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Extracurricular Activities During COVID-19

High school students typically use their summer vacations to engage in activities that will feature prominently in the “activities” section of their college applications. These activities paint a picture of how the student spends his/her time after school and on breaks and help college admissions staff determine which students will be a good fit for their campus. Unfortunately, the coronavirus will likely alter teens’ summer plans, leaving many parents and students worried about missing opportunities to showcase their skills, interests and talents.

While summer plans may be different from what students expected, students should not decide to spend their summers idly. Participating in meaningful activities should remain a key factor in a student’s college application. While sheltering in place, high school students should reflect on their interests and creatively find activities that they can do from home to build on those interests. Alternatively, the summer can be used to try something new.

Typical summer activities such as working as a camp counselor, attending a sports camp or academic summer program, lifeguarding at the local pool and participating in internships will may not be possible this year. Think of the quarantine as an opportunity to do something unique that will set your application apart from others in the pile. Stand-out applicants have resumes that include activities requiring an explanation to be understood. For example, “captain of the lacrosse team” is easy to explain and many applicants will be captains of varsity sports teams. “Created a Twitter account devoted to sharing information and communicating with others about a local historical site” requires a longer, more detailed description and is undoubtedly unique. It also shows that the student has leadership qualities and the ability to take the initiative.

As students choose how they will spend their time this summer, it is important to remember the following:

  1. Participate in a project or activity in which they are truly interested. Admissions staff can tell when a student’s activities are inauthentic and solely a means of “resume building.”
  2. Choose a project or activity to which you want to dedicate a meaningful amount of your time. Merely dabbling in an activity is not going to be help a college applicant stand out from the crowd.

The following is a list of ideas of “shelter in place” projects and activities that would enhance a college application. It is my hope that these ideas inspire students to brainstorm activities that match their own interests and then jump into those activities this summer.


  • Learn a new instrument. Find an online teacher in your area or learn from professional musician with an online service like ArtistWorks.
  • Start an online band with your friends or aspiring musicians half a world away online with SofaSession.
  • Perform on Facebook Live to entertain your community. Consider collecting donations during your concert for a local charity.


  • Coordinate online workouts with your teammates or host them via Zoom.
  • Organize group workouts on Nextdoor, an Instagram page you created or a community Facebook page.
  • Become an e-sports superstar.
  • Try a new “solo” sport such as running or weight training.


  • Horticulture: learn to grow vegetables and coordinate a vegetable exchange with neighbors or your entire town.
  • Research: Contact professors and ask about virtual research opportunities.
  • Learn to code with an online service like Code Academy.
  • Become a volunteer citizen scientist helping the National Oceanic and Administrative Administration to monitor and report the weather.


  • Start a blog or vlog or even a subscription newsletter on a topic of interest.
  • Public Relations: Contact lesser known or up and coming sports stars and ask if you can volunteer with their PR person on a project.
  • Create an Instagram page or YouTube channel on a topic or activity you are passionate about to connect with others who share your interest and become an influencer. Host a series of Zoom meetings addressing that topic.
  • Create your LinkedIn profile and connect with colleges, professors, teachers and family friends. Ask for endorsements and recommendations. Write and publish articles to your LinkedIn feed about subjects that interest you.


  • Learn a new art medium such as sculpting, quilting or photography.
  • Take an online graphic design course.


  • Research your family history.
  • Ask a family member who is sheltering in place with you to share a skill or hobby such as car repair or cooking.


  • Encourage your friends to read five classic novels and start your own book club.
  • Join a virtual book club.

Foreign Languages:

  • Take an online course in a new language. Practice with native speakers on a language exchange website.
  • Become an English-speaking partner with a non-native speaker.

The following are a few summer activities that may not be appropriate to list on your college application, but will help you with your future:

  • Networking.
  • Interview professionals in a field you are considering entering.
  • Take the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment. (Find out how this assessment can benefit you in college here.
  • Write a resume.

Photo of Michelle McAnaney founder of the The College Spy.

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and on The College Spy Podcast.

What Are Considered Good SAT Scores for Colleges? How Should Your Students Set a SAT Goal Score.

The overall process of taking the SAT test after putting in consistent efforts is indeed time consuming. At this point your students might be wondering what is a good SAT score for entry into the college of their choice. A good SAT score typically ranges from 1200-1400+, but this depends on several factors such as the college, competitiveness and the grade of the student taking the test.

What is a good SAT score for colleges?

The SAT- Scholastic Aptitude Test is a highly competitive test used for college admission in the U.S.. Students have a better chance of getting into the college of their choice by getting both a high GPA and SAT score. But what is a good SAT score?

The top ranked colleges typically will select the candidates who earned the highest SAT scores (along with other factors).

According to this, the 25th percentile score denotes 25% of the students who scored below threshold, 75th percentile denotes that 75% of the students are above or on the threshold. 50 percentile means 50% are at the median score.

The Highest SAT score you can earn is 1600. But 1400 is generally considered as a competitive score to get entry to any college. To apply for any of the top 30 U.S. universities, you must have a score above the median 50% range.  If you want to apply to Harvard, your SAT score should be ranging between 1470-1570. 

For instance, to know what score is good, your student must prioritize the colleges they plan to apply for. They must then consider the SAT score policy of each college by listing them and determining the median SAT score i.e: the 50% of the students admitted over the past year. They will then have a good gauge as to what scores are required at their schools of choice.

How much do colleges care about SAT scores?

The SAT score is one essential factor considered by colleges to evaluate the candidate’s performance and capabilities for admission. When a student applies for the college, they are evaluated based on their academic achievements and extra-curricular activities. The SAT is one factor that goes into the overall decision. Basically having a high SAT score represents that your students have the potential to stand out, even if their GPA wasn’t as high as it could have been.

Other factors evaluated in their application are their additional skills, unique essay, leadership, involvement and how well they might fit in at the college.

How important is a good SAT score?

Students should also apply for scholarships. Various colleges provide Merit Scholarships for students to support them financially. They should research many Merit Scholarships which have a minimum requirement and know what SAT score is required to be eligible. The guaranteed scholarships are also given to students after getting accepted by the college for a certain range of SAT scores.

How to Set a SAT Goal Score?

Now that they know what importance their SAT score holds, there are various ways to boost their scores. They must prepare well by making use of training, online courses, private tutoring, and self-study options. 

So, if it’s better to set a goal score before they start preparing. What should that score be?

A good score for every college varies. With high competitiveness between the students, they must ideally set a SAT score goal to earn a good score and get into the college of your choice. One simple method is detailed here,

  • Tabulate the colleges that they want to apply to in a prioritized order. Then determine the 25th /75th percentile SAT scores. This helps them plan on the school and acceptance rate of candidates.
  • They must find the SAT score information of those colleges online by looking for the previous year’s statistics. Then record the 25th and 75th percentile scores in the tables.
  • Using the information they collected, they can now set a target to score.


Generally, a good SAT target score for the colleges on their list is those who score in the 75th percentile or more. So preparing better can help them earn a score higher than the average and get into their college of choice.

Top 10 Read Posts from the 2019/2020 school year

We include most of our blog posts in our bi-weekly e-newsletter that is sent out to more than 20,000 Counselors during the school year. Here is a list of the top 10 posts as counted by click throughs in our e-newsletter with links so you can read them if you missed them the first time:

1. The Truth About Extracurricular Activities and Highly Selective Colleges – November 20, 2020 – 755 clicks

2.  6 Reasons Your Students Should Take a Dual Enrollment Course and 3 Reasons They Should Think Twice – December 4, 2019 – December 4, 2019 – 536 clicks

3.  The Ten Most Common College Application Mistakes – December 4, 2019 – 527 clicks

4. The Time I Screwed Up as a College Essay Coach – November 20, 2019 – 510 clicks

5. 4 Things to Do When Your Daughter Gets Rejected by Her First-Choice College – 507 clicks

6.  7 Tips Your Student Can Use to Start the Year Off Right – September 11, 2019 – 495 clicks

7. Letting Go of That Imperfect Essay – November 6, 2019 – 480 clicks

8.  The Baggage Activity – October 9, 2019 – 474 clicks

9. Ten Things Your High School Juniors Should Do – November 6, 2019 – 461 clicks

10.  What Does an Admissions Officer Look for When He/She is Evaluating Students? – October 9, 2019 – 429 clicks

Managing Stress to Score Better on the SAT and ACT

By the time students in US public schools graduate from high school, they will have taken an average of about 112 standardized tests since kindergarten (Washington Post). On top of that, students are taking quizzes and tests in each of their other classes, not to mention AP tests and the all important ACT and SAT. Even for a strong tester, this is a gargantuan number of testing requirements throughout their educational career. But for those who suffer from mild to severe test anxiety? It can be crippling.

Anxiety and stress have a significant impact on the brains of humans. Stress and anxiety trigger the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and the fight or flight response, meaning that students in this position are less able to focus, are perspiring, their heart rate and blood pressure are rising, and their memory is inhibited. All of these things together make for an incredibly inefficient test taker, no matter their intelligence level.

One of the most important things for students to do, then, is to mitigate their test anxiety. To learn to find calm in order to focus better and score higher on any test they take—now and into the future.

No matter the amount of preparation they do, if they are not learning to manage this aspect of the testing process, they will not be able to score as well as they could have if they had been calm and collected.

These are five strategies you can teach your students to practice before they sit the ACT, SAT, or any other exam. And remember, the more they practice, the easier it will be to implement these strategies on test day.

  1. Exhaling

Exhaling is critical to finding calm. When students get stressed, they tend to hold their breath, causing them to tense their shoulders and lose valuable oxygen from their brain in the process.

Teach your students to exhale at three specific points in tests:

  • Before they read the question
  • Before they read the answer choices
  • Before bubbling in their answer

Getting into this habit helps clear their brain throughout the process of answering each question and helps them focus their energy on that specific question and not on something that comes before or after.

This may seem noisy or distracting to other testers, so it’s important to remind your students to exhale quietly to minimize this. And the more they practice, the more they will find opportunities to exhale before challenging or stressful situations in their regular lives, too.

  1. Grounding

When we are stressed, we tend to hike up our shoulders and hold our breaths, both of which fight the pull of gravity. Therefore, we must reverse that and take solace in the strength of the ground when we are beginning to feel out of control.

Practice this exercise with your students in order to become comfortable with the process and to lower your own stress levels at the same time:

  • Place your feet flat on the floor.
  • Feel the weight of your feet on the floor.
  • Feel the weight of your body in the chair.
  • Let your arms and shoulders be pulled toward the floor by gravity.
  • Feel your eyes sinking into your eye sockets.
  • Take a moment to feel this grounding sensation before returning to the task at hand.

People who are busy and those who are under a time constraint taking a standardized test may balk at this idea: why take so much time away from necessary projects in order to do this activity?

Firstly, with practice, it won’t take very long to find this grounding sensation, so that is a reason to practice it every day in small increments.

Additionally, through grounding, you become more focused and efficient; you are then more likely to do better work and get the right answer because you are able to better evaluate the task at hand. Taking a few seconds to ground yourself is worth it if the outcome is better than the alternative would be.

  1. Deep breathing

Think back to the last time you meditated or took a yoga class. If you’ve never done this, here’s a quick synopsis: you settle on the floor or on a chair, close your eyes, and begin to observe your breathing. Feel free to try this now if it is new to you.

Chances are, your breathing initially is rather shallow and might be short. This is even more likely if you are experiencing stress or anxiety. When you breathe shallowly, you are not getting as much oxygen and you are not expelling as much carbon dioxide. This combination prevents your mind from working at its maximum capacity and can and will adversely affect performance on tests and other mental projects.

To practice this, let’s do a quick exercise.

  • Sit comfortably on a floor or chair with your back straight (you can also do this lying down, but that’s not possible in a testing environment, so sitting is usually better for practicing this).
  • Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath for 2-3 breaths.
  • Start to elongate your breathing, eventually taking an inhale at a 3 count (1-2-3) and an exhale at a 4 or 5 count (1-2-3-4-5).
  • Repeat this slow breathing for 4 or 5 breaths.
  • Open your eyes and feel the difference.

Again, this may seem like it takes too long in a testing environment. However, when your students practice this every day leading up to their tests, they will be able to find this position of calm, deep breathing more quickly and their focus and scores will benefit from this practice.

  1. Sensing

When we are stressed, often it is because there is some sort of disconnection between ourselves and our environment. We are focused on where we need to go or what we need to do and are not really paying attention to the task at hand.

And multitasking is not the recipe for good scores on the ACT or SAT.

Another skill to practice, then, is how to use our five senses to evaluate the space we’re in and bring us from our anxious state back to the present moment.

  • Sight: What can you observe visually in the space around you? Where is there light? Where is there shadow? What colors do you see?
  • Hearing: What sounds can you hear? Is there the sound of pencil against paper or a lawn mower outside?
  • Touch: The paper and the desk have different textures. Do they feel cold to the touch or warm? Smooth or scratchy?
  • Taste: What does your mouth taste like? Did your toothpaste last until this moment? Did you have a snack and that taste is lingering?
  • Smell: What does the room smell like? Do you note a familiar cologne or perfume on someone nearby? Or does the smell of hand sanitizer permeate everything?

Help guide your students through this process as you practice it yourself. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of uncertainty in the world and the number of tasks that must be accomplished by a certain time. However, returning to everything that exists in the present moment can help us become better equipped to handle the situation at hand and make the future result better in the process.

  1. Relaxing the Eyes

It is through our eyes that humans take in information from the outside world around. In prehistoric times, humans used their eyes to evaluate their surroundings for safety to be better prepared to escape at a moment’s notice.

That’s part of why our eyes get tired after using them intensely for an extended period of time.

Now, think about the ACT and SAT specifically: students are required to use their eyes for nearly four hours to take in information and process it in order to “survive.”

It’s no wonder that this can become taxing for students!

Here’s an exercise students can try throughout their tests to break up the stress on their minds and help them score better:

  • Every ten minutes (or ten questions), close your eyes. 
  • Feel your eyeballs sink into your eye sockets for a few seconds.
  • Count to ten.
  • Open your eyes and keep going.
  • Repeat as necessary.

Becoming familiar with this process and the benefits of resting their eyes can make your students better equipped to do well on their ACT or SAT, especially as the test wears into its third hour and beyond.

Practice Makes Perfect

None of these strategies will be beneficial to you or your students without practice. Therefore, I recommend blending these activities into your SAT and ACT prep from day one in order to make them second nature for your students. Just as with a theatrical or athletic performance, it is a bad idea to try something new on the day you perform. Help your students become comfortable with these techniques as early as possible in order to maximize their score potential on the ACT or SAT when it comes around.

The world is a stressful place, but if we can all learn to manage our stress, we will become happier, healthier, and more successful on the tasks we choose to pursue.

About Mary

Mary Lanni is the Educational Advisor for Lampert Educational Resources and heads up their Test Prep Roadmap program. She has been working with students in performance environments for over fifteen years and has seen the positive results of stress management first-hand. If you have any questions for Mary, please feel free to email her at

Taking Online College Courses – Tips for Success

Many of your students are planning to attend college this Fall and are reviewing the ongoing coronavirus (COVID -19) news. A large number of Colleges are discussing having their classes online this Fall and those that aren’t will see many of their students consider taking online classes as opposed to in-person due to the threat of the virus. The trend to take some classes online has already become prevalent at many schools, even prior to this latest crisis. As your students transition from high school to college and consider taking online classes, below are some things they should keep in mind.

Class Attendance and Participation. Professors will be able to monitor when they log in and for how long to see if they are engaged in the classroom as a student. Unlike a traditional classroom, they will be required, in many cases, to participate in online classroom discussions. A typical assignment will be to read an article and then to post a response with three questions about it. They will also likely be asked to read posts from their other classmates and provide them with feedback which will be a big part of their grade.

Time Management. They will need to review the course requirements and make sure assignments are turned in on time. Late assignments might not be accepted or points subtracted for doing so. Because class is online, keeping up with reading assignments is important because their grade will be based upon weekly assignments and other projects. They cannot just study for the midterm and final to obtain a good grade. They should use their phone, tablet, laptop or whatever system works for them to remain organized.

Writing Assignments. They will need to plan for enough time to prepare a draft paper and submit it to their campus writing lab or online review system used by their college, such as Smart Thinking. They will need to allow enough time for the writing tutor to provide feedback, then revise the assignment and submit it to their instructor on time. They should also remember that their classmates will be reading some assignments and providing feedback as part of their participation grade.

By following these tips your students can have a successful experience taking online courses.

Letters of Recommendation: What Every College Bound Student Should Know

Letters of recommendation are important because they put a college applicant’s transcript into a meaningful context. College admissions professionals often cite grades and academic rigor as the best predictors of academic success on the college level. But these two predictors do not tell the whole story. Grades and courses do not provide information about a student’s strengths, challenges, personality, character and work ethic—all of which are significant indicators of a student’s ability to be academically successful and contribute to the campus community. Letters of recommendation provide this valuable, contextual information.

Who writes the letters of recommendation?

There are three types of letters of recommendation: the school counselor letter, the teacher letter and the “other recommender” letter. Typically, colleges require a letter of recommendation from two teachers as well as the applicant’s school counselor. However, it is important to read the instructions on each college’s website to understand the exact requirements. Some colleges require fewer letters of recommendation and some colleges allow an “other recommender” letter for applicants who feel that an endorsement from a community member such as clergy, an employer or a coach would add value to their application.

What is the difference between a “teacher letter” and a “counselor letter”?

Teacher letters help admissions counselors determine if a student is an academic fit for their institution. Teachers may choose to comment on a student’s intellectual curiosity, work ethic, ability to work as part of a group, improvement over the course of the year or how a student handles challenging topics in the subject area. Teachers have a unique relationship to the student which will allow them to comment on a student’s organizational, public speaking and writing skills. Teachers often give examples of how a student approached a specific project and how they interacted with other classmates.

The school counselor letter of recommendation helps admissions officers understand a student’s character and personality. School counselor letters may also address inconsistencies on a student’s transcript. Transcripts that have inconsistent grades or a semester or year of low grades can only be accurately interpreted with more information. Admissions officers will often look for an explanation in a student’s school counselor’s letter of recommendation. A well written school counselor letter will explain to admissions officers how an applicant is likely to make a positive contribution to the campus community.

Which teachers should a student ask for letters of recommendation?

  • A student’s favorite teacher is not always the right choice for the teacher letter.
  • Ask teachers from junior and senior year. Students develop rapidly over the high school years. Colleges want to know about the student who will join their campus, not the student as he or she was two or three years ago. How a student performs in class junior and senior years will give admissions officers a more accurate picture of how he/she will perform in college than academic performance from freshman and sophomore years.
  • Ask academic (not elective) subject teachers. Colleges want to hear about a student’s performance in math, English, science, history and foreign language much more than art, music and woodshop. However, if a student is planning to pursue a major in an elective subject, such as culinary arts, art, theater or music, it is appropriate to submit one of the two teacher letters from the relevant elective teacher.
  • Students planning to pursue a major in a STEM field should ask at least one science or math teacher for a letter of recommendation.
  • In most cases, I recommend a student vary his or her letters. For example, don’t ask two English teachers for letters of recommendation. Letters from teachers of differing academic subjects are less likely to be repetitive in their content and observations and will generally add more valuable insight to the application.
  • Ask teachers that are known to be skilled writers. Although college admissions counselors are not “grading” students on the style of the teacher’s letter, poor writing may distract from the content.
  • It is not necessary to ask for a letter from a teacher in whose course a student has earned an “A”. Sometimes, a teacher whose course a student struggled with can provide the most insightful and helpful information to admissions counselors. A letter describing a student’s willingness to face a challenge, seek out extra help or overcome a barrier to success may reflect much better on that student than a letter describing success in a class in which the student breezed through.

When should students ask their teachers and school counselor for a letter of recommendation?

Ask for recommendation letters during the spring of junior year or beginning of senior year (for senior year teachers.) It is important to be near the top of a teacher’s list because some teachers put a cap on the number of letters they are willing to write. This is especially true of the more popular teachers or teachers of the academic classes perceived to be more rigorous than others. Additionally, a letter that is written when the teacher is fresh, not after he/she has grown weary of writing letters for students will likely be more comprehensive. Students should realize that it takes time for teachers to prepare a letter. Asking at the last minute reflects poorly on the student and may impact the quality or timeliness of the letter.

How should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Whenever possible, students should ask for a letter in person. The teacher will be spending their personal time outside the classroom to prepare the best possible letter. It is not thoughtful to send an email. It is not appropriate for a parent to request the letter on behalf of the student. While schools remain closed due to COVID-19, a video chat may be an appropriate substitute for an in person request. Once a teacher has agreed to write a letter for a student, the student should ask the teacher if there is any information that would be helpful to provide. Some teachers ask students for a resume, transcript and/or “brag sheet” where the student answers questions about their strengths, interests and goals. Be ready to provide any or all of these if requested.

What should students do if they would like their teacher or school counselor to write something specific in their recommendation letters?

There are instances when a student would like to request that something specific be included in the letter of recommendation. For example, perhaps a student excelled at a specific project in class or was consistently helpful to other students. Or, in the case of the school counselor letter, perhaps a student missed a lot of school and the absences affected his/her grades. Students should discuss these scenarios with their teachers and school counselor and decide if it is best for the applicant to address them in the “additional information” section of the Common Application or if it is best for the recommendation letter to address them. A word of caution: When someone else writes about you, you lose control over the message. It may provide greater clarity if the student addresses these matters directly rather than rely on either a teacher or school counselor to do so.

How are letters of recommendation sent to colleges?

Letters are sent to colleges electronically. However, the process does vary between high schools so a student’s school counselor is the best source of information for the process of getting letters to the colleges. In general, for colleges using the Common Application, teachers and school counselors upload their letters directly to the Common Application website. If a high school uses the college planning program Naviance, the letters of recommendation are uploaded to Naviance. For colleges who do not use the Common Application, follow the directions on the college’s website for sending letters of recommendation.

Should students waive their right to see their letters of recommendation?

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, students who are age 18 and over have the right to request access to their letters of recommendation after they have received an acceptance letter and chosen to attend a particular college. A student’s college application will ask whether they want to waive this right. It is beneficial to the student to waive the right. Doing so assures the admissions officer reviewing the application that the recommender was candid and honest because he/she knew that the student would not see the letter. Admissions counselors may discount the importance of a letter which they know to have been reported back to the student.

How should students follow up with their teachers and school counselor after the letters are written?

Students should always send a thank you card to their recommenders. Additionally, as acceptances start rolling in, students should let their recommenders know where they were accepted and what their college plans are. Teachers and school counselors work hard on these letters. They deserve and will appreciate a “thank you” and they will enjoy the opportunity to share in the student’s progress towards college.

Image of Michelle McAnaney, founder of The College Spy.

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and on The College Spy Podcast.

Winners of $10 Amazon Gift Card – Participants in Paramount Research Study

We recently surveyed Counselors that had participated in a survey related to readership of the print and digital versions of the Spring 2020 issue of LINK for Counselors. As an incentive to participate, we offered all entrants a chance to be chosen as a winner of one of ten $10 gift cards that would be randomly drawn.

Here are the winners that have been notified and sent their cards:

Mrs. Corrie Klinefelter, Cactus Shadows High School

Mr. Kristi Cooper-Denton – Edgewood Jr/Sr High School

Mrs. Pat Cunneen – Benet Academy

Ms. Daysi Colom – Belleville High School

Mr. Jed Geary – Eagle Hill School

Jennifer Brown – Bullock Creek High School

Rachel Henderson – Oswego High School

Maria Correa

Ms. Kim Jackson-Allen – Windsor Forest High School

Ms. Laura Willard – The Woodlands High School

Congratulations again to all these Counselors and thanks again to all who participated in the survey.

Are Your Students’ College Essays About Great Storytelling?

An independent educational consultant recently asked me this question: “Is the essay about great storytelling?”
Day after day, we get emails and calls like this one from counselors, teachers and educational consultants with questions and challenges. We’re always happy to answer.

This time, my answer was “Nope.” That’s a myth.
We say this all the time: At its core, the college essay is all about reflection –  NOT great storytelling, and not great writing. We say it because it’s true.
Some people believe the essay should be beautiful. Perfect. Like a piece of art. A story written with dynamic words, fancy sentences, flawless grammar and spelling.
But that’s a myth, too.
Because college admissions counselors who read application essays are not looking for great. Not before COVID-19, and not after. They want an essay that answers their prompt and will help them get to know the applicant beyond the application package. They want to hear what the student has to say, understand how that student thinks, NOT what the student thinks they want to hear.

As we move into application season in the most unsettling time in our history, it’s important to remember that great writers sometimes write great essays, but only if they show reflection. Just as many not-so-great writers crank out meaningful stories that get noticed inside the admissions office.

Questions? We’ve got answers.


Pro Chats: Every month we record a new College Essay Pro Chat. Check out the recording, or sign up for next month’s webinar. Wow CEO Susan Knoppow answers questions live for 30 minutes.

Free Student Classes: If you’re a school counselor who wants to help students with the basics, encourage them to sign up for my next free student class, or listen to the recording. You are welcome to sign up, too.

Stay healthy. We’re sending warm and calming thoughts to all of you.

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop a premier college application essay coaching and professional training company, offering private, virtual writing coaching services to professionals and students throughout the world.  Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements.  Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role in the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites. In 2019, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education.

You Don’t Have to Be an Expert to Help Families Afford College

Now more than ever, middle class families need help figuring out how they can afford college. With many families having to do more with less, knowing the ins and out of the financial aid system can be key to helping them cut college costs.

A high school counselor may be the first person families turn to for help. But a survey by the College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA) noted that this is an area where most counselors feel they lack expertise—with good reason. Rules are frequently changing, and the way aid is calculated varies from school to school.

While financial aid is a complicated process, there are a few simple steps counselors can encourage families to take to put college within their financial reach.

Focus on School Over Private Scholarships

Private scholarships tend to be smaller, typically less than $2000. If students have limited time, it’s best to focus on working toward the large scholarships offered by colleges and universities. Part of that means crafting a list of schools that looks beyond the advertised price tag. Sometimes private or out-of-state schools are cheaper than state schools when you factor in the scholarship money a student qualifies for. Encourage families to do some research before they commit to a list or eliminate schools based on advertised tuition.

Retake the ACT or SAT

Maybe a student has a score they’re happy with that will get them into their dream school. Great! But can they afford that school? Scoring just two points higher on a test may be all they need to do to earn $10,000 more in scholarships. Some schools list the scores students’ need to earn rewards right on their web sites. Families can see for themselves how a modest increase can make a huge difference.

Consider the EFC

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) varies from school to school, which impacts a family’s potential financial aid. That’s because not all schools use the same formula. Some colleges, for example, may count home equity, while others may not. Encourage families to investigate how schools compute their EFC to eliminate surprises down the road.

Plan Ahead for the FAFSA

The most important steps families can take in filling out the FAFSA happen before they ever sit down to complete the form. There are strategies families can take years before their student’s junior year in high school that can help them reduce their EFC. Consulting with a local financial aid expert may help them reduce their EFC and increase their eligibility for aid.

Follow Directions

Some schools require students to complete a CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. Others may require filing through the Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC). Encourage families to stay on top of this and make sure they complete the forms correctly and in a timely manner. Failing to do so could result in them losing out on thousands of dollars.

Update the FAFSA If Circumstances Change

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible a family’s financial or health circumstances could change once they complete the FAFSA. Make sure families are aware that they can update their information if a parent loses a job or the family incurs unexpected medical expenses.

List a State School First

It may sound crazy, but if a family doesn’t list a state school first on their FAFSA, they may miss out on state aid. Families should list a state school first to make sure they see state eligible grant money on award letters.

Be Savvy About Small Businesses

If a family owns a small business, encourage them to consult an expert about how to manage their assets. A simple step like keeping most of their assets in their business rather than a private account can make a huge difference in terms of financial aid awards.

Use the IRS Data Retrieval System

Families need to use precise spelling and wording for this system to work accurately, but that’s a small price to pay for the benefits they’ll receive. Families who use this system will receive their award letters sooner and will be less likely to need verification from schools.

Remember, Nothing Is Final

Financial aid awards can be negotiated. Receiving a better offer from a similar school, or a change in financial or health status in the family are all valid reasons to appeal a financial aid award. Encourage families to look into a school’s process for appeal and have them go through the proper channels to make a request before eliminating a school a student wants to attend.

Call in the Experts

Many high schools bring in experts to host free financial aid workshops for students and their families. This can be a great tool to fill in the knowledge gaps for college-bound students and their families. If you choose experts who also offer private consultations on a sliding scale, parents will have an affordable place to turn when they need some extra help.

A few smart tips can go a long way to helping families make college more affordable. College counselors don’t have to have all the answers, but they can certainly point students and their families in the right direction.

Shane Cole is an advisor for My College Planning Team ( in the Chicago area.  He is also a counselor at Addison Trail High School. He has helped families from diverse economic backgrounds successfully navigate the college application, financial aid and scholarship processes.

Seniors Coping with the Covid Quarantine

There is no doubt that this is the saddest senior class of all time, and rightfully so. They have missed out on opportunities they have waited for for 13 years. When I talk to high school seniors they talk about how they feel robbed of experiences and opportunities. Many of them are sad and depressed. Many are anxious about college because they do not feel ready for this transition. 

Finding joy in times like this can be a challenge, so here are 3 Tips to Finding Joy in the NOW. 

  1. Realize that all your feelings right now are valid.

You have had a very unexpected kink thrown in your plans. You have had experiences you have dreamed about stripped from you. You are sad, mad and maybe even depressed and it is okay to feel that emotion. In fact, you need to feel that emotion and understand that it is okay for you to feel this way. When you feel the negative emotion do not push it away, but rather embrace it. 

  1. Focus daily on what you are grateful for. 

Regardless of your personal situation, there is so much to be thankful for. Are you healthy? Do you have someone that supports you? Is there food in your refrigerator? Will you get a high school diploma? Are you still alive? Are you still able to get a college education? No matter how small, make the choice to focus on the good. Look for the good in nature. Notice that nature has continued to thrive despite our lives being put on halt. 

  1. Take the time you have now to create. 

You have months of downtime right now. What can you create? Think about the skills you have and how you can use them to create something epic! Do you want to start a podcast or a blog? Maybe create a non-profit? Learn another language? Take this time to create something incredible. Is there something that you have always wanted to do, but have never had the time? Find the joy in creating new things. 

If you have lived to be 18 years old, then you have done hard things. This is just one more hard thing to add to your resume. I believe that no matter what you are going through in your life right now that you are going to come out stronger on the other side. I want to encourage each and every student and parent to embrace this time we have together. Take the time to love and understand each other on a deeper level and find joy even in the hard times.

JoBeth Evans has five years of experience teaching high school, and has been teaching public speaking at the University of Arkansas for five years. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas and a master’s degree from Arkansas Tech University. She is a nationally certified life coach with a total of three different coaching-related certificates. In her work as a life coach, she helps teen girls make the transition from high school to college. In addition, JoBeth is a speaker and writer who works to equip young women for the major life transition of entering college. She can be reached at

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