The Perfectionist's Guide To The College Essay

The Perfectionist's Guide To The College Essay

Perfection—in college admission and in life—is often overvalued. Perfect should not be the goal in your essay. What will distinguish your writing and your application is your unique voice. Be willing to take risks, be vulnerable and share your truth. The readers will appreciate the opportunity to learn more about you, and you will get to know yourself better as well.

5 Ways to Prepare for the SAT (Even when you're not preparing for the SAT)

5 Ways to Prepare for the SAT (Even when you're not preparing for the SAT)

The SAT is designed to test skills and knowledges that are accrued over a long time, things like vocabulary and math fluency, and these can be developed and honed beyond the hours spent in class. Not only do you not have to wait until a full-scale test prep program to start building these skills, you probably shouldn’t. Here’s a list of 5 ways you can utilize the precious summer months to build your skill and knowledge, laying the foundation for a strong performance on your next (or first) SAT in the fall.

The View from the Bleachers: The Parents' Role in the College Process

The View from the Bleachers: The Parents' Role in the College Process

The college search and application process has changed in some important ways over the past few decades. More colleges are making standardized testing optional, students are sending out more applications, and admissions is becoming increasingly competitive. As this process becomes increasingly complex and, unfortunately, increasingly stressful, there are several things parents can do to help their child make this a more rewarding and successful experience.

Four Steps to Getting More Out of Test Prep with a Mindful Approach

Four Steps to Getting More Out of Test Prep with a Mindful Approach

I realized that the upper limit to my student’s test day performance wasn’t set by how much material she knew or how well she understood test-taking techniques. Rather, her performance was limited by how she was thinking about and experiencing the test. So that’s where we put our attention. And that’s where I suggest you put your attention: allow yourself to become aware of your thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs and how they impact your experience. You are then empowered to choose thoughts and behaviors that create a better experience.

The Transition from Middle School to High School: Why Parents Lose Sleep

The Transition from Middle School to High School: Why Parents Lose Sleep

The transition of their children from middle school to high school can be an anxious time for parents, and for good reason . Even when the curriculum in middle school has been rigorous, in high school the expectations get amped up in ways that put students with weak Executive Function skills in peril.

Because it is Harvard, plus my parents want me to apply

Our current system works to perpetuate this cycle of selectivity and prestige with an unhealthy fixation on this handful of institutions. Change happens from both the outside in and the inside out. Employers, the media, popular culture and college applicants must not rush to judgment or default to perception. Meanwhile, the college admission profession must re-examine the messages we send and the processes we create that perpetuate this unbalanced system. As parents and educators, we must raise children who think critically about brand, marketing, success, happiness, fulfillment and personal choice.

How college admissions has turned into something akin to ‘The Hunger Games’

In an ideal world, college preparatory education would encourage students who crave knowledge, seek community engagement, desire connection and live their values. We say we want our children to feel secure, be inspired and take risks with their curiosity. The reality of “Hunger Games” comes closer to the truth, where students battle to survive in application pools seeming to demand perfection.

‘I will not help you hide your money when you apply for financial aid’ — and more straight talk from college admissions officers to parents

One of the hardest parts of a college admissions officer’s job — if not the hardest part — is dealing with some of the entitled or unrealistic parents of students who are trying to figure out where to apply to college. Here is a piece on things that college admissions officers say they would like to tell some of the parents with whom they deal — if they could be as blunt as they want — or things they actually say but that fall on deaf ears.

Unique 2016 summer reading list — from college admissions counselors and deans

There’s great fiction and non-fiction; books on parenting (and “overparenting”), history and science. And, of course, there are, not surprisingly, books on college, getting in and staying there and what to post-college. You are likely to recognize some of the recommended authors, such as David Sedaris, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Duckworth, Atul Gawande — but the list will also expose you to some new ones.

Why the IB Works for the LD Student

As schools imagine how to meet the needs of a diverse set of learners—those with the capacity to be successful in college and beyond given their individual abilities, creativity, and passion for learning—IB serves as a connection between disciplines and stresses a holistic approach to education. At its core, the IB strives toward strong critical thinking skills, leading to greater mastery of material rather than content-driven teaching. The mantra, supported by intersection of the IB and ASP at schools like New Hampton, is “skills are durable, content is fleeting.”

The X Factor: The Use of Non –Cognitive Assessments in Admissions

Written with Peter Gilbert, Director of Admissions at Salisbury School, CT We all know who we’re talking about. It’s that student who has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him an appealing applicant. Maybe it’s his bright smile or the ease with which he laughs at himself. Maybe it’s the way he talks about his friends or explains why he’s running for student body president. Maybe it’s even the way he describes his summer camp experience. But it’s something you can sense, without being able to articulate the reasons why, that this kid is a great applicant. And even though his grades and standardized test scores might fall a bit shy of the typical standards, this is a student you want at your school because you know he’s going to thrive.

While Simon Cowell refers to those qualities that make contestants stand out as the elusive “X Factor,” independent schools admissions offices have been working to define those intangible personal qualities that are strong predictors of a student’s success at their schools. Through the use of non-cognitive assessments, some schools are moving to a more holistic evaluation of their applicants.

Holistic Interview Formula Salisbury School observed that year after year, by the time they were seniors, some boys who had entered with comparable grades and SSAT scores were graduating with very different academic profiles. They started to think seriously about what qualities were nurtured at Salisbury that enabled some students to better achieve than their peers and developed metrics to evaluate the specific non-cognitive skills that they believed correlated with that success.

According to SSTAB’s Think Tank on the Future of Cognitive Assessment, while the qualities most schools agree that they are looking for in their applicants include “creativity, problem solving, curiosity, self-control, and motivation,” some schools also look for specific traits that align with their mission statements. After completing two SSAT validity studies, a college/outcome result analysis for three graduating classes, and an attrition study, Salisbury School worked to develop a holistic admissions formula that complimented the school’s mission statement. Priding themselves on graduating “men of character,” they began to look more aggressively for applicants who demonstrated creativity, integrity, leadership, respect, humility, and empathy with the conviction that their single-gender environment was optimal for boys to confidently grow their non-cognitive skills like curiosity, adaptability, benevolence, and optimism. Likewise, at Putney School, which has a strong social justice premise, John Barrengos, the director of admission, looks for students who believe that community service and “saving the world” are important to leading a meaningful and fulfilled life.

Creative Interview Format Not all non-cognitive assessments are equally useful. Some schools have realized that the traditional interview format does not always provide rich information about applicants, particularly in the younger grades. Once Noble and Greenough School started assessing middle school applicants by observing students’ participation in a group activity, they discovered that they were able to discern much more about the students’ character, interpersonal style, and problem-solving skills than they had been able to in a formal interview setting.

At North Country School, the interview takes the form of a “walk and talk” around campus and, in this more casual setting, students more freely share information about themselves. According to Libby Doan, the learning support coordinator, this conversation is used to evaluate how the student identifies their areas of strength, where they seek to improve, and if they can articulate their needs.

Schools are also encouraging students to spend more time on campus as part of the evaluative process. At Cambridge Friends School, prospective applicants spend the morning in class and teachers evaluate how well they listen, contribute, demonstrate flexible thinking, and share their knowledge. Kelly Baker, the director of admission and financial aid, believes that they are able to glean such valuable information about a student during the optional group assessment that they waive the standardized testing requirement for students who choose the participate.

At North Country School, students spend a full day on campus, visiting classes and having lunch with faculty and students. Through “intentional observation,” the faculty look for evidence of the student’s self-knowledge and relational abilities with adults and peers as well as their ability to engage in “spontaneous, exuberant conversation.” This information provides meaningful insight into how that student might take advantage of the opportunities offered at the school and how they might thrive there.

Risk Worth Taking So, with all this additional non-cognitive evaluation, are schools finding that they are admitting a pool of applicants who are a better fit than they might otherwise? Generally, the answer is, “Yes.“ While Putney, like many schools, has no firm cut-offs for SSAT scores, they are willing to take a risk on a student if they believe that the culture at their school will help that student to flourish socially and intellectually. According to Barrengos, “as our progressive educational philosophy takes broader grasp of the totality of the student experience, I have permission to unapologetically pursue the students for whom this pedagogy – across their experience, from classroom to barn to dorm to sports to arts – is an answer to their journey; either a salve for the boy who “got” school in third grade and is now bored to tears, or a salvation for the girl who never found her traditional model viable and has been chafing against its limits throughout.”

There are also incidental advantages to incorporating non-cognitive assessments in the admissions process. Schools are finding that this can “level the playing field” for some applicants as, unlike being tutored for the SSAT, there is no way to prepare. This process can also feel less daunting and intimidating. Salisbury School found this holistic review of applicants to be especially important for candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, those with learning differences, and, in general, maturing boys. Noble and Greenough School has found an increase in their yield of students of color in the middle school since implementing the non-cognitive assessment and Jennifer Hines, dean for enrollment management, happily observed that “students leave our office smiling, rather than feeling traumatized.” Doan, at North Country School, has had similar experiences. In fact, it is not uncommon for students at the end of a school visit day to ask if they can stay longer. To her, that is one of the best indicators that the student will be a good fit.

Yet, non-cognitive assessment isn’t a great dust pan that gathers up those candidates who are on the fringes of admission. In fact, the careful use of these metrics can rule out some students who otherwise would be attractive candidates. For example, students who aren’t able to self-advocate and who are used to being taken care of by adults as well as students who have stopped being engaged in their learning, their communities, and their relationships might not be offered acceptance because they don’t have the appropriate non-cognitive skills to succeed.

In the end, however, the schools we contacted were pleased with the caliber of the students who were matriculating. Each year at Salisbury’s graduation prize night, it is poignant to reflect on the place where each boy started. Last spring, the two students who were awarded the general improvement prize by vote of the faculty were boys who earned admission because of their non-cognitive skills. It was powerfully affirming to see that the qualities Salisbury sought in their applicants translated into social and academic success. It has been said that cognitive ability predicts educational attainment and that non-cognitive skills predict a life outcome. The success of theses two graduates, and others like them, speaks to the value of including non-cognitive assessments in a holistic admission process.

SAT Subject Tests: Another Testing Task or an Opportunity to Shine?

A high score on an SAT Subject Test is a valuable asset for applicants to certain highly selective schools. Making the most of this opportunity can be difficult, however. When student and parent fatigue surrounding pre-college planning is already quite high, the need to make additional decisions can feel overwhelming. Armed with a little knowledge and guidance, however, students can make informed choices and increase their chances of success on these tests.

Writing Without the Shackles of Judgement

She stands in the doorway, college banners serving as a backdrop in this agonizing drama. The look on her face suggests that someone just ran over her dog or perhaps she just learned that Taylor Swift had her vocal cords removed. Growing concerned about her emotional state, I inquire about the fear in her eyes. “I have nothing to write about,” she confesses sullenly, as though the end is near. She goes on to lament about the lack of tragedy or fanfare in her seventeen years on this earth. “Nothing bad has happened to me, my grandparents are all still alive, and I have not lead a sports team to a state championship.” Finding it hard to be remorseful, I reply, “write what you know, not what you think the admission office wants to hear.”

How to Handle Roommate Conflicts

After all is said and done, you and your roomie are going to face typical roommate conflicts, whether you’re just getting to know each other or have been friends for ages. It’s unavoidable, and it definitely isn’t the end of the world! The important thing is knowing how to handle issues so that they don’t escalate into major conflict and cause you extra stress.

Facts About Financial Aid

There are a lot of myths surrounding financial aid – which is not surprising because the information about it is can be confusing, so let’s start with the basics. Financial aid is money distributed primarily by the federal government and colleges in the form of student loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study jobs. Loans and work-study must be repaid; grants and scholarships do not.

There are two main categories of financial aid: Need-based and merit-based. Need-based, which is the most common, depends on your child’s “financial need”. Merit-based is awarded according to your child’s academic, athletic, musical, or artistic merit.

With that in mind, here are five useful facts about the need-based variety:

Fact #1: There is more than one way to determine “financial need”

Many people are familiar with the federal government application known as FAFSA, which uses a formula known as the “federal methodology”. Generally speaking, parent and child income and assets are included in the formula that drives the expected family contribution (or EFC). To calculate “financial need”, one must subtract the EFC from the cost at a particular college.

But FAFSA isn’t the only way to determine “financial need”; many colleges have their own way. While similar to the “federal methodology”, the “institutional methodology” often takes a deeper dive into your financial situation in an effort to discern true need. For example, the “institutional methodology” frequently considers retirement assets, while the FAFSA / “federal methodology” does not.

Fact #2: Parental income is a larger factor driving “financial need” than parental assets

Parent’s income can be assessed at rates as high as 47%, making it a major factor driving the “financial need” calculation. In contrast, parent’s includable assets are assessed only between 2.64% and 5.64%. So it is common for families with healthy incomes but very little in savings to have a very low “financial need”. From a practical standpoint, unless you anticipate that your cash flow during your child’s college years will cover his or her college expenses, it’s worth saving for the future.

Fact #3: ”Financial need” does always equate to “met need”

It is very common for colleges to meet only a portion of the calculated “financial need”, which means that you will be “gapped.” In this situation, you will need to make up the “gap” in addition to paying the expected family contribution. We suggest comparing different school’s abilities to meet student’s financial needs, which requires some research.

Fact #4: It’s not a “set it and forget it” process

Families of students seeking financial assistance will need to complete the financial aid application process annually. Unfortunately, the system does not operate like the admissions process in which the student runs the gauntlet once and then never again. As a result, we recommend that families have a good filing system for financial documents in order to make the annual process as painless as possible.

Fact #5: Your student may need to complete a FAFSA form even if you don’t apply for financial aid

As odd as it may seem, some colleges and universities require parents to complete the FAFSA form for all scholarships, even those that are merit based. So if your child is applying for a scholarship, be sure to check the college’s web site to see if it is required – and call the school directly if the web site language isn’t clear.

For more information about financial aid and how it fits into your family’s overall financial picture, please contact our office. We would be happy to refer you to qualified professionals.

How to Major in College Touring

Many articles have been written offering advice about how to get the most out of your college tour, but they are commonly written from a one-tour-fits-all perspective. I’ve come to believe that there are actually three levels of college tours and, as students become more familiar with what different types of colleges have to offer and more certain about what they want from their college experience, they should approach the tour with different outcomes in mind. College Touring 101: The introductory Course 

I love college tours - and I go on a lot of them - but I would estimate that a third of what I hear is the same at almost every school I visit. There's a lottery system for housing, there's a blue light system for safety, there's a swipe card for use in the dining hall, and everyone gets to keep their mailbox for all four years. I encourage you to make your first two or three visits to ANY college just to get the patter down and to learn about the features almost all colleges share. The purpose of the first round of tours it to get an overview so that you'll be better able to focus on how colleges differentiate themselves.

Before the tour: Create a fairly broad list of colleges to visit – don’t make your criteria too specific too soon or you might rule out some excellent options.

HINT: You don’t need to travel far for this round of visits; find schools in your area.

During the tour: Listen carefully. Some of what the tour guide talks about may not make sense to you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – you’re probably not the only one who doesn’t understand.

After the tour: Think about what features of that type college appealed to you and what features really didn’t appeal to you without concerning yourself with whether or not you will ultimately apply to that specific college.

College Touring 201: The Survey Course

Once you are able to recognize the features that most colleges share, for the next round of tours you should visit colleges that more closely match your interests and emerging preferences for size, location, major, extracurricular activities and so on. But don’t narrow the list of schools too much yet – you still want to cast your net broadly enough to see how a school a bit bigger, a bit more rural, a bit more pre-professional, or a bit more liberal feels to you. Try not to make any assumptions until you’ve had a chance to see for yourself. The goal of this round of tours is for you to be able to articulate which specific features, qualities, and programs are important to you and why.

Before the tour: Don’t schedule visits at more than two colleges in a day. Plan to attend both the tour and the information session whenever feasible.

HINT: It can be prudent to sit near the door during these early information sessions. While some sessions are studded with valuable information, others can be painfully tedious. If you’re not finding the information being shared to be particularly useful and enthusiasm is waning, slip out.

During the tour: Ask your tour guide questions about what it’s like to be a student at that college. Look at what is being posted around campus, find out what happens on the weekends, learn about the school’s traditions. Try to get a sense of the culture of the college.

 HINT: About halfway through most of the tours I’ve been on, people stop asking questions. At that point, I move up to the front and engage the tour guide in conversation. They have a wealth of first-hand information so don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about the college from a student’s perspective.

After the tour: Make time to take notes about what you saw. Very quickly your college tour memories will become indistinct from one another.

HINT: Bring a pack of ruled sticky notes with you. After the tour, go through the viewbook and, where a picture triggers a memory about an important detail, write that down on the sticky note and post it next to the image. That way, when you try to remember which college had the rock climbing wall and which had the amazing theatre, you’ll be able to trigger your memory both visually and verbally.

College Touring 301: The Independent Research Course

By now you’ve visited many campuses and you have a much clearer understanding of what you are really looking for in your ideal college and you are narrowing your list. Now you are ready for some really serious college touring – the type where you look in every nook and cranny, ask hard questions, and evaluate carefully how well the program suits your abilities, interests, and goals. The purpose of this final round of tours is to determine whether the college is a place where you would flourish and thrive.

Before the tour: Do a lot of research. Write down questions about those things you need to know more about and identify the parts of the campus that you want to see and the people whom you want to connect with.

Specifically, if there is something that is going to make or break your college experience (being able to have your own radio show, being involved in an a capella group, getting academic support) this is the time to explore those opportunities and resources.

During the tour: Listen and watch carefully. Ask questions. Be fully engaged in the tour.

HINT: I believe that you can tell a lot about the culture of a college by how the students treat the facilities. Watch to see if students are respectful of each other, the classroom spaces, the dorms, the grounds/kitchen crew, the faculty, and the visitors.  This is an important piece of a school’s culture that often goes over-looked. Students who take good care of themselves, others, and their environment are typically good students because they also take good care of themselves and their work. And they are just good people to be around.

After the tour: Leave time to go back and re-visit parts of campus or see the facilities that weren’t shown on the tour. If you have a specialized interest, ask when you schedule your appointment if there will be an opportunity to see those facilities. For example, arts majors should see the studios, athletes (even recreational ones) should see the athletic center, and physics majors should see those lab spaces whenever possible.

Note: Typically on the third round of tours, students also interview while on campus.

Make the most of your college tours – there are things to be gained even from a bad tour. The college process is a time to learn more about yourself and to think carefully about what you most want from your college experience. This is a big decision, so take the time to gather the information you need, even if it means returning to a college for a second visit. The more engaged you are in your college tours, the better your final college list will be.

College Matters: Testing, Testing

The Mental Preparation for Standardized Testing

 Guest blog post by Drew Heilpern, PhD


"My son or daughter is horrible at taking standardized tests" is a common refrain that we hear as we talk to parents about the college admissions standardized testing process.  This can be due to a number of factors, but often the biggest hurdle that students must overcome to reach their full potential on these tests is the fear and anxiety that surrounds them.

To combat this fear, I encourage my students and parents to try to keep these tests in perspective.  The tests are important, but they are not the "be all end all" in the college admissions process.  Colleges look at many other factors.  Grades and the rigor of courses taken in high school are in fact the top two criteria that college admission officers consider when reviewing applicants.  Standardized testing is third.

Planning to take the test more than once can also relieve some of the stress of these tests.  Most colleges honor score choice, which means if a test did not go as well as expected, students do not need to send those scores to schools.  Thus, colleges will never see them. I remind my students to go into the test with the attitude of having everything to gain and nothing to lose.  If the test goes well, that is fantastic.  If it did not, they will still have another chance at it on a later test date.

I also remind my students to try to think about these tests as more of a rite of passage and not an intelligence test.  Their performance on these tests does not define who they are and what they are capable of.  At the end of the day, it is just a test.  Similarly, I also encourage my students to focus on themselves throughout this process and to not worry about how their friends did or are doing.  I know that this can be incredibly challenging, but the purpose of the college search is to find the college that is the best fit.  No two students are identical; each one has different likes and different needs.  I always encourage my students to focus on what they need and not worry about everyone else.

Forming a plan is an important first step in achieving success on these tests.  Knowing which tests the students are going to take (ACT, SAT, Subject Tests), when they are going to take them, and how they are going to prepare can go a long way in alleviating stress.  I always remind students that there is no overall perfect plan, but there is a perfect plan for them.  There are many different ways to prepare for these tests and many different paths to success, but not walking into these tests completely cold and having a plan of attack for them provides a huge confidence booster.

Lastly, I encourage my students to approach the standardized test as a game and an opportunity for them to show off and show what they can do.  I encourage them to try to have a little fun with it.  Hopefully, with this perspective, the standardized testing process does not seem so intimidating.

Drew Heilpern, PhD is the general manager of Summit Educational Group's1-1 in home tutoring division for test preparation and academic support.  For the past 25+ years Summit has worked with thousands of students to help them reach their full academic potential.