 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 challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

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.  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 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 or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

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 was the turning point in your journey from boy to man or girl to woman.


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!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

An Idiot's Guide to the New PSAT

Photo by Jason Bolonski

The new PSAT is out, and it's making everyone crazy! Fortunately, we're here to help. In this article, Evan Forster and Ben Feuer of Forster-Thomas sit down with Megan Stubbendeck and Sean Quinn of ArborBridge Tutoring, masters of online standardized test prep, to answer all the lingering questions about the test in language so simple even an idiot could understand (hence, our title!)  If you're not super into the reading thing, you can also listen to this conversation in podcast format here.

LEGEND: EF = Evan Forster, MS = Megan Stubbendeck, BF = Ben Feuer, SQ = Sean Quinn

EF: What exactly is the PSAT?

MS: The PSAT is a practice test for the real SAT. For most kids, it's a chance to try out the SAT and see if it’s for you. For some of us, it also matters for national merit scholarship.

EF: So what about the National Merit Scholarship part?

MS: For the next couple of weeks, it’s all about National Merit. It’s a national competition to find the top PSAT performers in each state. So you might get a really high score in NY and be competitive and a sort of high score in Wyoming and be OK.

EF: Are you telling me that I’m in Wyoming, I don’t count?

MS: Actually, it’s almost the opposite!  But either way, The PSAT is just the first step. The kids who get the highest scores get a fancy letter in September saying congrats, you’re a semifinalist or a finalist, and you might get a scholarship depending on you submitting additional application materials.

EF: So depending upon how you score in the PSAT, you might get a chance to move forward in this money-getting process.

MS: Exactly. And it’s not just about the money. On your application, you get to specially designate to colleges that you were a national merit scholar. It makes you look really great and competitive!

EF: Oh, I gotta write that down!

SQ: And some colleges give scholarships specifically based on being a merit finalist. USC used to give half tuition off, and I think they still might.

MS: So for NSMQT or National Merit, cutoff scores are what matter. Only a handful of students who took the PSAT are going to get the letters saying, congrats you get to move on, and it's based on the cutoff. The cutoff, in turn, is based on your selection index, which is in your score report …

EF: So you know me. I have the brain of a fly, I’m all over the place. Explain that again?

MS: When a student gets a PSAT score report, you have two scores. Your total score, which is half math and half writing, and a second score, a few pages later. That is your selection index, which is 1/3rd math, 1/3rd reading and 1/3rd writing. It looks different than your total score, it’s a different scale, but it’s based on the same things.

EF: So what’s the drama about?

MS: For the really top scorers, top 2 percent of all students nationwide, they care about the selection index, the National Merit Competition.

EF: I am a top scorer, tell me who I am.

MS: You are probably looking at Ivy League colleges, a straight A student, taking AP courses. When you saw your percentiles on your PSAT score report, they were 98th or 99th percentile. Your selection index might be 215 or higher …

EF: If I’m in that top index of students, can I actually prep for the PSAT? Should I?

MS: You only get one shot at the test, in October, for national merit, in 11th grade.

SQ: If you are a high performing student and you think you might be eligible, it is important to do a little practice.  As a starting point, there are free resources on Khan Academy. You can take practice tests over the summer before the PSAT. There’s also practice for the new SAT up there.  Working with a tutor for a couple of hours before test day can be very helpful as well.

EF: What is national vs test user percentile and why do I care?

MS: When you open up your score report, right below your total score you’re going to see what’s called your nationwide percentile. It ranks you against other students, so if you’re in the 85th percentile, you performed better than 85 percent of students. This is where the numbers get a little wishy-washy, because they just changed all of this.  This nationwide percentile compares you to every single person in the 11th grade in the United States, including ones who didn’t take the PSAT. The College Board did this by taking a ‘representative sample’ of 11th graders and using them as a reference point. The test user percentile compares you only to people who actually took the PSAT.

EF: So we’re the guinea pig years for this new PSAT, they’re still figuring it out.

MS: There is still a lot of uncertainty, for sure.

EF: What might still be changing in the test?

MS: The College Board, who makes the SAT/PSAT, is making preliminary charts listing percentiles, which basically mean ‘we think this is how things should be scored, but we’re not sure yet’.  The percentiles might go up and down until May.  By May, they’ll have a couple hundred thousand kids taking the exam in March, then they’ll have thousands of kids taking the May SAT, and thousands of kids who take it in April on a special test day. Then they’ll be able to say either the percentiles are cool or they’re garbage.

EF: So I know I keep repeating myself, but I care about the percentiles why?

MS: For most kids, the 98 percent, you look at the percentiles to decide if you are a competitive SAT test taker.

EF: So I’m looking at percentiles and I’m saying I need help or I’m cool, or I might be better off with the ACT. Seems simple enough. I say, take the stress level down.

SQ: I agree. A lot of the anxiety here is unnecessary. What is important to know, though, is that the percentile may be off and may not be the best indicator in whether to take SAT or ACT this year.

BF: The percentiles are off? But if the PSAT isn’t currently a good predictor of how you’re going to do on the SAT, what’s the advantage to taking it?

MS: It’s not that it’s a bad predictor of how you’re going to do to on the SAT. It helps you predict your SCORE very accurately. They actually just tweaked the numbers so that if you took the PSAT on a certain day, if you had taken the SAT on the same day, you would have gotten the exact same score. But the percentile predictor is less reliable. That said, it’s still worth taking to get an idea of which test to take, which colleges you might have a shot at, and your eligibility for national merit.

EF: I, for one, would suggest taking the PSAT for all the reasons Megan just laid out plus one more – you’re going to learn how to take on some pressure and stress, and it gives you an opportunity to grow and take on the whole college process in a more powerful way.

BF: So I watched your video about how to read your PSAT score report, and it was great! You mentioned question difficulty ratings. Are higher difficulty questions worth more points?

SQ: No. They’re telling you difficulty level so you can better prepare for the SAT.

BF: Will there be the same proportion of difficult and easy questions?

MS: Sort of. There will be on the SAT some additional hard topics you didn’t see on PSAT because you have more time in school and should know more math and grammar.

EF: I’ve been hearing PSAT scores are higher now.

SQ: There’s no controversy over the scores, 800 or 1400. It’s all over the percentiles. The percentiles seem to be higher than they have been in previous years.

EF: Why do I care?

MS: Because not everyone is taking the same test.

EF: So this is where the money is!
MS: Students often use percentiles to decide which test to take. I got 85th percentile on SAT and only 72nd percentile on the ACT. I must be a better SAT test taker, I’m going to take the SAT!  If percentiles are inflated, it makes it harder for students to decide which test is better for them.

EF: Ah. Well, I can see the business reasons for that. What I have to say about that is, ‘be careful’.

MS: Yes. We actually have pulled and analyzed the first day of data from the test by taking all the College Board publications and following their formulas. It looks like at the very high end and low end, the percentiles are in a good place. In the middle, there’s a real bell curve, and you might be seeing 5 to 10 percentile points of inflation.

EF: So what can we do about it?

SQ: Always take an ACT diagnostic. The ACT’s scoring has not changed, so their percentile is reliable. You can use that as a point of comparison. This is a tough year for the SAT – we don’t know how colleges will view the new SAT scores yet.

EF: Yeah, but without being too Pollyannaish, I think colleges have done a great job handling all the recent changes – CA4, hidden supplementals, you name it. It seems to me that admissions offices are fair, they know where they’re getting their information and it’s more holistic than people realize.

MS: Yes, I agree. Even though there’s a bit of flux going on, colleges are smart. Admissions people know how to deal with this stuff. They’re going to iron it out. The most important thing is that you choose the test you’re most comfortable with and go from there.

EF: In fact, I think life is about constant change. As simple and as corny as that may sound, instead of looking at things that are new as one more hurdle, you should look at it as an opportunity to take on a challenge and be as powerful as you can be. When you swim in a race, swim in your lane. Stop looking to the left and the right and just move forward powerfully and take it on. You’re gonna be great.