52 Weeks to College: Week 28

Are you still limiting your travel? Or can’t afford the time or money necessary to visit colleges? No worries. You can make a virtual visit!

Anna Ivey

July 22, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 28

Are you still limiting your travel? Or can’t afford the time or money necessary to visit colleges? No worries. You can make a virtual visit!
July 22, 2022

Plan a Virtual Campus Tour

If you’re still exploring different colleges or haven’t even started yet, that’s OK, there’s still time!

But don’t put it off any longer, because once applications have opened up (August 1 for the Common App and University of California, for example), you want to have already finalized or be close to finalizing your college list so that you can get cracking on your applications in the most efficient way.

As you’ll learn in the next couple of posts, you can take the essays that you create for one college and repurpose it for other colleges, and if your list is already done, you can figure out exactly where that overlap is and pick the essay topics that will work for as many of your colleges as possible rather than reinventing the wheel over and over again. You may need to tweak the essays a bit even when there’s overlap, but that will still take a lot less time than starting from scratch.

But what if you’re not able to visit colleges in person for whatever reason? Maybe you’re still limiting your travel, or you can’t afford the time or money necessary to visit colleges. No worries. You can design your own virtual tour. It should take you an hour or two for each college, and by the end you’ll feel like you’ve been there.



  • Create your own college tours without leaving your couch. That’s it! Enjoy this part of your college admission journey. It might even be a little fun. 😉****


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


You’re going to start your tour by imagining you are on campus right now. The easiest way to do that is to google images for the college. The iconic buildings on campus are practically guaranteed to come up. For example, if you google images for Princeton, the first images that come up are those of the Tower on the Princeton campus. And, of course, you can imagine you are there on a picture-perfect day because those are the images that you’ll see. (Funny how they never photograph campus on a bad day!)

Now that you are on campus, orient yourself by downloading a campus map and marking where you are starting. You can usually find good maps on the college’s own website. Sometimes there is not a downloadable map on the college website, but instead an interactive map. If so, keep a tab open with the interactive map because you’re going to come back to it at each stop, so you can get a feel for navigating the campus. Google Maps has also gotten much more detailed for college campuses, so you can google too if you’re not having luck with the college website.

Stop 1. The Registrar’s Office. What’s a registrar and why are you going there first? Well, the Registrar’s Office provides support for your academic life. And since college is first and foremost an academic experience, we’ve made it your first stop. You’ll find a page for the Registrar’s Office on the college’s website. Explore and see if you can find out a few key things:

  • What are the requirements for graduation? Believe it or not, they vary A LOT from college to college.
  • What majors (or concentrations) are available to me?
  • What are three classes I’d be excited to take?

Hint: The answers to these questions can ALWAYS be found in the University Bulletin (a bulletin is an official legal document that the university is required to maintain and it will include this information). That’s usually hosted somewhere on the Registar’s page. If you can’t find the University Bulleting there, you can always Google the school name and the words “University Bulletin” and it should pop up. Make sure to look for the Bulletin that is specifically for the College or for Undergraduate Instruction. For example, here is Duke’s University Bulletin.

Stop 2. A Classroom Building. Now that you know the basics when it comes to your academic life, you’ll want to see where you are going to be taking your classes. You can choose a classroom building at random OR you can visit the building where one of the three classes you’d be excited to take is being offered (you’ll have to find the class schedule to do that). Again, google images for the particular building. See if you can find interior shots of the classrooms.

Are they large lecture halls (auditorium style), smaller “desks forward” classrooms, small seminar style classrooms, or a mix? Try to imagine yourself there with other students. For you science types, also find out what a lab looks like.

For example, here is a picture of a 140-student auditorium style classroom at USC’s Taper Hall where the Principles of Microeconomics class often meets.

Stop 3. A Professor’s Office. You want to find out exactly how accessible your professors are. Why? Because students who engage with their professors are generally more successful. Frankly, the campus grapevine is the best source of information for professor accessibility. You can read student reviews for different colleges at Niche and Unigo (just enter the college name into the search bars at the top of those sites). If you really want to dig into this topic, you can research some of the professors at the college and see if you can find their office hours. It is often found on their faculty web page or on a syllabus for a particular course (which you can often find linked to the course listing that you located on Stop 1).

Stop 4. Campus Life. Your next stop is the hub for campus life – usually it is a student center, but sometimes it has a different name or things are spread out across campus. For example, at the University of Chicago, there are several hubs for undergraduate campus life, but the hub for the student organizations and campus-wide social events is the Center for Leadership and Involvement. Locate the list of active student organizations (or clubs). Now pretend you are at the involvement fair and every organization has a table and a couple of representatives there to talk with you. Which tables will you visit? You’ll no doubt have an opportunity to attend a fair like this in the fall of your freshman year – almost every college has one. If you want insight into the arts culture, Greek life, sports, or political activism, go back to Unigo and Niche and look to see what students have to say by looking at those headings under campus topics. For example, you’ll see that University of Chicago is a place where arts and politics dominate campus life, sports aren’t their thing, and Greek life matters only to a small minority.

Stop 5. A Freshman Residence Hall. Even if you only end up sleeping at your residence hall, you’ll spend at least one-quarter of your freshman year there. So you owe it to yourself to check it out. Freshman living accommodations vary widely – some are housed together without upperclass students; some are housed in “live and learn” communities where you share interests and coursework as well as living together; some are in traditional single-sex dorms and the list goes on. For example, at Georgetown, freshmen live in one of four residence halls or in one of five Living Learning Communities (LLC). Read up on the options for freshmen and take yourself on a tour. Look for floor plans, interior images, and details that bring your future home to life. And when you’ve finished checking things out, head over to the ratings on and see how recent and current students rate the on-campus housing. In our experience, these particular ratings are usually pretty spot-on. For example, Georgetown, despite it’s A+ for location, only gets a C- when it comes to dorms.

Stop 6. The Dining Hall. Now that you’ve seen where you’ll live, it’s time to find out where you’ll eat. Unlike days of yore, “the dining hall” is usually a collection of on-campus eateries where you can eat using your meal plan. For example, Notre Dame offers its students two traditional dining halls, along with several restaurants, express eateries, and a food court.  And its meal plan includes an option where you can buy “Domer Dollars” to spend at select off-campus restaurants. Check out the places you could dine and find out what’s on the menu. Does it sound tasty? Meet your dietary needs? Again is your go-to source for getting a feel for the quality of the food. They give Notre Dame an A for food.

Stop 7. The Fitness Center or a Sports Field. Sleep, food, now exercise. Yes, we think it is important that you stay healthy at college! What activity are you going to do? Work out, play sports, some of each? Every college will have opportunities for you, and most colleges have gotten very serious about promoting student wellness. For example, at Yale you could work out at Payne Whitney Gymnasium (described as a fitness enthusiast’s dream), play an intramural sport, or go the Good Life Center and do some meditation to reduce stress.

Stop 8. Participate in a College Tradition. Nothing says more about a college than its traditions. Google the name of the college and the word “traditions” to see if you can find out a few. Often you’ll find descriptions of traditions on the college website, on a Wikipedia page, or in articles from the school’s newspaper. Here’s a good rundown on traditions at Penn — who knew toast throwing was a thing? — from the “new student orientation issue” of The Daily Pennsylvanian.

That’s it. Your virtual college tour is done – and you didn’t have to leave the couch!

52 Weeks to College: Week 27

Don’t get started on the personal essay just yet! (There are good reasons for that, really.) Find out what to tackle...

Anna Ivey

July 15, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 27

Don’t get started on the personal essay just yet! (There are good reasons for that, really.) Find out what to tackle...
July 15, 2022

Get Started on the Easy Parts of Your College Application


Last week you did your research about applications for each of the colleges on your list, so this week you are finally ready to really get started on completing those applications. I know you expect that this is when we’ll suggest you get going on the essays, but not just yet.


Two reasons.

First, the applications for your coming admissions cycle have not gone “live” yet, meaning that most colleges have not yet released their essay questions and won’t do so until early August.

Yes, we know that the Common App and the Coalition App have announced their own personal essay topics, but you want to draft those essays with the OTHER essays that will be required in mind (the college-specific “supplemental essays”) — that will save you a LOT of time in the long run, because you’ll be able to combine essays for different schools in a strategic way — so you need to wait a couple more weeks to avoid wasting time.

Second, you’ll generate better topics for the essays once you’ve seen what information is shared in other places on the application. You want to use every question on the application wisely, and that means revealing as many dimensions of yourself as you can – so there’s no reason to repeat something in an essay that you’ve already been able to feature sufficiently elsewhere in the application. So you’ll want to see how much you can showcase in the “form” part of the application before you decide how to use the essay portion of your applications. Again, this is all about strategy.

That’s because admissions officers don’t evaluate your essay(s) in a vacuum, and you shouldn’t work on your essays in a vacuum either. That’s what a holistic admissions process is all about. Your best essay will be the one that fits into the rest of your application taken as a whole. That’s one of the more important things to understand when it comes to thinking like an admissions officer.

What are you going to do then in the meantime? All the “easy” parts of the application: your contact info, your family info, your educational background, and your activities.

They are easy because they require information that you can easily get, and they don’t have to be answered in essay format. But they are important to get right, and attention to detail is very important. And when it comes to activities in particular, you want to include the information that admissions officers actually care about (more on that below). These questions contain information that is vital to improving your chances for admission, so they are worth focusing on now.

A bonus: If you do these easy parts now, you can get them perfect and you won’t be sweating them at the last minute, which is always a sure way to botch it.




  • Register on all the application platforms used by the colleges on your list – Common App, Coalition App, each college’s own app, any others. You do this online and you’ll have to create an account with a valid email address and choose a password.

  • Complete the non-writing parts of the application. Those sections are usually the first sections you are asked to complete. For example, on the Common App those sections are labeled Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities. Some colleges also use the Common App’s Self-Reported Transcript section. On the Coalition App, those sections are labelled slightly differently, and with colleges that use their own applications, they may be divided into different parts of the application. Georgetown, for example, has you complete and submit the “Georgetown Application,” which just asks for the most basic information, and then you work on the “Application Supplement,” which contains the questions about activities and essays.

  • If you will be completing the Common App, subscribe to our Inline software, which provides specific hints for each question in those non-writing sections of the Common App (in addition to the Common App essays that you’ll be working on later, and also the college supplements after those are released).

  • If you are using the Common App, do NOT start working on college supplements yet, because the 2021-22 supplements haven’t been released yet.

  • IF YOU ARE APPLYING TO A PERFORMING OR VISUAL ARTS PROGRAM and a portfolio or audition is required, or you have researched it and determined that submitting supplementary materials like these is beneficial, begin working on them now. The pandemic has made auditioning in person particularly problematic, so check each college’s website to find out how they plan to handle auditions for the coming year. Pay close attention to the technical requirements for portfolios and auditions, and focus your efforts on works and/or audition pieces that meet these requirements. Admissions officers either flat out refuse to consider things that don’t meet the requirements, or they have a negative bias towards them (and by extension the applicant).


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


1. Check that you've filled out the factual questions about yourself accurately and to your advantage.

What are those factual questions? These are questions asking you about you and your family: your age, your gender, your state of residence, your citizenship, your languages, your ethnicity or race, and your veteran status. If you don't feel as if the boxes on the application really represent who you are, check the ones that come closest, and then use the Additional Information question of the Writing section of the application to elaborate. Also make sure to use your legal name on all your college application documents so that your name is consistent (that will save you lots of headaches later). Follow the U.S. format for dates (month/day/year). Use a reliable snail-mail and email address. Proofread!

2. Check that your activities list conveys the Core Four.

Go back to the work you did in Week 25, and as you review your activities list in the application, make sure you've communicated all the activities that tell your story, and that you've conveyed the Core Four (don't forget impact in particular). Also make sure you've made use of the space available to you in the activities list.You can read more tips for these sections in chapters 3, 6, 7, 8, and 14 in our book and in your Inline software.

3. Restrain yourself when it comes to optional supplementary materials in the arts.

What are optional supplementary materials in the arts? Portfolios, videos of performances, creative writing samples, etc. Many well-meaning people will advise you that these kinds of optional supplementary materials are the key to a standout application, and the more the merrier. We don’t agree. Once upon a time (like almost 30 years ago), this was the conventional wisdom. Hours and hours were devoted to thinking about how to send exactly the “right” supplementary materials. But that was then, and this is now. Supplementary materials are now considered much differently. What once might have impressed an admissions officer is now often a somewhat irritating distraction for admissions officers trying to process and evaluate tens of thousands of applications.

The takeaway for you?

More is not always more. More is only more if it really, truly adds something to your application.

Furthermore, more is only helpful if your supplementary materials are welcomed and considered by the college (you can find that out by checking their website).

So do yourself a favor and exhibit restraint when it comes to optional, supplementary materials in the arts. Plan to submit supplementary materials only if (1) they truly add something, and (2) they are both welcomed and considered by that college.

52 Weeks to College: Week 26

Here's how to research your colleges' admissions & financial aid policies

Anna Ivey

July 8, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 26

Here's how to research your colleges' admissions & financial aid policies
July 8, 2022

Have you already made your application plan? Are you close to finalizing your college list? Have you done your pre-work? If so, you are ready to go!

If not, you’ll be much more successful (and spend less time overall!) if you go back to theof this series and get these things done before diving into this week’s to-dos.

As always, we are focused on helping you work smarter, not harder. One of the best ways to work smarter is to work strategically. You discovered your fundamental application strategy when you crafted your story last week. That story contains what YOU want admissions officers to know about you because it highlights what matters most to admissions officers.



  • Continue working on finalizing your college list.
  • Research the application process at each college on your list. You want to find answers to the four questions below in order to tailor your strategy. You’ll find advice about how to do this research in the Tips and Tricks section below.

    What application platform do they use?
    Common App? Coalition App? Something else?

    Do they offer any early application options? Which ones? Early Action, Restricted or Single Choice Early Action, Early Decision? What are the deadlines for submitting an early application?

    What is their standardized testing policy? Most colleges are either making tests optional or not considering the tests at all.

    What aspects of your story and your credentials matter most to the admissions officers at this particular college? We show you exactly where to find that information.

  • Create a specific application strategy for each college on your list. While your overall application strategy is to tell your story (see last week’s post), you want to tailor that strategy for each college on your list.

  • Research the financial aid available at each college on your list. Add the financial aid applications aid deadlines to your calendar.


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.



Even though all college applications are available online these days (your parents probably still applied on paper), EVERY COLLEGE STILL HAS ITS OWN APPLICATION.

What? Isn’t there a Common App that is accepted by over 900 colleges?

Yes, there is, but the Common App is not what it sounds like.

The Common App is NOT a single online application.

Instead, it is an application platform that allows you to enter some basic information and answer some questions once, and then have that information transmitted to any college that uses the Common App as its application platform.

The first big mistake many people make in the college application process is assuming that the Common App is in fact one application. It is not. Don’t let the name fool you. Many colleges also have some specific questions that you answer only if you are applying to that college. Those college-specific questions and essays show up in what are called the "college supplements" on the Common App platform.

And just to make things more complicated, the Common App isn’t the only application platform out there. Basically, colleges have these choices for application platforms:

  • Common App. The biggest platform used by over 900 colleges. You can get a list of the colleges using the Common App here.

  • Coalition App. A newcomer used by a few hundred colleges. You can get a list of the colleges using the Coalition App here.

  • Their own application platform. Some large public universities and state systems use their own applications exclusively. For example, the University of California System has its own application for its 9 campuses.

  • School-Specific Platforms. Some schools have their own online application platforms, like MIT.

And there is one more wrinkle! Some colleges use more than one application platform. For example, you can apply to Wake Forest through the Common App, the Coalition App, their own application platform, or even by paper.

So how do you figure out which platform the colleges on your list use? Go to their websites and they should list your options.


While you are on a college’s website finding out which application platforms they use, check out what early application options are offered by the college. Take your time here and read all the fine print, especially when it comes to Early Action options. The rules can be quite tricky.

Let’s survey just three Early Action colleges and their rules.

For example, Georgetown allows you to apply Early Action to Georgetown AND other colleges, but NOT Early Decision to other colleges.

By contrast, if you apply Early Action to Princeton, you may NOT apply to any other college early unless it is a public university, a service academy, an international university, or a rolling admissions program, and even then, none of those other applications are allowed to be binding. Whew.

In terms of deciding whether you should apply early to a particular college, we say “Yes” unless any of the following reasons hold true for you and you should wait to apply during the Regular Decision:

  • You think you can meaningfully improve your admissions profile in the first half of your senior year. Applying early increases your odds for admission only if you are a competitive candidate at the time of your application. If you are not as strong as most of those admitted in past years AND you can boost your credentials in the first half of senior year, then you should wait and apply Regular Decision. For example, if you’ve had some bad grades you want to overcome or if you have a big project that will come to fruition at the beginning of your senior year, then wait.
  • Your only option for applying early is a “binding” option – binding means that if you are accepted at that school you must accept the offer – if you aren’t sure that the college is one you would be very happy to attend, then apply Regular Decision rather than binding Early.
  • Your only option for applying early is a “binding” option AND you know that you will need financial aid AND they won’t make a financial aid award at the time they give you their decision - in that case, apply Regular Decision instead. (Many colleges do accelerate the financial aid award if you submit the necessary paperwork, but you need to confirm the policies at the particular college and make sure you understand what paperwork needs to be submitted.)

If none of these scenarios is true for you, then go for early. It will increase your odds for admission and shorten the agonizing waiting period between the time you submit your application and when you find out. But do not assume that early is always better, because that is not the case.


At selective U.S. colleges, admissions officers have the power; they are the decision makers. Therefore, your tailored application strategies should be developed with those admissions officers in mind.

How do you know what matters most to the admissions officers at a particular college?

Each year, colleges submit a survey called the Common Data Set where they indicate what factors they consider in admissions (from a list provided) and how important each of these factors is. The easiest way to find that data for a given school is to google the school name along with the words "Common Data Set," and then pull up the report from the most recent application cycle. For example, you can google "Duke Common Data Set" and it will take you to this page that includes links to their Common Data Set surveys for each year.

Once you've pulled up the most recent Common Data Set for a college, go to section C7, where it shows you which factors the college considers in the admissions process and how important that factor is (or not).


That’s exactly the information you need.

BUT… always double check that information on the colleges’ websites directly. The testing information in particular is still in flux, meaning it might show standardized test scores as being “very important” at a school when in fact that’s old information and the school has gone test-optional.


Now that you’ve done your research and understand what’s most important to the colleges on your list, you can tweak your application strategy for each college on your list.

Remember that your application strategy is pretty straightforward: Share your story (the one you wrote last week). Tweaking it is equally straightforward.

Let’s say that you find out that Stanford considers the “rigor of secondary school record” very important (which it does). So what aspects of your story are you going to emphasize? The aspects of your story relating to academics, and especially to your quest for rigor – all those honors or AP classes, your participation in the Robotics Club, your summer spent at Space Camp, etc.  


Financial aid is a complicated business, and each college has its own policies and resources.

If you are really going to understand what options are available to you, you will have to take the time to do your homework. At a minimum, you need to know:

  • your eligibility for financial aid (international students should pay close attention, because much of the financial aid available at various colleges is restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents; some schools will also include DACA students for financial aid eligibility but others don’t);

  • the "net price" of the colleges on your list (the net price is the cost of attendance minus the need-based financial aid you would be likely to receive) — you can use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator; you can also use a tool called TuitionFit, which crowdsources actual financial aid awards from different colleges and shows students the prices that other students like them are being offered. Students and their families use this info to determine which schools will be in their price range, or they can use this info to negotiate their financial aid awards with some leverage;

  • what merit-based financial aid might be available to you at each college on your list; and

  • what the financial aid applications and deadlines are for each college.

You also need to know whether the ability to pay is a factor in admissions, although figuring this out is difficult because you have to be fluent in "admissions speak" to decode the information that colleges give you.

In admissions speak, colleges that consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need-aware" or "need-sensitive" admissions policies, while colleges that do not consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need-blind" admissions policies.

Not all colleges are transparent about their policies. If a college does not explicitly state that it is need-blind in its admissions decisions, assume that your ability to pay will be a factor in admissions. That doesn't mean it's the only factor. For example, even a need-aware college might still want to recruit you and admit you regardless of your ability to pay.

52 Weeks to College: Week 25

Your First Steps to Producing a Standout College Application

Anna Ivey

July 1, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 25

Your First Steps to Producing a Standout College Application
July 1, 2022

If you’re like most applicants, you’re under the impression that the best strategy for getting your college applications done is just to dive in and start writing essays.

After all, the essays are the hardest, most time-consuming part, so if you get those knocked out, you'll be well ahead of the curve, right?

Not exactly. It is true that the essays are the hardest, most time-consuming part, but it isn't true that the "dive in and write" strategy is the best strategy.

The problem with this strategy is that it focuses on getting it done without considering whether it will also get you in!

The only reason you care about getting your college applications done is because you care about getting into college. So whether a strategy will get you in always has to be top of mind. And the "dive in and write" strategy will not get you in.

The strategy that will get it done and get you in is our strategy for producing a standout application. Step 1: Before you dive in and write, you need to figure out what you want to say in your essays. Your To-Dos for this week are essential pre-work that will help you figure that out.

If you take the time to do this pre-work, you’ll be on the path to getting in AND you’ll discover that when it comes time to write the essays, it is actually easier!



  • Create your resume. Use the universally recognized format for U.S. resumes, but include information tailored to college applications and admissions. Take a look at these samples for ideas about what your resume should include and what a typical format looks like.

  • Research outside scholarships. (See Week 24.)


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.



What we’re calling “your story” distills what you want the admissions officer to know about you into a few brief sentences. It isn’t a classic biography or a resume in prose form; instead, it is a structured, succinct statement of who you are that will persuade an admissions officer to admit you.

The story you come up with using the template will not actually be included word for word in your application; it is not a personal statement or an essay, or a piece that you will be submitting as part of the application. Rather, it is a tool that you will use to guide you as you complete all of the application components going forward. It highlights your best and most important characteristics in terms of what matters to the admissions officer.

More specifically, it focuses on the three dimensions that admissions officers at all top colleges will evaluate:

  1. your academic achievements,
  2. your extracurricular accomplishments (also known as “activities”), and
  3. your personal qualities and character.

This “3-D” evaluation can vary a bit in how it is implemented from college to college, but all three dimensions are always considered in the “holistic” review that selective US colleges use, and each relates to an essential aspect of your qualifications and your potential for contributing to the college.

Take your time as you write your story. It shouldn’t be hard, because it is a summary statement of what makes you, you.

But it does take some reflection and thought about what your essential characteristics and experiences are on these three dimensions. It’s a great idea to preview your story with your parents (or other close adults) and your closest friends to see if they agree that you have included the best parts of you in your story.


We recommend that you create a resume that follows the format for a U.S. resume and that is also tailored to the college application process.

When admissions officers are evaluating you on those three dimensions above, they are looking for evidence of four things — passion, talent, initiative, and impact. We call these the "Core Four."      

  • Passion. What are you passionate about? People generally express their passions by devoting their thoughts, time, and energy to them. Admissions officers are looking for your passions both inside and outside the classroom.

  • Talent. What do you do well? Your accomplishments generally announce your talents, but you want to go beyond just announcing your talents and describe 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 be the best you can be.

  • Initiative. What have you made happen? Where have you created your own opportunities? What have you led? 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 minimum requirements.

  • Impact. How have you changed, grown, or learned from your experiences? How have others benefitted from what you’ve done? What have you added to your classroom, your school, your community, or the world? Admissions officers want to see that what you’ve done mattered to someone. That’s what impact means in the context of applying to college.

How do you show all that in a single entry on a resume?

Here’s an example:

Start with the information you need to include about a particular activity. Say you love science (passion), have a special gift for organizing groups (talent), and started the Project Sunshine Club at your school (initiative).

Don’t stop there! You must also demonstrate impact. So you would also report that you got the school excited about alternative energy, you figured out that the school could acquire solar panels for free by encouraging people in the community to sign up for a special program offered by the local electric company, and you organized that effort. And you would explain that as a result, solar panels are now installed at your school and providing 5% of the school’s energy needs. That’s impact. Impact is about results, so make sure you expressly mention them.

Now translate that into a resume entry:

Founder and President. Project Sunshine Club. (10th grade - present)

  • Organized a new school club dedicated to raising awareness about solar energy and to bringing solar energy to the school.

  • Identified an opportunity through the local electric company to get solar panels for the school for free by convincing local residents to sign up for a special alternative energy program.

  • Organized and led the campaign to sign up local residents.

  • Signed up 1,011 local residents which resulted in the school getting an array of solar panels for free; solar energy now provides 5% of the school's electricity.

See how that works? Now do it for yourself. Your activities might look very different, especially during the Covid era. That’s fine!

Dive into your pre-work this week and you'll be spending your time and energy in the best way possible, because you'll be doing things that will help you get it done and get in.

52 Weeks to College: Week 24

Here’s How Rising Seniors Can Get Organized for Application Season

Anna Ivey

June 24, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 24

Here’s How Rising Seniors Can Get Organized for Application Season
June 24, 2022

Applying to college is a complex and difficult project. You know that. Your parents know that. Your teachers and college counselors know that. Admissions officers know that. In other words, everyone involved in the process knows that.

So you might be feeling just the teensiest bit overwhelmed.

After all, most 17-year-olds don’t have all that much experience managing complex and difficult projects, let alone projects as high stakes as applying to college.

The good news is that you are ready. You’ve been preparing for this for the last 16 or 17 years.

The better news is that you don’t have to do it alone. There are tons of resources out there to help you. Like your parents, teachers, and college counselors. Like admissions officers. Like websites, apps, and books. Like this series.

If you’ve already been following along for the first 23 weeks of this series as high school juniors, carry on! If you’re new to the series, you can spend a bit of time reading previous posts and getting up to speed.

Your job? Read each week’s plan and execute. If you do, you’ll have more success and less stress in the process. Guaranteed.

An important heads up: A lot of the work you’ll be doing in the application process is front-loaded. It will get less intense as the weeks go by, we promise.

Let’s get to work!


  • Choose your calendar and add events you already know about. You must use a calendar this year, because in order to get everything done, you are going to have to grab free hours whenever you have them. So even if you haven't really used a calendar before, commit to using one this year, whether paper or electronic or whatever method works for you. Start by putting everything you already know about your life for the next six months on it. Know the first day of school? Put that on it. Know that you are going to (try to) take a standardized test on one of the newly offered days? Put that on it. Know that you have a part-time job? Put your work schedule on it, when you get it. Know that you have a birthday coming up and will want a few days off? Mark off the time you want for celebrating. You get the idea.
  • Get ahead of the avalanche of paper, emails, and other communication coming your way (if it hasn’t already). The college application process inevitably generates a huge amount of information that you have to be able to access easily. You can’t do it without an organizational system for managing it. Once you’ve set up your system, gather up everything you already have that’s related to the college application process, sort it, and file it. That goes for everything — including your electronic stuff!
  • Work on finalizing your college list. You want to have decisions made about where you are applying no later than the first week of August. College applications are specific to the colleges where you are applying. Even if the college uses a shared application platform, like the Common App or the Coalition App, each college will have some questions that are particular only to it. Since most applications for this coming application cycle won’t be released or “go live” before August 1st, you are in good shape if you have your list finalized by then. In the meantime, we’ll have you working on components of the application that will be relevant to all colleges.
  • Consider whether you want extra help from us. If you are a DIY ninja, you can follow along via our blog posts only, but if you want some extra help, here’s how:

    You can order a copy of our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application and use it as a companion.

    You can download Inline, our digital tool that gives you help right in your browser for the various question and essays on the Common App, including the college supplements.


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.



It can be tempting to have a calendar that you use only for college applications. But that is a sure recipe for disaster in the form of double or triple booking yourself and missing deadlines. For most of you, the easiest calendar to use is one on your phone. We like Google Calendar, because a lot of you already use Gmail and their calendar app has a really nice interface, but any calendar app will work. For those of you who like to rock it old school, choose a paper calendar that appeals to you and that you will keep with you most of the time.



A good portion of your communication with colleges will be electronic. Setting up a dedicated email address offers two advantages. First, you can create a grown-up, appropriately serious email identity that is worthy of an applicant to a top U.S. college, and you can still keep whatever separate email identity you want for other purposes. Second, by setting up a separate email account you have also set up an automatic “filing” system for your college related emails, because those are the ONLY emails that will come to that email address (as long as you maintain the discipline of using that address only for this purpose).



One of the problems with figuring out your filing system is that the information will come in many forms — snail mail, email, voicemail, notes, internet research, hard copy brochures and folders, and text messages. Not only do you have to figure out how to store all this various information, you also have to figure out how to retrieve it when you need it.

For most students, the easiest way to go is to have three storage locations that all have the same file structure: set up one storage system in email, set up another storage location either on a hard drive on your computer or in the cloud, and set up a third in old-fashioned paper file folders. To get you started, we've compiled a basic list of files you should set up in each storage location.


All of the colleges on your list should be "good fits," meaning that they offer what you want from a college educationally and otherwise.

The colleges should have a range in terms of selectivity. We suggest you balance your list in this way: 4-5 should be colleges where you have a high likelihood of admission (likelies), 5-6 should be colleges where you have a good likelihood of admission (targets or matches), and 3-4 should be colleges where you have a low likelihood of admission (reaches).

Finally, all of the colleges on your list should be affordable for you, meaning that between your family resources and the financial aid you are likely to get from the college, you can pay for it. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that the sticker price is what you’ll end up paying! Some colleges end up being dramatically cheaper after you’ve received a financial aid award, or if your annual family income falls below a certain level. Read the financial aid pages of the college websites carefully.


There’s good news and bad news when it comes to scholarship searches.

The good news is that there are scholarships out there and that it is relatively easy for you to identify them for FREE thanks to the internet. You can use a tool like Fastweb or FinAid and the College Board’s Scholarship Search.  Just be aware that these sites are financially supported by colleges and you will likely become a target of lots of marketing when you sign up, but hey it’s free so just delete the emails that are irrelevant to you.

The bad news is that scholarship scams abound, and every year thousands of hopeful college applicants and their families get duped by them. It is so tempting to sign up for a service that "guarantees" you'll get a scholarship, but the only guarantee is that you'll never see the money you paid to this service again. Before you pay a single dollar to a scholarship search service, use this checklist to evaluate whether you are about to become a victim of a scam rather than the recipient of legitimate assistance.

Once you’ve done this week’s To Do’s, you are officially on the way to getting into college. Congratulations!

52 Weeks to College: Week 23

Here's how to make your writing stand out

Anna Ivey

June 17, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 23

Here's how to make your writing stand out
June 17, 2022

You want to know a secret?

Admissions officers WANT you to have an amazing application.

I know many of you think that admissions officers are basically looking for some reason to deny you, but they aren’t.

What they are really looking for is a reason to admit you.

A reason why you stand out from the million trillion other applicants that — on paper at least — look just like you.

Most of you think that the way to stand out is to have better credentials, but spoiler alert, there are over 27,000 high schools in the United States, so that’s also the minimum number of people who graduated first in their class; pre-COVID, about 40,000 students a year scored in the top 2% of the SAT (that’s not even counting the top ACT scorers); and more than 180,000 applicants were good enough athletes that they registered with the NCAA clearinghouse in order to be recruited.

So good credentials matter, certainly, but you also have to focus on how you present yourself. That extra special something that causes you to be a stand-out requires you to let the the admissions officer see your personality, your values, your motivations — the things that make you YOU and nobody else.

That’s why you have to seize every opportunity you are given to reveal essential aspects of yourself. One such opportunity comes in the form of the Why College X essay – the most popular supplemental essay (at last count nearly 50% of the most selective colleges have some form of this essay on their application).

Here's what not to do: You give some “blah, blah, blah” regurgitation of the college’s own marketing materials, or worse still you give an answer that demonstrates you actually know nothing about this college. Are there real access and equity issues around these kinds of essay prompts? Certainly. We want to level that playing field as much as we can by showing you how to conquer them even without a travel budget. We promise: you can write a great Why College X essay without visiting the college in person.

This summer, you can get the information you need to write great Why College X essays. It’s also the perfect way to get started on your college applications because it gives you some essays that are ready to go AND it helps you narrow your college list. Don’t be surprised if you find that once you really, really think about it, a few of the colleges that you thought you wanted to apply to end up falling off your list. Honestly, if you can’t write a genuine Why College X essay for a college, why would you go there?

Not all colleges require a Why College X essay. But even for the ones that don’t, it’s a good exercise to go through in case you’re able to do an interview with an alum, for example. You’ll want to sound well informed and enthusiastic about that college.

A great Why College X essay is mostly about having specific and thoughtful content.  Follow these three rules for developing your content and you’ll be able to write a Why College X essay that makes you a true stand-out!

Rule #1. Your content needs to show that the college is a match for you.
That means that your content should be focused on showing the match between what you want in a college and what College X has to offer. You and the college should be a match on three critical dimensions:

1) academic/intellectual dimension

2) extracurricular activity/work dimension and

3) life/community dimension

Here’s an example: You want to attend a college where you can major in biology (academic/intellectual), be part of a volleyball team (activity), and live on campus all four years (life/community). The core of your content is as simple as that.

Rule #2. Your content needs to be specific and demonstrate that you have taken a deep dive into the particulars of College X. Continuing with our example from above, do you have any guess as to how many colleges offer a major in biology? That’s right – almost all of them (although not every single one, so you should double check). You can make your content even more specific if you take a deep dive into biology majors at College X. What makes it especially appealing to you? A particular faculty member? A sub-specialty within the major? Research opportunities? A living-learning community? The more specific you get, the better and more stand-out your essay will be. Do a deep dive for every one of the three critical dimensions. What are you able to find online?

Rule #3. Your content should be honest, but steer clear of the less persuasive reasons you want to attend College X. There's no need ever to be dishonest with this essay. Presumably you have good, solid reasons for why you want to attend College X. If you follow Rules #1 and #2, you don’t need to make up reasons that you think “sound” better. That being said, you may have personal reasons for wanting to attend College X that would not be persuasive to the admissions officer. You want to leave those out. For example, you may want to attend College X because of its stellar reputation as a party school. That might be fine for you, but not persuasive to an admissions officer. So just don’t mention it. Okay, okay, so you probably know that. But what you might not know is that it is also not persuasive to say that you want to attend College X because it is the college highest ranked in US News and World Report that also has a volleyball team. News flash: Rankings don’t reveal anything about why you and the college are a match. In fact, as admissions officers see it, depending on rankings to tell you what colleges are a match for you is actually a very lazy and ineffective way to identify your right fit colleges. (Should those same admissions officers stop marketing their own rankings in that case? Yup. But they’re the boss of this process.) So even if you honestly want to go to a particular college because of its ranking, you should never include it as a reason in your answer.

Now that you know our three rules, get cracking on your research. Amazing essays will follow!

Want to see samples of Why College X essays? Check out our free library of sample essays. You can sort by "Essay Type" and then select "Why College X."

When Test-Optional Isn't Really Test-Optional

It's important to read the fine print

Anna Ivey

June 14, 2022

When Test-Optional Isn't Really Test-Optional

It's important to read the fine print
June 14, 2022

I recall (fondly!) a college admissions webinar I presented for the alumni clubs of the Ivy+ schools in Southern California, kindly hosted by the MIT alumni club of San Diego. One of the questions that came up afterwards was whether this wave of test-optional policies applies to international students as well.

That's a great question, because in some cases, test-optional applies only to domestic students. Tests might still be required for international students or homeschooled students, and for some scholarships. Those policies will vary from college to college, so it's important to read the fine print.

Note too that the NCAA temporarily waived the testing requirement for Div I and Div II student-athletes for recent cycles, and is likely to do so in the future. (Stay tuned.)

A request: I would love to do a similar webinar for students whose parents didn't attend really fancy schools, so if you have a particular organization in mind, please shoot me a message! I'm always pleased to volunteer for that.

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 college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks to College: Week 22

Summer is officially here! Take advantage of the time you have now & be even more productive this fall

Anna Ivey

June 10, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 22

Summer is officially here! Take advantage of the time you have now & be even more productive this fall
June 10, 2022


Summer is officially here. Woohoo! And collectively the world is trying to re-emerge and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, this is going to be a slow process and it will come in fits and starts. It might be more of a “two steps forward, one step back” dance for quite some time. 

Regardless, you are still getting closer to peak application season — fall of your senior year. And that isn’t going to change. 

So the question becomes: How you are going to use your summer well?

Take advantage of the time you have now so your fall, whatever its shape, is as happy and sane as you can make it.

The summer is really a pivot in the college application process, where you shift from focusing on building your credentials to presenting your credentials. And along the way, you have to make some big decisions about where you are applying. In a big picture sense, here’s how we suggest you map out your summer and allocate your time:


Map out your plan for the summer as follows:


June is a transition month and it shouldn’t be too hectic. But there are still things to do.

  • Building Credentials: 50% of your time
    Wrap up your school year, start your summer activities aimed at credential building (see this recent blog post for ideas for what activities you can do this summer), and stay ready to take standardized tests in the fall (should that be possible or advisable).
  • Making Decisions - Narrowing Your College List: 35% of your time
    Start doing deep-dive research into the colleges you are most interested in and start your Why College X essays for those (more about that in a future blog post); identify where you need to round out your list to ensure you have good choices at the end of the process (need more target schools, more safeties, more reaches?)
  • Presenting Credentials - Doing the Application Pre-Work: 15% of your time.

  • Confirm your recommenders. See how to do that in our blog post from a few weeks ago. 

  • Write your story and your resume. These are things that you need to do BEFORE you start drafting essays, so now’s a perfect time. We’ll have more posts on those soon.

  • Gather samples of your academic work and put together an audition video or portfolio (if you are an artist or maker).

  • Create your account on both the Common App and also the Coalition App if your school counselor recommends that. Fill in the basic information about yourself because that content will rollover into your account for next year. You don’t need to work on essays yet. If you need or want help with your Common App information, you can download your copy of Inline here


July is a full-steam ahead month. Make sure to keep following this 52 Weeks to College series that will take you step-by-step through the application process. You’ll see that it breaks your work down into manageable chunks and you’ll get pro tips for every element of the application.

  • Building Credentials: 35% of your time
    Same as above.

  • Making Decisions – Finalizing the List/Identifying Early Options: 35% of your time
    Finalize your list of 8-12 colleges where you intend to apply; have Why College X essays ready for each (we’ll have a post about those); and research what early application options are available. Be sure you read the fine print and be prepared for colleges to have new policies for this coming year.

  • Presenting Credentials – Let the Essay Writing Commence: 30% of your time
    Use your story to generate topics for and draft the main personal essay on the Common App, the Coalition app, or the university’s own app. Do NOT bother with working on the essays beyond the main essay unless the college has released the topics for the 2022-23 application cycle – you don’t want to waste precious time on crafting a beautiful essay in response to a question that won’t remain in the application! If you are an artist or maker, keep working on your audition video or portfolio.


August is kick-into-overdrive month. You want to have a couple of applications largely done by the end of Labor Day weekend, so that you are positioned to go back to school and keep up with both school work and college admissions without pulling all-nighters (the surest way to prevent a senior year meltdown is to get good sleep).

  • Building Credentials: 25% of your time
    Wind down your summer activities, do whatever summer homework you have for school, and prep for/take standardized tests (if that is possible or advisable). 

  • Making Decisions – Deciding about Early Options: 15% of your time
    Decide where, if anywhere, you are applying early, and prioritize completing those applications ahead of the others.

  • Presenting Credentials– Producing Standout Applications: 60% of your time
    Most applications will go live for 2021 in early August. That means it is game time for producing standout college applications. There are no shortcuts. You just have to put in the time and make smart choices along the way. Take it application by application. This 52 Weeks to College series will help you pace yourself so that you can produce your best applications while staying sane. Less stress, more success is the goal, but we won’t lie; it will be stressful. That’s a given, so pacing is critical.

That’s the big picture for the next three months. Take a deep breath and get to work. You’ve got this!

52 Weeks to College: Week 21

Our advice might surprise you

Anna Ivey

June 3, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 21

Our advice might surprise you
June 3, 2022

The optional arts supplement is a component of the college application for which we have some strong (and sometimes controversial) advice for at least 75% of you. 


Here it is in a nutshell: Just don’t! 


Why? Because unless you are in the top 10% -25% or so with regard to your talent in the arts, an optional arts supplement will hurt you more than it helps you. 


If you think you might be in the top 10%-25% and want tips for preparing your submission or you would like to know more about why this is our advice, we’ve got some tips for you below. 


Otherwise, just mark optional arts supplement off your list of things to do and go enjoy your summer day.

Should I Submit an Optional Arts Supplement? 

In order to understand whether you should submit an optional arts supplement, you need to understand how these supplements are handled by admissions officers, and you need to have a realistic assessment of your own talent. 


Admissions officers know their limits, and generally they are not qualified to evaluate the talent and quality of your optional arts supplements. Instead, your arts supplement will be sent to the college’s arts faculty. These faculty have deep expertise in your particular arts discipline,and they will be asked to evaluate your demonstrable talent as well as your potential to be a meaningful contributor to the campus arts community. 


If you get a stellar evaluation from the faculty, then there is no doubt that it will boost your chances for admission. 


But if you get a mediocre or negative evaluation from the faculty, then it will diminish your chances for admission. 


Here’s the thing: arts faculty are tough graders. Only the best of the best arts supplements are going to get stellar evaluations. That’s why you need to have a realistic assessment of your own talent. 


Don’t confuse your talent with your passion or effort. Just because you love it or do it all the time doesn’t mean you have extraordinary talent. 


Instead, consider whether you have independent validation of your arts talent such as all-state honors, prestigious audition-based arts programs, work presented at important festivals, etc. 


If you don’t, seek out an independent evaluation. Ask for a brutally honest review by your teacher or someone recommended by your teacher. If they tell you that you are a great hobbyist, but not in the top 10%-25% of arts students, then feature your arts on your activity list, your resume, and in your essays, but do not submit an optional arts supplement.

Can I Submit an Optional Arts Supplement?  

Let’s say you are among the best of the best. YAY! Then there’s only one more hurdle before you get to work on your arts supplement: you have to find out if the college will accept it. The vast majority do, but there are notable exceptions. 

For example, neither Northwestern nor Claremont McKenna have accepted optional arts supplements in the recent past. Before you commit the time to preparing one, find out the policy at the colleges on your list for the coming cycle. The easiest way to do that is to simply google “[name of college] arts supplement” and find out what they say on their website about optional arts supplements. If you don’t see a stated policy, contact the admissions office for confirmation of their policy.

While you are checking to see if they accept an optional arts supplement, also check out what the college’s definition of “arts” is, because it varies widely. The vast majority define arts in a traditional way and include dance, drama and theatre arts, film, music and visual arts. But others reach broader and include architecture (e.g. Columbia) or creative writing (e.g. Princeton). Those that are the most inclusive and contemporary also include so-called maker projects (e.g. MIT). 

What Should I Prepare and Submit?

There is no “standard” arts supplement; each college has its own requirements by arts discipline. You’ll find specific instructions on what to submit on each college’s website, and you must follow the directions of each college precisely. That being said, here are five tips to follow when preparing your materials for submission: 

  • Pick thoughtfully when choosing which examples of your work to submit. Select works or performances that go beyond showcasing your technical ability – you want to include works that tell your story as an artist, illuminate your singular perspective on the world and/or add to the story you are telling about yourself throughout your application. 

  • Pick quality over quantity. Be choosy and select the very best examples of your work, rather than including every single thing you have done. Less is truly more here. Don’t turn your arts supplement into a scrapbook.

  • Write a short artist statement that describes your process and inspiration for your art. A great resource for helping you figure out how to write an artist statement is a short guide available for free here.

  • Include an arts-specific resume that describes your arts education, awards, honors, achievements, and special programs. 

  • Line up one or two arts recommenders who are willing to submit recommendations that speak to your current talent and your potential for further artistic development as a member of a college arts community.

How to Expand Your College List

This one is actually fun

Anna Ivey

June 1, 2022

How to Expand Your College List

This one is actually fun
June 1, 2022

Putting together your final list of colleges where you will apply is an art as much as a science.

One mistake we see many students make is that they zero in on a few colleges before they have really explored all the options out there. And they often rule out colleges that would be great fits because they really don’t know anything about them.

Since you are stuck at home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, you have plenty of time to explore colleges and see if you’ve overlooked a few that should be on your list.

Our favorite way for students to do this is to make use of an old school resource –a hard copy of the most recent edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. An oldie but goodie, the Fiske Guide has narrative descriptions of more than 350 selective colleges. The descriptions are short and easily digested and should give you a good sense of whether you’d like to learn more about the college or not.

If you’re up for the challenge of opening your mind to adding colleges to your list, then order a copy of the Fiske Guide and do the following exercises:

1. Consult this list.

This list breaks the colleges found in the Guide into categories based on selectivity: selective, more selective, most selective, and uber selective.

Two important notes about the list:

  • The Canadian, British and Irish colleges in the Guide are not included on this list.
  • Public colleges are placed in the category appropriate to in-state residents. For out-of-state residents, assume that the chances of admission will be lower. So a “most selective” college might become an “uber selective” college for an out-of-state applicant.

2. Pick one category of colleges where you might want to add some colleges to your list.

It is always good to have some balance in your list, so pick a category where you don’t have any colleges but want to add some.

For example, if all the colleges on your list right now are in the most selective category, you might choose to the more selective category or the uber selective category depending on how you would rate your chances of admission to the colleges on your list right now.

Need some schools where you’d have a higher chance? Then go for the more selective category.

Need some where you’d be reaching? Then go for the uber selective category.

3. Read the Fiske Guide descriptions for EVERY college in the category.

We promise, it’s not hard. Each description can be read in 1-2 minutes max. Pick at least three to investigate further by taking yourself on a virtual college visit.

4. Decide which, if any, of the three you are going to add to your list.

Another way to do this exercise is to involve your parents or your friends and get their insights on colleges that you should investigate further.

If you are involving your parents, then you give them the list for the category you have chosen. Have them read the descriptions in the Guide and pick three colleges for you to investigate further.

If you are involving your friends, then you swap lists – you read the descriptions for the colleges on your friend’s list and suggest three that your friend should investigate further, and your friend reads the descriptions for the colleges on your list and recommends three colleges for you to investigate further.

Even if you don’t end up adding any colleges to your list from this exercise, you can be confident that you explored your options.

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 college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.