The 2019-2020 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? [New]

This is a brand new prompt, 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. [New]

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.


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!


By Evan Forster and Cyndy MacDonald, IECA

 In this moving and informative video, educational consultant and LBGTQ activist Evan Forster discusses his path to a complete gender identity. He also talks about college students he has worked with who have struggled with issues relating to sexuality, and gives advice on how to deal with those issues when they arise.

Are you concerned about whether your college is LBGT-friendly? Do you have questions about exploring your identity on campus? Contact us.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Evan Forster: The Co-Founder Speaks

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Interview by Ben Feuer.

What did you do before Forster-Thomas?

At the very beginning, I was a screenwriter.  I earned my MFA at UCLA and wrote.  While I was doing that I worked a bunch of different jobs to make ends meet.  I was a personal fitness trainer for awhile, which is kind of funny to think about now.  After a few years of that I got into writing for magazines and became very successful at that – I edited Seventeen Magazine for a few years.  While all this was happening, I picked up some extra money on the side by helping people write essays for college.  This was before there was an educational consulting industry, although there were educational consultants – they were the people who hired me.  It was all word of mouth, friends of friends.  I had a three-step process, which for the life of me I can’t remember today.  All I know is it had three steps.

So, how did Forster-Thomas get started?

A kid, Dan, called me one day out of the blue.  He had heard I helped people write essays.  But he wasn’t working on college essays, he was applying to business school.  He asked if I wanted to help him with his application.  And I said, sure, sounds interesting.

So I went online and I checked out the essay questions – and it was kind of a revelation.  I felt like this was what had I been waiting for all this time.  I mean, I had done EST, hung out with the Dalai Lama, so it’s not like it was this spiritual revelation or anything.  But I thought the questions were really deep, insightful, challenging.  I thought, ‘there’s a real art to answering these correctly’.  So I said to Dan, take a risk with me.  Don’t just write some safe answers – answer these questions honestly.  Show them who you really are.  And that’s how Forster-Thomas, the oldest MBA coaching firm of them all, began!

How would you characterize Forster-Thomas?

We’re selective and we’re distinctive. Most people like us, but there’s a certain percentage who just aren’t interested in working hard to get great essays.  We always weed them out pretty quickly, one way or another.  Our free candidacy assessments are completely unique — that much we know.  Plus, we reallly get MBA applicants.  We should, we’ve been doing this for long enough!

What’s the most insightful thing a candidate has said to you this year?

I was working with this Olympic swimmer candidate for college. 1/10th of a second is the difference between winning and losing for this guy. And he told me he wanted to bring that Olympic level of effort to everything he does.  I thought that was beautiful.

What’s the craziest thing?

Auntie Evan, you’re wrong.  No … Auntie Evan, you’re right. 

The fact is, I’m not wrong or right — I’m just a collection of ideas.  it’s up to you to implement them in your own life.

Tell me a story from your childhood – the way you might ask a b-school candidate to open up about her past.

In seventh grade, I went to a sleepaway summer camp.  Every single night I heard all the kids singing a campfire song that ended, “Evan Forster is a fag.”  I lived through a lot of stuff like that. It sounds crazy to say this, but it taught me the value of kindness, how essential it really is.

What are some of your favorite books?

A Winter’s Tale.  Anything about a girl finding herself, I’m in for that.  But I like reading all kinds of different stuff -- stories, essays, tweets.  They all need beginnings, middles and endings or they’re useless.  And yes, that goes for your admissions material too.

Any final words of advice?

Be Olympic.

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UC Berkeley Haas's goals essay this year is tricky.  It is going to trip up a lot of applicants.  Don't be one of them.

By Evan Forster

Earlier today I received a call from Brenda about the Haas MBA goals essay—

What is your desired post-MBA role and at what company or organization? In your response, please specifically address sub-questions a., b., and c.
a. How is your background compelling to this company?
b. What is something you would do better for this company than any other employee?
c. Why is an MBA necessary and how will Haas specifically help you succeed at this company?
(500-600 word maximum for 3a, 3b, and 3c combined)

Brenda’s amazing—a transportation industry titan-to-be. So why was her essay so flat?

We have been writing about the archetypal MBA goals essay (and other professional why Law, Med, Architecture, etc.) for years now.  After a while, it all starts to sound the same.

“Start with a story about you, followed by the difference you want to make in your short and long-term goal—and be specific. Zero in on why that School or program is right for you and how you’re a fit. Close by bringing at all around to your short and long-term goals, blah, blah, blah….” Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Anyway, Brenda sends me this response to Haas’ prompt #1. I can easily spot the fact that she’s being vague and cautious. There’s not a lot of power in telling an adcom, “I can help manage the way that X company deals with changing guidelines and law…” I suggest making it more “active”, but I’m not seeing a way to squeeze my square peg methodology into this round hole—Still, I’m trying. God forbid I should contradict myself, after all.  I’m supposed to be the expert!

After our call, I think more about the question.  Desired post-MBA role and company.  Simple enough.  McKinsey? Bain? Accenture? It’s just another goals essay.  And yet

And then, BAM!  I fall in love with the question. It’s not about locking yourself into the right company (although it should be reasonable given your industry background), but revealing your ability to spot needto figure out what stands between a company and unbridled success.  Get it?  They are looking for people to take on making a difference … WITHOUT PRIOR APPROVAL!

Sneaky, huh?                                                                    

For Brenda (and you) to ace this Haas goals essay, you have to be the guy who, without ‘permission,’ finds a way to make a team work better.  Brenda did this naturally as a college volleyball playerand somewhere, at some time, you did too.  So dig down deep.  Find the version of you that is fearless.  Decide to expand the transportation division of McKinsey, improving how it handles its infrastructure and government clients.

 Don’t worry about being wrong or seeming arrogant.  There are no Haas goals police. Declare your intention.  State the change you will make. That’s what leaders do, and that’s what great programs like Haas are really looking for.

Like Haas itself, this essay is about a way of being. You see what’s missing in a company. You (because of your particular background) and leadership-ability can usher in that change. And you recognize that you need help, what you need help in, what skills you need to bolster and—in each one of thesehow Haas specifically can help you.

So in the end, this IS just another goals essaywith added specificity, asked in terms that only a few people will get. Be one of them.

Auntie Evan’s 5 steps to Haas Goals Dominance

A)     Look at your current history/industry and remind yourself of what you’re best at.

B)      Decide where you can be of service to that industry.

C)      Know which companies are missing out on a possible growth area (you should know this because it’s your professional background)

D)     Figure out where you are in need of growth

E)      Invite Haas and its community (via specific classes, clubs, etc.) to join you in your endeavor. 

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Forster-Thomas's first monthly meeting at our new location took place yesterday -- and some interesting insights came out of it.

Ben Feuer

Company-wide meetings here at Forster-Thomas are a casual affair.  Fine wine is served, we dress to impress, we dine beneath the stars and talk long into the night about our fabulous selves.  

So what's new in Forster-Thomas land?  Turns out, lots!  Auntie Evan and Uncle David continue to break new ground with Essay Busters and Job Talk Daily, to say nothing of their work right here at Forster-Thomas.  Our very own Tom Locke is simultaneously developing a new television series with a Hollywood producer and a new audition coaching initiative for acting students in need of aid.  Kirsten Guenther just won a Rockefeller Grant while continuing to help medical school applicants get in touch with their inner Grey's Anatomy.  Jani Moon launched a website and a Google Hangout TV series.  Aimee Barr conducted a sold out conference for MSW graduates.  Susan Clark created a volunteer art mural in Italy!  Katie Kennedy is hard at work with Evan on his next book!  And of course, no Forster-Thomas meeting would be complete without honoring the glue that holds the entire organization together, Roberto Pineda and Nallely Rosales!

So everybody's doing awesome -- awesome!  What does this mean for those of you who are busy struggling with your essays?  Get to the good stuff, I hear you cry!  All right!  No need to be so pushy!

The first point was made by our very own Uncle David, and it concerns brainstorming.  I tell my candidates to brainstorm all the time, because I consider it an exceptionally helpful way to break out of mental ruts and develop your best ideas.  Well, Uncle David mentioned this gem and I had to pass it on to all of you.

"When brainstorming, most people think their job is to come up with 3 or 4 good ideas.  But that's not how brainstorming really works.  In fact, it goes like this.  First you get some good ideas.  Then you get some OK ideas.  By the time you're on your fifteenth idea, you know you're running on fumes.  And then something magical happens, and by PUSHING THROUGH IT, your last three ideas are usually even better than the first five.  So never stop when the ideas are good -- instead, push on until they're bad, then push through the badness so you can get to the greatness!"

Well said, sir.

I also had a few humble thoughts of my own for all of you stuck in the early stages of drafting your essays.  Google Ventures has taken to using timers to inspire its entrepreneurs/children to get over their perfectionism and innate long-windedness.  I think timers are an excellent tool for anyone trying to be creative, because constraints are empowering.  So if you are struggling to draft an essay, constrain yourself to an hour (or half an hour) to write it.  You might be surprised at how imperfect, and how interesting, the results can be!

Meanwhile, we here in Forster-Thomas land send you lots of love and best of luck for the upcoming application season!

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How to research college? The college search always starts in the same place: the Internet. But until you’ve stepped onto a campus—not virtually, but by setting an actual foot onto an actual campus—you can’t really know what type of college you want to attend. We have worked with countless candidates who insisted they only wanted a “big state school”—until they set foot on a small liberal arts college campus. And we’ve had just as many who wanted that intimate setting who ended up falling in love with a mid-size school likeNorthwesternElon University, or TCU.

Approach the college search with the following mindset: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” What your neighbor said, your older brother said, or your religious community believes—throw it all out. It’s meaningless. You have to decide for yourself what type of campus environment suits you best, and you’ll never what schools taste like until you sample the flavor yourself.

David and I have known this for years, but last month we got an up-close-and-personal slap in the face about how easy it is to forget this advice when we went on a whirlwind tour of North Carolina colleges. We did seven very different schools in 48 hours (DukeDavidsonElonWake ForestHigh Point,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, andGuilford).


We’re still exhausted—but it was worth every moment. We went with two IECA colleagues and had a lot of fun. None of us may have the energy of a 17 year old anymore, but nothing stopped us from acting like one.  College tours shouldn’t be somber processions through the hallowed halls of academia. That’s no way to really sample a school.

And touring seven colleges with two other highly intelligent and observant people led to several epiphanies in North Carolina:

1) Everyone has a different take on the same school. Uncle David thought Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, was the perfect environment for a bright, liberal arts-minded, competitive-yet-not-cutthroat student who wanted an intimate environment on a leafy Southern campus that was ready for its Hollywood close-up. Auntie Evan thought it was a great setting for an artsy kid who wanted a traditional college town with cool stores and cafes. One of our colleagues felt Davidson was a prepster heaven custom-made for a private-school student who was a little sheltered (and whose family wanted it to stay that way)—45% of its students come from independent schools. Our other colleague pointed out that, while the student body came from 40 states and 18 countries, 39% came from the Southeast U.S. and wondered if Midwestern kids (at 9%) would feel comfortable. We all agreed to disagree on who the perfect Davidson student was. What does that mean? You have to see it for yourself to decide which one of us you agree with.  And that’s the way it is for all colleges nationwide.

2. Don’t judge the school based solely on the presenter in the information session. There we were at Duke, the crème de la crème Southern Ivy according to US News. We picked up our requisite t-shirts at the Duke University Student Union, walked past the Duke Chapel, wandered through the academic buildings and East Campus housing and then up to Admissions for the info session—and that’s when the whole thing fell apart. I’m not going to say the name of this admissions presenter (because I’m not a mean person), but she was so boring that she could sober up all 60,000 attendees of Burning Man. Trust us. Our colleagues had to keep nudging Auntie Evan awake. How could an info session on one of the world’s most vibrant, challenging, resource-rich academic communities be a better sedative than a 10mg Ambien? Duke should have the best, most interesting, intellectual, interactive info session possible. Yet, all the presenter did was talk and talk and talk at us. One of her personal highlights of Duke’s hometown of Durham was the opportunity to get tickets to Wicked—a Broadway show that opened in 2001 and has toured the country countless times. And she went on and on—it was enough time for Evan’s iPhone to charge up from 20% to 87%.

But here’s the take-away: Duke is phenomenal. The majors, the proximity to Durham (rated one of the country’s best foodie cities in the US), the internships and the research availability—not to mention some of the brightest minds in the world, both faculty and students. The access to grad school and Wall Street. Hello? Duke’s superiority is indisputable. That’s why you cannot dismiss a school based on one boring apple. What you can do is…

3. Talk to random students you meet on campus—not just the tour guide or presenter. Stopping random students walking to class can be intimidating, but we promise you that students love to talk about their school. For the first 20 minutes at Wake Forest, let’s just say it was so white we thought we were in a blizzard. Then, huddled together near the student union (like the football team they turned out to be) was a group of students of color. When Evan made a beeline to talk to them, the other three of us almost fainted by his display of boldness. And Evan cut straight to the chase (which you should feel free to do as well). Evan introduced himself and us, asked a couple of safe questions about these students’ background (like college major, sports, and food), and then cut to what he really cared about: “What’s it like being a student of color at Wake Forest?” None of them batted an eye at the question, and Deacon Devil football cornerback Kevin Johnson had the most eloquent response: “It wasn’t so hard for me, because of where I grew up, but for some of my friends here, it was a real culture shock.” Yet everyone on the team agreed that the quality of the education, the friendliness of the students, and the support of the administration made that initial difficulty both worth it and surmountable. No regrets from anyone.

You won’t get that kind of honesty on a school’s website. And if you did, you shouldn’t trust it until you hear it from actual students on campus.

4) Don’t take your friends’ word for it—or what your mother’s friend’s father’s golf buddy had to say. Sometimes, it feels like the most important part of being an educational consultant is myth-busting. Every year, we hear the same misinformation being spread around communities like a virus: “There’s no Jewish people at Georgetown.” “There’s no Catholics at Brandeis.” “There’s no New Yorkers at University of Texas at Austin.” “Everyone at the University of Colorado at Boulder is a pothead.”

To educational consultants who visit schools regularly, who send a huge variety of students to a huge variety of schools, and who hear back from hundreds of our own alumni (rather than a few graduates of your high school), the above kind of statements is the same as hearing offensive stereotypes like “Brooklyn is dangerous” and “everyone in California is flaky.” Sure, you might have heard about a subway mugging on the G train, but for 20 years, Boise, Idaho, has been a more dangerous city per capita than New York. Commonly held myths about schools are what we call “anecdotal evidence”—kind of like when your uncle told you “Don’t go to China! It’s dangerous. I got sick that time I ate at Lucky Palace down the block.” We promise you two things: One, China isn’t deadly, and two, Lucky Palace has awesome takeout. What happened to one guy, one time, is no way to cast a blanket judgment—especially when you’re investing in four expensive years of your life.

The Two Schools We All Agreed On—And It Took a Campus Visit to See the Light

Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, is where all the stars aligned: Elon has been on our radar for a while, but none of us had visited the campus before. We had heard raves from our candidates who seen it for themselves, but being dubious about anecdotal evidence, we were excited to fact-check their glowing reviews after doing our own Internet investigations.

Elon has a thriving campus social life—there’s something for everyone, from gay athletes to future frat boys to literature lovers. The campus was spanking clean and high tech, with a rah-rah spirit and a leafy campus you could stroll through like a park. With 5,600 students, it’s not too small and not too big; it has excellent programs in business, communications, education, the arts, and even a 3-2 engineering program. Assistant Director of Admissions Scott Christopherson was amazing in his information session—charming, knowledgeable, passionate, and attentive (Duke should snatch him up pronto). Now, Auntie Evan knows why his niece, Julia, has moved this school to the top of her list. (But she’s smart enough to keep going on other campus visits, to make sure.)

Finally, we have to talk about the surprising high point of our trip, High Point University. We went there with very low expectations. After all, we weren’t taking our own advice: We had heard that High Point was a country club for not-so-bright kids, and was investing its considerable resources in “all the wrong things” like fancy dorms instead of quality teaching. And indeed, approaching the gates of High Point was a bit like the approach to Disney World. We hadn’t even gotten past the guard gate, yet we could see the fountains, the EPCOT-like flag parade along the fresh-paved cobblestones, the gleaming-new buildings, and manicured lawns.

We parked our SUV and wandered around campus for a bit before making it to the very welcoming welcome center. There, we chatted with students from all over the country and world—not a tour guide with a memorized speech. They might not have been the top students in their high school classes, but while High Point is not on the Colleges That Change Lives list like Guilford, it is transforming its students in a way we didn’t expect. We met English majors and biochemistry students and seniors who were accepted to top law and medical schools. Indeed, they did love going to a school where you can send your laundry out, upgrade to a deluxe room, and enjoy some of the best campus food in America—but what really mattered to them was their education.

But let’s be honest: Auntie Evan’s favorite person at High Point was the gate guard, Valerie Baxter. The only way to get a true sense of Ms. Baxter is to go and visit. That’s all we’ll say on that. Not even her profile on page 90 of High Point’s viewbook does justice to this larger-than-life personality. Meeting her in person is worth the flight to North Carolina alone. She’s an enthusiastic ambassador of the university, and their most important asset. Give this woman a raise.

Colleges are like “a box of chocolates,” to quote one of our most hated films. Until you bite into ’em, you just don’t know what you’re getting.  Start planning your college trips NOW!

—Auntie Evan and Uncle David


Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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To reveal or not reveal other awards? That is the question.

During this time of year—and more and more, during this economic climate—my accepted students revisit, meet with, and ultimately follow-up with financial aid appeal letters to their top-choice colleges and universities, asking for more financial assistance. And why not? It never hurts to ask—especially if you are a top, sought-after candidate at that college. Right?

Maybe. All too often, the request from the college-of-your-choice is the same:  “Please attach the offers you have received from the other schools to which you were accepted.”

So what should you do? Is it ethical for your first-choice school to see what other institutions have offered? Is it anyone’s business? Should you ignore the request?

Let’s work through these questions for some peace of mind.

Recently, a student of mine who was accepted to her first-choice private university, and offered $10K per year. Nothing to sneeze at, but not enough. What she needs is $15K to make it possible for her to attend without taking a job. After her second visit to the campus, the financial aid office asked her to reveal the other colleges’ offers. That’s when my student asked me, “What should I do?” After all, no one had offered her $15K. Her second and third choices offered her $11K and $13K respectively. She was worried she had boxed herself in.

Are you in a similar situation? Have you already met with the financial aid office? If so, here are a few questions you might be asking yourself:

If my first-choice college—the one I want the $15K from—sees the lower offer from another school, are they likely to meet it or beat it? What is the benefit of showing them a better offer? Isn’t it like showing your poker hand?
Should I reveal the lower offer, but explain that although my first-choice college is A, I will have to go with College B—a great school, but not the one I have my heart set on?

Since it’s my number one choice, should I just take the 10K offer and figure out a way to make up the difference? Work at Starbucks or the bookstore?

Obviously, you get that all of the questions depend on how bad you want to be at your number-one choice, here are some responses from the wisest colleagues in the admissions biz.

First off, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples—make sure the tuition is frozen for the next four years—meaning the colleges you received financial awards from are similar in rank and style…

1. Go ahead and show your number-one that better offer from the other schools. All colleges base their calculations on the same federal methodology, but alter their offers based on their particular financial policies. So, seeing a higher offer just might get you the extra $ you need. If the margin is small, my colleagues assure me, your top-choice will adjust their original offer to match the other schools.  But make sure you’re only sharing the letters of “comparable” schools…for example, a highly selective college won’t care that you got a full ride from a local “suitcase school.”

2.  When you’re sending in that “please, sir, I want some more” request, make sure you do it with grace and respect. Express your regret at even having to make the choice between your number-one and the other schools.

3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If your number 1 is really your number 1—has the programs, the people and the professors you want—then rise to the occasion and don’t let a few thousand dollars come between you and dream school. Who cares if you spend a few hours a week in college asking “would you like fries with that” if you’re set up for the career you’ve wanted?

Finally, I’d go with what Nirav Mehta, the associate director of admissions at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, said when I asked him the above three questions:

“I believe the other offers should be revealed, as requested by the Financial Aid Office. But it's equally important to highlight the real financial need without an adversarial approach. Financial aid officers are interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they're making decisions with limited information. Helping financial aid officers get an honest picture of the situation will be the most effective approach. I have seen modifications in the financial aid package with this kind of approach that focuses on the need, especially if [you’re] academically stellar.”

Thanks, Nirav!

Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

Bottom line: It never hurts to ask, and honesty is the best policy.

Auntie Evan

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Should a prospective student visit college before applying?  Does a student gain significant advantage visiting or can "Demonstrated Interest" be displayed by attending local fairs, hotel and high school presentations? 


Visiting schools is a MUST—at least the ones that are most important to a student. Colleges do take it seriously and it absolutely helps the student demonstrate interest—especially if you’re on the edge (academically or otherwise) or you’re applying to select/top colleges and universities.

Nothing says "I am serious" like showing up on campus. College fairs and online research are good. After all, Big-Brother College knows when you’ve been checking ‘em out—every time you go to a college site. But does your mother suddenly think you’re really doing your homework because the postal worker delivered an info pack from Harvard? C’mon.  

Consider visiting college a “cost of doing business” for applying to (and attending) higher education. (This will become clear when Mom & Dad get that bill for $50K.)  Look at it from the point of view of an admissions team: You are willing to shell out the money to go to their “dream school,” but you can't bother to look at it until you know you're accepted? What does that say? Certainly not "I'm serious."

If this is not enough to get my point across and you or your parents don’t see the import of going to visit, then you better have something really amazing to bring to the table—at the very least, excellent grades. For students who are not clear admits (and who is for the most selective schools?), only attending college fairs and hotel and high school presentations just doesn’t say "I wanna be at your school." Much better (and on the record) is a registered visit. (That means you actually go online and sign up for a scheduled college tour and college info session.)  The same is true for the “clear admit”—schools don't want to waste an offer on a student who does not seem like he or she is ever going to say "yes" if accepted.

And what if you are on the edge academically—and you do bother to figure out a way to visit? You might just get there, decide it's a whopping "not for me" and voilà, you just saved mom and Dad some real $$$$—not to mention the cost of applying.

As for NOT having the time—that is the worst reason not to visit. Make the time. Time is NO excuse. (And summer visits are absolutely fine.)
Making the time is what responsible people do.  If Mom or Dad can't take you, get it together with a few friends and get on a bus or train, or car and get there. (Also, getting in a car with four of your friends saves money; split the gas fare, make a bunch of sandwiches, and off you go. That's what we all did back in the day. When did traveling independently become such big deal for someone who claims to be ready to go off to college?)

If you live in a foreign country, or you're on the other side of the country—and you are not from a family of means—then you get the pass. Then and only then can you settle for meeting with the reps who visit Nigeria. (I am not being sarcastic.)

And if, like many of my truly disadvantaged kids, you really can't afford to visit, then you get a pass. In both cases, you need to find a way to explain your reasons for not visiting in a letter of some sort or in your supplemental essay for that school and you had better done everything else in your power to research that college and write about these extraordinary things you did to get to know the school and its majors and programs beyond fairs. You scoured though YouTube videos,, contacted the head of (for example) the College Republicans Club or the GLBT club president, that Accounting professor, and on, and on, and on. And explain why you were not able to visit.

I am serious. It just gets Auntie Evan crazy when y’all come up with excuses like time. I'd like to know what you’re so busy with that you cannot find a day here or there or a weekend to visit three of your ten top choice schools. Think of it this way: If a college was a girl or guy you were into, you’d fall over backward to find the time to get to that first date.

In short, not visiting campuses is “pennywise and pound-foolish.” Ask your grandfather what that means.

Auntie Evan


Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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The changes to the SAT starting in 2016 are creating a lot of hand-wringing in the college admissions industry. But it  is, as Shakespeare would say, Much Ado About Nothing.

When the news of the new SAT broke, Evan Forster and I were visiting colleges in North Carolina. Everyone was talking about the new SAT—except for the admissions officers giving info sessions. As “test optional” becomes increasingly common in the college admissions process, and is even starting to take root at very selective schools, the best ticket to success in admissions remains the same: DO WELL IN HIGH SCHOOL, and take advantage of the most rigor your high school offers (AP courses, honors, etc.). For colleges that continue to review standardized tests, the only change is their job got a little easier: They are back to the 1600-point scale most are familiar with, and they will continue to factor in the SAT as one of many data points in their decision-making.

The changes are not going to affect the test prep industry at all—0%—except in their curricular focus. It’s not going to “cripple” them, or reduce business, nothing. Even with Khan Academy. If you had the money for test prep to begin with, you’ll still going to want a personalized touch—a teacher at the front of the room, sitting across from you at a table, or talking interactively with you on a screen.

Khan Academy is going to EXPAND access, it’s not going to eat away at the test prep industry. Imagine if Khan Academy put out great videos on how to write a personal statement and choose the right school for you, etc. Would college counselors lose their job? Not a single one. So Evan and I applaud the partnership with Khan Academy, and support our test prep brethren like Applerouth in their continued growth as well.

Everything else is hand-wringing and will be forgotten in a week—unless we keep the drama going.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about predictive power, or the test prep industry, this is about the College Board trying to stay relevant in an ACT world. The more we talk about test prep and the impact of the changes, the more relevant College Board remains.

What’s happening right now is like Miley Cyrus taking off her clothes at the VMAs: It got everyone talking, and her career went to another level. The College Board is Miley Cyrus, and we’re all willing participants in this game.

--David Thomas and Evan Forster

Also, check out our videos on the subject!

What Does the New SAT Mean for Me?

What does the new SAT 2016 mean for you? Short answer: you should rejoice! Watch to find out why.

Tags: College Admissions Consulting, Leadership

The College Board is Like Miley Cyrus

The new SAT to be launched in 2016 isn't a big deal -- the College Board is just trying to stay relevant. They are just following the Miley Cyrus playbook.

Tags: College Admissions Consulting, Leadership

Evan Forster advises MBA applicants how to escape the waitlists at Columbia.

Last week, I received a call from my MBA candidate, Dylan. This is his second shot at applying to business school (when he applied on his own last year, it was a close-but-no-cigar). He was recently waitlisted/deferred at Columbia. Why? Probably because of his GMAT score. It’s only a 710. But we all know how Columbia operates when it comes to numbers. It’s like that date who only wants to know how big your bank account is. Regardless, he got waitlisted—not denied.

He’s an incredible candidate—an Olympic athlete, a successful banker, and gorgeous head to toe: blonde mop, piercing blue eyes, a lean, mean soccer machine. Put him in a Paul Smith suit and he has you at “Cheerio.” So you can imagine my bafflement when Dylan whined, “My admissions coordinator at Columbia is making time to meet me this Thursday—but she didn’t sound overly excited to have me come into the office.” Apparently, during their brief phone call his admissions coordinator went on to say, “There’s nothing really more we need to know about your candidacy. We’ll have our decision by February 1.”

Dylan was hesitant and asked me, “So…should I go?” His voice was meek. Where was the confident athlete I had been working with for the past few months? Apparently, it was stuck somewhere beneath a waitlist letter, under the paragraph that reads: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” (Of course some programs offer the proverbial “the committee encourages you to let us know—via email or phone—of any significant new achievements since your application was submitted.” And you should.) But Dylan’s MBA letter was clear: “Due to the volume of applications we receive, we cannot accommodate individual requests [to speak/meet with candidates]. A member of the Admissions Committee will contact you if we have specific questions.”

So, Dylan wondered, should he actually visit? Put a face to the name?

My answer is simple: YES!

Let me put this into perspective: Thousands of people apply to the same schools and programs you do. Admissions officers are over-worked, underfed, and fed-up with every candidate trying to get a foot in the door. If you’ve been waitlisted or deferred, however, you have a foot in the door. So, buck up. Have a little self-confidence! Realize that one of your super powers is not mind reading: You have no idea what was going on in the moment you contacted that admissions officer about your candidacy. In the immortal words of Cher when she slaps Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!”

You don’t know what prompted the admissions officer’s seeming lack of enthusiasm. Was it a bad morning? A stop-and-roll ticket on the way into work? You simply don’t know. Nor do you need to.

What you need to do is be brave and bold and make sure you’ve taken every opportunity to let that school know how serious you are about attending—and how perfect you are. Because you are perfect. There is a 6’3” hot blonde soccer player in you somewhere. Even if you’re acting like a little wiry 14-year-old.

So if somebody gives you an opportunity to press the flesh and put a face to a name, take it. Don’t err on the side of, “Oh, maybe I’m overdoing it.” For example, if you’ve already visited campus, go visit again.

How to know if it’s time for another visit:

  1. You got waitlisted or deferred! This means the admissions office is serious about you. If they weren’t, you would have received a denial letter.
  2. Did you get a response to your email or phone call that agreed to a specific time to visit? If the answer is “yes” and a time was set, then ignore your inner weakling and summon your outer superhero. Go be your dazzling self.
  3. You’re still wondering whether it’s overkill to visit again because the response to your email or phone call was lukewarm? You don’t know what anyone is thinking. You are assuming that they don’t want to be “bothered.” This is your opportunity to pleasantly surprise them. Show them you know about the school by asking specific questions about classes, clubs and facilities. (I’m talking about questions that cannot be answered by looking on their website. Think “how” or “why” and nothing that can be answered with a “yes,” “no,” or a number. Because you are only a bother if you waste their time with questions you could get answered online.)
  4. You’ve never visited before? It’s a no-brainer. Get on a plane, train or automobile—now—even if you don’t get a response to your call or email. BTW—you live within three hours of campus, but you’ve never visited? You don’t deserve to be accepted. (If I were an admissions officer at that school, I’d certainly wonder whether you were actually going to say “yes” to an offer of acceptance if you had never inconvenienced yourself with a visit.)
  5. You Just Don’t Know – Stop making up reasons not to visit. Dylan did that for a while, and all it got him was fear and worry. But I guess we all need a little encouragement. I, for one, am frightened as hell of rejection. But you have an opportunity to do more than the minimum, to put a face to your name. Dylan had an opportunity to restate his goals and chat about his excitement about Columbia. As a result of doing so, he was so well-liked that the admissions coordinator introduced him to the Dean of Value Investing—his area of interest/goal.

Post-visit, when Dylan called me, he had that old Olympic tone in his voice when he said: “There are probably a 100 people vying for three spots, but now, at least when they decide, they will think of my face and not just my name or number—they’ll be thinking of me

And that’s why you go and visit. And Stay in touch after you do.

Read more about how to get off the waitlist.

We are waitlist experts:  schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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