Starting the Personal Essay

Next to grades, the personal essay is the key element to a student's college application. Yet, all students struggle with writing it. Unlike analytical papers written for literature and history classes, the personal essay does not follow a rubric, it is not formulaic in any way.  This actually makes it more difficult to write as there is no template or outline to follow.

Self-reflection is crucial

The self reflection that the essay requires of students further exacerbates their apprehension and uncertainty.  Writers need to share specific stories, anecdotes, and experiences. To do this effectively, the student must dig deep and use words that may feel slightly uncomfortable.  They must show that through this introspection they have come to understand themselves. The qualities and experiences unique to the writer help colleges learn more about the applicant and why this student belongs on their campus.

Probably the hardest part of writing this essay is getting enough detail on paper.  Students tend to write in general, vague, even cliché-d terms.  A lot of words that say basically nothing.  My role is to pull those details out because they are always in there.  Once prodded, students recite wonderful, exciting, dramatic stories that come to life on paper.  I encourage as many visuals as possible so the reader can truly “see” and “feel” what the writer is relating.  The more the reader feels, the more effective the essay.

Layering with many drafts

Writing is a process that takes time and perseverance and many drafts. But this is precisely what students heading off to college need to learn.  The essays, research papers, theses, they must compose even as college freshmen will require several drafts, each one adding greater support to the previous draft.  With the personal essay, each layer adds clarity and conviction culminating in a compelling narrative that flows smoothly, but also touches.

Summer discount ~ schedule an essay guidance session before Sept. 1 and get 50% off the first meeting. Ready Set College will brainstorm the first draft with your student or polish the second draft and make it really shine.




Three Key Tips for Applications

Finesse the Common Application -  The personal essay and the supplemental essays demonstrate an applicant’s writing style and aptitude.  Yet, the way students phrase their activities, employment, and community service on the Common Application is also important.  To make these sections stand out, use strong ‘action’ verbs (created, managed, produced, organized) and include numbers (how many articles written? meetings led? tournaments captained? shifts worked?).  Wherever possible, emphasize leadership and motivation.

Additional Information Section – Many students will upload a more complete resume on this page of the common app. Alternately, if there is something in the student’s record that needs to be explained, i.e. a semester of weak grades; a medical leave; a disciplinary action; this is the appropriate section to write a brief essay explaining the circumstances.

Campus Visits - Visiting, and re-visiting campuses, can make a huge difference because it "demonstrates interest" in a school and doing so has become increasingly significant.  More importantly, students can feel a college vibe if they spend time with current students, and really look around and soak in the atmosphere.

Overnight  visits can be invaluable because they allow the prospective student a 24-hour experience of being a student at that college. Many colleges arrange overnight visits through the admissions office so it’s worth a phone call.  Schools that do not offer overnights typically offer another type of visit opportunity such as “lunch with a student,” or “sit in on a class.”  Such opportunities are also worthwhile and more importantly, show interest in the college.

With the tremendous emphasis currently placed on “demonstrated interest,” any engagement with the college is strongly recommended. Furthermore, the more an applicant knows about a school, the better equipped he/she is to write an impressive supplemental essay.  Many colleges ask the applicant why he/she wants to attend that school.  Effective essays provide personal details and impressions that show that the applicant has a good understanding of what is unique to that campus.

Digital Persona -  As if students don’t have enough hoops to jump through, now they must also be conscious of their digital persona. For years, we have been telling students to clean up their Facebook pages but today’s social media has expanded their online presence exponentially. And as Big Brother-esque as it may sound, admissions offices are watching.

So how can students use social media to boost, rather than hinder, their college applications?Online features that present a positive impression are:

An appealing Twitter page that suggests cultural engagement and intellectual curiosity

·       Mature personal blog posts

·       News articles about a student’s academic or athletic accomplishments

·       Mentions of volunteer work on the organization’s website and social media

·       Facebook Groups and Facebook Likes

Judging Extra-Curricular Activities

Students and parents often ask how important extra-curricular activities are to college applications and which activities are the "best?" There is no such thing as a "best" activity, what truly matters is what the student enjoys best. 

One of my first recommendations to students is to participate in those clubs and activities that interest them most and do not think about college applications. Students should never choose a club or team because they think it will "look good" in the eyes of college admissions officers.

Quality Not Quantity

What colleges are looking for are students who spend their free time constructively and feel a commitment to one, two or three activities. Admissions officers don't count the number of activities, rather they weigh the commitment and consistency of them. Admissions committees are looking for a sense of who the student is as a person and what talents, interests and skills he/she will bring to their campus.

That said, colleges understand that a student's interests can shift throughout the four years of high school. A student shouldn't continue an activity he/she has lost interest in. The athlete who played soccer in freshman and sophomore year, but drops it in junior year in order to be serve on student government will not lose any points. The student who drops activities without adding something else, may. Put simply, it's not so much what you do, but how you do it.

Academics Still Matter Most 

Last, but not least, remember that extra-curriculars - no matter how impressive - never make up for grades, course selection and test scores. These are still the top factors admissions committees consider. A solid student resume reflecting activities and possibly leadership positions, can certainly enhance an application, but it cannot substitute for academic performance.


Dropping the SAT Essay Puts More Pressure on Applications

While students are cheering about the growing trend towards dropping the requirement for the essay portion of the SAT and ACT, they don’t realize that the consequence is more weight placed on their personal essay on college applications.  Just yesterday, Brown University joined Princeton, Stanford and CalTech  in dropping the writing section requirement for college applicants.

Prepping for the SAT/ACT is now a bit easier because students no longer need to labor over how to perfect the essay on these exams.  Nonetheless, colleges still want to see evidence of strong writing skills.  Some admissions officers have already said they will be spending more time reading the personal essays of applicants in the upcoming fall admissions cycle. 

Third Most Important Factor

The college essay is already the third most important factor following grades and test scores, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Now, the essay will carry even more weight.  How can applicants insure that their essay stands out?

Admissions officers seek a window into the applicant's personality hoping to glimpse his/her character, interests, style and values. Unlike essays written for English and history classes, the personal essay does not follow a rubric, it is not formulaic in any way. The self- reflection that the essay requires of its writer often makes it more difficult for students to compose.

Summer is Best Time to Write

Rising seniors recognize the benefit of drafting their essays in the summer, well before the true stress of senior year sets in. But even juniors can begin considering topics and brainstorming outlines. It is NEVER too early to start thinking about essays. Because they are the most time-consuming piece of the application, essays require mindful diligence and development.

ReadySetCollege brings meticulous attention to detail when coaching students through essay development. Franca evaluates each draft of every essay through the eyes of admissions officers and works through every paragraph to maximize its effect. The result is always a deeply personal, engaging piece of work that reveals an insight into who the student truly is. 


What Do Colleges Want in An Applicant? Everything

The above-titled article in the New York Times is a genuine representation of today's college admissions process  - "a maddening mishmash of competing objectives, " as the subhead states. Yet, the piece points out that "only 13% of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants."  Hence, casting a wide net is always in the student's best interest.

Many colleges rely on "holistic" evaluations where an applicant's personality and character are assessed in addition to the numbers (grades and test scores). At Trinity College, admissions officers now look for "evidence of 13 characteristics - including curiosity, empathy, openness to change, and ability to overcome adversity" as they review applications.  How do admissions readers judge? From information included in essays and recommendation letters, which make these components especially important.  

Even More Student Info

Yet because of the increasing number of applications each year, some admissions offices seek even more information about applicants.  At Olin College of Engineering applicants are selected to compete in a two-day audition. They work in small groups to complete a tabletop design challenge and later more complex tasks (i.e. designing a new campus building). Evaluators observe how students collaborate and communicate with one another. "This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment," explains Olin's dean of admissions. 

Some colleges are exploring alternative ways to measure student potential. One asks applicants to demonstrate their "emotional intelligence" to highlight their ability to work with others, and another wants students to display "their fire for learning."  The new Coalition application, accepted by more than 130 campuses, features a virtual "college locker" where students can upload videos and written works throughout their high school years and then include them in college applications.  

Yale's dean of admissions is pleased with such options: "Now, we have the ability to get to know a student better from a different type of submission."  He goes on to describe one high school senior who submitted a four-minute video documenting his Eagle Scout project in which he was involved in constructing a veterans memorial. 

More Work, More Worry

While all of the above may ease the job of admissions officers, what does it mean for the 17-year old completing a college application?  More work, more worry. Now students have to make sure their recommendation letters say just the right things about them. And the ever-daunting personal essay now looms even larger as it takes on more weight with admissions readers.  Do Yale applicants now have to become filmmakers to be considered? College officials seek to make their own lives easier without any regard to how it impacts the poor teens who are at their mercy. 


Still Waiting? Waitlists Are a Waste of Time

The number of waitlisted college applicants has increased dramatically in the past five years, leaving students clinging to a string of hope for virtually no reason.  

According to the 2017 statistics from the National Association of College Admission Counseling, roughly 40% of colleges use waitlists today, but 72% of the most selective colleges (those that accept less than half their applicants) maintain such a list. The schools contend that they need to keep their options open and insure full enrollment come September.  They claim that so many students ultimately do not show up on the first day of school and too many spots remain unfilled.

Last year, Boston college waitlisted 5,689 students and took 112; U. Michigan waitlisted over 11, 000 and took 470 and Williams College waitlisted over 2,300 and took 24.  This spring, Brown University has placed 2,724 students on the list and U. Penn has placed over 3,500 applicants on its list.  Because the number of institutions (of every size) utilizing waitlists has risen as well, some students wind up on five, six, or more wait lists!

18% On Average

According to data collected by College Kickstart from 163 private and public institutions, on average, 18% of students accepting a place on the waitlist were ultimately admitted. Nearly three quarters of the schools surveyed admitted 20% or less of the waitlisted applicants; 37% of the schools admitted 5% or less; and 11% of schools admitted no one off the list.

Admitting students from the waitlist can take anywhere from a few weeks to the entire summer although some colleges have given themselves a deadline: Harvard expects to be done with its waitlist by the end of June, Northeastern by July 1. 

Regardless of how long a student waits, the odds of getting off are slim to none. What's worse is that students get stuck waiting and do not fully explore the colleges where they have been accepted. At a recent conference of college admissions counselors, a key topic of discussion was the rise in the number of students who are unable to choose one college and place a housing deposit at several to hold a spot while keeping fingers crossed.






Students Suffer from Achievement Pressure

"Rather than giving their students a leg up, an emerging body of evidence shows that hyper-competitive and overly demanding high school experiences can take the joy out of learning, undermine mental health, and leave teens less prepared to make the most of their college years," contends a recent article in the NACAC Journal of College Admission. Indeed, many educational and mental health professionals across the board are researching their concern about the ever-increasing competition around college and the way in which it is reshaping adolescence for too many teens.

Many, if not most teens, are not developmentally ready to manage the intense academic course loads and demands of over-scheduled extra-curricular activities. "We have put the educational cart before the developmental horse and, in so doing, have lost sight of key aspects of our most important responsibility: to foster our teenagers' health growth and developments," says clinical psychologist David. L. Gleason.

New Narrative Drives Frenzy

Nevertheless, both students and parents take a full court press approach to the college admissions process and a "new narrative - one that designates perfection as a prerequisite for admissions - is increasingly driving" the college frenzy. Colleges themselves add fuel to the fire.  Virtually every college tells candidates that it wants to see students challenge themselves with the most rigorous curriculum offered at the student’s high school. Hence, the plethora of AP classes offered at many schools.

Many school, and independent, counselors are seeing unprecedented levels of stress among students and the anxiety around college is emerging earlier and earlier in the high school years. Research confirms these reports. "A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found endemic levels of chronic stress among high-achieving students engaged in the college admissions process."  

 Follow your Interests

Fortunately, many schools and educational professionals are working towards shifting this paradigm. Daniel Miller, counselor at a suburban Chicago high school encourages students to "follow your interests, do what makes you happy, and the rest will fall into place" instead of taking a slew of AP classes "because you think a college wants you to take them." The same school recently dropped its "300 Club" where student members were required to complete 300 hours of community service.  "We didn’t' want students logging all these hours just for the recognition... We wanted them to focus on the quality of those experiences, not the quantity," highlighted Miller.

Colleges appear to be getting on the bandwagon as well. The Harvard Graduate School of Education, for instance, is working towards transforming the college admissions process with its "Turning the Tide" initiative.   Robert Massa, senior VP for enrollment at Drew University, asserts "...if we - meaning college admission offices - say we're concerned about non-cognitive factors, we need to behave that way.  We can't have the smallest difference in a student's academic profile become a reason to deny or put on a waitlist.  We have to find ways to recalibrate the process."

Let’s hope they do.




Important Summer Steps for Juniors and Seniors

Rising seniors truly should begin their Common Application in July to reduce the pressure later.  Ideally, rising juniors should know by now which standardized test – the ACT or the SAT – they plan to take in the fall or winter.  Summer is the best time to jumpstart the college roadtrip and take the important steps necessary to reduce the stress of the fall semester.


  • Finalize your college list – At the very least, review your school list and decide which colleges to visit in the fall.  Some schools already have their ‘open house’ and ‘special session’ fall visit schedule online.  Have a final list ready to review with the college advisor at your high school in September and ask him/her to suggest additional options.
  • Continue test prep for fall SAT/ACT and/or SAT Subject Tests – Many students hope to improve upon their scores by focusing on test prep over the summer and re-taking exams in the fall. Some students consider taking an SAT subject test, or two, in order to enhance their college applications. This is recommended even if the colleges to which you will apply do not require subject tests.
  • Application Essays – July is the perfect time to complete the personal essay for the Common Application. In August, the supplemental essay prompts for individual schools will be available and students will get busy drafting those. While many students have summer jobs/internships or are taking summer classes, there is time on weekends and evenings to begin composing the personal essay – the main college essay.


  • Begin Sat/ACT test prep –  Whether or not the student has taken the PSAT and/or PLAN, it is advisable to take a diagnostic SAT and ACT over the summer to determine which exam makes the most sense. If it is possible, students should begin practicing for a fall test. This leaves ample time for re-testing in the winter and/or spring.  
  • Start perusing the college guidebook - Parents can pick up any of the college guide books on bookstore shelves and start a preliminary list based on location, size, and possible majors (liberal arts vs. sciences). For parents who want to take the next step, use the guidebook to identify colleges of interest and spend time on each school’s website.
  • Website Research – You can spend hours on college websites as they are chock full of information. One piece of information that can help discern if the college is a real possibility or a long shot, is the 'student profile' for the incoming class. This includes the SAT and ACT scores; GPA range; and a slew of demographics. If your student’s current GPA falls close, it may be worthy of consideration.
  • Start planning fall college visits – Starting campus tours in the fall gives students a huge headstart and takes the pressure off of the spring when exams, school work, and extra-curriculars ramp up. The more schools students visit, the more focused they become.

ReadySetCollege has a unique approach to executing these steps more effectively than families and high school counselors can alone. Contact Franca today.







Why It's Become So Hard To Get In

Students often fear the college journey because they’ve heard so much negative hype around it.  Especially now when the admissions world has become so competitive, students often feel that the deck is stacked against them.  One of my missions as a counselor is to instill in students a sense of confidence and assurance that many, many colleges will be thrilled to welcome them onto their campuses.

It is important to maintain realistic expectations as students embark on their college roadtrip.  Understanding how college admissions departments operate may help to balance those expectations. Here’s a look at why it’s so difficult to predict outcomes.

·         Admissions committees make decisions.  Depending upon the size of the college, one or two admissions counselors may review a student’s application, or an entire committee will convene to review and discuss an applicant. Committees include not only admissions counselors, but the admissions director, faculty and sometimes additional administrative staff. The committee at each individual college will evaluate an application differently depending upon the criteria that are most relevant to each school.

·         Admissions department are not only admitting students to that college. They are also admitting students to specific academic disciplines. Popular majors, such as business, may have a lot more competition than a less popular major. This is one reason a straight A student applying to a popular major may not be not be accepted, but a B student is admitted to a less popular major.

          Admissions decisions are very subjective. When admissions committees receive thousands of applications with similar grades and test scores, other factors become critical when making decisions. What is important to one decision maker could be less important to another. Some admissions decision makers may feel a connection with a student and want to take a chance on the student while another committee member may decide not to admit. Lastly, admissions committees can change every year. Therefore, someone who was admitted for admissions this year may not have been admitted the previous year. There is often no rhyme or reason why one college accepts a student and another college rejects the same student.