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Five Recommendations on How to Become a Stand Out School Counselor

1. Promote a Safe School Climate

Safe, inclusive, and positive school climates provide students with supports (i.e. social and emotional learning).  How can school counselors do this effectively?

Some suggestions include…

  • Listen. People need to feel heard. Students, parents, teachers, secretaries, even the principals.
  • Assist students in developing social and emotional competencies like self management, resilience, and decision making. 
  • Refer students with complex social, emotional, and behavioral needs for psychological testing, mental health services, and other educational services.
  • Assist your administrator in addressing the root causes of disciplinary incidents;  preventing future disciplinary concerns;  reintegrating students returning from suspensions,alternate schools, or incarceration, and maintaining a safe, inclusive, and positive educational environment. 
  • Involve students and student advocates in maintaining a safe, inclusive, and positive educational environment through such programs as peer mediation or restorative justice.

2.  Get Involved in Staff Development and Training

Some suggestions include…

  • Provide school staff with ongoing training in evidence based techniques such as conflict resolution and de-escalation strategies to decrease classroom disruptions.
  •  Provide cultural awareness training to all school personnel.
  • Train school resource officers in cultural competence, child development, conflict resolution, privacy issues, and mentoring.
  • Train students to become peer helpers to extend your services in the school.

Start a Peer Listening Program in Your School

  • Connect with the other counselors in your district, not just your department. Start a PLC/PLN (Professional Learning Community/Network), meet on a regular basis to discuss common challenges/solutions/ community resources, share ideas, materials and encourage each other. This is beneficial at  every level but even more at the elementary where counselors are often on their own. It takes leadership and initiative to start one and keep it going.
  • Grow as a professional and submit a session proposal to speak at a conference. (Can’t afford to go?  Check out the School Community Counselor Scholarship on the Counseling Geek’s blog!)
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!!! With teachers, counselors outside your school, community members, students. Also consider moving up to admin, counselors have great insight that is missing in administration.
  • You see a need and you fill it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a counseling group, a parent workshop, a newsletter home, or a holiday help program.

3.  Become a Advocate for Yourself and All Students

Some suggestions include…

  • Provide clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations for all students, not just a few.
  • Advocate for providing positive interventions in the school discipline policy over student removal.
  • Promote equity and continuous improvement among the student body.
  • Be consistent in collecting data to prove your interventions are working.
  • Collect data to track progress in creating and maintaining a safe and inclusive educational environment.
  • Recognize that it is the best profession in the world and you are fortunate to serve students everyday sometimes never knowing the impact you have made. You have the opportunity every single day to make a difference in the life of a child. It doesn’t get any better than that.
  • Talk to local politicians about what your role looks like.
  • Get involved in social media PLNs (twitter is a great place to start, look up #scchat #hscchat #escchat
  • Get involved in your local branch of your association and your state association.
  • Find your “why”! There are going to be horrible, tough days you may even feel like quitting but know your why will make those hard days manageable! Plus give you a goal to work towards. Have a celebration folder for the rough days too! Self-care is essential. Plan it into your life! We can only help others if we help ourselves first! We must put the oxygen mask on us before others!!
  • Take care of yourself so you can be “present” with your students and help them navigate their mental health.
  • Get out of your office. Walk the halls at lunch. Get to know the kids and make yourself visible and approachable.

4.  Teach Students Needed Skills for Success in Life  (2018 resources added here)

Some suggestions include…

  • Consider teaching your students survival skills needed for the 21st Century.  Consider such events as an Adulting Day Event.  Want to know more?  Check out my post on creating an Adulting Day Event.

Create Your Own Adulting Day Event

Career and Technical Letter of Intent Signing Day

Many student are not recognized at award nights, college signing days, or honor ceremonies. Consider creating a Career and Technical Letter-of-Intent Signing Day.” At this ceremony, students and company representatives sign letters of intent regarding conditions of the students’ employment, training, and compensation. 


College Signing Day

For students who want to move to a college or university, consider a College Signing Day Event. Follow this guide to create your own College Signing Day to celebrate future success.

College Decision Day Ideas

5.  Meet Regularly With Your Administration and Offer Your Expertise and Support 

Some suggestions include…

  • Make an effort to get to know your principal as a person.
  • Give support to your principal on decisions he or she makes.  The support you give will come back your way!
  • Build trust by keeping your word, being student-centered, and keeping your principal informed. 

See more about your relationship with your principal…it’s pretty important.
You Matter in Your School: Evaluating the Counselor-Principal Relationship

This post was made by Cynthia Morton on her great blog – For High School Counselors. Check it out at –

How to Appeal a Financial Aid Letter

How do you appeal a financial aid letter?

Should you appeal a financial aid award?

What kind of college awards can you appeal?

I directed these financial aid questions to Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized financial aid expert, who has just published a book entitled, How to Appeal for More Financial Aid Awards. Mark is publisher and VP of research at, who has been quoted in roughly 10,000 media articles.

I was pleased to have an opportunity to conduct a Q&A with him on appealing financial aid awards. Here are my questions and his answers:

Are parents underutilizing the ability to appeal financial aid awards?

Many parents think of the financial aid award letter as a done deal, with no opportunity for an appeal. Others think they can bluff their way to a better deal using their skill at bargaining. Neither is correct.

Only about one percent of students receive adjustments to their financial aid packages because not enough families appeal for more financial aid, and of those that do, many approach the process incorrectly.

Successfully appealing for more financial aid requires an understanding of the financial aid process. College financial aid administrators have the authority to make adjustments to the data elements on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or to the cost of attendance when there are special circumstances that affect the family’s ability to pay and their cash flow.

Special circumstances include financial circumstances that have changed since the year upon which the FAFSA is based and anything that differentiates the family from the typical family.

Financial aid administrators are not mind readers. They will not know about a change in income or unusual expenses unless you tell them. But, if you do tell them, they can make adjustments that can lead to a better financial aid package.

A key benefit of the switch from prior-year income to prior-prior year income on the FAFSA is that it sensitized families to changes in income, causing more of them to appeal.

That one-percent figure is discouraging! How did you get it?

There have been some surveys of financial aid administrators and students that suggest a 1% rate (albeit higher at higher cost colleges). I also analyzed data from the federal National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

Very selective private institutions often claim a very high appeal and professional judgment rate. While I believe that they are higher, due to the higher cost, the numbers I’ve heard are just not believable.

What is the first step parents should take if they want to appeal a financial aid award?

If a family wants to appeal a financial aid award, their first step should be to call the college’s financial aid office to ask about the process.

Some colleges have a form for the family to complete. This form collects information about the most common special circumstances. It helps the college perform a holistic review of the family’s financial circumstances.

Other colleges will ask the family to write a letter to the financial aid office. This letter should summarize the special circumstances and the financial impact of each special circumstance on the family’s ability to pay for college.

The family should also gather documentation of the special circumstances. The best documentation is independent, third party documentation that provides information about the special circumstance and the financial impact on the family. Bills, receipts, and letters from people who are familiar with the family’s situation are especially helpful. The appeals process is driven by documentation.

Who should parents contact? The financial aid office or the admission office?

The financial aid office is responsible for need-based financial aid. Thus, an appeal based on the family’s inability to pay should be directed to the financial aid office.

Merit scholarships are usually managed by the admissions office.

What are the essential elements of a successful financial aid appeal?

A financial aid appeal is more likely to be successful when the special circumstances are due to factors beyond the family’s control. One-time events that are not reflective of the family’s ability to pay during the award year are also likely to result in a successful appeal.

The success or failure of a financial aid appeal depends on the special circumstances and the documentation. The purpose of the appeal is to inform the college financial aid administrator about financial circumstances of which they were not aware. The appeals process is based on information provided by the family. If you provide the financial aid administrator with information about financial circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college, you are more likely to have a successful outcome.

If the family is honest and the special circumstances genuinely affect the family’s ability to pay for college, the college financial aid administrator will try to find a way to help the family, even if the special circumstance is one for which the college does not normally make an adjustment.

With most schools not meeting the full demonstrated financial need of a student, what will prompt a school to offer more assistance?

The financial aid appeals process is formulaic. If special circumstances affect the family’s ability to pay, the college can make adjustments to the data elements that are used by the financial aid formula to calculate the expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC is then used to calculate the family’s demonstrated financial need. The financial aid package is then based on the demonstrated financial need.

A change in the inputs leads to a change in the outputs.

A college that does not meet the student’s full demonstrated financial need will still leave the family with unmet need. But, an increase in demonstrated financial need will lead to an increase in financial aid. The unmet need may therefore be smaller than it was before the adjustment.

With preferential packaging a reality – students whom colleges want receive better financial aid – will the decision be heavily colored by how academically attractive a student is?

The decision to make an adjustment does not depend on the student’s academic performance, nor does the amount of need-based financial aid.

The amount of financial aid is based on the student’s demonstrated financial need. A successful financial aid appeal will lead to an increase in the amount of financial aid.

How the financial aid is allocated among the different types of aid, such as grants and scholarships, student employment and student loans, will depend on the college’s packaging philosophy. Depending on the college, an increase in financial need might lead to an increase in grants or an increase in student loans or student employment, or a mix.

Generally, a college’s packaging philosophy has a baseline approach to allocating funding among the different types of financial aid. Preferential packaging may tweak the amount of gift aid relative to this baseline.

Who makes the ultimate decision about more financial aid? The financial aid office, the admission office or a combination?

Congress delegated the authority to make adjustments to the FAFSA and the annual cost of attendance to the college’s financial aid administrator. Neither the admissions office, the college president nor the U.S. Department of Education can override the decision of the college financial aid administrator. There is no appeal beyond the college financial aid administrator. The college financial aid administrator is the final authority with regard to need-based financial aid.

With many schools struggling to fill their freshmen slots, how would you advise appealing a merit scholarships award?

Decisions regarding merit aid may fall within the purview of the admissions office. But, often these decisions are formulaic, even automated, with very little discretion. The admissions office might be able to award merit aid to a student who fell short of the standards for merit aid, but subsequently improved their academic performance. But, unless there’s a spectacular development, like the student wins a prestigious award, the admissions office is unlikely to pull much additional money out of a hat.

So, the best approach to appealing for more merit aid is to let the college admissions office know if the college is genuinely your first choice and to provide the admissions office with information about any new developments that affect the student’s desirability. Also, provide the admissions office with information about colleges of similar quality with which the college competes for students and which have offered you a better financial aid package. Arm yourself with information about the typical amount of aid offered by each college. Know your net price at each college. The net price, which is the difference between the college’s annual cost of attendance and the gift aid (grants and scholarships), is the true bottom line cost of each college. And, if you don’t get what you want, be prepared to walk away.

Wouldn’t a major factor in upping merit awards be how a school’s freshmen deposits are doing? Wouldn’t higher competing awards be a major factor in getting a better merit award from a particular college? 

Colleges do a significant amount of budgeting and predictive analytics to understand their numbers. Just as students worry about whether they are going to get in, colleges worry about their yield and summer melt. But, if the college’s numbers are off significantly, they are not going to be able to fix the problem by making big swings in the amount of aid they offer. You might be able to get a few thousand dollars more, but not a few tens of thousands of dollars more. If the college offers too many students too much money, they will blow their budget, which can be just as bad as having too few students enroll.

The college will have done a lot of analysis to understand why their numbers are off. If you are waffling on accepting the offer of admission for one of these reasons, you might get more aid.

If you have a better aid offer from a competing college, it can sometimes lead to a better aid offer from your first choice college. But, the competing college must be of similar quality to your first choice college and one with which your first choice college successfully competes for students.

If the other college is of lower quality, they may be using money to attract academically talented students. If so, your first choice college will not try to match their offer.

If the other college is of much greater quality, you’re likely to end up there, especially if they offer a lower net price.

So, it is only in the middle where you have a chance of getting more financial aid from a college, if you are likely to enroll if they improve the aid offer.

What suggestions do you have for appealing an Early Decision award?

The main reason why a college will release a student from the early decision commitment is if the family is unable to afford the college. So, first appeal for more need-based financial the same as you would with any other college. If the revised financial aid offer is still not enough, explain why to the college.

But, you should really never apply early decision to any college. Early action is ok, but not early decision. Early decision involves a commitment to attend if admitted. This prevents you from shopping around for a more affordable college.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a nationally recognized higher education expert and financial journalist, who helps high school counselors and parents of teenagers understand how families can find good schools and cut college costs. Lynn, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, shares her knowledge through her blog (, her Amazon bestseller (The College Solution) and her online course for parents and counselors (The College Cost Lab). 

You can sign up here for her newsletter and receive a free guide on finding generous colleges. 

College grads expect to earn $60,000 in their first job—here’s how much they actually make

Each year, enthusiastic university commencement speakers tell students that the hard work they did in college will pay off if they simply continue to persevere.

But a recent survey from LendEdu highlights how some of graduates’ expectations are not being met.

LendEdu analyzed a College Pulse survey of 7,000 college students from nearly 1,000 colleges and universities and found that students, on average, expect to earn $60,000 in their first job out of college.

Most will earn closer to $50,000.

PayScale estimates the typical graduate with zero to five years experience makes $48,400. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) calculates that the preliminary average starting salary for graduates from the class of 2018 is about $50,004.

Each year, enthusiastic university commencement speakers tell students that the hard work they did in college will pay off if they simply continue to persevere.

But a recent survey from LendEdu highlights how some of graduates’ expectations are not being met.

LendEdu analyzed a College Pulse survey of 7,000 college students from nearly 1,000 colleges and universities and found that students, on average, expect to earn $60,000 in their first job out of college.

Most will earn closer to $50,000.

PayScale estimates the typical graduate with zero to five years experience makes $48,400. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) calculates that the preliminary average starting salary for graduates from the class of 2018 is about $50,004.

NACE data also indicates that college graduate starting salaries have recently seen a subtle dip. The organization estimates that the starting salaries of the class of 2018 were actually 2 percent lower than the average starting of the class of 2017 ($51,022).

Despite this statistic, there are many good reasons for college graduates to be optimistic. Wages are finally beginning to budge after years of sluggish growth and recent figures from NACE indicate that employers plan to hire 16.6 percent more members of the Class of 2019 than the previous year’s graduating class. That’s the biggest increase among recent graduates since 2007.

“If you’re graduating from college now, you’ve timed it perfectly,” Brian Kropp, vice president at research firm Gartner tells CNBC Make It. “It’s hard to think of a better labor market that you could go into.”

Historically low unemployment rates are forcing companies to hire more recent graduates. The unemployment rate for all U.S. workers is roughly 3.9 percent, but the unemployment for college educated workers is just 2.1 percent.

Kropp says this dynamic gives recent graduates considerable leverage when interviewing for jobs and negotiating for starting salary.

“The reality is, most companies will not hit goals in terms of the number of campus hires they want to hire this year,” explains Kropp. “What that means is as a campus hire, you have the ability to shop offers more than ever before.”

He continues, “A lot of companies will come in and say ‘This is the standard offer for new campus hires, associates, analysts,’ whatever it may be. But given how competitive the market is, they actually have a lot more flexibility in terms of signing bonus, in terms of bonus potential and so on.”

Additionally, research suggests college still pays off in the long run. In 2018, college graduates earned weekly wages that were 80 percent higher than those of high school graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that Americans with a bachelor’s degree have median weekly earnings of $1,173, compared to just $712 a week for those who have a high school diploma.

The United States Social Security Administration calculates that men with bachelor’s degrees earn roughly $900,000 more over the course of their lifetime than high school graduates, and women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more.

This story was posted on CNBC by Abigail Hess

Free SAT/ACT Resources Available

With so much information coming from so many sources, it’s easy to lose track of important ACT- and SAT-related details, and to be skeptical about whether to trust the material being presented. Knowing the content of the exams is important, but it’s not everything; it’s also crucial for students to learn about logical testing timelines, best practices for prep, services that will allow them to see their exam questions, and more.

We understand the importance of providing clear, concise information to school counselors, who are often the only resource for students with questions about these exams. That’s why we’ve created this short guide, which summarizes key facts that go beyond basic test structure, and which can help you provide timely, valuable ACT- and SAT-related advice to your students and their parents. We encourage you to print and display these pointers for easy access, and hope that this guide helps make the testing process less intimidating and more constructive.

What you need to know about the SAT

What you need to know about the ACT

Top 10 Things Counselors Should Know About the Tests

Evan Wessler is the VP of Education at Method Test Prep. He can answer any questions you have about the SAT or ACT by e-mailing him at or visiting the Method Test Prep website at

The College Search Process: An Unexpected Avenue Into Your Student’s Mind and Heart.

People often characterize the college search process as stressful for both parents and students. While I agree that waiting to hear from schools is terribly stressful since there is nothing you can do to make the decisions come any faster, I have to say that I really enjoyed all the car trips, hotel stays, essay editing, application strategizing, and overall quality time that the college search process gave me with my daughter. We shared private jokes, had great conversations, practiced driving, and learned more about each other.

We visited over 20 schools, and although the particulars of most of the schools blurred together, we still giggle at the memories of the woman who made a weird face at us when we walked into the library, the kid who was trying to impress the student tour guide, or the ornery woman who yelled at our tour guide for not letting us see a ceramics classroom. We stayed in a funky old hotel one night and spent half an hour walking through the halls and reading the artifacts in the display cases. We still listen to funny podcasts we discovered on these road trips, such as My Brother, My Brother, and Me and Mortified.

I always let her give her opinion of the schools first, and I was amazed at how similarly we viewed most of them. We had conversations about what was important to her, and my usually reserved daughter would tell me more about what she values and what she finds interesting and what she thinks she might like to do in the future.

I know she would not say she enjoyed writing her application, but for me, it was a chance to reflect on all that she has accomplished. We talked about the challenges she has overcome and what all of her activities reflect about her personality. These conversations would probably not have come up were it not for the necessity of writing college essays.

It’s hard to get teenagers to open up, but the college search process was an unexpected avenue into my daughter’s mind and heart. By the end of it, I knew that wherever she ended up, she’d be okay.

This piece was written by Diane Murray, a parent, who’s daughter was recently accepted to her first choice college.

It was shared from a blog posted on the 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.

12 College Interview Questions You Must Prepare For

It is tough to get into college these days. With stiff competition from thousands of applicants, one place to set yourself apart is during your interview. Not all colleges require (or even offer) an interview component to their application process, but many do, so check the school’s website or contact the admission office to find out if interviews are offered and how to schedule one. Interviews may be conducted by an admissions officer or a representative of the school, such as a current student or a graduate, who has agreed to help interview candidates to see if they are a good fit for the school. Interviews may be conducted in person or by phone or video.

There are literally hundreds of interview questions that colleges might ask of their applicants. It is impossible to prepare for all the questions you might face, but it is easy to practice and prepare for some of the most common ones. There is actually a lot of psychology that goes into the types of questions admission officers ask and what they are looking for in your responses. Remember that what you say is sometimes just as important as what you don’t say, and your body language speaks to the audience as well. By knowing the types of questions admission boards may ask you and understanding what they are really looking for when they ask these questions (or any number of their variants), you can be prepared with some solid and impressive answers to wow your interviewer!

 General Interview Tips:

  • Don’t be nervous. Yeah, yeah, easier said than done. And admissions officers or their representatives understand that nerves are natural and to be expected. But try to keep them under control. Take deep breaths, maintain eye contact, and try to stay calm. Remember that questions don’t need an immediate answer – it’s okay to pause (briefly), gather your thoughts, and formulate an answer. If you don’t understand the question or aren’t sure what they are looking for in your answer, ask for clarification or for them to reword the question, or repeat it in your own words to make sure you’ve understood what they are asking.
  • It’s a conversation, not an audition – really! The purpose of the interview in a college application is twofold: It allows the admissions officer an opportunity to get to know who you are and to gauge whether you will be a good fit for their school, but it is also an opportunity for you to ensure that the school will meet your needs and expectations. If you go in with a “script” and are playing a part you think will impress them, the interview will come across as stiff, and they may misunderstand or misread the real you. Really listen to what the interviewer is asking, give yourself a moment to compose yourself and your answer, and then give it your best and most honest response. Definitely, have some talking points tucked away, but don’t be afraid to answer “off the cuff” with whatever comes to mind at the time – filtered for audience and purpose, of course. It’s also okay to admit you don’t know or aren’t sure but talk through your reasoning a little bit so they can see your thought process at work.
  • Honesty is the best policy. Being honest is the best way to be impressive – don’t tell the panel what you think they want to hear. Speak the truth, from your heart, to ensure that the panel gets to understand the “real” you and can assess how you will fit in on their campus and can appreciate the contributions you can make to their campus community. Be creative and show your personality, but don’t lie or pretend to be someone you’re really not.
  • Ask questions of your questioner. One of the easiest ways to show a school’s representative that you are interested in attending is by having a few questions prepared that you can ask at the end of your interview. They will usually conclude by asking if you have any questions, and it’s a good idea to have one or two to show that you have done your research on this school and you are eager to learn more about specific aspects of it. Don’t ask questions where the answers could be found easily on the school’s website; but if something comes up in the interview that you want to ask a follow-up question about or you have a question where the answer will give you valuable information to help you make your decision, ask it!

 Whatever You Do, DON’T:

  • Show up late, unprepared, or without having done your research on the school. You are not doing them a favor by participating in this interview, so be sure to be respectful and attentive. Put your cell phone away (after making sure it’s on Do Not Disturb) and shake hands firmly while making eye contact with the interviewer.
  • Forget your audience. While you want to try to keep to a natural conversation tone and tempo, this interviewer is not your friend and you’re not hanging out over coffee. Dress appropriately and use elevated (but natural) vocabulary – no slang and avoid fillers (“um”, “like”, “you know”, etc.). Keep it natural and try not to sound rehearsed.
  • Be too shy or too boastful. It’s Important to try to find the middle ground – share about yourself, who you are, and what has brought you to this point in your life, but show humility. Admit to your failures or short-comings and focus on explaining what you learned as a result of those experiences.



1. Tell us something about yourself

2. What adjectives best describe you?

3. How do you plan to get involved in our campus community?

4. How do you spend your time when you are not in school?

5. What are your academic strengths and weaknesses?

6. Describe an obstacle you have faced

7. What is your opinion on [topic]?

8. What book would you recommend everyone should read?

9. Who in your life has been most influential on you, and why?

10. What do you hope to gain from attending this college or university?

11. What experiences have you had with people who are different from you?

12. Do you have any questions for us?


Question 1: Tell us something about yourself.

What they’re looking for:

Often couched as more of a request or statement rather than a question, what the representative is looking for is to get a general understanding of who you are and what you’re all about.

How to answer:

This question does NOT mean start with your birth and chronologically account for every major milestone in your life, from learning to walk to your high school graduation. Instead, give a succinct explanation of who you are and what you potentially have to offer the school. What makes you special or a stand out among the other applicants? Why would this school be proud to call you an alumnus after you graduate? They know your age, hometown, grades, etc. from your application, so try to give information or details not included in the paperwork part. In answering this question, it can feel like you are rambling, so be sure to practice this one ahead of time so that it is telling, without all of the details, and gives an accurate representation of who you are and why you are important without boasting.

Question 2: What adjectives best describe you?  Or How would your best friend describe you?

What they’re looking for:

This question might include a set number (What 3 adjectives best describe you? Or What adjective would your best friend use to describe you?) Pay attention if they give you a specific number – they want to make sure that you are really listening and paying attention, in addition to seeing how you assess yourself. It is a test of both your humility and your creativity, so try to avoid general adjectives (nice, funny, smart), and pick some that really capture the essence of you.

How to answer:

Bragging can be the worst! We’ve all been told not to do it, to be humble, but this is your opportunity to balance humility with some creative adjectives that give a sense of who you really are and what is important to you. Really spend some time on this one, brainstorming specific and creative adjectives to describe you and your personality. If possible, provide justification for why you’ve chosen the ones you have.

I would say one adjective that describes me is determined. Although my determination can sometimes come across as ‘pushy’, I am goal-oriented and I feel most satisfied when I achieve what I have set out to do, so I am willing to work hard and encourage those around me to work hard, too, so that we can achieve a goal together.

Sometimes the way the question is asked will allow you to justify and explain your answers. Though if you get the sense that the interviewer just wants a list of 5 adjectives, give them the list of 5 adjectives and wait to see if they ask follow-up questions or seek more details.

Question 3: How do you plan to get involved in our campus community?

What they’re looking for:

Schools want to know that you have something to offer them for everything they’re going to offer you. It’s students who make campus life engaging, inviting, and inclusive, so they want to know how you are going to engage with the community around you and help to make positive contributions to the school and campus, not just sit in your dorm room all the time. It’s also a test of your personality (what do you like to do in your free time) and whether or not you have researched the school and can mention or inquire more about certain activities or opportunities.

How to answer:

This is a great opportunity for you to talk about bridging your activities from high school to the opportunities this college or university provides on campus. They give insight into your values and passions and show that you enjoy being a part of a community.

“I was really involved in our International Club at my high school, and I saw on your website that you have several Cultural Houses as part of your campus life. I would like to learn more about those.”

“I volunteer helping elementary school students with their homework after school. I’d like to continue serving the community by finding some volunteer opportunities at your school.”

The idea is to show that you want to be engaged and interact with the campus community, but college is also a great time to try new things! So you might want to mention some clubs or organizations associated with the school that you think would be interesting to check out and learn more about. A great follow-up question to your interviewer is to inquire about any sort of Club Rush or Club Fair the school offers (they usually happen in the fall), where the school’s different clubs and organizations showcase what they do and look for new recruits for their program. You want to give the sense that you will be actively participating and will make their school even better with your contributions.

Question 4: How do you spend your time when you’re not in school?  Or, If you had an afternoon to spend any way you’d like, what would you do with the time and why?  Or, What do you like to do for fun?

What they’re looking for:

As suspect as it might sound, this is not a “gotcha” question where the representative is looking for a “right” answer. Instead, your honest response gives a sense of your values, passions, and hobbies, and indicates your ability to create balance in your life. They’re wanting to hear, honestly, what matters to you and how you spend your “off” time in a meaningful or fulfilling way. This is an especially important question to answer genuinely and not just with the answer you think they want to hear.

How to answer:

This is not a trick question. Though you probably don’t want to discuss the weekend parties you enjoy attending, this is an opportunity to share some of your passions or activities that are important to you and to indicate what gives your life a sense of meaning and value. Are you involved in family, community, or society in a meaningful way? If you had an entire afternoon free, would you spend it on social media or lost in cyberspace somewhere? Would you cloister yourself away in your room playing video games? Would you offer to mow the neighbor’s lawn? Take your dog for a walk? Ideally, your answer to this question presents a balanced person who is able to appreciate doing for others but also realizes the importance of focusing and rebalancing the self. But if you’re not into yoga on the beach or sitting cross-legged in deep meditation, explain how playing those video games relaxes you or how hours spent on social media helps you feel engaged with people you may not get to see in person very often, and therefore why you value those types of activities.

Question 5: What are your academic strengths and weaknesses?  Or, How do you learn best?

What they’re looking for:

Also not a trick question, this inquiry allows the representative to get a sense of your level of self-awareness when it comes to your academic strengths and weaknesses or your learning style. They want to make sure that your strengths will be an asset to the school and that your weaknesses are areas in which they can provide support and work with you to strengthen based on your identification of them and willingness to work through them.

How to answer:

This can be a tricky question because it’s sometimes hard to brag about what we do well or to admit to where we struggle. But this is a great question if there are any anomalies in your transcript or anything in the academic portion of your application that you feel you need to explain to the representative. For example, if you failed Spanish in high school and only earned a C the second time around, you might explain that one of your weaknesses is language acquisition – you have discovered that learning a language is a challenge for you because of the auditory processing it requires, but your strength in acing all of your science classes, including AP Biology, comes as a result of your hands-on learning style.

Being able to conduct lab experiments and having that hands-on interaction with the material helped you learn and understand it better. Academic strengths and weaknesses can go beyond the particular subject. For example, you may be very organized, so strength is that you never lose an assignment or forget to turn anything in because you keep good track of your work, but you are a procrastinator so that work is often being done last minute, which sometimes results in less than your best.

Be sure not only to acknowledge your weaknesses but also to acknowledge your awareness of them and the coping skills you apply to counter their negative effects.

I am a procrastinator, but I am working on improving that by using calendar reminders on my phone to remind me about upcoming deadlines so I can start on the task before the last minute.

Question 6: Tell us about a time when you didn’t get what you wanted or when things didn’t go your way. How did you respond to that experience?  Or, Describe an obstacle you have faced. How did you overcome the challenge that it presented?

What they’re looking for:

There’s so much psychology in this question. How easily do you admit to mistakes? What kind of mistakes do you choose to admit to? How thoroughly do you explain the impact of the mistake and its long-lasting effect? Remembering when you didn’t get the color balloons you wanted for your six-year-old birthday party may have bummed you out at the time, but why are you still holding onto that disappointment? How do you relate it to current disappointments? Your answer to this question speaks to your resiliency, your ability to recognize an obstacle as such, and your capacity to process that obstacle and figure out alternative approaches to the problem. There is a lot of self-reflection associated with this question: How easily do you admit to not getting your way or facing an obstacle? Your answer indicates how well you problem solve and deal with frustration or disappointment.  

How to answer:

This one’s a tough one. Not only do most people have an awful lot of examples to choose from, but how do you determine the “right” one to share? The right one is the one that sticks with you to this day. It is the experience that you remember and use as inspiration to push you through current tough times. We face obstacles every day, but how we approach them today comes as a result of what we’ve learned from the past. It’s okay to choose an example where you didn’t handle the disappointment or obstacle well at the time, but with continued self-reflection and some maturation, you realize you would handle things differently today. Remember that in any of these “Tell us about…” questions, you want to keep your story-telling succinct. They need enough details to appreciate the situation, but not so many that your story is long and drawn-out. This is another good question type to practice ahead of time and pass by some people to get feedback about whether it seemed rambling or if it lacked details that would help explain the impact.

Question 7: What is your opinion on [insert any debatably current event or topic here]?

What they’re looking for:

This question assesses your level of global citizenship. While you may not need to know all the details about Greece’s banking system and why their debt-crisis is critical to all of Europe, it is a good idea to know something about something so that it doesn’t seem like you’ve been living under a rock or are so caught up in your own world that you lose sight of the big picture. Representatives are looking to see how much you know about the world around you and how knowledgeable you are about current events. Your opinion also gives insight into your values and perceptions of the world.

How to answer:

Don’t be shocked or alarmed by this question, prepare for it by doing some reading online or watching some news broadcasts ahead of your interview to get a sense of some of the challenging debates taking place across the nation and around the world. You may not have the answers to the problem they ask about but show that you have heard of it, have a basic understanding of it, or have considered it enough to have some questions about it (“So I have heard of xyz, and I don’t understand how…”). An opinion is just that – there’s no right or wrong answer, but they are looking to see what topic you pick to discuss, which side of the argument you seem to be on, and how you approach the problem. If worse comes to worse and you really have no idea what they are talking about, it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure,” or “I’m not familiar with that issue,” but chances are they will ask your opinion about a topic that is broad enough that you should have some knowledge and some opinion about it. As this is an opinion and it may be about a sensitive topic, be aware of any bias or prejudice that may be present in your response and practice ahead of time so that your opinion uses neutral, non-stereotypical, and non-prejudicial language.

Question 8: What book would you recommend everyone should read?

What they’re looking for:

First, are you literate? Second, the answer to this question also speaks to your interests and what you find important or valuable in life. People recommend books because they feel somehow connected to text, its story, its characters, or its theme. Representatives are interested in hearing what kind of writing you’re connecting with and what important message you found that resonates with you.

How to answer:

Chances are (hopefully!) that you have a wide range of texts from which to choose an answer. Some people like to get nostalgic and select a book from their childhood that taught them a valuable lesson or cemented their love for reading, or was just the right book at the right time. Others select a book from their high school years, something they’ve read more recently or studied more in-depth with class discussion and analytical assignments. Still others select a text they may have read on their own, such as an independent reading book. Regardless of your selection, select with a purpose. WHY should everyone read this book? WHY is it important? What lesson(s) does it have to offer? Have you applied that lesson to your own life in any way? With what results? Consider, also, the question – what book should everyone read? Which means you need to select a book that most people can relate to on some level and not one that most won’t be able to relate to or find meaning in.

Question 9: Who in your life has been most influential on you, and why?  Or, Tell me about an influential person in your life. How has this person influenced you and what have you taken away from your interactions with him or her?

What they’re looking for:

George Washington is credited with sharing the idea that “It is better to be alone than in bad company,” and the idea that you are only as good as the company you keep means that the people you look to for guidance or inspiration says a lot about who you are. This question seeks to determine what kinds of people you associate with and look up to as role models or sources for inspiration.

How to answer:

Your choice may be personal, like a grandmother, coach, piano teacher, or someone no one else has necessarily heard of; or, you may pick a more well-known source of inspiration, like a famous musician, artist, or politician. No matter who you pick, make sure you have a succinct story to tell about how this person has affected you in a positive way. While people tend to select influential people based on the positive things those individuals have modeled in their own life, it is possible to choose bad influences to talk about what you have learned about life from these people and their struggles and how they inspire you to be or achieve more than they have. Think about the justification for why you select an individual to be your “most influential” person. It doesn’t have to be someone you know personally or be someone you’ve spent much time with, as long as they have left some kind of lasting impact on you for the better.   

Question 10: What do you hope to gain from attending this college or university?

What they’re looking for:

Understanding what your motivation and expectations are with regard to college or university help admission officers determine whether or not their school will meet your expectations and whether you would be a good fit. They may also be looking to see if you have formulated clear goals for yourself, both short-term and long-term, to be sure that you’re attending college for all of the “right” reasons.

How to answer:

Although the answer might boil down to “I want to get a good job, make a lot of money, and live a comfortable life,” this question requires both short-term and long-term consideration. In the short-term, you are about to spend at least four years of your life at this school and in this community. Why do you want to be there? How do you envision the next four to six years of your life? What role does this school play in that vision? Then expand to long-term and the knowledge and learning you hope to gain that will serve you for a lifetime. Also, some people aren’t really sure why they’re headed off to college, other than that’s just the expectation of the next step placed on them by family or society. So really think about his one before you answer. What are YOU hoping to gain from this experience? What does THIS school have to offer you that another college or university doesn’t? Why would you be a good fit here? It’s a valid question and needs an honest, thoughtful answer.

Question 11: What experiences have you had with people who are different from you?

What they’re looking for:

College is a melting pot of all different people from all different backgrounds. Admission officers want to know your experience with diversity and assess your interactions with others. College can be an opportunity to experience and learn about different people and cultures and your prior experiences with doing so may speak to the success you’ll have in acclimating to college life.

How to answer:

We’ve all been there – in a situation with someone who is different from ourselves, wondering how to interact, what common ground may be found. Sometimes these interactions are brief and inconsequential, but sometimes they shape who we are and how we view the world. Your answer to this question explains your level of acceptance when differences are easier to identify than similarities. As you prepare for this question, think about several of these experiences and consider: was the experience positive or negative? Were you the “instigator” or the “victim” in the experience? What did you learn as a result of the interaction? Your answers to these kinds of sub-questions help the admission officer determine your probable success as part of a diverse campus and what you will do to help bring people together in a spirit of understanding.

Question 12: Do you have any questions for us?

What they’re looking for:

Interviewers generally end the session with this generic question. Don’t ever answer, “No, I’m good, thanks.” Having questions to ask in return shows that you are thoughtfully engaged in this school selection process. You are inquisitive and eager to learn more. Your questions also allow them to assess the research you’ve already done about their school and the seriousness with which you are approaching this decision.

How to answer:

The answer to this question should always be an enthusiastic “YES!” followed by a thoughtful question or two that will provide you information that will help solidify your selection of this school as the perfect place for you. Don’t pepper the interviewer with 30 different questions, but have two or three to ask, understanding that there may not be time for the representative to answer a lot of questions from you. Make sure the questions you ask are not basic information questions that you could find the answers to online. The best questions to ask are ones you have formed as a result of the conversation you’ve just had. Questions that follow-up to comments made during your interview show that you were paying attention and are already reflecting back on the experience. At the very least, have a few questions prepared to ask about campus life or academics. If you are concerned about anything, ask a question about it. For example, you may ask about student support for incoming freshmen – are there counselors to talk with, is tutoring available if you feel like you’re struggling? Questions like these indicate you are interested in your success and are already envisioning yourself as part of their school family.

This post provided by USA Test Prep. Check them out at :

15 Things to Know about U.S. News’ College Rankings

While U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings are wildly popular, few families know much about how they are created.

Before you place too much faith in U.S. News’ college rankings, here are 15 things that you should know about them.

1. U.S. News relies on rankings to stay alive.

U.S. News’ college rankings wields tremendous power even though the rankings giant is a shell of its former self. Long ago U.S. News couldn’t attract enough subscribers to keep the magazine going.

To survive, U.S. News issues junk rankings for all sorts of stuff including such things as hospitals, cars, diets, high schools, law firms, vacations, cruises and health insurers!

2. U.S. News’ college rankings have encouraged institutional bad behavior.

U.S. News’ college ranking system is one of the chief culprits for escalating college prices and encouraging harmful admission practices.

Millions of students have been adversely impacted by the rankings competition because of the actions of the audience that cares most deeply about the numbers – college presidents and their boards of trustees, and by extension, their admission offices.

For these folks, US News has provided them with an easy (though deeply flawed) scorecard to measure how their institutions are faring and they are distraught if their school’s ranking stalls out, or worse, drops.

3. The college rankings formula can be gamed.

Plenty of universities have figured out how to crack the code to climb up the rankings ladder.

Northeastern University is one of the schools that focused single-mindedly on improving their rankings. Two decades ago, Northeastern was considered an third-tier, blue-collar commuter school stuck with an unattractive campus.

But then a new college president took over and focused single mindedly on  saving the institution by doing whatever was possible to boost its U.S. News ranking.

Four years ago, Boston Magazine explored this Cinderella tale and quoted the Northeastern president as saying, “There’s no question that the system invites gaming.”

U.S. News ranks Northeastern, which is now an extremely popular destination, as No. 40 in the coveted national university category. Twenty years ago it was ranked No. 162 and it was rare for anyone outside of Boston to have heard of it.

George Washington University was another struggling commuter school that successfully cracked the U.S. News college rankings code and began attracting affluent students who could pay higher prices for a bachelor’s degree and, in turn, attract even more high-income teenagers.

Here is an article from Washington Monthly about how ranking manipulation catapulted GWU in the rankings. It’s now ranked No. 56 in the national university category.

4. Popularity is a big ratings factor.

A school’s reputation among the right people will significantly impact it’s U.S. News ranking.

In annual surveys, three administrators from the offices of president, provost and admission at each school in the national university category, for instance, must assess what they think about all their peers on a one-to-five grading scale. (One is marginal and five is distinguished.)

Here, however, is the dilemma:

What do administrators at UCLA, Johns Hopkins, University of Tulsa and Clemson know about what’s going on at Brandeis, Case Western Reserve, Virginia Tech and Florida State, much less 300 other schools in the national university category?

Or how about schools in the liberal arts college category that have far less name recognition. What do administrators at my son and daughter’s alma mater – Beloit and Juniata colleges – know about the academic quality at Lake Forest, Coe, Rhodes and Allegheny colleges?

Rating peers on one-to-five scale is an absurd exercise that administrators should refuse to do.

5. U.S. News measures six-year graduation rates.

I don’t know any parents who thinks that graduating from college in six years is acceptable. U.S. News, however, uses six-year rates when evaluating schools. Another head scratcher.

6. Rankings encourage colleges to favor affluent students.

US News awards schools which generate higher test scores and grade point averages for their incoming freshmen class, which favors rich students.

This focus on selectivity has been a boon for affluent high school students, who tend to enjoy better academic profiles. These teens can afford expensive test-prep courses and are more likely to have attended schools with stronger academic offerings. There is a strong positive correlation between standardized test scores and family income.

Attracting richer students allows the school to boost their sticker prices without alienating too many potential customers.

7. Rankings encourage the use of merit scholarships.

Before the rankings became so prominent, high-income students typically had to pay full price for college. The majority of grants were reserved for middle-class and low-income students, who required financial help.

But with the rankings premium linked to top students, private and public institutions began offering merit scholarships to entice smart, wealthy students to their campuses rather than to their competitors.

How do you cough up the money for these deal sweeteners?

One way is to raise the tuition price to generate extra revenue for these scholarships and another way is to reduce the financial aid to needy students. Low and middle-income students are the big losers in the rankings game.

8. Elite schools are the exception to merit awards.

The only schools that don’t offer merit scholarships to rich students are the institutions that are perched at the top of U.S. News’ college rankings.

Wealthy parents whose children get into the top-rated schools in U.S. News’ national university and liberal arts colleges categories, such as Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Amherst, will pay roughly $300,000 for a SINGLE bachelor’s degree, but they won’t do it for other schools.

The most elite schools boast that they reserve their aid to the families who need financial help to attend college, but most of these institutions offer admissions to a shamefully low percentage of needy students. The most elite schools primarily educate wealthy students.

9. Rankings encourage admission tricks

For instance, US News’ algorithm favors schools that spurn more students. To increase their rejection rates, schools will court students through marketing materials and social media that they have no intention of accepting.

Here’s another trick: some institutions make it easy for students to apply via streamlined online applications, which are referred to in the industry as “fast apps.” Schools use this strategy to increase the size of their student body, as well as bump up their rejection rates.

10. Rankings don’t measure what’s important.

One of the perverse aspects about the rankings is that turning out thoughtful, articulate young men and women, who can write cogently and think critically won’t budge a school’s ranking up even one spot. Curiously enough, U.S. News doesn’t even attempt to measure the type of learning going on at schools.

In reality, the methodology fueling the rankings are a collection of subjective measurements that students and families are supposed to rely upon to pinpoint the schools doing the best job of educating undergraduates. U.S. News relies on proxies for educational quality, but these proxies are dubious at best.

11. Rankings encourage cheating.

Rankings have become such a high-stakes game that some schools send false data or have acted unethically. And I suspect that most of the schools that are manipulating their figures have never been caught. Those that have been outed include Claremont McKenna, U.S. Naval Academy, Baylor University, Emory University.

12. Rankings encourage debt.

This is incredibly infuriating –  the rankings giant ignores how much college debt students are incurring. It’s a terrible omission that is certainly one reason why college tuition continues to defy inflation.

US News rewards schools that spend freely and the rankings juggernaut doesn’t care if that requires universities to boost their prices and graduate students with staggering debt.

Here is an old post -that I wrote about this phenomenon for my previous college blog at CBS Moneywatch: 

Blaming College Rankings for Runaway College Costs

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article for The New Yorker in 2011 on college rankings in which he talked about the incentive of institutions to turn their campuses into lavish palaces and stick the bill with the kids:

13. Don’t believe the numbers.

You should not believe that a college ranked No. 1 or 19th or 73rd is better than peers ranked 6th or 42nd or 95th best. I’ve seen too many parents make terrible financial sacrifices to send their kids to rankings darlings when it was completely unnecessary.

The school that you attend isn’t as important as what a student does wherever he or she lands. I wrote a post about my daughter four years ago that illustrates this fact.

14. Use U.S. News as a tip sheet.

Rather than focus on the numbers, consider using U.S. News rankings to generate ideas. This will be particularly helpful in searching for promising schools beyond the national university category, which includes nearly all of the nation’s best-known universities.

Try looking for ideas in U.S. News’ regional universities and liberal arts college categories and then start researching them.

15. U.S. News  is here to stay.

A few years ago, Brian Kelly, the U.S. News editor made this promise during an press interview:  “You can love us or hate us, but we’re not going away.”

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a nationally recognized higher education expert and financial journalist, who helps high school counselors and parents of teenagers understand how families can find good schools and cut college costs. Lynn, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, shares her knowledge through her blog (, her Amazon bestseller (The College Solution) and her online course for parents and counselors (The College Cost Lab). 

You can sign up here for her newsletter and receive a free guide on finding generous colleges. 

Why are Your Students Confused Over the College Essay? And How Can You Help Them?

As high school counselors, you already know the competition to get into the nation’s top colleges gets tougher ever year. But do you know that’s not because students are smarter or more qualified than they were five or ten years ago?

It’s a simple matter of impossible math.

Year after year, more kids apply for the same number of available spaces at the most selective schools. It is impossible for them all to get in.

With more perspective, parents and students alike can take a deep breath and calm down a bit. You can help by sharing this insight with them.

Because it is so hard to get into the top name-brand schools (think Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Vanderbilt, Columbia, University of Chicago, to name a few), the students who are qualified for the most selective colleges look elsewhere to improve their chances. They use modern technology to apply to more schools than they might have otherwise considered.

Furthermore, because students can apply to so many schools using the Common Application and other platforms, students frequently check boxes for schools they might normally ignore if more effort were required. This practice helps colleges increase their applicant pool. It works well for schools because it makes them look more selective. If a school can accept only 1,200 students and 6,000 apply, the admit rate — or the percentage of students the school accepts — will be 20%. If 12,000 apply, the college will enroll the same number of first-year students, but the admit rate will plummet to 10%. On paper, it will look like this college has become more selective (“We accept only 10% of applicants.”) Needless to say, this practice can be challenging for parents who just want to get their kids off to a good college. It can be equally challenging for high school counselors and other professionals who work with students and interact with their parents.

Insight and Perspective

To see how ease of applying affects the admit numbers at popular colleges and universities, consider the University of Michigan, which began accepting the Common App in 2010. That year, applications jumped by 25%; U-M received a record 39,584 applications, and its admit rate dropped to 38.9% — the lowest percentage since 2005. Five years after joining the Common App (2015), applications to U-M surpassed 50,000, and the admit rate plunged to 26.3%.

Remember, all applications are used to help colleges decide which students to admit. That’s why essays are so important. With more and more students applying to the same schools, help your students understand that they need to help readers see beyond grades, scores and a list of activities.

You can be sure this trend will continue. As additional schools join consortiums to make the application process easier, they will become better known, the numbers of applications will continue to rise, and the admission rates will continue to drop.

There are about 5,300 two- and four-year colleges in the U.S. according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More than 20 million students are enrolled in college — a number that has increased by nearly 5 million since 2000. Of those, about 13.4 million attend four-year institutions. It’s a big business. Students need colleges, but colleges also need students. If your students want to get a degree after high school, the odds are stacked in their favor. Help them find a good choice and the right fit.

In fact, some of the lesser-known schools — consider the unrated ones on the rankings lists that are academically strong but not marketed as heavily — generally give away the most cash in scholarships. Useful, accurate and relevant information is a counselor’s and family’s best friend.

Just to put the industry into some real perspective, we are going to focus on the dream: getting into the most exclusive, super-selective university in this country. One year it’s Stanford. Another year it’s Harvard, Northwestern, Columbia or MIT. Then there are the most popular ones, like UCLA. In any case, we are talking about big name brands.

In 2016, Stanford became the first school in the nation to drop below a 5% admit rate. Remarkably, that figure plummeted from the previous decade. At 4.69%, Stanford surpassed Harvard (5.2%) for the second year in a row. Next was Columbia at 6%, followed by Yale (6.3%), Princeton (6.5%), University of Chicago (7.6%), MIT (7.8%), Caltech (7.9%) and Brown (9%).

That same year, the rest of the Ivies came in under 14%; Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt admitted about 10% of their applicants; Notre Dame accepted 18%. The most selective public school was the University of California, Berkeley at 14.8%, followed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (25.8%) and the University of Virginia (28%).

Admission rates at Harvard and at universities throughout the country have been trending downward in recent application cycles. In 2018, MIT, Stanford, and every member of the Ivy League but Yale, set record low admission rates. Stanford was the most selective, with an admission rate of 4.3 percent. What’s it mean for your students? The odds are stacked against them.

How to Help Your Students Get Noticed

Yes, your students can get noticed — they just have to be realistic. Once all the hard work is done (such as getting an A on the calculus final), they will want to focus on the essays. No matter what changes in the industry, one thing remains constant: writing matters.

More schools, including the University of Chicago, are becoming test-optional, which means grades and writing are the most significant factors in admission at those schools. Some admit based on straight grades and test scores, but most land somewhere in the middle. Everything comes into play: grades, test scores, essays, activities and letters of recommendation.

The state of admissions has everyone up in arms. Students and parents are confused because they don’t know what colleges expect. Colleges are taking heat because they are too expensive, and admit rates have plunged to ridiculous levels. As a result, students worry about getting into college — and many fear they won’t have any options.

We cannot state enough how important it is to tell your students that colleges are interested in character, as well as grades. If they share meaningful traits and characteristics in college essays, standing out should come naturally.

Whether a student has Ivy League ambitions or they are looking at a local college, you can give students great advice to make writing an application essay more meaningful. That way, they can stand out from the crowd of qualified students at that dream school.

What do Colleges Really Want in an Application?

We have interviewed dozens of admission officers from major universities and small colleges alike, and they all say the same thing. Without exception, they advise students and parents to relax, take a deep breath and focus on the things they can control.

A couple of years ago, a friend took his son, a talented member of his school’s rowing team, on a tour of elite East Coast colleges and universities. We asked him to let us know what he heard at those schools regarding admission essays.

Most college representatives mentioned the essay during their presentations, but MIT took the message a step further. While talking about the quest for the perfect ACT or SAT score, the admission representative reminded parents and prospective students that test scores merely indicate whether a student is academically ready for freshman courses.

Above a certain level, scores didn’t seem to make much of a difference. In fact, the MIT rep said students trying to achieve perfect test scores were wasting their time. Instead, she suggested students put that time and effort into their essays.

Despite what you might have heard, the most selective schools do not expect application essays to be written much differently from those submitted to less selective colleges. During a college essay panel discussion we moderated during a New York ACAC conference, senior admission staff members from Columbia University and Barnard College said they do not expect better quality writing from applicants to their schools. Rather, they look for reflection and an answer to the prompt. No bigger words. No better writing. Columbia and Barnard want to know how an applicant thinks.

Both reps said the essay was their favorite part of the application package. The task and expectations are the same for just about every college that requires essays.

About the Author

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services, specializing in teaching writing for college and graduate school admissions, and teaching and writing for businesses and nonprofits. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. Wow can even help you write a great poem or short story. This blog comes from Wow’s third book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Counselors.  If it involves words, Wow can help! Email your questions to

Our Gift to You and Your Students

As our way of saying thanks to you for the great work you do every day, we’d like you to have a complimentary copy of our College Essay Crash Course, the Common App, a 1-hour simple video course. It will give your students the insight and tools they need to write a compelling Common App personal statement.

Our College Essay Crash Course is designed to simplify the writing process, while giving your students the confidence they’ll need to write genuine, meaningful essays that will get attention where it matters most — inside the admissions office.Click Crash Course to access the video course, and to find out how to give it to your students.

From Mentee to Mentor to Role Model

Closing out National Mentoring Month and reading so many great mentorship stories, I’ve been thinking about some of the great mentoring relationships I’ve seen throughout my career advocating for young women in tech. The story of Rian and the mentors along her path always makes me smile and gives me a renewed sense of possibility.

I initially learned about Rian Walker in 2013 when she received the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing for the State of Mississippi. I’ve been following her journey ever since and continue to be inspired, both by Rian’s persistence and passion for educational equity, and by the mentors who have supported her along the way.

The Picture of Grit

Rian was a high potential student who very nearly fell through the cracks. Raised by her grandfather since early childhood, Rian’s world fell out from under her when he passed away suddenly in 2009. After his death, she was placed with her biological father, who had never been a consistent part of her life. Her grades, which had been very good in elementary and middle school, began to decline. She missed 86 classes during her freshman year of high school, leaving her father’s home multiple times, and often had no place to live. As a teen she walked and ran all over the coastal cities of Mississippi on her own. Throughout those years she was placed in both a mental health hospital and a youth detention center, but nonetheless, she maintained her interest in computing and taught herself to program in multiple languages. She put her tech skills to use to support herself, purchasing old phones on E-Bay, refurbishing and reselling them.

A Mentor with a Mission

Her high school counselor, Karen Gifford, took a special interest in Rian and was able to get her registered under the McKinney-Vento Act as an unaccompanied minor. She was the person who encouraged Rian to apply for the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing her final year of high school. Despite being four hours away, Mrs. Gifford and Rian got up in the wee hours that day in March 2013 to drive from the southern coast to the regional award event at Mississippi State University. At the event Rian met Dr. Sarah Lee, a former IT employee at FedEx Corporation, who had recently joined the MSU faculty with a passion for engaging more women on computing pathways.

Dr. Sarah Lee, Rian and her school counselor Mrs. Gifford one year later at the 2014 award ceremony.

A Pivotal Moment

Following the award event, Sarah immediately reached out to Rian to encourage her to apply to MSU to study computer science and helped her get admitted. Just 8 days after that fateful day, I received an NCWIT AspireIT grant application from Rian and Sarah to launch Bulldog Bytes, a program to engage middle school girls in computer science and cyber security. That mini-grant not only launched a multi-year CS education initiative that has served more than 500 Mississippi students, it also created a summer job and place to live for Rian for the few months before starting college.

Rian jumped into her role as a computer science undergrad including research projects, conferences and much more.

From Student to Family

Rian became more than a student for Sarah. She joined the Lee family for holiday celebrations, and Sarah’s family members and friends donated to a scholarship fund for Rian. The first summer and fall, Rian spent hours in Sarah’s office telling stories of her past. Rian needed to tell those stories in order to begin a path towards healing. Sarah listened and offered words of encouragement. Over time the hours they spent together became fewer. Sarah missed Rian when she stopped coming by so often, but knew this was a sign that she was becoming more self-confident in her college career.

Paying It Forward

While at MSU, Rian and Sarah co-founded the Bulldog Bytes computing outreach program. Starting with one camp for middle school girls in 2013, the program has grown to receive national recognition and offers camps for K-12 boys and girls across Mississippi. Bulldog Bytes also offers CS and cybersecurity professional development to K-12 teachers and has offered special programs to the public like a technical workshop for senior citizens and a programming workshop for persons with low vision and blindness.

Rian speaking at a high school classroom in Mississippi — one of her many outreach efforts on behalf of MSU.

A Role Model for Others

Today Rian is a business analyst working on technology used by millions of customers for a major financial institution in Charlotte, NC. As a young professional, she is focused on her job, but she continues to support and encourage other young women coming up in the pipeline – including welcoming the new class of NCWIT Aspirations in Computing members joining her company and community.

She is an ardent advocate of equity in computer science education and an example of the powerful impact mentors and sponsors can have on the trajectory of a young person.

Rian Walker holds a degree in Software Engineering from Mississippi State University and is employed as a Business Analyst at Bank of America. She was a 2013 NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Regional Winner and National Runner-up. She represented NCWIT at the 2013 White House Science Fair, hosted by President Obama. Reflecting on her role as project leader in the 2013 middle school Bulldog Bytes girl’s camp, she says that one of her most rewarding moments occurred while helping a participant. Rian stated, “She was eager to get my attention to show me that she had completed her project, but she was interested in taking the project further. ….. and it further solidified my reasoning to work in computer science.”

Sarah Lee joined the faculty at Mississippi State University after a 19 year IT career at FedEx. As an associate clinical professor and Assistant Department Head in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, she is co-founder of the Bulldog Bytes program that provides K-12 student outreach and teacher professional development in CS. She is PI for the NSF INCLUDES Mississippi Alliance for Women in Computing, partnering with stakeholders to engage and mentor girls and women on computing pathways. She serves on the board of directors for the Mississippi Coding Academies, an emerging workforce development program.

Ruthe Farmer 

Ruthe Farmer of CS for ALL wrote this story. She is a national advocate for gender equity and diversity in technology, and has focused her efforts on diversity in technology and engineering since 2001.  At CSforALL, she serves as Chief Evangelist, working to invite new stakeholders to the CSforALL table – and make the table bigger. Prior to joining CSforALL, Ruthe served as Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy focusing on President Obama’s call to action for Computer Science for All, led strategy and K-12 programs at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), and implemented national tech and engineering programs at Girl Scouts of the USA. She has launched multiple national inclusion programs including Aspirations in ComputingTECHNOLOchicas, the AspireIT outreach program, Lego Robotics for Girl Scouts, Intel Design & Discovery and more. She served as 2012 Chair of CSEDWeek, was named a White House Champion of Change for Technology Inclusion in 2013, received the Anita Borg Institute Award for Social Impact in 2014, and the UK Alumni Award for Social Impact in 2015. Ruthe holds a BA from Lewis & Clark College and an MBA in Social Entrepreneurship from the University of Oxford.

New apps your students are using

There are new apps being developed every day and teens are typically early adopters. Here is a list published by CNN of some apps that young people are using that their parents might not be aware of:

BIGO LIVE – Live Stream

Kind of like Twitch and YouTube, BIGO LIVE lets teens stream live video of themselves that other users can see and comment on in real time. You can also receive and send “Beans” — BIGO’s term for virtual gifts — that cost real money. You can level up and improve your ranking by logging in every day and sending gifts. The platform is designed for people who supposedly want to get famous, but it seems to be filled mainly with people competing for gifts.What parents need to know BIGO has a lot of mature content, including sexy talk and clothing, and users’ comments are often predatory and explicit. Also, its focus on status and spending money, as opposed to creativity and talent, makes it feel shallow.


In this simulation game, you’re assigned an identity to play through the entire game, from infancy to death. As you play — and your character gets older — you can make text-based choices about how to make money, spend time, and develop relationships with pretend profiles (which aren’t connected to real people). Those choices determine your levels of happiness, health, smarts, and appearance. When you die, you can start all over.What parents need to knowWhile kids can’t engage in actual risky behavior, BitLife exposes them to mature ideas. As your character gets older, you can choose to “hook up” with the pretend profiles, drink, do drugs, gamble, and commit crimes. (On the other hand, you can make healthy choices such as going to the gym and meditating.) It’s also easy for players to become overly fixated on the idealized world of sim games. Because you can start over when your character dies, there’s the promise of endless free play, which could be a concern if your teen is really into the game.


Discord is an app and site that allows gamers to connect via text, voice, and video. It’s similar to a discussion board like Reddit, but the conversations are hosted on various servers — which anyone can create — and each server can have multiple channels. The main purpose of the platform is to be able to chat with your team while playing an online game, but people also use it as straight-up social media, even if they’re not playing.What parents need to knowEasily viewable adult content and the ability to chat privately with strangers make Discord risky for young teens. Mature areas are supposed to be labeled “NSFW” (not safe for work) and age-gated for under-18-year-olds. But you just need to click through to access. And while there’s a privacy setting to control who can send your teen private messages, they can easily go in and change those settings.

HOLLA: Live Random Video Chat

This app is all about connecting with strangers. Once you sign up using a phone number or your Facebook account, you can get matched instantly with a stranger — and both you and they appear on camera. Or you can swipe Tinder-style until you like someone and they like you (by tapping a heart). You can also enable location tracking to be paired with someone nearby.What parents need to knowVideo-chatting with strangers can be risky for teens. When it’s paired with location, it’s a no-go. Also, while HOLLA supposedly bans iffy content — like nudity and violence — user reviews indicate that masturbation, fake identities, and negative comments are common. The app’s age-matching is a red flag, too. It was easy for our tester to pose as a 13-year-old and get paired with 16- and 17-year-olds.

IMVU: 3D Avatar Creator & Chat

Using the website or the app, users interact through elaborate 3D avatars. You can dress them up, place them in public or private rooms, and follow other users and chat with them. You can also buy a wide variety of objects using virtual coins — earned primarily through taking surveys or watching ads or through buying outright with real money. There’s no game or goal other than acquiring outfits, rooms, furniture, and other items or chatting with other users.What parents need to knowVirtual sex and user privacy are the main issues for teens in IMVU. The avatars sport highly stereotypical body types with big muscles or breasts, and many of the outfits are skimpy. It also appears that users generate a following on other platforms by sharing their IMVU usernames, which invites more contact with people they don’t know. Finally, the search term “IMVU sex” results in lots of advice about how to have (virtual avatar) sex and where to find it in IMVU.

Like – Magic Music Video Editor

Similar to the video lip-synching service Tik Tok, Like lets you create short videos that often involve lip-synching. You can also follow other users, climb a leaderboard (based on how many likes you’ve gotten), send direct messages, and send virtual gems — that cost real money — to other users.What parents need to know Also like Tik Tok, Like features mature music and dancing and allows strangers to interact. The leaderboard motif encourages kids to post frequently and gather likes — basically to keep kids on the app longer and increase their circle of friends (which only benefits the company). So while it can be creative and fun, it’s best used with strict privacy settings by teens who are savvy about keeping themselves safe online.


Lipsi is yet another anonymous “feedback” app that lets users tell others what they think of them without revealing their own identities. The twist here is that users can get a Lipsi link to post in their Instagram profiles so the comments appear in their Instagram feeds. It’s possible to identify yourself if you wish or to stay in “ghost mode” to hide out for a while.What parents need to knowLike the short-lived Sarahah, lots of posts are positive, but anonymous feedback services are generally a recipe for bullying and trolling. If your kid uses Lipsi with a public Instagram account, all of their Instagram followers can read the comments written by other people. While Lipsi is supposed to be for users over 17, there’s no real barrier to downloading.

Socratic Math & Homework Help

This app lets you take a picture of a homework problem or question and get an answer and explanation in return, similar to Photomath. Because it’s more focused and filtered than an open internet search, the results are more targeted and helpful (in other words, it gives you the answers).What parents need to knowThe biggest concern is cheating: If your kid decides to use this app as an easy way out of homework, they’ll lose a lot of learning. Secondly, since the answers come from the internet, they aren’t always right. Used with good judgment (and monitoring by a parent), a teen could legitimately use Socratic Math to dig into tough concepts, but it’s pretty easy to use for cheating.


This is an anonymous messaging app that invites users to follow contacts to get and give anonymous feedback. You can also link your Tellonym account to other social media accounts.What parents need to knowThough the developers claim comments are moderated and users have to be 17 to use it, neither of those efforts are preventing bullying and online drama. Comments about users being ugly and that they should kill themselves pepper app store reviews, and connecting the app account to a wider pool of social media users only intensifies the risk.


Zepeto is a combination avatar-maker and social media platform. The main draw is the ability to create your own likeness and have your avatar interact with your friends’ avatars so you can create cute posts for social media. In a section of the app called “Zepeto town street,” you can text with people you don’t know.What parents need to knowZepeto’s texting format is less risky than the video-chatting of HOLLA, but any interaction with strangers is iffy (especially for younger teens who might be interacting with grown-ups). User privacy is probably a bigger problem, though. Zepeto doesn’t use location-tracking, but it does collect plenty of information on its users. And like some others on this list, there’s a focus on image and appearance as well as lots of opportunities to spend money.

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