Thanksgiving Crunch Time: Your Application Timeline

To all College-Bound Seniors:

With college deadlines just around the corner, it is time to kick it into high gear! Don’t tire out on turkey. Use the Thanksgiving holiday to finish up your college applications.  Even if you haven’t started your applications, there is still time.  I have made an easy to follow schedule that’ll help you navigate the college admissions puzzle and it even sets aside time to enjoy family and watch football.

So, what exactly should you be doing over Thanksgiving to perfect your applications? Although it may be tempting to jump right into those essays to cross this big item off of your to do list, take a step back.  The most important part of your college application is your admissions strategy.  So, begin by working on your Unique Value Proposition. What do you want colleges to know about you?  Think about what you have to offer your dream college and what differentiates you from other candidates. Don’t be vague and don’t be boring! Do you have a passion for marine biology? Are you passionate about a favorite charity or are you a competitive flutist?  Do you want to study international relations and work for the UN? Focus on your unique talents and interests.

If you have yet to start your essay, don’t panic. Think about what every other part of your application says about you first.  Your transcript and test scores will tell schools what type of a student you are and what your academic interests might be.  Do you challenge yourself with more advanced classes and, if so, how do you perform in them?  Next, your activity list and resume will show colleges how you spend your time outside of class and how you might contribute to your college community.  Will you star in the school play or lead the school newspaper?  If your colleges require recommendations, those should validate what’s been said thus far and add more color about your character and personal qualities.  Hopefully, you have already requested them but, if not, be sure to help your recommenders get them in on time by giving them an information packet which includes your resume, GPA, and a summary of how you distinguished yourself in that class or community.

Only now should you get to your essays.  What’s missing from the picture you want to present? Focus on what sets you apart. For example, think about an experience that has challenged you and discuss what you learned from that experience.  In my experience, a solid college essay takes five drafts before it is ready to submit, regardless of how strong a writer you are. So, brainstorm your essay topic and work on a draft daily.   By the end of the weekend, you should be prepared to submit a great college applications.

When I was writing The Complete Candidate, I included specific examples, details, and guidelines and downloadable templates so that students have all the resources to submit effective college applications with minimum stress. It’s a step-by-step college application program that I wished I had as a college-bound senior and I know that this straight forward Thanksgiving Timeline will soothe your fears.  For a limited time, you can purchase The Complete Candidate for $150 off the original value. But just like your college application has a deadline, the offer does too.  The promotion will end on Cyber Monday, while quantities last.

Yes, the deadline is almost here…but don’t give up just yet. If you dedicate the time to your application this coming week, you will be stress free by Winter Break. So, stop stressing and follow my work plan one exercise at a time.

For a detailed timeline on how you can finish your college applications over Thanksgiving, click the link below:

The Complete Candidate Thanksgiving Application Timeline

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Attention College Bound Juniors: It’s Time to Set Your Schedule!

To all College-Bound Juniors:

It is time to start thinking about your senior year schedule. Strong performance during your junior year is very important in the college admissions process, but so is your performance during senior year. Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal just yet! During your senior year, continue to choose classes that both challenge and interest you! Colleges want to see that you continue to excel during this last year, so don’t get lazy. This is not the time for senioritis! A solid senior year schedule should be comprised of courses in english, science, social studies, and math. It is likely that you will also have to take a foreign language and a visual or performing arts class. A strong schedule should have both AP and honors courses as well.

So, what is the perfect senior year schedule? Well, not to disappoint you, but there is no “perfect senior year schedule.” An ideal schedule is one that challenges a student and leads to academic growth. If you are looking for other ways to boost your academics, enroll in community college courses or dual credit classes. You could also take a for credit summer class on as college campus.

Before deciding on a schedule, discuss course options with your counselor. Also, it is important to think about what is required to apply to different colleges and what is competitive. For example, even though some colleges will require four years of math, many engineering programs will require AP Calculus BC and AP Physics 2. Go beyond what is listed on the main site and look for program-specific requirements or pick up the phone and call the admissions office to find out what competitive candidates are taking. You want to have a competitive academic transcript, so don’t be scared to challenge yourself!

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Stef’s Top 5 Resume Tips

To all College-Bound Juniors and Seniors

Once you have thought about your elevator pitch, building a resume is your next step. Although your college of choice may not require a formal resume, I encourage you to start working on one. A resume provides the evidence to support your elevator pitch or unique value proposition.  Your resume should highlight your unique talents, skills, and passions, but it also should include any jobs you have held, any volunteer work you have done, and the impact you have had on your community. You are more than your grades and test scores and colleges want to see that.

Here are my top resume tips:

  1. Start every bullet point with a strong action word. This is another example of how to sell yourself. Use descriptive words such as achieved, created, developed, formulated, spearheaded, unified, valued, and motivated.
  2. Get specific. If you helped fundraise for an event such as Race for the Cure, include the amount of money you raised. If you led your school’s robotics team, include the number of people on the team and exactly what you accomplished.
  3. Provide a summary of your academic accomplishments. If you are a strong student, say so. Don’t be afraid to list your class rank, SAT or ACT scores, APs or IBs and GPA at the top of your resume.  If you have pursued your academic interests beyond what your school offers by taking summer programs or classes at a community college, be sure to include that, as well.
  4. Use section titles. Make sections of your resume obvious and easy to read. No admissions counselor wants to look at an unorganized resume. Use titles that reflect your elevator pitch or unique value proposition such as “global perspectives, entrepreneurship, communications, etc.”
  5. Include your time commitment. Your time commitment will show your dedication to your activities. List the number of hours per week you volunteered, worked, or did a particular activity.
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Let’s Talk About You

(How to Differentiate You From Every Other Applicant)

Tell me about yourself.

What should be the easiest question to answer, is often the most frequently botched.  Usually, the answer I get is, “What do you want to know?”  Well, at this point, not very much because it sounds like you don’t have much interesting to say.  Only slightly more adept is the “My name is Johnny.  I’m a senior.  I play the guitar… [blank stare].”  Hmm.  Well, I know your name is Johnny because you just introduced yourself and I’m guessing you are a senior because you are applying to college.  So, you play the guitar, huh?  Ok.  Next?

What if, instead, Johnny said, “I really love music – composing, writing and performing.  Growing up, I lived in different countries and cultures and was always trying to find a way to fit in.  When I moved to the US, I discovered music and immediately fell in love with it because no matter what language you speak, everyone understands music.  It’s a way to communicate, even if you might not have the right words.”

Ok, now we are getting somewhere.  Johnny loves all aspects of music because it’s how he communicates.  Johnny has also lived all over the world and I bet he has some interesting perspectives and experiences to share.  And, Johnny knows who he is and is confident in what he wants.

Which Johnny would you remember?  More importantly, which Johnny do you want to admit into your incoming class?

You might hear some people refer to this general idea as a “hook” or a “theme.”  In business, it’s called an elevator pitch.  I refer to these 2-3 sentences that summarize your specific blend of talents and skills and what you will bring to your future college community as your Unique Value Proposition (UVP).  Much like a UVP tells customers what differentiates Nordstrom™ from Target™ or Nike™ from Crocs™, your UVP tells colleges what differentiates you from all of the other smart, talented students who are applying to your top choice schools.  It is not about what you do; it is about who you are.

Developing your UVP is the most important part of your application because will form the cornerstone of your college application strategy.  Once you have this, it’s pretty easy to figure out how every piece of the application will work together to tell your target schools what makes you uniquely you. Remember the puzzle we keep talking about?  Your UVP is the picture on your application puzzle and every other piece of your application – your transcripts, test scores, recommendations, activity list and essays – work together to explain who you are, what you will bring to that school and the impact you will have after you graduate.  I’m always stunned that most students seem to forget this critical step.

But, I admit, it’s not easy.  Many students struggle with this concept. So, how exactly do you write the perfect UVP? Start by focusing on your skills. What are you great at? Are you a great writer, do you take terrific photographs, are you skilled at bringing people together? Next, focus on your interests. Do you love the environment, do you delight in experiencing world cultures, or are you a film buff?  Finally, what impact do you want to have on the world?  Do you want to invent something, solve something or improve something?  Maybe you want to solve world hunger, or dream of working at the UN? These are all things that can make up your UVP.

So, next time someone asks you about yourself, don’t shy away.

This question is a gift.  It is your opportunity to tell the other person whatever you want them to know about you.  In fact, the entire college application is a long-winded way of asking “Tell me about yourself.”  So, tell them.



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Attention-Grabbing Openings

How to Make an Impact with The First Essay Sentence

To all College-Bound Juniors and Seniors:

Your college essay is your first impression…so make it count! At the height of the season, many college admissions officers often read 30-40 applications a day.  Depending on the number of supplements, that can mean almost 100 essays each day! From these essays, they strive to quickly discern what you are passionate about and why you should or shouldn’t be accepted into a particular college. Many essays are bad.  Filled with cliché “insights,” riddled with grammatical errors, and lackluster word choices, most essays fail to take advantage of the opportunity to present a compelling picture of who you are and what unique things you will contribute to your campus and to your classmates.

So, how do you create a show-stopping college essay? Let’s begin with the first sentence. The first sentence in any essay should draw your reader in. It can be humorous, dramatic, or provocative. It should say, “Hey, pay attention to me. You want to read me because I have something very interesting to say.” When working with my clients on their essays, writing that first sentence is usually the biggest struggle. What kind of opening sentence will grant you admission into your target schools?

Examples of weak opening sentences:

  • My biggest failure is …..
  • My confirmation/Bar Mitzvah/Quinceañera marked my transition from child to adult.

YAWN!  Please, please refrain from restating the question in the opening sentence of your essay.  Your reader’s eyes are likely to quickly glaze over while he or she scans the rest of your essay searching for something that may qualify as interesting.  If they don’t find it quickly, they will move on to the next application.  Instead, you want your admissions officer to READ your essay.  You want her to be ENTHRALLED with your essay.  You want her to SHARE your essay with the other admissions officers.

Examples of strong opening sentences:

  • When I was 10 years old, I ran away to join the circus.

Wow! What an unexpected first sentence. Why did the student go to the circus? How did they manage to run off to the circus? What did they do? What did they learn? See…this sentence makes you curious.

  • Kidnapping is an art.

This one definitely grabs attention.  In fact, this student ended up attending an Ivy League school.  When he arrived on campus for orientation, his admissions officer made a bee-line for him and exclaimed: “I’m never getting into a car with you!”   That was a year after he submitted his application. Talk about being memorable!  You can read the entire essay in The Complete Candidate: A Comprehensive System for Solving the College Admissions Puzzle.

As you think about your own essay, how will you create interest?  How will you get your admissions officer to remember you after reading hundreds of essays?  More importantly, how will you make sure that, when it comes time to go to admissions committee, your admissions officer will not only remember you but will fight for your place in the incoming class?  How will you be memorable?

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Do You Know How to Right? Common Grammatical Errors

To all College-Bound Juniors and Seniors:

The primary purpose of your college essay is to give a clear picture of who you are to the admissions counselors. Your essay should be original and creative and tell the college something about you that doesn’t come through in any other part of the application.  But, it should also be well written and devoid of any grammatical errors or inappropriate word usage. When I am constantly shocked at how many essays, even from the most accomplished students, are filled with errors.

Not only do errors show laziness and inattention to detail, they are signs of weak writing skills. Your essay should exhibit your unique writing style and will be used to determine whether or not you are capable of meeting the rigorous academic requirements of college courses.  Regardless of your intended major, you will need strong writing skills in order to graduate.  You are intelligent and competent, so don’t let the admissions team think otherwise.

Examples of common grammar mistakes:

  • Its vs. It’s

Its is possessive, while it’s is the shortened version of the phrase “it is.” The team lost its game. It’s up to the teacher to grade those papers.

  • Fewer vs. Less

Fewer refers to things that can be counted. Less refers to things that can’t be counted. You have fewer classes than I do. I hope that less snow falls this season.

  • Who’s vs. Whose

Who’s is the shortened version of “who is.” It is not possessive. Whose is possessive. Who’s still at work? I don’t know whose jacket that is.

I encourage you to purchase a grammar reference book, which will be useful throughout your college years and even into your adult lives. Review your final essay with a parent, family member or English teacher before submitting your work and don’t get too discouraged if you make mistakes.

Writing a solid and grammatically correct essay should not be difficult. Proofread, proofread, proofread! And, proofread again out loud.  Reading something out loud is much more effective at catching errors and run on sentences than reading it silently to yourself.  I can’t stress this point enough. You may feel awkward reading the same essay out loud over and over again but it’s better to be awkward by yourself than tossed into a pile of forgotten essays because an admissions officer thinks you don’t know how to write.  Use this time to brush up on style rules, polish your application essay, and develop the skills you will need to write your college thesis.

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Studying Abroad During College: Is it Right for You?

Studying abroad is an exciting opportunity that will undoubtedly change your outlook, expose you to different cultures, and provide you with experiences that you never thought you would have. Imagine studying art in the land of Michelangelo, non-Western health care in Thailand, or learning Arabic in Marrakesh. When I was doing my undergrad at Penn, I studied market transition in Zimbabwe.  While I was there, I lived in a hut with a witch doctor, bungee jumped over Victoria Falls, and spent 3 days rafting down the Zambezi River. Talk about an educational experience! If you think you may want to travel abroad, here are some things that you should think about.

  1. Is going abroad feasible? Studying abroad is actually more accessible than you may think and many colleges cover study abroad expenses in the regular tuition. Start planning early to be sure that going abroad fits in your schedule. If you are unable to travel for a full semester due to academic, athletic, or personal responsibilities, consider a summer term, January term, or a “Maymester.”
  2. Will I still graduate on time if I study abroad? This question is a parent-favorite. Students who go abroad should have no trouble graduating on time because they will be taking classes that fit their degree plan and graduation requirements. If the program is not sponsored by your university; however, receiving credit may be difficult. So be sure to get your credit clearance before you pack your bags.
  3. Find a School that Values Study Abroad. More and more colleges and universities are seeing the enriching value of a study abroad experience and are making it an integral part of an undergraduate education. The University of San Diego, Pepperdine, and Elon all have wonderful study abroad programs and encourage all of their students to travel. At Goucher, students are required to study or work abroad in order to graduate.
  4. Where should I study abroad? Only you can answer this question! France, Spain, Italy and other European countries are the most popular study abroad destinations; but more and more students are headed to China, India, Mexico, and Costa Rica. When choosing where to go abroad, start by thinking about your passions. What are your goals for your time abroad?  What do you hope to learn or achieve?  Don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. Don’t exclude a country because you don’t speak the language. I had never heard a word of Shona before I set food in Zimbabwe, but after some intensive instruction, I was able to haggle with the best vendors.

Studying abroad is a time to earn much more than academic credits. You will meet new people, try new foods, potentially learn a new language, build your International IQ, and develop a confidence and sense of independence that is difficult to achieve remaining in your own backyard.

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Future College Students, Don’t Fear.

Simple Solutions to Future College Student’s Biggest Fears:

To college-bound Juniors and Seniors:

Going off to college is a time of great excitement: it’s a time of making new friends, trying new things and finding your independence.  However, it can also be a frightening time; it’s a time of making new friends, trying new things and finding your independence.  The cliché is true; college really is the best time of your life for most people.  But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t normal to feel a bit anxious.  Yes, there will be changes …but you will be OK. Take a deep breath and read my top five solutions:

  1. Create a roommate agreement because even the best-matched roommates may encounter problems. You may be living with your best friend, someone you met just before starting school, or a total stranger. Living in a tight space can be challenging no matter how well you and your roommate are matched.  It is important to stay true to yourself while respecting your roommate and their living space. For example, if you like to go to bed early, share this with your roommate. If your roommate likes to live in an organized space, come up with a few ways you both can contribute to a peaceful space.  And, know your college’s policies on roommate responsibilities.  If your school follows “My Brother’s Keeper,” you need to have a candid discussion about things like drugs and alcohol because if your roommate gets caught violating the law, you could go down, as well.
  1. Choose your classes with care, but don’t panic if you are not able to enroll in your first-choice classes. Research potential professors and classes and choose classes that most fascinate you. If you have declared a major, be sure that the classes you choose meet the graduation requirements.
  1. Find a schedule that fits you. This tip is by far one of the best I have given my students over the years. Don’t choose 8 a.m. classes if you know that you will not attend them. If you are a morning person, enroll in those early classes and get your work done while you are fresh. If you know that you work best late at night, enroll in a night class. This tip is simple, yet I find that many students overlook it when creating a class schedule and end up struggling later in the semester.
  1. Find Campus Resources and use them! During orientation, don’t blow off the campus resource tour and information session, no matter how tempting it may be.  In addition to the obvious support services such as financial aid, college advising, health services and IT, know where the free tutors are and how to take advantage of them.  The biggest area where incoming freshmen struggle academically is in their writing abilities so find the on campus writing workshop and make sure you send your first few essays to get edited until you get the hang of writing college-level essays.  You (and your grades) will be glad you did.
  1. Get Involved! Remember that everyone is in the same boat, so be friendly to everyone you see and meet someone new every day. The first semester of college is the best time to join clubs, make friends, and learn more about yourself. Instead of sitting alone in your dorm room playing video games or watching a movie, join a gaming club or film society so you can meet other people who share your interests.  And, unless you are attending a commuter school, resist the urge to go home on weekends, even if your college is in your home town.  Weekends is when most of the social activities occur and where many relationships are forged.  It’s hard to become a part of the campus community if you aren’t there.
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College Tours 101

For Parents of College-Bound Students

While there is a wealth of information about colleges available online, in your college counselor’s office and even on social media, there is nothing that can take the place of walking through a college campus. You are looking at a significant investment of both time and money so, if possible, take a little extra effort to make sure you are getting that investment right.

Touring college campuses is an exciting time for both parents and students! Whether your student has already been accepted into college or if he or she is still in the process of applying, here are my Top 5 Tips for having the best possible experience when touring college campuses:

  1. Plan, plan, plan! This simple tip will diminish much of the frustration parents and students often experience when preparing to tour a college campus. Do some research ahead and figure out where you can park, where the tour will be meeting, how long the tour will last, and how much time you will need to reach the campus.  Do your best to allocate enough time for the tour and information session, as well as some time to grab a coffee in the student union, a trip to the book store and a leisurely stroll around campus. These “non-structured” times are likely to tell you more about the school than any formal activities.
  2. Ask questions. During a college tour, encourage your student to inquire about school traditions, clubs they would like to join, or what dining options they will have. It is important that your student is involved and listening on a tour, but it is perfectly OK for you to ask questions as well. Find out about campus safety, health services, and career counseling. Your child may seem embarrassed but, in the end, he or she will be happy you asked.
  3. Dress Appropriately. If the campus is hilly or if the tour is long, wearing comfortable shoes that you can walk in is a must. Bringing a jacket may also be a good idea. Even on a warm day, college buildings may be kept chilly. There is no reason to attend a tour in business attire but be respectful. Keep your torn jeans and midriff tops at home and remember that no one wants to see T-shirts or baseball caps from their rival school.
  4. Beware the Tour Guide. As a former college tour guide, I put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the tour. If ever pressed for time on a campus, always opt for the tour instead of the information session. Although there may be a few small differences, information sessions at most schools are largely the same. They go over the admissions requirements, the admissions process and highlight some key marketing points. All of this information can usually be found in the school brochure or website. But, the tour is a chance to get a feel for the campus, meet a real student, and get a slightly more candid and less scripted account of life and academics at the school. However, it is important to remember that your tour guide is only 1 student out of thousands. As such, it is important not to put too much importance on how much you liked – or didn’t like – your tour guide. You should never apply to a college just because you loved the tour and you should never take a college off your list because your tour guide was a dud. Use the tour as one input into your overall decision making process.
  5. Take Notes. Anyone who has done a multi-college trip knows how quickly campuses tend to merge once you get back home and try to remember specific details. Know what you are looking for in a college experience and make a grid or set of questions you want to answer at each college you visit. You should absolutely note things like interesting majors or academic opportunities that appeal to you but also take note of things you can only learn by visiting campus. For instance, are students sitting in groups, working or chatting together, or are they sitting solo, listening to headphones in front of an electronic device. Do professors seem friendly and approachable or do they walk through campus with their heads down, hoping no one stops them? Is campus easy to navigate or will it take a taxi and 2 buses to get to your next class? Keeping note of these details will help you remember each campus more accurately and will also come in handy when you write your “Why Paragraphs.”
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Top 5 Tips for Parents with College Bound Students

 To Parents of Juniors/Seniors 

As I turn the calendar page to October, I recall that fall is for…pumpkins, sweaters, football, and phone calls from FRANTIC parents of college bound juniors and seniors. Even those parents who are historically disciplined about planning and getting in front of deadlines – many now find themselves in full panic mode. Take some deep cleansing breaths, and consider these Top 5 tips:

  1. Be upfront with your child about any resource or financial constraints that may limit college selection; however, be aware of financial aid and scholarship opportunities that may make more schools within reach than you might imagine.
  2. Take your students to visit different college campuses (even those in your home town) and assist them in articulating what they like and don’t like about each.  The more campuses you visit, the more your student will be able to determine which schools are a good fit.
  3. This is your child’s college experience, not yours. Let me say that again – this is your child’s college experience, not yours!  While you can certainly make suggestions, and most certainly impose some restrictions if you are paying the tuition, always put your child’s learning style and college priorities at the center of the decision.  Your child may not attend your alma mater, get over it.
  4. Be realistic about your child’s chances of acceptance at various colleges.  While it may be tempting to apply to a large number of stretch schools, “just in case,” a series of denial letters can have a detrimental impact on a young person’s self-esteem and confidence.
  5. Avoid the urge to write your child’s college essays.  A middle aged adult writes a distinctly different essay than a teenager, and I can assure you (from experience) that essay readers can discern the difference.
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