College Advice: How I Read An Application

At this time of year, college admissions officers like me are bleary-eyed from weeks of reading applications. Many of us are now in committee sessions, determining which applicants will receive offers of admission.  At the very few super-selective, single-digit-percentage-acceptance places, the process is Darwinian.

Admissions officers at the vast majority of places, however, those of us that accept more than half of our applicants, are spending more time trying to strengthen relationships with students who have been or will be admitted, in order to get them to accept our offers and enroll.  These efforts to yield the best possible class are the main business of most offices in March, and they are the absolute business of all offices in April, before deposits are due May 1.

As I move into the stretch run of my second season on the university admissions side (after decades on the secondary school counseling side), I want to share how I read an application.  This protocol is my own; others read differently.  I offer my thoughts particularly for Juniors who will be preparing to apply over the next six to nine months—though they may also be of value to Seniors who are presently waiting to learn their fates.

I always start with the School Profile and Transcript:

  • First question: What percentage of graduates go on to four-year colleges or universities? The higher the percentage of college goers, the more likely the curriculum is strong and challenging.  The farther south of that percentage, the greater my concern about the “speed of the pool” and the quality of preparation for college work.
  • Second question: From the Profile I also learn what is on the school’s Curricular Menu: International Baccalaureate? Advanced Placement?  Honors?  Dual Enrollment?  I want to know what challenges the applicant had available; then evaluate what the candidate “ordered from the menu.”
  • Next, did the student “clean his or her plate?” There’s no point in ordering more food than you can eat, and no point in more academic challenge than you can handle.
  • When required (at Drew University only for our top merit scholarship), I look at standardized testing, to see if it corroborates, or leads me to question, classroom performance. (Those who underachieve their testing do not impress me.)
  • If the student does not attend a school that prepares students well for college, fails to challenge him or herself, fails to meet the challenge selected, and/or underperforms ability, our consideration of this candidacy is probably over. You have to be able to succeed in the academic program, or you need to look elsewhere.  If you have done enough to demonstrate that threshold academic capacity, you get a closer look.

I read the Recommendations next:

  • I like to get a sense of what the Counselor and Teachers have to say about the student. I read for key descriptive words and phrases, also for anecdotes that show the student in action.  Curiosity, energy, humor, tenacity, grit, resilience, and the qualities of someone I would like to invite into our 24/7 residential community are what I seek.
  • If I find evidence of immaturity, insensitivity, laziness, or a lack of personal responsibility/accountability, the applicant may be done—or at least have sustained mortal injury—before I get to the Application itself.
  • I emphasize this point in particular, because many school counselors urge Juniors to make their “asks” before the end of 11th grade, enabling over-burdened teachers to do some, most, or all of their recommendation writing over the summer.
  • Juniors are well-advised to be careful about whom to ask for a letter of support. Ideally it is someone who is excited about the prospect of doing additional work for no additional pay for a student who may or may not remember to say Thank You once admitted to the college of his or her choice.

Finally, if I like what I’ve seen on the Profile and Transcript, and what I’ve read in the Recommendations, I spend time on the Application itself:

  • I note citizenship, ethnicity, family system, educational background of the parents. Then I reach the resume of Activities.  Having demonstrated via Transcript and Recs that the student can be successful in our program and is a quality human being, I now read for what he or she will add to campus life.
  • I look for length of commitment and significance of impact. Grades 9, 10, 11, 12 says a lot to me about duration of commitment as it might benefit my college.  Those who dabble, with a bit here and a bit there, do not impress me.
  • After Activities, it’s time for the Essay. I have read many fabulous ones this year, some predictable ones, and a few poor efforts.  The last are quite sad: short, with little insight, and sometimes with glaring flaws in spelling, punctuation and capitalization.  If I have gotten this far in your application, don’t disappoint me with avoidable errors.
  • My advice on essays: Be yourself, sound like a teenager, and tell me the story you’d share if we were in an Uber together for a brief ride across my home island of Manhattan. You want me leaving the car wanting to stay in touch with you; I want your voice in my ear as I make my recommendation to our committee.

A final note: if you’d like to see a two-minute video of my advice to Juniors and their parents at a wonderful independent school in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, check this YouTube link:

Conducting a Thoughtful Search:

How to Pick Safety Schools

You should aim for your dream colleges in the college application process, but you can’t be certain of anything. It’s important to apply to at least one college where you’re guaranteed acceptance. These colleges are known as safety schools and provide students with a backup plan in case they aren’t accepted at more competitive colleges.


Here’s how to choose a safety school:

Defining Safety Schools

A safety school is any college or university at which you have an 80 percent chance or higher of being accepted. Although you can never be sure whether a college will admit you, compare your SAT or ACT scores and GPA to a college’s average. You should be in the 75th percentile or above for a college to be considered a safe bet.


Determining Your Options

Your safety schools should be colleges you could see yourself attending if you only were accepted there. For many applicants, these are public, in-state schools with higher acceptance rates and lower tuition costs. Small or lesser-known private colleges also qualify as safety schools. Often, safety schools resemble reach schools. If your dream college is a liberal arts college in the northeast, consider other colleges nearby or those with similar student body sizes.


Settling a List of Safety Schools

Once you’ve determined the profile of your ideal safety school, start making a list. Most students aim for at least one to three colleges. More than three will detract from the time you spend on other, more competitive applications. Consult college rankings and make a note of tuition prices — you don’t want to end up admitted to colleges that are out of your budget. Finally, be sure you actually like each college.


Applying to Safety Schools

Fill out applications with as much effort as you’d spend on any other college. Admissions officers can tell when a student doesn’t care about being accepted. Do your best work.



National Survey Of High School Counselors Shows Over 70% Prefer To Receive Important College News By Email. See Below To Learn 6 Facts About Growing Enrollment Referrals From High School Counselors

Enrollment referrals from high school counselors can make a big difference in college student enrollments. By building strong relationships with counselors, colleges and universities can develop “pipelines” that bring students year after year.

Pros and Cons of Rural, Suburban and Urban Campuses

For many students, location is an important factor when choosing a college or university. Depending on your personality and goals, you may be more inclined toward a rural, urban or suburban campus.

Here are some of the pros and cons for each category:

Rural Colleges


Rural colleges might be surrounded by rolling mountains, lush forests or grassy pastures. Because these colleges typically have natural settings, they often attract outdoorsy students, including those interested in studying the environment. Some colleges to consider include Middlebury College, Bucknell University or Sewanee: The University of the South. Rural colleges sometimes offer more extensive environmental studies programs and hands-on research opportunities. Many rural colleges are smaller and encourage students to live on campus longer, fostering a close-knit student body.


Though a smaller student body might be perfect for some, many students might yearn for a wider range of diversity, both in their peers and in activities on and off campus. Rural colleges often are situated near small towns, which means opportunities for internships and community engagement are limited. Transportation also is something to consider, as you’ll likely need a car to get to campus.

Urban Colleges


Urban colleges are exciting options for students looking to assert their independence fresh out of high school. Colleges like New York University, University of California, Los Angeles and American University are situated right in the heart of major cities — New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., respectively. Students can frequent museums, art exhibits, restaurants and performances in their free time. Urban colleges usually have larger student bodies, too, with a lot of diversity. Students also can take advantage of countless opportunities, including internships, volunteering and community engagement.


The largest consideration for students considering urban college has to be money. Many are expensive.

Even responsible students will be tempted by endless things to see and do. As a result, living in a city as a student can be more difficult, especially for those who plan on working part-time to pay their tuition and housing. Urban colleges tend to lack a cohesive sense of community because their campuses are spread out and fewer students will live in dorms.

Suburban Colleges


Suburban colleges often are situated near medium-sized cities or in college towns, with locals living right alongside students. Suburban colleges tend to have more centralized campuses accessible easily by foot, though access to the surrounding area might still be restricted to those with cars.

Students at suburban colleges get the best of both worlds: they can pursue their interests both on campus and in the community at large. For entertainment and recreation, students can just as easily go to a concert or art gallery as they can drive to the mountains to go on a hike. Student bodies vary in size, offering greater diversity or a close-knit class, depending on your preference.


Like rural colleges, suburban colleges often encourage their students to own a car or have access to one, which can be expensive. College towns and smaller cities all have exciting things to offer, but that might not be enough for some students.

Before making a final decision, it’s important to visit the colleges you’re considering to see how you like them.


The College Admissions Process Is Broken

Now that college acceptance and rejection decisions have found their destinations for another year, it is finally time that someone steps up and says what needs to be said: The college admissions process is broken and needs to be fixed.

As an independent college counselor, I have spent the last 15 years watching two disturbing trends on both sides of the socioeconomic spectrum. Upper- and middle-class students face a preposterous degree of pressure to attend a “good” college. Every day, I spend hours with teens applying to college. They tell me how they base a good part of their self-esteem on whether an institution deems them smart enough or good enough. To students who have barely glimpsed the challenges of life, getting into college serves as the ultimate validation for their level of ability, potential, work ethic and societal acceptance.

Consequently, more of these students are applying to more and more colleges each year to try to increase their chances of getting accepted. In fact, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, almost three-quarters of American colleges have seen increases in applications in 10 of the last 15 years.

For low-income or hard-pressed middle-income students – the type I once was – the process is simply overwhelming. Public schools are short on counselors, leaving students with little guidance to navigate a confusing process. Students who have parents who did not attend college are at an even greater disadvantage. These students often “undermatch” themselves, applying to too few colleges or to schools that don’t match their level of academic achievement. According to the Association for Education Finance and Policy, 50 percent of students from low-income families undermatch into colleges less selective than are warranted by their academic record.

Colleges know about these trends but have done too little to standardize their process and make it more accessible. Things are a bit easier thanks to “The Common Application,” a standardized electronic application accepted by over 600 colleges and universities. But too many schools don’t accept it, including the entire University of California system and the University of Texas system.

Even those that do often have additional requirements. Stanford University, for example, requires three different essay answers, along with multiple short answer responses that are completely different from those required by say, The University of Pennsylvania. Some colleges require two recommendations and SAT subject tests, while others do not.

Application timelines also vary. The deadline for The University of Vermont is different from that the one required by USC. Some colleges offer interviews, in some cases requiring students to sign up in September, while in other cases granting interviews only after the application is submitted.

This is just a fraction of the minutiae the typical 17-year-old college applicant must figure out. Ask any parent who has tried to shepherd a child through the process and you will hear horror stories about last minute essays, screaming matches over missed deadlines and frustration over different requirements.

Today’s application process is no picnic for college admission offices either. They also have the virtually impossible task of sorting through 20,000-100,000 applications in a matter of months, trying to find interesting, smart, diverse students who will actually come to their campuses and take advantage of the education that is offered. For any given college, much of this is wasted effort: as applications increase, the majority of the accepted students will turn them down and attend another institution.

This system frustrates everyone in the process, except perhaps people in my business who help families navigate this chaos. But enough is enough. Colleges need to work together to make the process more manageable and sane.

First, all colleges and universities in the United States should standardize their requirements and deadlines. The Common Application should be used for this purpose unless and until a better solution is developed. Additionally, all colleges should require the same personal statement and only one supplemental essay – I’d suggest the popular prompt of “Why do you want to attend this specific college?” because it forces students to research the schools to which they are applying.

Yes, I hear you admission staff. A standardized process with just two essays will actually drive up the number of students applying to multiple colleges. This is why I also suggest capping the number of colleges to which a student can apply at 12. In my experience, this number allows plenty of choices while encouraging students to focus their attention on colleges they would actually attend.

These changes would free up time and resources for college admissions offices, restore sanity during the application process and most importantly, make college more accessible to all.

Whether it is true or not for every individual, we live in an era where a college degree is considered a necessity for success. Perhaps we can at least start a discussion about making it easier to get in.

How to Help Teens Manage the End of the School Year

The school year is coming to a close so that means huge final assignments and lots of fun events for teens. From the ACT and SAT exams to course finals, students are loaded with stressful work. Although they are in the midst of these scholarly activities, there is still prom and other celebratory events for them to unwind at. However, managing all these things can be a challenge. Parents and teachers should pass them the following tips – and keep a few for themselves – to ensure students do well academically and make memories in the process.

1) Plan ahead
Do not procrastinate. Fill out your applications ahead of time, work on your assignments as soon as you get them, and just get things done as soon as you can. You don’t want to be writing final papers when you should be getting ready for prom or at an end of the year party with your friends.

2) Let teachers know what is going on
A lot of teachers will offer flexibility in the right cases. If you ask politely and explain your load, some teachers may be understanding and give you extensions. But while parents and teachers should be understanding, they shouldn’t enable or let teens take advantage. Students need to learn how to schedule and plan.

3) Don’t feel bad for saying no to events
It may be hard for teens to skip out on events that all their friends are going to, but it is important for them to choose whether some are worth going to or just staying for an hour. Students aren’t going to benefit from over-committing themselves or procrastinating in college, so creating good habits now is important.

4) Don’t forget to have fun
Teens shouldn’t get so caught up in getting things done that they lose focus on the here and now, like making memories and enjoying time with their friends. While students shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends, they luckily have a couple of months to recover. Just enjoy your time and finish strong. Do the best that you can so that you know that you’re proud of yourself.

High Expectations From Parents Can Harm Students

Parental expectations that are too high can end up impairing a student’s drive for success in school, research shows.

The observations, published in 2015, are from a five-year study of more than 3,500 middle and high school students in Germany.

Researchers examined the results of annual math tests given to students. They also asked parents to list the grades they hoped their children would earn, as well as the grades they thought their children could reasonably obtain.

The study showed that while realistic expectations helped kids perform well, unrealistically high expectations harmed student achievement.

“Although parental aspiration is an important vehicle through which children’s academic potential can be realized, excessive parental aspiration can be poisonous,” researchers noted.

The team repeated their study using data from US students and parents, and saw the same patterns.

“High parental aspiration led to increased academic achievement, but only when it did not overly exceed realistic expectation,” according to a press release from the American Psychological Association, which published the study. “When aspiration exceeded expectation, the children’s achievement decreased proportionately.”

Myths About College Admissions

Waiting to hear back from colleges about your acceptance can be stressful. Basically, your first steps into adult world are being determined by an admissions counselor based on endless factors. Did you take enough AP classes? Did you do enough extracurricular activities? Should you have applied earlier? Is your admissions essay unique enough? It’s hard not to constantly think about all these things but some things may not matter as much as you think. Ease your mind and check out these myths about admissions.



Universities that you apply for track you. They keep a record of how many times you have contacted the school, if you’ve arranged for a campus visit, or if you’ve requested more information. Doing these added steps really show colleges your interest and it can give you the extra push that you need to get in.

Part of a university’s prestige is its yield rate, which refers to the number of accepted applicants who actually enroll. Showing additional interest will give the admissions counselors confidence that you will actually attend if they accept you.



The best way to impress admissions counselors, as always, is to authentically pursue what interests you. The broad majority of applicants will actually be overqualified for the colleges they apply to and will also have various extracurriculars and experiences. In turn, admissions officers are looking for applicants who have had leadership roles or have played an important role in a major project or organization. It is best to have fewer activities where you focused and made a difference rather than more where you were just a participant.



Of course, colleges and universities like to see students take demanding classes in high school. However, selective schools usually don’t like grades that are below a B; struggling in more than one difficult class is not seen as a plus. So, unless students can manage a B or higher in higher-level courses, it is probably best to just stick with regular classes.

Admissions officers says that although grade point averages can be boosted because of challenging classes, they can tell when a GPA is bloated. This is because high schools use distinct grading systems and offer course with the same title but differing levels of difficulty. In fact, many universities have a system of their own to recalculate GPAs.



Essays can be the deciding factor when it comes to students whom admissions counselors are on the fence about. A student with average grades and test scores could catch counselors’ attention with a well-crafted, insightful essay or they can be rejected for a crummy one.

Submitting bad essays can always hurt your application even if you are an ideal candidate. You may be in a position where you don’t exactly need to submit an extraordinary essay, but a procrastinated essay or one that clearly shows that you didn’t put much effort into it can knock you out of the running.