Applying to College

Seniors: The "Why us?" Essay

For all the schools on your list, be sure to do a good job not just on your essays but also on the prompts and short answers in the supplements. Of special note: if there is a "Why us?" question and what you write will work for any other college, chances are it will not pass muster. Colleges want to know you are a good fit for their school and have a real understanding of it.   To begin with, you will need to know enough about each school to be genuinely interested in attending.  And then show those well-researched reasons in the essay in a way that demonstrates that each school is a good fit for you in terms of your intellectual, academic and personal interests. The "Why us?" essay is a unique opportunity. Make sure you put in the necessary time and effort.


For more information and advice on college essays, including selecting and developing a topic and insight from the deans of admission at MIT, Georgetown, Northern Illinois University and Williams College, see Chapter 13, "Essays," in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.


November Financial Aid Checklist for Seniors

This is the third installment from college advisor Alice Kleeman in our monthly series for seniors on what you should be doing with regard to financial aid. Remember, while in most families it is up to the parents to provide the bulk of the money for college costs to the extent of their ability to pay, it is the student who applies for student aid. Read, save and use these monthly reminders!


*             All students applying for financial aid -- whether you are considering attending two-year or four-year colleges—will complete a FAFSA. Familiarize yourself with the form. BUT DO NOT SUBMIT YOUR FAFSA BEFORE JANUARY 1—it will not be processed for the correct school year!

*             Work with your parents to collect the documents you will need to complete the FAFSA—including tax returns for the most recent year, Social Security numbers, driver's license information, student and parent W-2 forms and other records of money earned, current bank statements, etc. The FAFSA web site lists the documents you will need here.

Juniors: Applying as a Student Athlete

For students with talent and interest in athletics, applying to college requires extra preparation and an earlier timetable. Here are some areas to pay attention to as you research schools:

*             The differences among the NCAA divisions, including eligibility requirements, availability of scholarships, and the influence of your athletic ability on an admission decision.

*             The nature of the different athletic conferences -- NESCAC, Ivy League, Pac-12, Western Athletic, Northeast Ten, etc.  The conference to which a school belongs has an impact on your time commitment, the level of competition and the availability of scholarships and financial aid.

*             The particulars of applying as a student athlete. At each school, deadlines, additional materials required, scholarships and the rules governing recruiting and academic eligibility can differ.


For more information on applying as an athlete, including questions to ask as you make unofficial visits and input from deans of admission such as Stanford's Rick Shaw and Associate Athletic Directors such as University of Iowa's Fred Mims, see  Chapter 18, "Students with Special Talents", in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

Best Advice from our College Counselors


October is the cruelest month for high school college counselors, besieged on all sides with seniors intent on applications and juniors beginning their college search and testing. So we gave the counselors a pass for the month. Instead of our Counselor of the Month feature, we bring you a round-up of best advice from the counselors who have graced our website with their guidance and wisdom. Read on to learn their recommendations for applying and financial aid, mistakes to avoid, guidance for students with learning differences and undocumented students, and do's and don'ts for students -- and parents, as well.  One of our personal favorites?  From Albuquerque Academy's Ralph Figueroa: "Proofread. Spell Czech is knot yore friend and it will betray ewe." See more from Figueroa and others here: 

Alice Kleeman, Menlo-Atherton High School, Atherton, California

What is your best advice for applicants?

Have fun with the process; you have the opportunity to think about who you are and who you want to become. Why shouldn't that be enjoyable?


Jayne Caflin Fonash, Academy of Science, Loudoun County, Virginia

What is the biggest mistake you see students make in applying to college?

Seniors: Too Many Colleges on Your List?


Some students have a hard time ruling out prospective colleges. You may have fallen in love with multiple campuses or be afraid you will miss something by taking a school off your list. Try this exercise to arrive at a manageable list of schools that meets your priorities:

Identify one college on your list— let’s call it College A— where you are fairly sure you can be admitted and would be excited to go. Then compare that school to every other college on your list, one at a time, and ask yourself, “Would I rather go to this college or College A?”

If your list is too large, in any case where the answer to that question is “College A,” then the other school can come off your list. After all, why would you have any colleges on your list where you like College A better?

If your list is too small, you can use this method to expand your list. If you need more choices, use College A as a benchmark and find more colleges with the same characteristics.

Just be careful to use the most specific, objective, measurable criteria available to determine that you are admissible at the school that fulfills the role of College A. A public university with more transparent admission criteria may be a safer choice for your College A, but some private colleges can fit this role as well, as long as you have up-to-date information and it is a solid on your list.

Juniors: Researching Yourself and the Colleges

Last week, we asked you to start evaluating your academic record as you begin to work on your initial list of colleges. As you continue to "research yourself," here are some questions to ask about how you learn. This is important because college is a learning environment, and you need to honestly evaluate yourself as a student in order to figure out what schools are best for you.

Again, keep in mind that there are no "right" answers. You're just mining for information. Here are some questions to give you a start:

Are you happiest when you are (a) significantly challenged and must be ever energetic in your efforts to keep up; (b) growing along with the rest of your classmates; or (c) learning while comfortably at the top of your class?

Are there any circumstances, such as a learning disability, that have impacted your academic performance?

What has been the best learning environment for you— a large lecture class or a small discussion group?

Is it important to you to have close relationships with your teachers?

What kind of schedule is best for you?

Collegiate Buyer's Remorse

Today’s guest post is by educational psychologist and consultant Jane McClure. We are thrilled to have her expertise here on the site and happy to announce that she will be contributing monthly. Look for future posts on the challenges faced by students with Asperger’s syndrome as they consider college, communications techniques for students and parents and a series on the transition from high school to college. Join her here to learn about how to handle a student’s second thoughts on starting college – what McClure calls “Collegiate Buyer’s Remorse.”

It happens almost every year, usually during the months of October and November: calls from two or three students who fear they have chosen the wrong college.  Sometimes, they are calling just to see if I agree with them.  Other times, they are convinced that they have made a bad decision and want to know when they should apply to transfer. 

Seniors: The Real Topic of your Essay is You

Still struggling with an essay topic? Remember, the real topic is you. Whatever the essay is about on the surface, colleges care what the essay says about you.

Here's one strategy to help you find a topic:

Put a microscope to your life. Take a look at the little things around you. Go to your room and look at what’s on the walls, what’s under the bed, the things you’ve kept since second grade, or what about the thing you threw away that you really miss now. Where in the house do you spend the most time? Look for inspiration right under your nose. Ask yourself some of these questions:

• How do I spend my time?

• What do I like to do?

• What do I think about most of the time?

• What are the things that truly matter to me?

• What is my family like? Do we have any interesting rituals about dinners or board games or TV shows?

• What would I say about myself if I had to omit any mention of my extracurricular activities?

• When I think about who I am or what I care about, is there a particular day, moment, or event that was important in shaping that?

• If I, like Tom Sawyer, had a chance to eavesdrop at my own funeral, what would people say about me?

• What do I like best about my school?

• If I had a day to do anything I wanted— no school, no work, no homework, no chores— what would I do?

• What do I want this college to know about me?

Juniors: Researching Yourself as You Research Colleges


As you work on your initial list of colleges, you need to research yourself as well as the colleges. Because college is a learning environment, you will need to honestly evaluate yourself as a student in order to figure out what schools are best for you.

First, consider your academic record. Keep in mind that there are no "right" answers. You're just mining for information. Here are some questions to help you begin:

What is your GPA? What is the highest GPA reported by your school?

Are you challenging yourself in the classroom with advanced classes, such as AP’s?

What is the most intellectually engaging class you have taken in high school? Why? How did it influence you?

What do you choose to learn when you learn on your own? Consider what topics you choose for research papers, lab reports, or independent reading.

What subjects have you excelled in?

What has been your greatest academic success?

What are your weaknesses academically?

When you have struggled in your class work, what did you do about it?

How do you respond to academic pressure?


Seniors: What are colleges looking for in the essay?

As you work on finishing up your essays, don't psych yourself out by thinking the essay has to do all the heavy lifting in a college application. It is only one of many pieces. Keep in mind the two things that colleges are looking for when they read your essay:

First, can you write? Colleges want to know if your ability to write meets the academic standards of the college. They want to see that you can take a thought and develop it in a clear and organized fashion, using proper grammar. No typos, please. Your ease with language and ability to write in an engaging and thoughtful way shows them that you can express yourself effectively and that you possess the intellectual ability and readiness for college work.

Second, who are you? Admission officers want to hear your voice and know more about you when they have finished your essay than they did before they started reading it. Above all, they are trying to learn what impact you will have on their community. Will you make their school a better place simply by being a part of it -- whether that’s in the classroom, chemistry lab, a residence hall, or theater program. Colleges look for who you are in the application as a whole and the essays are one place in particular where this can be seen most clearly. So tell a story only you can tell.