Applying to College

The Other Essays that are "All About You": Your Recommendations

John Carpenter is back this month to remind students that there are some other essays that are "all about you" -- the recommendations from your counselor and teachers. Read on for his tips on how to get the best writing -- that is, the best results!

In applying to college, writing is enormously important because good writing tells us something we need to know. I spend a lot of time talking to students about writing their essays, and I usually enjoy reading what people have written and hearing the stories.  While there’s a lot of emphasis on creating the perfect essay, there’s another kind of writing where students also have some influence and most high school kids don’t even think about it -- and that’s the recommendations.

Yep, recommendations.  Those other great little essays that are all about you, written by your teachers and counselor.  If you think it’s tough to write a personal statement for an application and a couple of short supplement essays as well, imagine what it’s like for your high school English teacher who is probably writing about 15 or 20 essays--er, I mean, recommendations--for her students.  And then there’s your counselor who, depending on how big your graduating class is, could be writing 15 or 20 -- or even as many as 100 or more.  Seriously! 

Juniors: It's Time to Think about a Testing Plan

Most students will want to take either the SAT or ACT once by the end of junior year -- usually taking either test for the first time in the winter or spring. (The SAT is first offered in January; the ACT in February. Make sure to check deadlines for sign-up!) This timing allows you to capitalize on having just completed Algebra II, as well as further coursework in English. No timetable suits all students, but all students should begin thinking of creating a testing plan, taking into account planning for the SAT or ACT, Subject Tests, and AP exams (if enrolled).


Seniors: A memorable essay? Might be family breakfasts, piano lessons, or raising pigs...

A couple of years ago, the New York Times published an article claiming students were cultivating summer experiences such as expensive internships or exotic travel experiences "with the goal of creating a standout personal statement." Quick, buy a ticket to Shanghai! NOT! Some form of this urban myth wanders through the hallways of high schools across the country during essay writing season.

This "strategy" couldn't be more wrong-headed. Or, as a former admission officer on Robin Mamlet's staff at Stanford put it -- more colorfully --in an email to us, "YUCK.  That should be YUCK in all caps, bold, italics, the works. With many, many exclamation marks."


Have a question about a gap year? Scholarships? Guidebooks for your college search? Undocumented students? Learning differences? Don't forget to take advantage of our extensive listing of Resources! You'll find books and websites for every step and aspect of the college application process under Resources when you click on the Book tab in the header of the website. Check back regularly! We always updating our listings!

Seniors: Treat the Application as Your First College Assignment

Seniors, this week we want to reiterate (SAT word!) something that we hope you will take to heart.

Take the college application itself seriously! Filling out the Common Application correctly or submitting a recommendation letter on time tells an admission officer a lot about you as a candidate. As well, the essay is your unique opportunity in the application to tell the college in your own words who you are -- think of it as standing in front of the admission committee and telling them who you are and what you want.

Treat the application as your first college assignment. It should represent your very best work. Give it plenty of time and your keenest attention. Do not underestimate what you are telling a college at every point in the process. They are paying attention.

The Essay that Starts with a Dialogue with the Police Or How a Parent can Make an Interesting Essay Ponderous

Psychologist and counselor Jeanette Spires joins us again this month to talk about the essay, why it's a good idea to avoid too much "help" from parents, and what it means to show a college what matters to you.

What feels most out of control in the college admission world?   The winner may be the essay process. There is plenty of research indicating that the rigor of high school classes and the grades earned by students are the best predictors of success. But essays do not lend themselves to statistical study. Years ago when I began as a college counselor, there was something of an honor code about essays for competitive colleges. Today, checking search engines leads you to sites offering to take care of that onerous task for you.  "Harvard writers!"  Now why would a high school student want an essay written by a college graduate?  Ding-dong! The admissions reader isn't stupid.

What is it "practical" to study in college? You'd be surprised!

For many parents and students, the most-lucrative path seems obvious: be practical. The public and private sectors are urging kids to abandon the liberal arts, and study fields where the job market is hot right now.

Dr. Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School and Professor of Education, has some very good, "practical" advice for students and their families in a recent Wall Street Journal article -- Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire.

Here's an excerpt:

Schools, in turn, are responding with new, specialized courses that promise to teach skills that students will need on the job. A degree in hospital financing? Casino management? Pharmaceutical marketing?

Little wonder that business majors outnumber liberal-arts majors in the U.S. by two-to-one, and the trend is for even more focused programs targeted to niches in the labor market.

Seniors: Advice for your Interviews!

Seniors, at this time of year, you will likely be doing interviews at the schools on your list -- either in the admission office or with alumni. Here's our best advice:

Take the time to reflect before you show up for the interview. For example, think about  what's important to you, what you're reading, which of your activities means the most to you, what class you most enjoy, what event going on in the world right now has caught your attention and why?

Have a well thought-out answer for a question you are very likely to hear: "Why do you want to attend College X?" Your answer doesn't have to be long or involved but it should honestly reflect your feelings and in-depth knowledge about the school.

Dress appropriately. Admission officers say by far the most frequent interview faux pas are wardrobe malfunctions.  Here's a guideline: dress like you're lunching with your grandparents.

Be on time. In fact, be a little early.

Be polite — to everyone: the receptionist, the other students and parents in the waiting room, the interviewer and your parents.

Remember: this is an opportunity to create a lasting first impression. One of the best ways to do that is to start out the interview strong. Make eye contact with and greet the interviewer, offer them a firm handshake, and state your full name clearly before you take your seat for the interview.  

How Many Colleges Should Students Apply To?

Today we kick off a new feature here on the blog: "The Question of the Month." We'll be asking high school college counselors, independent counselors, deans of admission and other experts, such as financial aid officers and psychologists, to respond to our questions about all things college admission. Then we'll bring you their advice on the subject of the moment -- from essays and scholarships to interviews and extracurriculars -- including any words of wisdom on how to handle it all on a day to day basis. 

For October, we asked a group of counselors:


"How many colleges should students apply to?"


Mai Lien Nguyen
College and Career Center Coordinator
Mountain View High School
Mountain View, California


People sometimes approach the question of how many colleges they should apply to as if they are preparing for an emergency (e.g. how many extra batteries, water bottles, and matches might I need in case an earthquake hits?!).  The ideal number of colleges on a list really depends on each student’s situation, and each person’s balance of “safety/likely, target/match, and reach” will vary. However, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind: