Applying to college is a challenge, even for the most organized and prepared of students. Having a plan is the best way to overcome this challenge and make the most of your college applications. In this webinar, one of C2 Education’s Admissions Experts walks through ideal college application preparation and a timeline to follow, so that you can be as prepared and confident as possible when applying to college. You can also read the full webinar transcript below.
Welcome again to everyone to, as Sam said, Preparing for College Applications. This is it. For many seniors, this represents the culmination of lots and lots of work throughout not just high school, but especially high school, in anticipation of this moment, this sort of number of months as we move towards finishing and actually submitting those applications.
As Sam said, my name is Jesse Pizarro. I’m a former teacher here at C2, and now I work as a trainer of teachers, so I work with lots and lots of our teachers on a daily basis, especially the ones that are working with students on college essays. We have a lot, a lot of students who come in to work on college essays, and I think we have a great process at C2 for helping them out.
Before, actually, we get into too much more, I did want to take a second and get a sense for what grade is everyone here in. If you wouldn’t mind answering the poll question that will show up in just a moment on your screen. Are we all seniors? Do we have some younger students here that are kinda getting a jump start on this? Totally okay, you are welcome to be here.
Awesome, okay, it looks like we’ve got about two-thirds of you are seniors, maybe another quarter of you are juniors, then we’ve got a smattering of folks in other grades. That’s awesome, particularly you juniors, I’m really glad that you’re here learning about this in advance because one of the most important things that we’re going to emphasize today is that this is a process. This is something that is going to take way more time than you are possibly imagining, even if you think you are pessimistic.
Even if you think, “You know what? When I go through this stuff, when I plan for school, or when I study for my exams, or whatever, I leave myself enough time. I’m a good planner on this,” I have met essentially zero students in my experience helping them with college essays who really had a sense for how long this is going to take, how much there is to do, especially when you consider the fact that for a lot of students, this is going to be taking place, at least to some extent, during the school year. Right? I mean, it’s already late July. School is going to start next month for many of you, or in very early September or the rest of you in all likelihood, so it is important.
Like Sam said, if you haven’t started yet, you’re not behind, it is not the end of the world. You can still do great work and feel comfortable going into the start of your senior year. But you can’t stay out forever, right? We got to get started pretty soon here. So before we do jump into the rest of the content here, how many of you have started? We’ve got a whole bunch of seniors here, so have any of you have actually started your processes? Have any of you actually started your application process? It doesn’t mean you’ve finished an essay or anything like that, but have you begun researching schools? Have you made an account on the Common App website and started to look at what’s going to be required?
Okay, so we’ve got about 60/40 split here in favor of no. In other words, a little under half of you actually have started your process, which is awesome. For those of you that have, that’s really great. You are in a good spot, or at least you’ve put yourself in a good spot as long as you’re able and willing to kinda continue that.
Anyway, the plan for tonight, there’s two sort of big things that we’re going to talk about, and then seeded throughout those two major topics, we’ll talk specifically about, “How do I prepare for this? How do I prepare for that?” The first thing we’ll talk about, and if you are curious about this, we did a whole webinar on this last week, which is all about finding your best fit college and how to generate a good list of schools, how to do this sort of research. We’ll cover that briefly here tonight. I don’t want to skip it entirely, it’s important, but I would encourage you to go back and watch my whole one if you missed it or if you are interested in that.
Then beyond that, we’ll go through all the different parts of a college application, what you have to submit, what they’re going to look at, what admissions officers kind of think of and hat the sort of relative importance of each of the factors that goes into a college admissions decision is. So we’ll talk about what we at C2 kind of cheesily call the three As, the academics, activities, and attitude and aspirations that we think sort of broadly speaking, you can break a college application down into. But we’ll go into, of course, more detail and more specificity on each.
Then of course, we’ll wrap up, I’ll do a quick recap, then if there’s time, and I think there will be, I will take some good or representative questions that you all have submitted.
Let’s start with where to apply because this is one of the first things that you’re going to want to determine as a student, is your list of schools. That’s going to drive all of the stuff that you then have to do afterwards. Right? Which essays do I have to write? What questions do I have to answer? What forms do I have to fill out? Et cetera, et cetera.
The first thing you have to figure out is where you’re going to apply. The first thing that you have to do in order to be able to do that is take a good, hard look at yourself. You need to view yourself with the same sort of clarity that a college admissions officer would view you. What I mean by this is to think about you in terms of your scores, in terms of your achievements, in terms of your extracurricular activities, in terms of all the stuff that we’re about to talk about.
Now, there’s a couple websites listed on this slide here that are very, very helpful in doing this well. They are listed right there, Big Future and Naviance. Both of them allow you to input a whole bunch of data about yourself, and data about your preferences. So you could say, “I have this GPA and I have this SAT score, and I want to go to an urban school that has a population of at least 15,000 undergraduates, and that has a business program.” Whatever. Those specific characteristics aren’t important; the point is that you can run specific searches based on your own preferences and based on your own qualifications.
What Big Future, what Naviance, what websites like that will show you, then, is kinda where you stack up based on what entering freshman classes of those schools look like. In other words, if you’re kind of compared to all the entering freshman at a given school, you’re kind of average, you’re pretty similar to that group, that’s a really good sign that that college is a fit for you, in terms of your qualifications, in terms of what you are equal of. It’s not a guarantee that it’s a fit in terms of your preferences or in terms of some of those other things, but it’s a really good start where you can start seeing kinda, “Where do I rank? When we look at schools like this, or of this type, am I fitting that profile? Or am I way off?”
Then from there, you want to go ahead and classify schools into what we call these three buckets: dream, standard, safety. You’ve probably heard this stuff before. Basic idea is you want to have a couple of schools that you don’t have that good of a chance of getting into, but that if you could get in, if you did get in, you would definitely go. You would be so excited, you’d be so happy you would immediately tell all the other schools, “No thank you, I’m going here. That’s my number one. That’s my favorite.” And it’s okay to have a couple of these. Again, don’t go into applying to dream schools thinking that you’re going to get in or that it’s very likely. The whole point is that it’s not that likely, right? If it were that likely, it would be in one of the other buckets.
Then you’ve got your standard schools. This obviously should be the most schools that you apply to, and these are the ones that in all likelihood you will end up getting into and attending. It’s not to say that it’s a guarantee that you will get into all of them, but the point is, again, that you’re right around the median or right around the average for what students would get into this school look like. But they are schools you’d be totally happy to go with, to go to, and it seems like you’re pretty qualified to get in. If you apply to several, it is extremely likely that you’ll get into at least one or two.
Then finally, we have safety schools. These are the ones that you think something would have to go pretty wrong for you not to be accepted based on, again, how you compare to the list of entering freshman. You want to have at least one or two of those so that if things do wrong with your standard schools, if you did overestimate yourself a little bit, you’ll still have somewhere to go. You’re not going to be kinda frozen out of the college thing.
That doesn’t mean that you should apply to a safety school that you have no chance to going to, that even if you got in, you wouldn’t go, you’d take a year off or you’d do something else, or you’d get a job, I don’t know. If that’s the case, then it’s a waste of money to apply because you’re not going no matter what. But again, having one or two that you wouldn’t feel bad about going to, you’d be willing to go to, it’s going to be a good school, you’re going to get a good education, but again, it’s not quite the same quality as some of the schools in these other buckets.
We talked about some things that you can use in terms of websites, right? You should probably cast at least a little bit of a wider net when it comes to school research. Talk to your parents. Typically, they went to college, they may think that the school they went to is a great fit or not a good fit, and it’s worth talking to them about that. Talk to counselors. Guidance counselors can often have some data, some advice on schools that you may not have thought of or that you may not have considered because maybe they’re smaller or maybe they are less impressive along some dimension, but they’re an excellent fit for you in some other way or along some other dimension.
Siblings, relatives, friends, especially if you’ve got friends who are older, friends who were seniors last yerned.ar and who are now in college, they can often give really, really good advice about, “Hey, here’s what it’s really like. Here is what I was like when I was a senior or when I was in your shoes, what I was thinking. Here’s how I think about it now, or here’s something that I’ve learned.” So spending a little time talking to people.
Of course, your school will likely have a college fair, you know, in your gym, somewhere, where representatives of schools will show up, and they’ll have brochures for you. It’s worth wandering around and talking to people. One of the nice things about it in addition to, of course, you can gather those brochures, you can gather that information, is you can show interest. If you go up to an admissions officer at a college fair, and you give them your name and ask them to put you on some list for some silly emails, that fact can sometimes show back up in the admissions office as, “Student indicated interest at college fair, West Coast,” or something like that. Again, it’s not like the biggest deal in the whole world; it’s not to say that if you didn’t show that kind of interest or talk to a college representative at a college fair that you couldn’t get in. But it doesn’t hurt, right?
And like we said, some of these search engines and college websites can be extremely helpful as well.
One last thing that can be very nice, particularly once you’ve started to narrow your list of schools down a little bit, or once you’ve maybe made an initial list and are now kinda deciding between a couple or you’re just not sure, is you could visit campus. If you can do this in person, that’s awesome. I tend to think these are way more fun in person. But of course, that can be very expensive. Many campuses that you might be interested are potentially very far away, and given modern technology, you could also take a virtual tour. You could take a YouTube tour of this school that in some ways might even be better than the physical one, if it’s raining when you visit or if students aren’t there when you visit, the YouTube tour might give you a better sense.
However, visiting in person does often provide you with nice anecdotes that are particularly useful in constructing personal statements. One of the types of essays that often gives students trouble is what we call the “Why Us” essay. This is an essay that basically asks you to tell the college why you’d be a good fit for that college, why you should get to go there, what things make you a good match. It can be challenging as a student to answer this kind of essay without simply saying things that are true of many, many colleges. You know, “You have a great biology department, and I want to be a biologist or I want to be a doctor.” I mean, that’s probably true, but there are a gazillion other colleges in this country that have a great biology department. Citing it does not help differentiate between the college you are writing that sentence to and other colleges that you might be applying to.
So being able to say very specifically, “When I visited the biology lab,” or, “When I did x, y, and z thing,” or, “When I attended this class,” or, “When this student showed me their dorm room,” or whatever, that kind of personal anecdote can back up some of the claims that you’re likely to make in that sort of essay. And like I said, they’re fun.
So my general recommendation on campus visits is you kind of first pay attention to all the obvious stuff. What do the classrooms look like? What did the housing look like? Is there air conditioning in the dorms, especially if this is a place that gets very, very hot in the early fall or in the late spring? Where do kids go to study? What the library is like? Where do they eat? What’s the town or city or area around campus? Is it something that students visit quite frequently? Is it something that’s more of a bubble atmosphere on the campus itself?
But you’re just trying to get a feel for the campus. Beyond that, definitely sign up for an attended information session. Virtually every admissions office in the country will run these quite regularly, and they will usually be, although not always, paired with an official tour that you can take with a student tour guide. Make sure that you take that official tour. Again, it’s one of those things where if you sign up, your name can go on a list somewhere and that can put a check mark in some spreadsheet somewhere.
But once the tour is over, I strongly recommend spending a little time just kinda wandering around, particularly anything that caught your interest that wasn’t on the official tour. But if you could talk to students, if you could talk to undergraduates for a little while, that can also be a really nice thing to do and you can get a nice little sense. Again, it’s going to be a little bit biased, right? It’s not going to be perfectly representative, but it’s nice, right? It’s better than nothing, and it can give you some comfort when you’re thinking about this future that as you’re trying to apply as a senior.
So that’s how you make the list of schools, right? You’ve got this list of schools, got it narrowed down, you know what you’re going to apply to. Let’s talk about what you actually have to [inaudible 00:14:23], right? What are all the things that go into a college application? What, if anything, should you be doing about those things right now?
We at C2 have these six elements that we kind of divide into three big categories. That’s where those three As came from on the agenda. So we’ve got our academics, and that’s your test scores and your GPA. You’ve got your activities, that’s right there as extracurricular activities. Then everything from recommendations on up is basically attitude and aspirations. Obviously these can kind of overlap a little bit. Your teachers are writing your recommendations based on your academics. But in general, they’re going to look at your scores and your grades to get a sense of how good of a student you are, get everyone to look at your activities to get a sense for how involved you are and what kind of a participant in the broader community of a school you might be.
Then they’re going to look at things like recommendations, and interviews, and essays to try to get a sense for you as a person, beyond what they can learn from all of this other stuff. What’s your personality like? What do you find funny? What makes you tick? Et cetera. Again, they’re trying to build a class of students. They’re trying to build something a little bit more cohesive than just picking the 1500 most academically qualified students that should go to this school. So activities and aspirations often are useful in helping colleges determine that stuff, as opposed to otherwise, you wouldn’t have to do any of this stuff. You could just send in the numbers, and they would make decisions based on that. They’re obviously interested in a little bit more than that.
We’ll start with academics. This is the single most important factor in admissions, okay? So essays are important, interviews matter, all of the stuff that we’re going to talk about after this matters, but that doesn’t mean it matters as much. Right? Academics are the dominant factor. After all, you are going to school. But it’s not to say that they just look at the numbers. They don’t just look at, “Oh, this is a 3.9 GPA. This other person got a 4.2 GPA. 4.2 is greater than 3.9, therefore Person B is better than Person A.”
Colleges are very, very experienced and trained at looking at all kinds of other stuff when it comes to a student’s academic record. The first thing is your GPA is more than just a number. They are going to look for how strong of a school you attended, how difficult the classes in which you earned those grades were, how you compare to your peers, especially those that took the same or similar courses to you. Did you take AP classes? If so, they’re not going to just look at your grade in that AP class, they’re not just going to look at your AP test score, they’re going to look at both, and they’re going to compare the two. And in general, the more that your grades and test scores tell a consistent story, especially one of academic strength, he better.
In other words, if you have an A in an AP class and a 5 on the AP exam, that is wonderful. That is a great sign. That shows that not only did you keep up with the class the whole year, did you perform at a college level when it comes to the material that you were engaging with, but you were able to back that up on the exam itself. Right? Whereas if there’s a discrepancy between those two, there’s a student who got an A in an AP class, but then went and got a 2 on the exam, well all of a sudden that A doesn’t look so good anymore. Right? Maybe that was an easy class and it wasn’t really technically taught at the AP level if students that can earn As in it can’t get even passing scores on the AP exam.
Again, maybe it was a bad test day. They’re not going to sort of write you off for one bad score or one bad grade or anything along those lines. But again, the more consistent the story that your grades and test scores tell, especially one of strength, the better off you are.
What other things? So I talked briefly on AP exams. Of course, they will also look at SAT or ACT scores, and then SAT subject tests are another big and important one. It’s those first two actually, the SAT and ACT, and your SAT Subject Tests that you might want to think about now because there’s still testing dates to come. There’s one in August, I believe, then there’s more in the actual fall. Many of those test dates, you are allowed to submit those scores for this season’s college admissions. Even up through December, I believe, as long as you’re applying regular decisions, you may submit those scores after you’ve submitted your application. You can sort of indicate on your application, “I will be taking the SAT in the future; keep an eye out for my score.” Of course, if you don’t do as well as you hoped on that last date, then that can be a problem. But the point is that there’s still time to take and/or retake these exams if you are not happy with your scores.
What should you be looking for? What should you be trying to get? When it comes to the SAT or the ACT, the important thing to keep in mind here is you need one good score on either test. You do not need a good score on both. In fact, once you have gotten a good score, a score that you are happy with, a score that you feel well represents your academic capability, you should stop taking either the SAT or the ACT. There are so many other things that are better to spend your time on, specifically SAT Subject Tests, because when it comes to SAT Subject Tests and AP exams, there is no such thing as too many.
Unfortunately, colleges will look at as many good scores as you are able to submit. So if you are able to go in and take another, an extra SAT Subject Test, and get a really good score on it, then you should do so. There is absolutely no down side to doing that. Now of course, keep in mind that students who try to take SAT Subject Tests in the fall often do not do as well as they expect to because the material that they think is so fresh because they just took the class last year is actually not that fresh ’cause they’ve just a whole summer where they’ve forgotten a lot of it or where it’s not been quite as fresh.
One piece of advice there is if you are planning to retake or take a new SAT Subject Test in the fall to try and raise scores or just add scores, make sure that you’re studying. Make sure that you have an actual review plan over weeks built up that’s going to culminate in taking this exam. Do not think that you can just walk in cold or walk in based on your memory of last school year and somehow get a better score than you did last May or June when you took it the first time.
So SAT Subject Tests are important. You need, I think, for many schools, many especially top schools, will recommend a minimum of two.
Many schools, many, especially top schools, will recommend a minimum of two, and, again, there is really no maximum. I generally advise my students that are applying to the very best schools that they want a minimum of three, including math. But that’s more an idiosyncratic preference. There’s no school that actually requires X number of SAT subject test scores submitted. Or, at least, no school that requires three, to my knowledge.
Another thing to worry about when it comes to planning your academics is to think about your schedule senior year. Your first semester senior year schedule should be your hardest schedule in all of high school. It should not be easier than junior year. If there is a drop-off in terms of rigor, in terms of difficulty, that’s going to be regarded quite suspiciously by many admissions officers, particularly if you’re gonna make any claims in your application about interests in academics, about commitment to academics. If you say, “Oh, I love biology so much and that’s why I want to be a doctor,” but then you sign up for regular bio instead of AP bio as a senior, there’s a gap there. There is an inherent tension in your application. That statement in your essay no longer reads as true as if it’s backed up by your schedule. Even though you may not be required to by the state of California in order to graduate, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take Spanish 4. I know, you’ve gotten the three years in. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take Spanish 4. You don’t necessarily want to sign up for a bunch of gut classes or classes that are just there on your schedule so that you can get an A because you’re a senior and you’re trying to take it easy. You want to continue to challenge yourself so that you can say that you are continuing to challenge yourself.
And then, of course, if you’re planning to apply with a specific major, or to a specific program, you want to make sure that, to the extent possible, your schedule matches whatever you’re gonna say your interests are or the thing that you’re applying to. Going back to the bio, if you’re saying that, “I am interested in this thing, and I want to major in it in college,” you’re gonna have to take a lot of really hard classes in that field, much, much harder than anything you’re ever gonna take in high school, eventually. And so chickening out or not doing it as a senior, it’s going to undercut that claim at least a little bit. It’s going to make you seem a little bit less serious than you would want to when it comes to an application like that or a claim like that.
And then, like I was saying, you want to make sure to figure out your fall testing schedule. You want to make sure that by the time you are submitting your applications, you’ve given yourself the maximum number of chances to achieve the best possible scores for yourself. Another thing to think about is score choice, and things like super-scoring. There are different policies that individual schools have when it comes to how they are going to look at and regard and put together your SAT score or your ACT score. Make sure that once you’ve generated that list of schools, you’ve researched that and you’ve understood, okay, this is the effective SAT score that I have for school A or for school B, based on the way that they score these things or the way that they count these things. And you want to make some of your potential re-testing decisions in light of that. It’s possible that your score is better than you had anticipated because of the way that schools look at those scores, or because of the way that they’re willing to consider different pieces of the exam from different days and stuff like that. Again, that varies by school. But it is definitely something that you should understand. You should make sure that you know it inside and out, backwards and forwards as you’re going into the application process.
Okay. We’re gonna do a quick review question before we jump into the next section of our 3 A’s, which is activities. But this question here is just, basically, based on what we’ve talked about so far, what’s the most important part of your application. What is the thing that’s going to determine the most, in terms of whether you actually get accepted or not? Yes. The vast, vast majority of you, at least until we had a little bit of a run-up in troll answers at the end there, but up until that, it looked like the vast majority of you were correctly identifying academics as the single most important factor.
That having been said, before you check out and think, “Well, my academics aren’t that good. So, I’m not getting into college.” Keep in mind that, for one thing, you can’t really control very much more about your academics at this point. If you’re going into your senior year, yes, you can control the stuff that we just talked about. You can potentially re-take some of those exams. You could sign up for a really rigorous and challenging course load at the start of senior year. But you can’t go back and change your junior year grades. You can’t go back and take a harder class sophomore year, or anything like that. Most of that is locked in and done. Whereas, when it comes to activities, to some extent, and especially, the third section, attitude and aspirations, there’s a lot more freedom there. There’s a lot more wiggle room. There’s a lot more potential to adjust and change and prove in the coming months. Keep paying attention, is what I’m saying here.
When it comes to activities, one concept that we have at C2 that we think is pretty important is this idea of the well-angled student, as opposed to the well-rounded student. You sometimes hear about being well-rounded as a good thing. And it is. It’s not a bad thing to have many interests and to be able to achieve something in multiple areas, or a variety of fields. And the well-angled student isn’t meant to be in contrast to that. All of the difference is that there’s a little bit of less engaged stuff shaved off and there’s a lot more engagement with the stuff that’s left. In other words, instead of being quite so broadly applied and thinly spread, we have a little bit more depth when it comes to the well-angled student.
Oftentimes, well-angled students, they have slightly fewer activities in which they are involved, ultimately, especially by the time they’re seniors. But their involvement in those activities is substantially deeper. Often that’s indicated, not always, but often that is indicated by achieving leadership positions in those organizations or clubs or activities or teams or what have you. Oftentimes there’s more of a thematic through-line when it comes to the activities. We can see some stuff that these activities have in common, that this student’s interests are being reflected in their activities. Where, sometimes students who are more well-rounded or who just have a whole bunch of activities but no real depth or rhyme or reason to them, it can feel random. It can just feel grab-baggy, or like a bunch of stuff was thrown at the wall and the student was waiting to see what stuck. Whereas, again, with a well-angled student, there’s often a more defined progression through the years as the student’s involvement in this activity deepens, as they get more involved and their involvement gets more meaningful.
When colleges are evaluating your activities, they’re not just going to look at numbers. That does not mean that numbers don’t matter. In fact, numbers do matter. They are going to want to know how many. And they’re especially going to want to know how much time you spent on those activities. Did you participate in them year-round, or only for part of the year? They’re going to investigate a lot of that stuff, both in terms of what you write down on your application, in terms of describing the activity or putting down the number of hours per week, but also potentially based on what you write about those activities in some of your essays or longer answers, if you choose to. You don’t have to.
Especially, they’re going to look for growth. They’re going to want to see that as a freshman, if you got involved in this thing, by the time you were a senior, you were doing more than just being some random club member just like you were when you were a freshman. They’re gonna want to see that as your interest deepened, as you spent more time on this, you grew into some kind of meaningful and active participant. Oftentimes a leader, but not necessarily.
It’s that second point. Yes, there is a quantity of time component to it, but there’s also a quality of time component. Were you doing meaningful stuff? In general I think most students that do a good job in terms of being well-angled, they start this process as sophomores or juniors. They sign up for a whole bunch of stuff as freshmen. And then they start to winnow. They start to, again, as they focus in on certain things, as they spend more time on certain things, other things fall by the wayside. And it’s not so much that they’re choosing to quit that other thing or that they don’t necessarily like that other thing, as that, no, I like this thing more. I find this to be more interesting or more valuable or more fun, or what have you. Their dedication and their commitment emerges from their interests or from their desires.
If you haven’t done this, if you’re still … If you look at your list of activities and it seems like, man, there’s a lot of stuff here. But I don’t really have anything that I would point to in any of them that really stands out, or that I really care about, or that I really like, you might want to try to find a way to focus, at least somewhat, at the beginning of senior year. Now, that’s not to say that you want to just quit a bunch of stuff and not replace it with anything. But, look for are there any activities that you have been involved with for a while that you could ramp up your participation in, that you could take a leadership position in, that you could do some kind of meaningful project or activity as a part of.
Again, hopefully it’s not purely cynical. It’s not just so that you have something to write about, although it can be helpful for that. But, again, you want to look at your own participation and activities critically, and think about if someone said to me, “Hey, which of these do you like the most and why is it important to you?” Would I be able to give a credible answer? In other words, one that people believe. Would people believe me when I say, “Yes. I care about this so much. And that’s why I did X, Y, or Z.”
Please don’t quit any activities that you’re hoping to write about, or that you think are particularly important on your application. I sometimes get students who tell me that they want to write an essay about basketball, because basketball has meant so much to them. It’s helped them grow into the adult they are today from the kid they were when they came in in ninth grade or something like that. And then they show me their resume or something. And I see that they played basketball as a ninth grader and as a tenth grader and as a twelfth grader. And I say, “What happened as a junior?” And they say, “Oh, I quit basketball that year so I could focus on school, or so I could focus on academics.” And, on the one hand, I totally get it. You probably did want to focus on academics. Hopefully your grades went up and reflected that. But on the other hand, when you tell me that basketball meant so much to you and it played this big role in turning you into the person you are today, that’s not going to be backed up if there’s a big gap as a junior, where basketball should go, and it’s not there. You want to keep that in mind. View your activities with a bit of a critical eye.
Then, think about the adults involved in those activities if there are any: any kind of advisor, any kind of coach, any kind of conductor or, again, some other adult person that is, especially if they’ve seen you grow in this activity over a long period of time. Those people can often be very, very useful sources of what we call a supplemental recommendation. I’ll go into that in more detail when we get to the recommendation letters section of the presentation. But just put a pin in it, or keep that in mind for now is that your coaches, they can be good for recommendation letters, not the core academic recommendations, but what we call a supplemental rec.
Okay. That’s activities. Let’s get into our third A, which is really two A’s, but we’ll call it one: attitude and aspirations. And we’ll start with what we were talking about, which are letters of recommendation. Many colleges require letters of recommendation. Some colleges simply allow you to submit them if you’d like. And in general, if you can submit them, I would strongly recommend that you do so. A letter of recommendation is basically an essay about why you’re great, written by a teacher or an adult. And that’s an awesome thing to have. That’s an awesome thing to help your application. It’s also nice because they can give admissions officers insight that, basically, no one else can. They can give them a sense for what you’re like in the classroom, right now, today, or last week, or whatever else, if they know you, and if they have a sense for you as a person in addition to as a student.
That goes into what we need to worry about here, which is you need to try very, very hard when it comes to anything that your teachers ask you to do in preparing to write a recommendation letter. At many schools, there’s an actual formal process, which is called a brag sheet. This is a document that you fill out, to ask you a bunch of questions, kind of like a college application, honestly. A lot of times it will ask you, “What do you hope to major in? And what are some of your dreams and goals? Why do you want to go to these colleges that you’re applying to?” Again, it’s questions that are quite similar to questions that might appear on a college application. And it’s basically your job to fill this out really, really well so that your teacher can write you a good letter.
Because, again, especially if you just go to your teacher’s class once a day, you’ve had them, maybe, for a year. You raise your hand occasionally. You do well on the exams. You study hard. But you don’t really stand out as a student in some way. Your personality doesn’t really dominate that class in any way. It’s not likely that your teacher knows very much about you beyond, again, when they see you for that one hour per day. The brag sheet can help them fill in a broader picture of you as a student and person that they may not have been able to appreciate when you were actually just sitting in their class.
I strongly, strongly recommend that you try very, very hard on the brag sheet. I would even recommend that if a teacher doesn’t require you to fill one out, that you find one. Get a copy of one online or get one from a friend that goes to a different school, and fill it out and give it to your teachers anyway that are writing you the letters of rec. I think they will very much appreciate that information and that you’ve gone to that effort, that you’ve done that for them.
When you think about a letter of recommendation, it’s a pretty big favor that you are asking of your teachers. You’re basically giving them homework, to write an essay about you. And imagine giving someone homework and then not giving them the tools to complete that homework. That’s essentially what you do if you ask your teacher to write a letter of recommendation about you, and they agree, and then you don’t give them very much information to work with.
The other reason that trying hard on the brag sheet is a really good idea, is that it gives you practice. Again, it’s the same or very similar questions to the ones that you have to answer on your college application. So getting a chance to write out answers to those and then give them to your teacher. And then after they’ve written the letter, then, you can then ask them, “Hey, was this good? Did you like this? Did you think these answers were any good? I’m working on an essay on the same theme, or using some of the same language and I’m wondering if this worked or if you have any feedback or whatever.”
The general rule is that you need two letters of recommendation from teachers, or two academic letters of recommendation. I think you should abide by that rule. That is the requirement for the common application, and for many other schools as well. In general, this will not be true in every single school, but at many schools, they will allow you to submit one supplemental recommendation. And I say here, if you choose to submit one, make sure it really is supplemental. In other words, don’t just go get a third rec from a third teacher. If you submit that, most colleges will be annoyed that you have not followed the directions. They wanted two recommendations. Two is plenty.
When I say, make sure it really is supplemental, what I mean by that is, make sure that it’s not an academic recommendation. It can be from a teacher if it’s about you in some other capacity, again, a capacity as an athlete, a capacity as an organizer, a capacity as a leader, a capacity as a musician, a capacity as an actor or a theater person. Those are the kinds of people that you want to go to for supplemental recommendations: an advisor of your club, or the club of which you are the president or something like that, the orchestra conductor that you’ve been with for four years now, the theater coach, whatever, those kinds of people. But not just, “Well, I got an A in history, so I guess I’ll get a third recommendation from my history teacher.” Please, please don’t do that.
Now, it is true that your guidance counselor will send out a recommendation for you, as well. This is much more informational about your school and about the quality of the school, about your schedule, the classes you took and how that measures up to the difficulty of the average schedule taken at your school or what normal students take at your school. You don’t have to worry about that letter presenting you in a positive or a negative light. It’s mostly just factual. That said, it is still a very, very good idea, if you have not already, to meet with your guidance counselor as soon as you can, basically as early in the process as possible.
I mentioned earlier that guidance counselors often have very good recommendations for schools or scholarships or programs that you might not have heard of, that you might not have thought of, especially local ones. I think we’ve all heard of Harvard or Stanford, schools that have really solid brands, or that are really famous nationally. And most of us, I’m sure, have heard of the major schools in our region, the big state school or state university or something like that. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve all heard about the small, liberal arts college that nonetheless, has a wonderful undergraduate whatever program that you might be a really great fit for. And guidance counselors often know about those and can recommend them, again, specifically tailored to you, but only if you go talk to them, only if they know who you are and have a sense for what your deal is.
I do recommend that you meet with your guidance counselor. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t have to be a long meeting. Especially initially, you can just pop your head in, and say, “Hey. I’m so and so. I just wanted to make sure that I could put a name to a face. I know you’re gonna write a letter for me and I wanted to thank you for that in advance. And I just wanted to know if you had any advice for any quick things that I should be paying attention to or watching out for as I dive into this process.” Pretty much every guidance counselor, I think, will be very happy that you have done that. They will be excited that you came in to meet with them, and that you did so preemptively. They didn’t have to drag you in or talk to you about it. And quite often they will give you advice. If not, maybe they’ll say, “Oh, yeah. Great to meet you. Thanks so much for coming in. I’ll let you know if I have something for you,” or something like that. In which case, okay, no harm done. And you can just say thank you and take off. But it is a really good idea to do this meeting. A lot of times they will give you useful information. And even if not, it’s nice for them to have a face to put to a name.
Another attitude and aspirations thing is interviews. These are offered usually after you’ve sent in most of your application. The college will contact you and say, “Hey, would you like to do an interview?” Almost always the interview will either be with an admissions officer or with a recent graduate, or just a graduate of that college. Not every school offers these. But if you do get offered one, I strongly, strongly recommend that you do it. In general, it’s a lot of upside, and not a lot a lot of down side. In other words, the risk is positive. If they like you, they’re gonna say something good about you. They’re gonna write a nice letter about you that essentially, like it says here, becomes an additional recommendation. If they don’t like you, though, most of the time they’re not gonna bother writing some really negative thing. They’re just gonna say, “Eh, it was fine. Make the decision based on other factors.”
Most interviewers are looking for reasons to like you. They are looking … They’re excited. They like their school. They want to see what kind of kids are interviewing to go to that school these days. And they want to meet you, like you, and tell the school that they should let you in. That’s why, in general, you should do them. But, of course, like with anything, you want to be prepared. However, the style of preparation the vast majority of students do is poor. They rehearse. They do not prepare. And there’s a big difference, because interviewers are not looking to listen to a series of monologues. If they wanted monologues, they would send you essay questions and say, “Write answers to these, and email them to me.” Okay? They wouldn’t have to buy you pop. Instead, they want to have a conversation with you. They’re going to ask you questions of course. And it would be silly if you didn’t think in advance about how you would answer those questions. But there is a big, big difference between thinking through or talking through an answer to a question and rehearsing it to the point that you have it memorized.
… An answer to a question, and rehearsing it to the point that you have it memorized. If you do the first one, you will then be able to have a conversation. And when you are asked questions, you will be able to respond to them. You’ll be able to give good answers. You’ll be able to hit the points that you want to hit. But you will not be sitting there getting into robot mode and simply reciting something while your interviewer looks somewhere else or gets bored or gets annoyed. Because, again, they are not trying to have a conversation with a robot or have a prepared monologue. They want to talk to someone. In fact, it’s possible, again, if they’re me, they might interrupt you. They might try and throw you off your game or mess with you if they see that you’re doing this monologue thing. Prepare, but don’t rehearse.
Then the other thing when it comes to interviews is just you want to make as good of an impression as possible. So you want to show up prepared. You want to show up looking professional. That means get there a few minutes early. That means leaving yourself time to get there a few minutes early, even if you hit traffic, even if something happens on the way. You want to dress formally. My general advice is whatever level of dress you were thinking about dressing at, go up a level. If you’re male and you were planning on wearing a shirt and tie … I guess if you’re female, too. If you were planning on wearing a shirt without a tie, put on a tie. If you’re planning on wearing a shirt and a tie but no jacket, put on a jacket. Whatever level you were thinking of, again, I would just recommend going one up. You will almost never feel bad in this kind of situation for being overdressed. You will almost always feel bad for feeling underdressed. Better to err on the side of formality. If they show up in jeans, you can laugh and they can laugh and it’s not a big deal.
Bring hard copies of all your application materials: the application itself, any essays that you wrote, short answer questions, et cetera. Most of the time, the interviewer will have copies of them themselves. But it is awesome if, during the interview, they say, “Oh, by the way, do you have a copy of your essay?” And you can just say, “Yup. Right here.” And hand it right over to them. And then, finally, afterwards, make sure that you send a thank-you note. An easy way to do this is to ask your interviewer for a business card at some point during the interview or at the close of the interview. That way you get their address without having to ask them awkwardly, “Excuse me, may I have your address, so that I can send you a thank you note.” Which feels like a weird thing to have to say in that circumstance.
Okay. Last thing here: the essay. In many ways, this is the most important part of the application, not because it’s going to have the biggest effect on your admissions, but because it is the only part of the application, or one of the few remaining parts of the application that is still 100% under your control as a student as of today. I mean, we talked about earlier how your grades are locked in, at least a lot of them, three years’ worth of them. You’ve taken a lot of your exams already. You’ve achieved a lot of those scores already. But for many of you, we learned in that poll at the beginning tonight, you haven’t even started the application process. Even for those of you who have, it is very unlikely that you’ve already written your essays and gotten them to the point of being final drafts or anything like that.
You’ve got plenty of time. You’ve got plenty of time to put as much work as you can into these things. Because you really want them to make you stand out. You really want them to be good, to be thoughtful, to be as well-written as possible. And you really want them to help you. You want the boost, the nudge, that essays can give to your admissions chance if they’re good. Also, hopefully, you want the people who are gonna let you into college to know who they’re letting in, at least a little something about you.
When it comes to the essay, probably the most important thing is starting, starting the process soon if you haven’t already. Again, people underestimate how long this whole process takes. Next thing I would strongly recommend, once you’ve come up with your list of schools, is to go and look through all of the applications and create a single document or spreadsheet or something that has every single essay question that you need to have an answer to by the time you finish all your applications. One of the things that you will see is that many of the questions are the same or similar. And in some cases, you can use the same essay. In some cases you’re even supposed to use the same essay. That’s the whole point of the common application is that you write one essay as your main common app essay and it gets sent to all the different schools that you apply to via the common application.
But you can also look for overlaps in supplemental essays that you are asked to write. That does not mean that just because the question is the same at two different schools that you should submit the same answer. Sometimes it’s totally inappropriate to do so, particularly when it’s something like, “Why do you want to come to our school?” Or, “What specifically about our school interests you or makes you want to come?” If you try to copy-paste the same answer for every single school, you will likely have a good answer for none of those schools, not a good answer for all of them. But, again, there are some spots where you can strategize, where you can look for overlap and repetition.
And then you can also make a schedule. You can put all this stuff into a calendar. You can see how much time you have to generate all of this writing and when it’s all going to be due. And I think that’s important. Pretty much any project that you’re going to do over a long period of time, you need to have some kind of tracking mechanism. You need to have some kind of way of measuring your progress and keeping track of it. Ideally, as a student at this point, you have such things for just keeping up with school. You should be able to adapt something that you’re already using in that manner.
And then, when it comes to essays, do all the stuff your teacher tells you, okay? When it comes to writing well, good writing emerges from good processes. Here you can see it’s pretty basic. It’s stuff that you’ve probably talked about in English class all throughout high school. You gotta understand what the prompt is actually asking you. We’re gonna do multiple webinars later in the summer and then into the fall about essays. Specifically, we’ll do a whole one on essays. And we’ll talk in great detail about what it means to evaluate the prompt, how you can figure out what exactly a college is actually asking you, especially with some of the wackier prompts that are out there.
You want to brainstorm. You want to spend some time thinking of ideas. And I think a lot of students think brainstorming is think until you get one idea. Whereas I think of brainstorming as think until you’ve rejected five ideas. And only once you’ve done that can you maybe settle on the sixth one. I’m not saying that five is an actual magic number. The point is that brainstorming involves being really critical and coming up with and discarding ideas so that you can ultimately end up with a really, really good one. Whereas, if you just pick the first thing you think of, it is very unlikely to be the best thing that you could have thought of.
Another thing that can be helpful is to just do some random brainstorming. Just think about stuff, especially if you have a book of brainstorming or writing activities. C2, for example, puts out a piece of curriculum like this, a college essay writing guide that has a whole bunch of … Think about the time you were in second grade, and write a paragraph about this. And it’s not so much that any of the actual paragraphs that you write as part of the brainstorming are going to go into your college essay as that you’re trying to get yourself thinking of stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily think of. For probably four years, now, you’ve been practicing writing about things besides yourself in school. The vast majority of us in school are writing about books. We’re writing about other characters. We’re writing about rhetorical techniques and persuasion. We’re not sitting there analyzing ourselves and explaining ourselves to others. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s a new skill for a lot of students, or at least one that they’re pretty rusty on. It’s going to take some time to get into that style of writing or that mode of writing.
A piece of advice is, focus on what’s important. There is going to be a whole bunch of little, short answer things that you have to write eventually. They matter and you should do a good job on them. You should work hard on them. You should follow good processes for them. But they do not matter as much as what I think of as your core essays, your 500-plus word, long answer essays. Usually you have to write one or two for each school. Although, in many cases, the first one is the common app essay. It’s the one essay that’s going to every school. Especially if you’re applying through the common app, your common app essay, your core essay that you know is going to be sent to literally every school you apply to via that application, that’s gonna be the one you want to work on first and most. That’s the one you’re gonna want to perfect as much as possible before you submit it. That means, of course, leaving some of the smaller essays and short answers for later, particularly because sometimes those prompts are a little bit more straightforward and obvious what they’re asking for.
Of course, we talked about the process already. With that, hopefully, you all have a much better sense of some things you can do right now, over the next couple of weeks and into August as you either continue with the process that you’ve already started, for those of you that have, that’s awesome, or you get into the process as soon as possible. Tonight, we talked about, first, how to figure out where you should apply. We talked about how to use some of those major online spreadsheets to winnow down a list of schools until you’ve got a good number in each of those three buckets that we talked about.
And then we went through all the different parts of the college application. We broke it down into the 3 A’s. We talked about academics, how they matter the most, and what sorts of considerations you should be thinking about right now when it comes to academics. Obviously you’re not gonna go back and fix your grades. But you can think about upcoming testing. You can think about how your transcript and academic record is going to look to an admissions officer and think about your senior year schedule and how that’s going to look. We talked about activities, and trying to be well-angled, or come off as well-angled when it comes to your application. You want to be able to give the people reading your application a sense that you have participated meaningfully and in-depth in the activities that you have chosen to focus on. And then, finally, we went through all the different ways in which you can indicate your attitude and aspirations to the people reading your college application, from interviews to recommendation letters and essays.
With that, I am going to take a few questions here. I did want to take a minute to talk up C2. Obviously, that’s who’s putting on the webinar this evening. I think C2 is really great. That’s why I still work here. We do offer some pretty awesome tutoring for pretty much any grade, any subject, any student that you can imagine, we’ve probably helped them out before. And that’s because we don’t mess around with who we hire. Our tutors are all astoundingly qualified for the subjects they teach. They have to hit qualifying scores before they’re hired. They have to go through training before they are allowed to work with students. And only once they have demonstrated yes, I can achieve a perfect score on the SAT or I can get at least an awesome score on the SAT, I can achieve on this AP exam at the same level that we would expect a student to be able to after working at C2, only then are they allowed to even train. And only once they’ve been through training are they even allowed to work with students. I really do think that if you come into C2, if your student comes into C2, they’re going to work with an instructor that is extremely high quality. And that’s very, very helpful.
If that is something you are interested in, if you’d like to come in to C2, or you’d like C2 to reach out to you, feel free to submit as a question your name, your zip code, and a phone number or email address where you may be reached. I will go through all the questions and make sure that anybody who submits that information, that that information gets transmitted to the nearest center to you, and that they reach out to you as soon as possible. Again, name, zip code, that zip code is really important, ’cause we have centers all across the country. And I will not know which one to tell to call you unless you include that information. Name, zip code, and then phone number or email address. Like I said, I will make sure that whatever center is closest to you reaches out as soon as possible.
I would also remind you that in the handout section of your go to webinar control panel, you can download that coupon that we value at over $120. It entitles you to come in, take one of our tests, and then sit down with one of our center directors and go over those results. You’re not just gonna get some score. You’re gonna get the implications. You’re gonna understand what it means and what you can do about it, what your student can do about it going forward.
Once again, thank you so much, folks. Stick around if you’d like to hear some of the questions. Otherwise, have a wonderful evening.
Here’s a great question. We have a student here who hasn’t taken any SAT subject tests yet. We’re assuming this is a student that’s gonna be a senior in the fall. And they’re asking, I want to apply to a lot of top schools, especially schools that have really good computer science programs. What subjects should this student take in terms of an SAT subject exam? I would recommend Math. Any science orientation, I would recommend the Math 2 exam as opposed to the Math 1 exam, or the level 2 exam. I would recommend Science. If you’re gonna take computer science, you’re gonna want to show that you have quantitative or STEM chops. I think Physics would be a great one to take. I think that Chemistry or Biology would be fine ones to take. I don’t think there is an SAT subject exam in computer science specifically. Obviously, if there is one, that would be a wonderful one to take. But, if not, then I think focusing in on a lot of those STEM SAT subject tests would be a wise idea for that kind of application.
For letters of recommendation, can we ask a teacher who taught us as a freshman? You may. But you have to think about that, again, from the perspective of the admissions officer. One, if you had this teacher as a freshman and then you haven’t had them since, it’s very unlikely that they taught you the most academically rigorous stuff that you have learned in high school. If they taught you Algebra I, that’s wonderful. That’s great. And maybe you did a great job in that class, you got a great score on the exams in that class, but did you do well in subsequent math classes? What does your Pre-Calculus teacher think of you? What does your Calculus teacher think of you? A lot of times the fact that it’s from three or four years before, especially when you’re a fairly young person, that letter of recommendation may not feel as relevant or as fresh as one from a teacher that’s taught you more recently. And, especially, a teacher who’s taught you in a subject that is traditionally considered more difficult or more challenging or something like that. Again, it’s not against the rules, but in general, I would look for teachers that you had as a sophomore, as a junior, in an academically rigorous class, or one of the more academically rigorous classes.
When you say two recommendations, does it have to be one math/science and one humanities teacher? It does not have to be. That is a very common and totally reasonable pattern. But, if especially if you’re applying for a specific major or program, and you want to get multiple teachers of that type or in that general field, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do when it comes to recommendation letters, as well.
Totally means … Okay. One of the things that’s hard to do is if you’re submitting very specific information about your situation. I can’t … I have to look for questions that are going to be as broadly applicable as possible, here. We’ll probably take one or two more. And then we will wrap it up here this evening.
Should a student meet with an admissions rep prior to applying? If you can, yeah. There’s not a whole lot of down side. You get to show interest. You get to ask them questions. They get to put a face to a name. Obviously, if you are rude or something like that, that’s not a good idea. But, otherwise, it’s totally a good idea if possible.
Can you send an application before the deadline? Yes. Absolutely. In fact, many schools, especially early in the process, they have … There are some schools that even have what’s called a rolling deadline, where there’s not even necessarily a deadline. There are some schools where you want to send it in as early as possible before the deadline, because they have rolling admissions and applying earlier gives you a little bit of an advantage. But for the vast majority of schools, it just doesn’t matter. You want to send it in by the deadline. That can be before, or that can be on the day of.
If we worked an internship with a couple of post-doctorate people, would that be an effective supplementary letter of rec? Yes. Especially if you did something meaningful in that internship. If you weren’t just washing lab equipment and watching, but you actually contributed in some real way, that can be an awesome supplemental letter of rec. Absolutely.
All right. Well, thank you all so much for joining us this evening. I hope you found tonight to be useful. I hope that those of you that haven’t started yet, you do get started as soon as possible. Because, again, it is going to take time and effort. There’s going to be a lot of stuff that you need to do. If you haven’t already, and you are interested or would like the C2 nearest you to get in touch, please let us know by putting in your name, your zip code, and a phone number or email address where you may be reached as a question. And I will ensure that you get contacted by that C2 as soon as possible. Otherwise, thank you all so much for coming. Have a wonderful evening and good night.