The College Application from the Inside Out

College Cheating Scandal

Here's how the admissions process is likely to change in the wake of the college cheating scandal
April 11, 2019

Wow… it’s been a wild couple of weeks in the wake of the federal indictment against parents, sports coaches, a phony admissions consultant, and a phony SAT/ACT proctor. It’s the Justice Department’s largest ever college admissions prosecution.

Well, not surprising, we have a few things to say about that. Here's co-founder Anna Ivey sharing her expertise in the media:

What's most important for you to know is this:

You CAN get into top schools ethically.

Can I Write About a Traumatic Experience in My College Application Essay?

Traumatic or otherwise difficult experiences do not have to be off the table for your college application essays.
April 8, 2019

Traumatic or otherwise difficult experiences do NOT have to be off the table for your college application essays. They are legitimate subjects (depending on the essay prompt, of course; it has to make sense as a response to the particular question). 

The key is to remember that the ultimate topic for any college application essay is YOU — not the trauma itself. You don’t want to spend too much of your precious word count on a blow by blow description of what happened, because then you’ll run out of room to talk about the more important part: your reflection. 

So keep the description succinct, and focus most of the essay on your reflection on the experience and what that has meant for your own development. 

In terms of signaling: ideally your writing and reflection shows that you had a post-traumatic *growth* experience (you don’t have to use those words, but you do want to show that something meaningful came out of it), and that you’re not stuck in your life in a way that would prevent you from thriving in college and moving forward in a positive way. Admissions officers have to worry a lot about who is going to thrive or whether they are just setting people up for failure, so try to read your story from their perspective; what does it say about you going forward? Is the impression you’re giving them what you want them to take away about you? 

Hope that helps! Good luck with this next, big step!

Originally posted at

What's the toughest part of the college admissions process?

Are you dreading your college applications? Here's the secret to success: Think like an admissions officer. We show you how.
March 6, 2019

What do you consider the toughest part of the college admissions process?

Number one is taking the SAT, ACT, and AP exams. Yup, that's not fun for most people.

A close second? Completing the college applications! That's according to the 2019 College Hopes & Worries Survey from Princeton Review. College applications are high-stakes because you really care about the outcome, you (hopefully) do it only once or however many siblings or children you have in your family, and there's a fairly steep learning curve.

We know that the applications can seem like a black box sometimes. Why are they asking a certain question? How will your answers affect the admissions outcome? What can you do to maximize your odds of getting accepted as you're answering questions and writing essays in the applications? Because all the stuff you've done up to now is only half the battle. If you don't showcase the right things in the applications in the most effective way, you can be tanking the outcome without even knowing it.

Until the decision arrives. And then you might scratch your head and wonder why all the great things you have to offer weren't enough. The whole thing can feel like a random lottery, or you might conclude that the system is completely rigged. And it will feel like a big black box, because colleges are not going to give you feedback about what you did right and what you did wrong and what you could have done better.

Inline is your alternative. And your superpower. Because Inline teaches you how to think like an admissions officer through every step of the application, including activities lists, essays, disciplinary and criminal disclosures, recommendations, and more.

it even has strategic advice for important decisions you have to make along the way that can have a real effect on the outcome (Should I apply Early Decision or Regular? Should I submit this test score or not?) and all of those innocent looking but loaded questions like "Do you intend to apply for financial aid?" or "What is your intended major?" (Yup, those innocent looking questions can affect the outcome as well.) And what should you do with the free-form, optional "Additional Information" section? Using that section strategically is one of the best things you can do for your application, and we show you how.

And our essay samples don't just show you what other people did. They are annotated so that you can see what makes an essay effective from the perspective of an admissions officer. Because ultimately, that's whose assessment and reaction and thinking process matters most to the outcome — not your English teacher, not your dad, not your friend who's a sophomore at your dream school, not commenters on a discussion board.

What are the parts of the application are you finding most challenging?

Joy! You Can Get Cracking on Your Common App Essays for 2019-20

The Common App will be keeping the same essay questions as last year. That gives you nine months to draft.
February 22, 2019

The Common Application has announced that its 2019-20 essay prompts are staying the same as last year's application, which means that if you're a high school Junior, you don't need to wait until the summer to find out what the essay prompts will be for your applications this coming fall. You can read the seven essay prompts here.

Do you need nine months to write your Common app essay? Probably not! The writing is in some ways not the hard part, though. Reflection and brainstorming take time. That's at least half the battle for a successful essay. Take advantage of the lead time for experimentation and do-overs.

Can you get started now if you want to? Yes you can, you eager beaver!

Is there any downside to starting to write your Common App essay now? Not really, but here are some things to take into consideration.

If you'll be applying to colleges that have supplemental essays (i.e. essays specific to that college) as part of their applications, then you might decide to wait until those colleges have released their supplemental essay prompts for 2018-19. Those won't all roll out at the same time, and probably won't until the summer. They'll come out on a slow drip. You probably haven't finalized your college list yet. That's normal.

Once you can see the supplemental essay prompts for all the colleges you'll be applying to, you can see which prompts have topics that overlap, either with each other or with a Common App essay topic. You can mix and match topics in a way that will allow you to get the most mileage out of whatever essays you end up writing, and potentially write fewer essays than you otherwise would have to... if you're strategic about the mixing and matching.

So how do you know which colleges will have supplemental essays? You can see which ones had them in last year's application season in this table. If you zoom in to read the tiny, tiny font (oof!), check out the Supplements > Writing column. If it says "Yes" in that column, then that college had a supplemental essay of some kind in its 2017-18 application (And if the 2017-18 application deadline for that school hasn't passed yet, you can pull up the current applications and check out the supplemental essay questions.) 

Can you rely on that information for this coming application season? Probably yes for 90% of them, because schools don't typically change up their applications all that much from one year to the next. But we won't know yet with any certainty until the new table comes out for 2018-19.

If you want to start writing sooner rather than later, you can pick a Common App essay prompt now even before you know what the supplemental topics will be, and then write a another, different Common App essay for a particular college if it turns out that your first Common App essay would work better as a supplemental essay for that college. That's fine too! 

Pro tip: You can submit different Common App essays to different colleges. Inline gives you advice for each Common App essay prompt and deconstructs sample essays from the perspective of the admissions officer. That way you can start to think about how they actually use and evaluate application essays. Inline teaches you how to think like an admissions officer as you draft your essays. Inline also shows you how to submit different Common App essays to different colleges, which isn't obvious when you're logged into your Common App account.

Starting to write earlier rather than later also gives you time to try drafting several Common App essay topics, using our Inline do's and don't for each one, and seeing which one feels the most natural and speaks to you the most. Give yourself time to reflect and to brainstorm. Sometimes you don't know which one will end up clicking until you're deep into writing in response to a prompt. ("Essay prompt" gets used interchangeably with "essay question" in the admissions world. They mean the same thing.)

You can download the FREE version of Inline now and get working on the Common Application questions. That information will roll over into your Senior year, no worries. And your Inline tool will roll over into your Senior year as well.

If you need or want help with the Common App essays, the best edition for you is Inline Plus

And if additionally you need help with the supplemental essays, the best edition for you is Inline Pro

Everyone starts with the free version, and you can always upgrade later from within the tool as needed.

Or you could run through the sprinklers for now and procrastinate until next fall. We don't recommend that though. :) 

A Valentine to Your College Counselor

Here are five ways you can make your college counselor's life easier, which means better results for you!
February 4, 2019

It's National School Counseling Week! If you're a junior gearing up for the college application process this fall, you'll soon learn that your school-based counselor will play a very important role in your success. It's not too early to build a good relationship with that person at your school and start planning ahead for a productive and low-stress working relationship.

1. Understand the role your college counselor plays at your school

Most applicants don't appreciate how much influence a school counselor can have on an admissions officer's evaluation. Admissions officers value what the school counselor has to say about an applicant, and a negative report from the counselor can cause big problems for you. Help that person help you! Be responsive and pleasant to work with.

2. Follow the rules and work within the system

If you think managing your applications to ten colleges requires a lot of work, think about the challenge of managing applications for fifty or four hundred or eight hundred students! Any way you calculate it, that's a lot of applications and applicants to manage, and the only way for that to work is for there to be a system that everyone within the school follows. So follow the rules and work within the established system.

3. Give your school counselor as much lead time as possible

Your school counselor is a very busy person. Extra time is a gift that you can give your counselor that will pay off in multiple ways, including making it more likely that a special request will be granted, that the college deadlines will be met, and that whatever he or she submits on your behalf is well done, accurate, and on time. So don't just meet deadlines but beat them. And if you do have a special request, ask as soon as you know what you need. Don't procrastinate.

4. Take advantage of every opportunity to let the school counselor get to know you

School counselors typically structure opportunities to get to know their students, but students don't always take advantage of them. That leaves the counselor with little information to include in his or her school report, and no guidance from the student about what might be particularly helpful. (What's a "school report"? It's a document that your counselor will be submitting to the colleges you apply to, and that's what the Common App calls it too. It's basically a recommendation from your college counselor, and it's separate from your teacher recommendations.) If your counselor offers individual appointments, schedule one and talk with him or her face to face. If your counselor holds group sessions, attend them and participate. Take notes. Make a calendar of tasks for yourself. Follow up.

5. Recognize that your school counselor is bound by school policies and the law

Your school counselor is a licensed professional who works for your school. He or she must follow the school's policies and also the law. For example, a school counselor is not going to submit your school report until you have formally authorized him or her to do so. That's a legal requirement, because the school report contains private and confidential information about you. If you have a special request for your counselor, make clear that you understand that they have their own rules to follow, and that will make it more likely that you can work together to get your request granted.

Special note for international applicants

Your school may or may not have a school counselor who is well versed in the US college admissions process. If your counselor is not an expert on US college admissions, you might need to educate that person so he or she can help you. Inline has more tips just for international applicants!

Special note for homeschooled applicants

Your counselor is probably one of your parents, and so admissions officers will probably assume a certain amount of bias in his or her evaluation of you. That is why many colleges do not require a counselor recommendation from homeschooled students. Even if they do ask for a counselor/parent recommendation, do seek out additional recommendations from non-parents who can validate what your parents have to say. Inline has more tips just for homeschooled applicants!

Download your free copy of Inline now to get started. You can beginning working on your Common Application as early as your Junior year.

How to Correct Mistakes in Your College Applications

If you find a mistake after you've already sent them off, don't panic. There are things you can do to set things right again.
January 10, 2019

Sometimes, even under the best of circumstances, you find an error in your applications after you've submitted them.


We know you're human. So do admissions officers. Your human capacity for error doesn't give you a pass to submit a mistake-riddled application, and ideally, you've submitted applications with zero mistakes. But if you do find a mistake after you've already sent them off, don't panic. There are things you can do to set things right again:

1. Evaluate whether a correction is even necessary.

Not every mistake is a doozie. If the mistake is truly inconsequential (one typo in the name of your swim club), let that sleeping dog lie rather than drawing attention to the mistake with a correction. But if the mistake is anything bigger than a single typo, submit a corrected version of your application form (or the attachment only, if the mistake was in an attachment) with a brief cover letter asking that your corrected application/attachment be substituted for the previous one.

2. Submit a corrected version through the appropriate channel.

Submitting a corrected application can be logistically tricky in the era of online applications, because once your application has been submitted, you are typically prohibited from changing it or resubmitting it. If the college is a Common Application college, you should submit your corrected version and your cover letter directly to that college. You cannot submit any updates or corrections through the Common Application after you have submitted.

3. Communicate directly with the admissions office, as well as through your high school counselor.

There's no harm in redundancy in this case. Make sure to keep both the affected colleges and your high school counselor in the loop. Your counselor might even be able to facilitate whatever correction you need to make.

4. Correct the mistake in any applications you have not yet submitted.

On the Common Application, if your mistake appears on any component other than the essay, you can correct it without creating a new version of the Common Application. If, however, the mistake was in your essay, then you will need to create an alternate version of your essay in the Common Application system. Because this alternate version will use up one of the three alternate versions that you are allowed to use, make sure that you are comfortable using one of your alternates for this purpose. If you are not, check with the college to see if you can submit a corrected version of the essay directly to that college.

Checklist If You've Been Accepted Early Decision or Early Action

Celebrate! Happy Dance! And make sure to complete these checklists.
December 13, 2018

Ohhhhh… what a week! If you submitted an Early Decision or Early Action application, you’ve probably heard some news by now. 

Here's our checklist if you've been admitted, and we'll cover other scenarios in subsequent posts.

Early Decision:

1. Share the happy news with your high school counselor and your recommenders and thank them.

2. Make your enrollment deposit by the stated deadline (usually by January 1).

3. Withdraw your other pending applications and decline any other offers of admission (because Early Decision offers are binding). All you have to do is send a two line email to the admissions office at the other colleges:

"Please withdraw my application from consideration. I was admitted to [name of college] through Early Decision and I will be enrolling there.”

Sign it with your full name, your birth date, and the name of your high school to make sure they withdraw the right application and mark the right offer of admission as “declined.”

4. Follow through with financial aid deadlines and documentation.

5. Don’t lose steam. You have to graduate, you have to keep up your grades, you still have to stay out of trouble….

Early Action:

Your biggest decision right now is whether to accept one of your Early Action offers or whether to apply elsewhere for the Regular Decision or Rolling Decision deadlines that are coming up. 

If you decide to accept, follow the checklist above for Early Decision. Make your enrollment deposit by May 1.

If you decide not to accept:

1. Go back to the criteria you developed when you were putting together your original college list. Review it and update it with all that you have learned about yourself (and about the various colleges) over the last year or so. Don't be afraid to include criteria that are very specific to you.

2. Imagine your reaction if you were to accept your Early Action offer. Test that decision in your mind and in your gut. Try it on. Does it seem right?  If it does, then you are done. Accept the offer. Pay the deposit. Get the sweatshirt. Tell the world. If it doesn't seem right, take some time to discover why the decision doesn't feel right. Be honest with yourself.

3. If you still don't have a decision that feels right on April 30th, then you are probably suffering from decision paralysis induced by a case of perfectionism. You are worried about making the RIGHT decision, when you should be focused on making a GOOD decision. As is often the case in life, there may not be one right decision here. So you have to accept that and focus on making a good decision.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Checklist If You Applied Early and Haven't Heard Anything

Don't panic! You've got this.
December 11, 2018

You applied early and the notification deadline has come and gone and... silence. Ugh.

Here's what you should (and shouldn't) do to move things along.

1. Confirm that your application was received and deemed complete. Only complete applications get read and evaluated. If your application wasn’t complete, do what you need to do for your application to be complete in time for the Regular Decision round.

2. If your application was complete, find out if decisions have been released by the college in question. Before you call the college and ask, do a little research on your own. Applicants aren’t all that silent when decisions come out, and the colleges often also post on social media when they’ve released their early decisions. If decision have been released, you need to take action ASAP and call the admissions office.

During this phone call, you have one mission: to get the information necessary to resolve whatever is keeping you from getting your decision. 

Notice that we’re not saying that your purpose is to get the decision. Why? Mostly because admissions offices generally have policies that prohibit sharing a decision over the telephone. The quickest and best way to learn what you need to do to actually get your decision is to talk to someone at the college. Here’s a script you can use:

“I’m calling because I submitted my early decision on [such and such a date] and I understand you sent decision letters/emails out, but I haven’t received my letter/email [or when I log in, there is no decision posted for me].  Can you help me figure out why I haven’t gotten my decision yet?”  

No matter what they say the problem is, stay calm. Do not freak out. You’re still trying to make a good impression. Take a breath. Assuming you had received a confirmation from the college notifying you that your application was complete, you reply politely:

“Wow there must be some mistake. I have the notification confirming that my application was received and went complete. What should I do?” The admissions officer will then walk you through what to do and the admissions office should bend over backwards to correct their mistake.

3. If decisions have not been released, sit tight and be patient. If colleges are late getting their decisions out, that means the admissions office is swamped, and calls from eager applicants will only delay the process further.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

How to Get Your College Applications Done by Winter Break. Magic!

Get your applications in early with a minimum of drama.
November 29, 2018

January 1 college application deadlines will soon be here.

But you already knew that. 

DON’T PANIC. But don't dawdle either.

How nice would it be to get your applications done by winter break so that you can actually relax and enjoy yourself and celebrate other things that matter in your life? 

Here are 4 things you can start working on TODAY in the final sprint to winter break:

1. Check in with your teachers, counselors, and testing companies about their supporting documents

Believe it or not, your teachers and counselor are as stressed as you are about all the college application deadlines. The more lead time you can give people to write letters on your behalf, the better. If you owe them any materials or conversations, or have yet to get the ball rolling, don’t put this off another day.

If you want to hit those January 1 deadlines (let alone with time to spare), don't make them scramble. They are your allies for your applications, so be super nice to them.

Also, if you haven’t already found out, ask your counselor whether or not your high school uses Naviance to submit their parts of the application. Do so before you start entering your counselor or recommender info into the Common App, because your submission logistics will be different depending on the answer.

Are there any test score reports that still need to be sent by the College Board (SAT), the ACT, or ETS (TOEFL)? Double-check that now and get them ordered if you haven’t done that. (One big money-saving hint: don’t ever pay for rush processing — the colleges download on a regular schedule, so rush processing means nothing.)

We have lots of tips in Inline around recommendations and submission logistics and also so-called FERPA waivers for your recommendations. (You will be asked whether you are waiving your FERPA rights under federal law, and we have some advice around that too.) 

2. Create a work schedule for your applications between now and winter break

Create an application work schedule and go over it with your family. Breaking your application work down into a couple of hours a day will be MUCH more effective than giant marathon sessions. It doesn’t matter whether you use a paper calendar or an electronic calendar, but use some kind of calendar, and map out exactly when you’ll be working on your applications every day.

Then stick to the plan. Stick to the plan. Stick. To. The. Plan.

Between now and winter break, that work calendar is sacred. Some of the Common App or college-specific supplemental questions will require input from your parents (for example, questions about state residency, their marital and family history, and their education and work history), so coordinate your calendar with theirs to budget for that parent-input time. You might also need their signatures for certain parts of the application, like binding Early Decision contracts.  

3. Get cracking on your Common App essay and any supplemental essays for individual colleges

We know. The essays can be scary. And maybe you’ve been putting off all your essay writing until winter break. 


Inline gives you lots of exercises and worksheets and step-by-step instructions to help you with your essay writing, and we even show you sample essays that explain how those samples are effective from an admissions officer’s point of view. (At Inline, we’re former admissions officers, and we’ve read enough application essays to last us a lifetime.) We know you’re way too smart to copy the essay samples or engage in any plagiarism, but you can get a sense of the range of responses that work really well for different essay prompts and let yourself be inspired, and also guided by plenty of tips based on actual admissions expertise.

You might be tempted to start writing RIGHT NOW, basically throwing a bunch of spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks. That’s not the formula for successful application essays, though. 

Instead, organize your essay topics first so that you can figure out where the overlap is, and where you can recycle your essays. Did you know that you can even swap out the Common App essay for different colleges? You might want to mix-and-match different Common App essays with different supplemental essays for individual colleges. Inline shows you how. Get started by downloading Inline here. You can start with the free version and upgrade as needed.

4. Use the Common App Help Desk

The good people at the Common App have a Help Desk (or as they call it, the Solutions Center) during the application season. If you’re running into problems with the Common App platform, contact them for help. More info here:

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

When Not to Apply Early Decision

There are some circumstances when it’s better not to apply early, and you’re better off applying in the regular round instead.
October 22, 2018

Early Decision deadlines are coming up, and you’ve probably heard a lot of advice about why it’s a good idea to apply early to college. But there are some circumstances when it’s better not to apply early, and you’re better off applying in the regular round instead.


Are you at your most competitive in time for the early deadline? If you can get ten more points on the SAT and that would throw you into a different percentile, you're going to get more bang for your buck from your improved credentials than from an early application. It’s not unusual (especially for boys) for test scores at the end of 11th grade to be lower than they are even six month later. There can be meaningful gains on tests in that amount of time.

Similarly, some students don’t really catch fire academically until 11th grade, and being able to apply with those first semester grades from 12th grade is really important.

Bottom line: Applying early is good only in an “all else being equal” scenario, and you might have a good reason to wait.


Because you’re allowed to apply Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action to only ONE school, you’ll have to make some strategy decisions. Maybe Stanford is your dream school but you’re not likely to get in. But if you used your early “chip” at Brown, that might be enough to make a difference in the outcome there. So what do you do? You’ll hear a lot of people tell you to “follow your dreams,” but you also want to be clear-eyed about where you’re likely to get in with the benefit of applying early. Applying early to a school where you’re not already competitive is wasting your early “chip.”


If you're admitted through an early decision application, you will have to withdraw your applications everywhere else, and you won't be able to submit any new applications. So if financial aid is a factor in your decision about where to go to college, and you want to be able to compare financial aid offers and the actual, bottom-line price tags of different colleges you're admitted to, regular decision would be a better option for you.

Get more tips like these by downloading your free copy of Inline!

What's at Stake in Bias Lawsuit Against Harvard

Inline CEO Anna Ivey weighs in on affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard
October 16, 2018

Have you heard about the lawsuit against Harvard’s affirmative action policies? Inline CEO Anna Ivey gave this interview recently about how race factors into the college admissions process. Watch the clip here.

Criminal Disclosures in the Common App

How to tackle disclosure questions about criminal history in the Common App and member supplements
August 8, 2018

Whoa, this is a big deal. Starting in the 2019-20 cycle, the Common App will no longer be asking applicants about criminal history, although individual colleges will still be able to ask the question in their Common App supplements. It will be interesting to see which colleges continue to ask the question. (NYU, for example, asks a much narrower question about criminal history than the Common App does.)

In the meantime, we have advice on how to tackle criminal disclosures in our free Inline tool. Download your free copy here.

The Common App disclosure question reads as follows (it's almost at the very end of the Common App Writing section, under the "Disciplinary History" tab): 

Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony? Note that you are not required to answer "yes" to this question, or provide an explanation, if the criminal adjudication or conviction has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise required by law or ordered by a court to be kept confidential.

That language can cause confusion for people who have been in deferred adjudication and probation programs, which is not uncommon with juvenile run-ins with the law. It also assumes college applicants understand the difference between a citation and a misdemeanor. (In some jurisdictions, a traffic ticket is a misdemeanor; in others, it's a citation.) The question assumes one knows the ins and outs of criminal law in specific jurisdictions. File this under Exhibit J for "We expect a lot of knowledge from young people."

Inline has your back.

Which Optional College Application Essays Are Actually Must-Do's

Many colleges offer optional essay topics in addition to required essays. Here's how to figure out which optionals are actually must-do's
August 7, 2018

Many colleges offer optional essay topics in addition to their required essays. How do you figure out which optional essays are truly optional, and which ones are actually must-do's?

One quick way to distinguish is to look at the nature of the optional essay question. Is it asking some version of "Why are you applying here" or "Why are you a good fit for our school?" If so, it's effectively asking, "Why Us?" Northwestern's optional essay topic is a good example. Here's the prompt:

Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you'll make use of specific resources and opportunities here. 

What they're actually asking is "How badly do you want to go here?" If you don't submit a thoughtful essay in response, you're essentially answering: "Not very much." And that's a quick way to get rejected.

What those schools are showing you is that they are very sensitive to who is genuinely interested in them, and they really want to know what specific things are drawing you to that college, for example if you're really interested in their dance program and want to participate in their dance club. Be specific!

(The admissions folks at Northwestern are especially nice because they even tell you at the end of the essay prompt: "We HIGHLY recommend you complete this essay." Not all colleges are that blunt, though.) 

Other kids of essay topics are truly optional, and it won't benefit you to submit something just because you can. For example, Harvard has a looooong list of optional essay topics, but not a single one of them is some variety of "Why Us?" (It's nice to be Harvard; they assume you want to go there.) That's how they're signaling to you that the optional essays are truly optional. If you go over to the Harvard admissions website, they even tell you as much in their Application Tips if you click on the little "i" icon:

There is no “extra credit” for writing this optional piece. As you are filling out the application, if there is not a topic that naturally comes to mind then you should probably skip this question.

So a good rule is that if an optional essay topic is asking some version of "Why Us?", definitely write something (and make it good).

And if the optional essay question is not a "Why Us" essay prompt, submit something only if it's a strong piece of writing AND it says something about you that isn't already demonstrated somewhere else in the application. For example, if the optional essay question is "Is there anything else you want us to know about you," don't use that as an opportunity to say to them, "Oh by the way can I mention that I received an A+." That won't add anything valuable or new to your application, and you're better off not submitting the optional essay at all.

Inline includes a whole lot more advice for the essay prompts for specific colleges. Start with your free download here.

The 2018-19 Common App Is Live

The Common App goes live today, and we're giving a preview of a great new feature that will save you a lot of money. What's not to love?
August 1, 2018

Guess what? THE COMMON APP WENT LIVE AGAIN TODAY! They've rolled it out for the 2018-19 application season after a brief refresh. Aww, happy birthday CommonApp. Here's looking at another great year.

Now that the CommonApp is live again, over here at Inline we're busy doing our own refresh to update all our advice, hints, and Inline Intel.

One of the most exciting changes this year — a big benefit for you, the applicants — is that a bunch of schools will permit you to self-report your standardized test scores starting in this cycle. That will save you a lot of money! You used to have to pay the testing companies, College Board and ETS, to send official scores to your colleges. That added up and was really discouraging for a lot of applicants. Hats off to the colleges that now let you self-report.

If a school lets you self-report, take advantage of that and click "YES." You'll still have to have your official scores sent to the one lucky college where you end up enrolling, but that's a whole lot cheaper than the old system. 

Just make sure you self-report your scores accurately. Otherwise, any discrepancies can cause trouble for you down the road when your college sees your official scores.

OK, have a great year, and please contact us if you have any questions about your applications, our Inline tool, or the admissions process more generally. We're here to help you think like an admissions officer while you work through your apps and apply like a pro.

Your Social Media Life and College Admissions

Do admissions officers review your social media accounts? Sometimes. Here's what you need to know.
July 30, 2018

Do admissions officers review your social media accounts? Sometimes. Here's what you need to know.

In our experience, they don't have the time to do that on a regular basis, but sometimes they do, and they can always spot-check if they feel it's warranted. And sometimes people will tip them off about posts that are racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, for example. (Hello, Harvard memes scandal.) 

Because the chances are greater than 0% that an admissions officer might take a look, it's a good idea to review your own social media content and make sure your posts, photos, or even usernames don't show you in an unfavorable light for admissions purposes. Puppies, otters, vacation photos, selfies... fine. But if they show you double-fisting beer bottles, for example, you're better off taking them down, especially if you have to make any disclosures around alcohol-related offenses. As always, we're trying to teach you to think like an admissions officer and view things through their eyes. 

Pro tip #1: Even if you have your posts set to private, check your public-facing posts or photos and any comments attached to public posts or photos. (Sometimes friends can post comments that look bad; just delete those.) For example, on Facebook, your profile photos and cover photos and any business/event Page Likes are all public. So if you have Liked 16 beer-related festivals back to back, that might make an impression, and the admissions officer might wonder if you'd constantly be in the Dean of Students' hair getting busted for underage drinking or an incipient drinking problem. 

Pro tip #2: The Harvard memes group was a private one on Facebook. Even if something is private, or you're using an alias (like on Reddit), it's not hard for schools to find out what they want to find out. And in general, you're online posts and identity are never truly private

Read more here ("Applying to college? Admissions officers may be checking you out on social media").

Should You Take the SAT or ACT or Both?

Here's our advice about standardized testing for anyone who plans on applying to selective four-year colleges in the U.S.
May 30, 2018

So many tests, so little time. When it comes to standardized testing for future college applicants, there are some decisions you have to make before fall of Senior year in high school to help you maximize your options when the time comes to apply. But there are ways to "work smarter, not harder."

When we talk about which tests to take, we realize that these are moving targets because of changes on the test side of the world, particularly on the SAT side. The fact that the SAT has been in flux recently informs the advice we give. Here's our advice for anyone who plans on applying to selective four-year colleges in the U.S. We assume you're still in the planning stages, so that would be 11th grade in the U.S. 12-year system. 


1. Plan on taking the SAT or the ACT

It's true that more and more colleges are going "test-optional," meaning that they are no longer requiring the SAT or the ACT from applicants, although you can still submit scores if you choose to. You might end up applying only to test-optional schools, or you might end up with a mix. Or you might turn out to be really good at the tests, in which case a good SAT or ACT score would still work in your favor even if they're not required. 

Many students don’t apply to a list of schools that is 100% test optional, so as you're planning ahead, you need to have one of those tests under your belt. Then the question becomes which one to take.


2. Take a diagnostic SAT and diagnostic ACT

Do take diagnostic SAT and ACT tests because there’s no way to predict whether you are going to do better on the SAT or ACT or equally well until you’ve taken a practice test of each in timed conditions. Every test prep company in the world will do this for free as part of the sales process, or it will be the first thing you do once you sign up for test prep. 

For the ACT, take a look at the free diagnostics offered by ArborBridge (or any test prep company you like). 

For the SAT, take a practice diagnostic test through Khan Academy. Because the SAT has changed recently, test prep companies have to simulate practice questions for the new SAT — they can't rely on real questions from the older tests. From our perspective, that's less than ideal. At this time, Khan Academy is only test prep organization that has access through College Board to real practice questions written by the College Board (the makers of the SAT), and it’s all free. 


3. After the diagnostic tests, pick the ACT or the SAT and stick with it

If the SAT is demonstrably your better test, run with it. Otherwise, stick with ACT.

Sometimes parents push back because they don’t want to spend the time on all that diagnostic testing. We'd like to persuade you that this tip translates into “work smarter, not harder."

We don’t suggest you prep for both tests longer term. Spending some time up-front on both diagnostics allows you to pick the test you're better at and then focus your test prep around it. Parents usually have a bias in favor of one test or another (often based on their own experiences many years ago), so this tip is also designed to help parents get out of the bias.

If you do equally well on both diagnostics, then commit to the ACT because it gives you the option of avoiding subject tests. Parents and kids love to hear that, because it means fewer tests longer term (many colleges don't require SAT subject tests if you take the ACT). If you can take the ACT and call it a day, that's great news.

There are still a few schools that require the subject tests even if you take the ACT, but it still gives you lots of options if your subject tests don’t come back particularly strong. Do plan on taking at least two SAT subject tests to keep your options open.


4. Include the Writing portion of the ACT / SAT

Fewer and fewer colleges require the Writing section, but if you want to preserve all options, it's still a good idea to take it, for now.


We'll continue keeping an eye on developments in SAT- and ACT-land, and also on the best test prep options as students and test prep organizations adapt to the new SAT.  

Don't Catch the Senioritis Bug

May 1 is the deposit deadline for incoming college freshmen. But you're not done yet!
May 1, 2018

May 1 is a day to celebrate. For many schools, it's the deposit deadline for accepting your college admissions offer, and so you might be tempted to think it's also the end of your college application marathon.


Even after you have put down your deposit, you still have obligations you must meet in order to keep that spot in the incoming class. Plunking down money isn't the only hoop you have to jump through. (Although it's an important one. DO NOT MISS THE DEPOSIT DEADLINE. Seriously.)

You will also have to submit your final Senior year transcript when the time comes. And if you've slacked off or gotten into disciplinary trouble, that can cause problems, and might even result in your offer being revoked. And then you lose your spot. Oof. That can and does happen and it's heartbreaking. Don't let that be you.

Same goes for any other kind of conduct disclosure, like run-ins with the law. Keep your record clean. If you already had legal issues to disclose, don't go out and create new ones.

You've made it this far. Keep up the good work!

More Colleges Joining the Common App for 2018-19

The Common App welcomes 34 new colleges
April 10, 2018

The Common Application just announced its newest members for the upcoming season (and by "members," they mean colleges who use the Common App). They're joining 750+ colleges that have already been using the Common App. That's a lot! The Common App includes colleges from 49 U.S. states and 19 countries. You can create your Common App account here, and make sure to download your free edition of Inline for help along the way.

Here's the list of Common App newbies for the 2018-19 admissions season as of April 10, 2018. (There will likely be more to come.) Welcome!

New England

Bridgewater State University (MA)


Cairn University (PA)

Penn State (PA)

Queens College, CUNY (NY)

Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania (PA)

St. Francis College (NY)

University of Pittsburgh (PA)

Webb Institute (NY)


Bellarmine University (KY)

Florida State University (FL)

Radford University (VA)

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (NC)

The Wilkes Honors College of FAU (FL)

University of North Carolina at Charlotte (NC)


Oregon State University (OR)

The University of Utah (UT)

Warner Pacific University (OR)


CCAD - Columbus College of Art & Design (OH)

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) (IN)

Lewis University (IL)

Michigan State University (MI)

Morningside College (IA)

Quincy University (IL)

The University of Kansas (KS)

University of Central Missouri (MO)

University of Cincinnati - Blue Ash College and Clermont College (OH)

University of Iowa (IA)

University of Mount Union (OH)

Walsh University (OH)

Wright State University (OH)


Chaminade University of Honolulu

Puerto Rico

Universidad del Este (UNE)


Arts University Bournemouth (United Kingdom)

Temple University, Japan Campus (Japan)


Harvard Drops SAT / ACT Writing Requirement

Anna recently spoke to the Harvard Crimson about Harvard's decision to drop the SAT and ACT Writing Requirements.
March 20, 2018

Anna recently spoke to the Harvard Crimson about Harvard's decision to drop the SAT and ACT Writing Requirements. Read more here

How to Tackle the Rest of Your Junior Year

Now that your Junior year is well underway, here are some things to think about as you plan out the rest of your school year.
November 22, 2017

Happy almost Thanksgiving! Now that your Junior year is well underway, we wanted to lay out some big picture items for you and your parents to think about as you plan out the rest of your school year. 

Here are the things you should plan on having accomplished by the end of June so that you're in fighting shape when you turn to your college applications next fall.

1. Have a set of standardized tests completed. Map out a testing schedule for yourself between now and the end of the school year, including your test prep schedule. The big news here is that there are fewer and fewer schools that require SAT Subject Tests, but... you should still reserve that May or June slot for SAT Subject Tests even if you might never need them. Block those dates out on your family calendar in case you do want to take them, and plan ahead for which subjects you think you might want to take. 

2. Do both ACT and SAT diagnostic tests. The ACT vs. SAT decision has gotten more complicated. It's a good idea to do practice tests for each so that you can decide which one you want to commit to. Start with free diagnostic tests, for example from Arbor Bridge. Then decide which one you perform better on. Look at the testing schedule for that test, and if family or travel events are coming up that time of year, make sure to get dates on the calendar now so there's no conflict. Dates are different for international students, so you might need to pay special attention to those. Also, the ACT February test is not offered in New York state.

3. Figure out a spring break agenda for college visits, and start thinking about logistics. How will you get form Point A to Point B to Point C? Ideally you, the student, will take some ownership over this and it's not just mom who does it all. Don't try to squeeze more than 7 schools into 5 days. It's better to have a full day at 1 college than to do the hit and run approach. Sometimes doing a half day is inevitable, but it wouldn't be our first choice. Don't assume flying is always preferable - especially in the Northeast, the train is often more efficient. Spring is a better time to visit than summer because school is often still in session in the spring (college breaks often don't overlap with high school breaks).

4. Do a self-assessment of credentials so you know where you need to focus your time next term. What grades do you need to pay special attention to? Where do you need to double down to keep a grade trend going up?  Where are you on the edge of an A and can bump up to an A? These are strategic decisions about where to focus your efforts. "Get the best grades I can get" isn't specific enough, and that would mean you're just doing more of what you were already doing, which might not be the best plan of attack.

5. Sign up for a Common App account. Poke around so you start to familiar yourself with it. Your account will roll over from Junior year through your Senior year, so you don't have to worry about losing any data you enter before Senior year. At the end of Junior year, pick two or three graded assignments and get them scanned and archived somewhere so that you can access them later if you need to (you can park those somewhere in the cloud, like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Docs). Those assignments are easy to lose track of otherwise, and you'll want to have them in one place when application time comes around. Storing them doesn't mean you have to end up using them. 

Before You Submit Your Early Application

Do One Last Check Using Inline
October 23, 2017

November 1 is fast approaching.

You've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's in your college applications on the Common Application platform.

But there's no downside and only upside to doing one more check of your work with the help of Inline. Download your free version here... and submit your applications with confidence.

Good luck!

What Is Your Favorite Food?

How to tackle the Really Short Answer questions on your college applications.
October 19, 2017

Every year, we’re fascinated to read people’s answers to the Really Short Answer questions on college applications. 

What’s a Really Short Answer question? That’s what we’re calling the application questions that ask you to respond to a question in 25 words or less. Kids agonize over these.

Here's the secret: Usually, your quick, gut-level response is your best response, so you really don’t need to agonize.

Let's try an example. What’s your favorite food? Answer in 25 words or less.

What’s your gut-level answer? Let’s say it’s lasagna. OK, write down lasagna. But don’t stop there. Here’s our pro tip: The more specific, the better.

So don’t just say lasagna.


"Lasagna on Christmas Eve, because it’s our family tradition.”

Try a couple. They're not so hard! Here are some other examples:

"Macaroni & Cheese: it’s a comfort food, doesn’t have to be from Kraft, but from a box. Half the butter, twice the milk, extra cheese.”

“Zwetschgenkuchen, German plum cake. It’s delicious, and it’s the one word my American mother, who speaks perfect German, can’t pronounce, so we joke about it.”

In fact, you could write a whole essay about your favorite food and why it matters to you, and that would be a wonderful essay. Really, we’ve seen plenty of them! If you can be a little more specific than just a one or two word answer, the Really Short Answer questions let you reveal something beyond just personal taste. (Family traditions? Humor? Quirkiness? International background? There's no shortage.)

The Really Short Answer questions look silly on first glance, but they turn out to be pretty useful. And fun.

The 2017-18 Common App is live!

Some interesting changes... and Inline has you covered
August 2, 2017

The super-duper early birds among you will have noticed that the 2017-18 Common App went live late Monday night, and if you had created an account or even started working on it before it went "dark" in July for the refresh, your information should still be there.

Our team at Inline has been squirreled away updating our advice and hints and worksheets and samples and other expert goodies to reflect the changes from last year's Common App, including some new essay topics.

One important thing to know about is that the truly common part of the Common App is ready to go (when you're logged into your Common App account, that's the tab called "Common App"). 

Participating colleges will roll out their individual "supplements" in the Common App on their own schedules, and some of them take their sweet time. So don't panic if you don't see the supplements for your target schools popping up yet, or if they're not all showing up at the same time. We're keeping an eye on the roll-out of the various supplements so that the Inline advice is up to date. 

If you haven't already downloaded the FREE Standard version of Inline, you can do so here. If you're a junior or senior in high school, it's not too early to take a look.

We hope your application season is off to a good start!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Don't Start Writing Your College Personal Statement Just Yet

We know you're getting plenty of advice to the contrary. Here's why you should wait.
July 17, 2017

Now that the summer is well under way, you might be hearing or reading advice from a whole lot of sources telling you to start working on your college application essays.

We're going to tell you not to start... yet. In fact, you're better off starting your college application essay in late August or in September.

Here's why you should hold off:

1. The best material for your main college application essay (aka personal statement) might end up being about your experiences this summer, and those experiences are still a work in progress. We hope your summer is formative in some way, and that it will yield some good essay topics. You might end up writing about less recent experiences, but you're not in a position to make that decision yet.

2. It's possible you'll have more application essays to write besides the main personal statement, and waiting until August/September means you can be more strategic and save yourself a lot of time. Starting in late August, you'll be able to see where the overlap is among the essays for your colleges. You can mix and match essay topics in a way that means you won't have to write a brand new essay for every college, but you can't do that analysis this early in the summer.

We're not letting you completely off the hook during the summer, because there are some things you can and should start working now. Those to-do items will be a better use of your time than starting to write an application essay on a topic that you might even end up using.

Here's what you can get started on now:

1. ZeeMee: More and more college applications are inviting you include links to your online profile on ZeeMee. You'll want to curate your ZeeMee profile and think carefully about what you want to start parking there for admissions officers to see when you submit your applications. Make sure to make your ZeeMee profile private (the default setting is public).

2. Resume: Many colleges invite you to attach a resume to your applications. You can get started on that (keep it to one page!), just leave some space to fill in later for your current job, internship, coursework, travel, or other experiences that are still in process.

3. Why College X essays: Now's the time to start finalizing your college list, and that means you can start writing "Why College X" essays for each one. Not every college will require that essay for its application, but you should write one for each college on your list, even if you don't end up submitting each one. At a minimum you'll have to be able to articulate "Why College X" in other contexts, for example in admissions interviews. Writing out your "Why College X" motivations will also help you think about where you might want to apply binding Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action when the new applications roll out.

4. Daily journal: You can start keeping a daily journal as early as 9th grade where you write down three things that happened each day that were important to you. By the time you're ready to work on your college applications, you'll have plenty of experiences and insights to mine for good material, because you will have documented them. You won't be posting this content anywhere; it's just a way to archive them for future use. We're fans of an app called Day 1 for these purposes. Whatever works for you!

Inline has lots of advice, worksheets, and templates for you to use as you tackle these to-dos, including the personal statement (once you get there!). Get started with your free download.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

The Decision Zone

Staying sane while college decisions are coming out
March 12, 2017

March is the cruelest month, right? (Sorry, Shakespeare.) Now that you've entered the home stretch of the college application process, here is some advice to get you through it.

1. Make double, triple sure that ALL of your applications are complete. If you discovered that something was missing, follow up and make sure it got there. Doublecheck that all of the colleges got the Midyear Report from your school. An incomplete application gets you nowhere. Now is your last chance to complete it.

2. Do some research and find out WHEN AND HOW the colleges you have applied to will be releasing their decisions. Check the college websites. Put that on your calendar, so you know when to freak out and when to relax.

3. Do your best to "check out" and ignore all gossip, rumors, and information from any source other than the college itself. Nothing you learn on College Confidential, from other kids in your class, or from friends is reliable. Really. They don't mean to give you bad information; they just don't know. 

4. Limit yourself to checking email, mail, and websites to once a day if you can. Compulsive, obsessive behavior doesn't change the college's decision; it just makes you crazier (even though it feels good temporarily).

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Checklist If You Applied Early and Were Denied

Wallow for a little bit... and then regroup.
December 16, 2016

Oh that hurts. No kidding. But you still have options if you follow these steps.

1. Wallow in your misery for a short time and then move on.

Being denied by a college where you applied feels bad. So let yourself feel bad for a little bit. Allow yourself as much as 48 hours to rant, rave, cry, or be grumpy. You just don’t want to get stuck here.

2. Then regroup quickly. 

Remember life isn’t over and you can go onto a perfectly wonderful future. So dust yourself off and get back in the game. You still have the option of applying to other colleges for their Regular Decision or Rolling deadlines.

3. Do some deep analysis of what went wrong this time. 

Then set about doing it differently. Was that school a long shot because of your credentials? Do you have newer, better credentials that you can showcase for your next batch of schools? Do you have a more realistic list of schools to pursue? Did you lose steam when you got to the application forms themselves? What can you do better or differently going forward? Do you need to take a gap year to fix bigger problems? Consider both your short-term and long-term options.

Sometimes we take a shot and we miss. We all do at one point or another. Don't quit now... tap into your inner resilience and keep going.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Checklist if You Applied Early and Have Been Deferred

It's not over yet! You're still in the game. Here are your action items.
December 15, 2016

If you have applied early to one or more colleges, the decision letter you receive might not actually contain a final decision. Instead of being admitted or denied, you might be notified that you have been "deferred." That means you have not been denied, and that's good news, because it gives you a second chance to be admitted! Your deferred application will be reconsidered in the Regular Decision round of decision making.

Sure, it's not the news you wanted (an offer would have been nice!), and being held in a limbo state is no fun, but don't lose hope. You can still maximize your odds of getting in if you follow these steps.

1. Treat your deferral as a second chance. Assuming you have continued on a positive course in the first part of your senior year, you have new information that can and will make the best and most compelling application — which you've already submitted — even better.

2. Use your judgment about what additional material to send. In order of most influential to least influential, here are the five kinds of updates that can help your deferred application:

- New (and good) grades

- New academic honors or awards

- New (and higher) test scores

- Anything that demonstrates your Core Four

- Anything you have done that demonstrates your interest in that college

You can, of course, also submit other kinds of updates, like additional essays, recommendations, or supplementary materials. But we're not as enthusiastic about encouraging you to submit those, because those kinds of updates get mixed reviews from admissions officers. They tend to be more of the same, and they usually serve only to make your file fatter and more time-consuming for an already harried admissions officer to get through. There's a saying among admissions officers: they dread the files that "land with a thud."

3. Submit one bundled update. Rather than sending things in dribs and drabs, assemble all your updates into one package of materials and submit them all together with a short and polite cover letter. That way, all the updates together will make a cohesive and persuasive statement about you. Sending updates individually also makes it more likely that something will be misfiled or lost. If that college remains your first choice, make sure to reiterate that in your cover letter.

Good luck!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Activities List

Here's how to make the Activities List in your college application work for you
December 9, 2016

Admissions officers at U.S. colleges care very much about your academic credentials—no surprise—and they also care about your life outside the classroom. There’s a section in the Common App called “Activities” where you are invited to showcase those extracurriculars from all of your high school years.

Although the Common App makes it optional whether to report your extracurricular activities, we recommend that you always report something in that section. If you have more than one activity to list, the Common App asks you to list them in order of importance to you, so start with the most important one and work backwards.

First, think broadly about your activities. What are you doing when you aren’t in school, working, eating, or sleeping?

Now you can start narrowing down. If you have a lot of activities, you don't have to list every single thing in the application. In fact, you shouldn’t list everything, unless your list is otherwise really short.

You don’t have to use up all seven activities slots in the application form. Three meaningful ones make a better impression than listing three meaningful ones and tacking on four fluffy ones. Instead, list the ones that are meaningful and then stop.

How do you figure out what’s meaningful?

In evaluating your activities, admissions officers are looking for evidence of what we call the Core Four:

- Passion

- Talent

- Initiative

- Impact


What are you passionate about? People generally express their passions by devoting their thoughts, time, and energy to them. Where are you devoting most of your thoughts, time, and energy?


What do you do well? Your accomplishments generally announce your talents, but you want to go beyond just announcing your talents and describe (even briefly) how you have developed your talents. Admissions officers want to see that you are more than just a gifted slacker. They want to see that you challenge yourself, that you have a work ethic, and that you are striving to become better.


What have you made happen? What have you started? What have you led? Where have you created your own opportunities? Where have you gone above and beyond? When admissions officers talk about students with initiative, they are talking about students who make things happen or who lead others. They are talking about students who start clubs or lead teams, think up and do projects on their own, seek out challenges, and generally use their efforts to create opportunities for themselves and others. You get no points for initiative when all you do is join, enroll, show up, or meet the requirements.


How have you changed, grown, or learned from your experiences? How have others benefitted from what you have done? What have you added to your classroom, your school, your community, your family, or the world? Admissions officers want to see that what you have done mattered to someone.

Many activities might demonstrate just two or three of the Core Four, and that’s OK. If you have an activity that demonstrates all four, list that one first.

What if your activities aren’t structured?

Activities don’t have to be structured (through a school club, for example) to be meaningful.

If you spend your free time writing poetry, do include that.

If you spend most of your time outside the classroom caring for a sick relative, do include that.

Those are important activities for you, and admissions officers will want to know about them. If you don’t list them, they’ll assume you’re spending that time goofing off. You do want to get credit for the meaningful, non-goofing-off time.

What if you spend a lot of time at a paying job?

If you spend a lot of your time outside of school working at a paying job, whether it’s babysitting, folding shirts at the Gap, or scooping popcorn at the local theater, those should go into the Activities section too.

The application form lets you designate the activity as “Employment,” and if you’re spending a lot of time working, that will allow admissions officers to understand why you might not have as much time to devote to other kinds of activities. In the admissions world, there is nothing wrong with non-glamourous jobs.

Inline has lots more tips about how to maximize the Activities section of the Common App. Download your free Standard version here.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Those Pesky Member Questions

They might look simple... but can come back to bite you
December 1, 2016

If you’ve been following our plan to get your college applications done before winter break, you’re almost there!

First things first… now is a good time to check in with your teachers, your school-based counselor, and any other recommenders to make sure they have what they need to get their letters in on time with a minimum of stress (for them!).

Now for today’s topic: those pesky “Member Questions.”

What’s a Member Question, you might ask?

If you’re using the Common App application platform to apply to college, you’ll see that there is a set of universal questions and a universal essay that you complete in the tab called “Common App.” But then there are also separate forms (“supplements”) to fill out for individual colleges. That’s where the colleges get to include questions and essays that are specific to them, above and beyond what’s in the Common App tab.

Not all colleges use these supplements — some colleges use just the Common App part of the application and call it a day. Those are less work for you.

But if any of your colleges do include supplements, their college-specific questions are called “Member Questions.”

(Why are they called “Member Questions”? Because the colleges are “members” of the Common App consortium of participating schools, and so the Common App labels those school-specific questions with reference to the colleges’ membership in the consortium. In the Common App universe, a college = a member. A bit insider-ish, it’s true.)

You’ll find a wide range of Member Questions depending on the kinds of colleges on your list. Some of those Member Questions look simple and straightforward but actually have longer-term consequences for you.

For example, a college supplement might ask you what your “preferred start term” is, and give you the options of “Fall” or “Spring” in the drop-down menu.

You might think, “That’s great, I have total flexibility. Woohoo!”

Well, maybe yes… and maybe no.

Some colleges do give you total flexibility with respect to start term and so you can think about which one makes most sense for you. Typically, though, you have to look up that information on the college’s website to confirm that you truly have both options as an incoming freshman.

Other colleges might list more than one start term in the drop-down menu, but in reality only the Fall term is an option for you if you are an incoming freshman; the other terms might be options only for transfer students, and that is often not spelled out in the question or in the drop-down. Another variation (there are several) might make Spring term available on a space available basis only, again without a heads-up.

Often you’ll have to root around on the college’s website to find out those details. But Inline is here to simplify things for you and give you the most important information right above each question.

Another example of a tricky member question is when a college asks you about your intended major. Sometimes the choice you select in the drop-down menu is binding, and sometimes it isn’t, but you wouldn’t always know that just from the question or the drop-down options. Inline decodes the question and the answer choices for you so that you don’t lock yourself into a particular academic path unintentionally.

The lesson here is that even simple-looking questions in your college application can actually be a bit tricky, and the trickiness doesn’t always jump out at you. If you treat it as a simple question, you might have hurt your odds of admission, or limited your future options, without even realizing it. Inline alerts you to those tricky bits in the Member Questions so that you don’t unintentionally fly through them without understanding the nuances.

Inline is full of tips and tricks to help you ace the Common App questions, the Member Questions, and much more. Download the free Standard version here.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

How to Help Your Recommenders Help You

Your recommenders are key allies. Here's how to work with them productively.
November 21, 2016

Have you already lined up your recommenders? If not, get cracking, because they are your key allies in the application process. Best case scenario, you already talked to them at the end of 11th grade about writing recommendations for you. But if you’re a senior and you haven't already done so, it’s not too late.

Your core recommendations typically come in the form of a school report from your school-based college counselor and two academic recommendations from your teachers. (The number of teacher recommendations might vary among your colleges.)

Recommendations make a difference, and it is up to you to make sure that the recommendations you get will make a positive difference for you and influence the admissions officer in your favor. Here are the five things for you to focus on:

1. Confirm your individual colleges' requirements for teacher recommendations: how many and in which subjects. Make appointments to meet with your recommenders. Look out for specific requirements that might influence whom you ask to be a recommender. Ask for any scholarship recommendations at the same time so that you don’t have to go back to the same people with new requests.

2. Play nicely with your school counselor. Admissions officers place a lot of weight on what school counselors have to say about an applicant in the school report, and a negative report can be the kiss of death. What the admissions officer learns from the school report will have a direct bearing on your academic rating by the admissions officer. Follow the rules and work within the system (your counselor is bound by school policies as much as you are), give your counselor as much lead time as possible, and take any opportunity to let the counselor get to know you.

3. Choose teacher recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Although you don’t always have a choice when it comes to your recommenders, when you do have a choice, pick recommenders who know you well, who can speak about your positives and negatives based on direct experience, and who like you. If you have significant negatives to overcome (low grades, a disciplinary or criminal record), choose at least one recommender who can address these negatives either because of the recommender’s position or because of the recommender’s knowledge of and experience with you. (You'll find more tip in Inline about how to handle any negatives in your applications.)

4. Waive access to your recommendations. Under the law, you have the right to see your recommendations (and all other application materials that remain in your student record) after you have been admitted to and enroll in a college, unless you waive that right. The recommendation forms give you an opportunity to waive your access rights. Typically, the only reason applicants decline to waive access is when applicants are concerned about what the recommender might say and want to discourage the recommender from saying anything negative. That creates a new and equally serious problem: a recommendation that will not have much heft. When you do not waive access, you are not only sending a signal to the recommender, you are also sending a signal to the admissions officer, who might conclude that this recommendation cannot be fully trusted because the recommender could not be completely frank. You're better off waiving your access.

5. Be polite. Always. The way you interact with these allies shapes their impression of you. Any whiff of entitlement or ingratitude will count against you. So will blowing them off. Follow up with them, find out if they need anything from you, make sure you get them what they need, and when your applications are wrapped up, send them thank-you notes.

You can find more tips in Inline about recommendations, including the different logistics for Naviance vs. non-Naviance high schools.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of College Application Essays

Almost ready to submit your college applications? Check your essay against this list before you do.
November 14, 2016

When you're working on the Common Application, you can avoid these critical essay mistakes that admissions officers see over and over again.

Sin #1. Your personal essay is not your work.

Your essay is expected to be your work, and if an admissions officer figures out that your essay is not your work, she will reject you. Don’t “hire out” your essay. Don’t copy or mimic a sample essay you find online (or in Inline!). Don’t let a well-meaning editor like your mom or dad rewrite it or “tweak” it beyond all recognition. Write your personal essay yourself.

Sin #2. Your personal essay is not an essay.

Essays are specific forms of writing. You are asked to write an essay, so write an essay. Don’t write a poem. Don’t write a screenplay. Don’t write an academic treatise. Don’t write an autobiography. Write an essay.

Sin #3. Your personal essay is not personal.

Your personal essay is supposed to be PERSONAL. That means it should primarily be about you, not primarily about the person who influenced you, not about a political issue, not about a beautiful turn of phrase, but about YOU. With each of the Common Application essay topics, notice how the meat of the question or instruction involves the word "you."

Sin # 4. Your personal essay is not specific enough.

Your essay must be specific enough to be about you and only you. You are not the first, last, or only applicant who will write about being a child or immigrants or scoring the game-winning goal or having to pick herself up after losing a school-wide election. In fact, thousands of applicants will do that every year. And that is perfectly fine, as long as your essay is distinctive enough that it wouldn’t work equally well for some other applicant. Your essay will stand out if it is your voice and shares your perspective. Avoid clichés, and avoid generalizations. Even if the general theme is one that admissions officers have heard lots of times, don't forget that you are the unique ingredient.

Sin #5. Your personal essay is off-putting or worrisome.

Admissions officers read all components of an application with an eye for the applicant who is “off” in some way that could be threatening or disruptive in a college community. Diatribes don’t sit well with them, nor do personal essays that are just plain creepy (like an in-depth discussion of your fascination with serial murderers).

Sin #6. Your personal essay is not well written.

Misused words, grammatical errors, and typos are simply not acceptable when you are applying to college. Your personal essay should be your best piece of writing ever. It should deserve an A++ from the most critical English teacher you have ever had (but make sure she understands that you’re not meant to be writing in term-paper language). Polish it until it becomes that A++ essay. You can find more essay polishing tips and checklists in Inline.

Sin #7. You skip the personal essay entirely.

Some colleges using the Common App do not require the personal essay. You should still write it, because submitting a great essay shows a couple of good things about you to admissions officers: (1) you meet at least a competent level of writing skill, something that matters a whole lot for success in college; (2) you care enough about that college to want to stand out from the pack and put in the extra work; and (3) you're seizing one of the few opportunities in the application to let them go beyond your numbers and statistics and get to know you as a person. YOU know you're more than a GPA and a standardized test score, but they can't read your mind. Here's where you can show them you're a three-dimensional person and where you can focus on what you have to offer beyond your numbers. DON'T SKIP THE ESSAY. We've got many more essay tips for you in Inline. You don't have to muscle through on your own.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Shout-Out from the L.A. Times

A high school senior tries out Inline, gives it two thumbs up
August 18, 2016

If you haven't discovered it yet, the L.A. Times has a wonderful blog called HS Insider written by and for high school students. Blogger and high school senior Cece Jane from El Segundo High School was kind enough to review Inline and write a nice review here. Check it out and read some more great posts—good stuff! 

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Strategies for Standardized Tests

Tests are stressful. Here's how you can be smart about them.
June 20, 2016

Decisions, decisions. What color should I dye my hair? Should I wear board shorts to the beach? In-N-Out Burger or Chipotle? And should I take the SAT or the ACT, or both? Here's our advice:

  • DO take at least one test. A number of schools are going test-optional, but chances are that you have a list that includes colleges that require tests. Taking the tests allows you to see how well you do and decide on an application strategy.
  • Take a diagnostic SAT/diagnostic ACT first. Arbor Bridge and Revolution Prep are two test prep companies that offer free ACT diagnostic tests. For a free SAT diagnostic, visit Khan Academy.
  • After the diagnostics, pick a test and stick with it. If you do equally well on both, go with the ACT because it allows you the option of avoiding subject tests. (There are still a few schools that require the subject tests even if you take the ACT - if you apply to one of those schools, take your subject tests and don't worry - you have a strong ACT!) 
  • Write, write, write - take the writing portion of your preferred test. It gives you more options.

BTW, we recommend red for the hair, no on the board shorts, and In-N-Out Burger, definitely.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Summer is Coming

Summer is a great time to explore your college options & start your applications.
June 18, 2016

Yes, we know you're dreaming of sunshine, beaches and sleeping 'til noon (well, if you're a teenager, that is). But summer is an excellent time for rising high school seniors to get a jump start on the college application process. Haven't visited any colleges yet, or missed a few when you made the rounds? Now's the time to make those visits - and also enjoy a little extra attention from admissions staff, as summers are generally less busy than the school year. Picked out your colleges, and thinking about applications? Summer is a great time to start working on application essays. But don't forget to take the time to do the things you love - both to keep yourself happy, and to make sure you have things to write about in those essays. (As well as a little cash in your pocket, if you're working.) Now get out there, and get started!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

Welcome to inline

Introducing inline: on-demand, in-browser help for college applications.
June 17, 2016

Welcome to inline! It's been a labor of love by a group of education and technology experts who set out to level the playing field by creating a tool that provides college application help to virtually anyone. Inline works with the Common App®, and also provides hints, tips, advice, and sample essays from successful applicants. We even built in some extra special "inline intel," including a behind-the-scenes look at how admissions officers evaluate essays. Look for Coach, the inline feline, when you open the Common App. Coach will be there to guide you through the most intimidating part of the admissions process: the #%$! application. Let's get rolling as you start the next step in your educational adventure! 

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.