College Essay Rules

green-chameleon-21532-unsplash-homeworkAugust 1st is a big date for rising seniors. It is the date a majority of college applications open, and it is also the date when both students (and their parents) realize they need to get serious about college application work, especially if the goal is to complete as much as possible before school starts.

As time passes, stress levels tend to rise, but stress (and procrastination) are detrimental to the self-reflection and vulnerability required in the college essay writing process. To keep the peace in your house and help students craft their best essays, here are my Rules for Students, Parents, and English Class Essay Work.


Be patient: Give your student time to work their essay before asking to see a draft. Wait until they are ready to share it.

Be sensitive: This process asks students to be vulnerable and to try to show who they think they are to strangers. Give them space and time to find both their story and their voice.

Be mindful: Maybe the topic is not the one you think they should be writing about but ask yourself if it highlights something unique and wonderful about them. Here is a great article explaining why sometimes the best college essays are often about topics parents do not like.

Things to do to support your student:

  • Ask them what they want colleges to know about them. See if you find examples of these qualities in the essay.
  • Find grammatical errors
  • Encourage them to self-reflect on what they care about in the world, who they inspire to be, and what makes them who they are.
  • Praise your student for being brave, creative, funny, or insightful enough to tell their story.
  • If you really need something (college-related) to do, search for private scholarships for your student!


  • Be mindful: You do not have to share your essay with anyone you do not want to, and in fact, sharing your essay with too many people can lead to an essay being over-edited, stripping the essay of your voice.
  • Be patient: This is a long process, and you won’t get it right the 1st (or 2nd or 3rd) time. Learning how to write (and rewrite) college essays takes time.
  • Carve out time: You will need to write even when you don’t feel like it, but once you complete your first essay, the rest will come easier.
  • Read for inspiration: Read books from your favorite author to learn how to write descriptively and hook a reader. If you read other college essays, do so only for ideas of how different and creative they can be, not to copy them or get distracted by a cute or creative topic.
  • Ask questions: What do colleges already know about you from your activities, your transcript, and will likely hear from your letters of recommendation? What else should they know about who you are, how you think, how you challenge yourself, what you have overcome, what you do when no one is watching, and what is important to you? That is the whole purpose of the college essay!

Continue reading

College Essay Tips

person-woman-apple-hotel.jpgSummer is the best time to work on college essays because the process requires time to self-reflect, something that is difficult to do during the busy school year. Here are my Top Ten Tips for writing college essays:

  1. The college essay is not an English paper assignment. There are no requirements for a thesis statement with three supporting paragraphs and a nice, neat conclusion. The best essays often start in the middle of the story, grabbing the reader’s attention. The purpose of the college essay is to bring your personality to life.
  2. Write well. Even though it is not an English paper, colleges want to know that you can write well. In college, you will be expected to write a lot. Make sure your essay is organized and coherent, as well as engaging and expressive. Check and re-check for grammar and spelling errors.
  3. Be prepared to write many drafts. Great essays take many drafts. Don’t get too invested in your first draft. Every word should be important and add something to your story.
  4. Write like you are a teenager. Do not let whoever edits your paper rewrite it so much that your personality is lost. It should be your voice coming through the pages. Use words that you would normally use but beware of slang. When you ask someone to read it, ask them if it sounds like you.
  5. Write about you, not someone else. Your grandfather might have an amazing story of hardship and hard-earned success, but colleges want to know your story. Let the reader know how you think, how you talk, how the situation or relationship you share changed something about you.
  6. Answer the question. This point may seem obvious, but many applicants end up writing essays that do not answer the essay prompt. Colleges ask specific questions for a reason and will be frustrated if you squeeze in a story that does not address their questions.
  7. Share deep, personal reflections and insights into who you are and why. To help colleges get to know you, you need to include personal reflections in your essays. Otherwise, the essay may sound trite and generic. The most important thing to share is “why” you are sharing the story; the topic you choose to write about is secondary to what it reveals about your character.
  8. Let colleges know what you will bring to the college community. Colleges want to know that you will add to the community in some way. They are looking for a diverse group of students willing to come together to share ideas, backgrounds, and experiences with one another.
  9. Do not repeat information. Instead, expand on it in an enlightening way, OR choose to highlight a complementary or even opposite personality trait. For example, you may have top grades, test scores, and a long list of amazing activities, but to stand out among all the other high achievers in highly competitive admissions, you might consider writing about something unexpected. You may be an athlete that spends most of your time on your sport. Instead of writing an essay about the “big game” or losing the championship, focus on your intellectual interests and other passions.
  10. Never use the wrong college’s name in an essay! This mistake often happens when essays and applications are rushed. Give yourself enough time to walk away from your “perfect” essay for a day, then read it again before sending it to your colleges.


The Truth about Test-Optional

jon-tyson-hhq1Lxtuwd8-unsplashI have heard from lots of students and parents over the past week about trouble registering for the August or September SAT, and frustration over June ACT test site cancelations. Meanwhile, the University of California has announced plans to move away from requiring or even considering the SAT or ACT, at least for in-state applicants.

With many colleges going test-optional for the fall of 2020 and beyond, what should students do? How will applicants be evaluated and what does “test-optional” really mean?

At first glance, hearing that colleges are going “test-optional” seems like a compassionate gesture to students who have lost control over a big part of their college admission process. But not all “test-optional” colleges are alike. Only a few schools will be test blind (Cal State Universities, Hampshire College, Loyola University-New Orleans), meaning they will not consider test scores, even if submitted. Most schools will consider test scores as part of their admission decisions if the students submit them, leaving it up to students to decide how important it is to try and secure a seat for a future SAT or ACT, and whether or not to share their test scores.

It is important for students to read each colleges’ test-optional policy statement, as Continue reading

Challenges & Opportunities

openroad2The Coronavirus pandemic has brought on new opportunities and challenges unique to the HS classes of 2021-2023 concerning college admissions.


Students have equal access to colleges! All students can attend virtual admission sessions, take a virtual campus tour, meet virtually with an admission staff member who will be reviewing their applications, and connect with current students to learn more about life on campus. Previously, this access was only available to those able to pay for travel and find room in their schedules.

Additionally, you have access to an online college fair that includes presentations (live and recorded) on college admission topics and insights into what specific colleges are looking for in applicants.


Colleges will expect you to take advantage of these resources before you apply. If you are too busy now, understand that you will need to prioritize connecting with your colleges and learning more about them later.

Colleges either care about demonstrated interest and will take that into account when evaluating you for admission, honors programs, and scholarships OR they will care about how well you articulate your fit with the college in your application essays. In the rare case that your school does not care about demonstrated interest and doesn’t ask a “why this college” essay, where you go to college is a big decision. In all situations, you need to learn about them. The resources to do so are waiting for you.

Activity Challenges

Many of you worked hard to come up with activities for your spring and summer, and now plans are canceled or at risk of being canceled. Spend time now preparing a back-up plan.


This will require you to be more creative and take initiative, but those are exactly the qualities colleges love to see! Creating your own activity also shows leadership without needing a title or elected position. Colleges look for “intellectual vitality” too. You can pursue an intellectual passion. Embrace the free time you have by doing something to move you towards your future goals. If one of your strengths is compassion, there are endless ways to volunteer. Even simple acts of kindness show this characteristic.

Challenges with Grades or Lack of Grades

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Support for Seniors Making Their College Decision

let go of the pastI am thinking about all seniors who are frustrated with what school and event cancelations have meant in terms of lost plans and dreams. Please know that people care and will do what they can to make it up when the time is right. For now, my advice is to acknowledge your feelings of loss and frustration, but then turn your energy towards what you can control.

In some of my seniors’ college applications, students were asked, “If you had an extra hour in your day, how would you spend it?” You now have that extra hour to read for pleasure, learn a new skill, or reconnect with a friend or family member (online, of course). Speaking of online, I suggest that you check out MOOCs.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are online classes open to everyone, many for free. Right now, these include free courses from highly selective universities covering everything from Georgetown’s Quantum Mechanics to MIT’s Computer Science and Programming using Python. I just signed up for Yale’s “The Science of Well Being.” Check it out!

For more information on MOOCs and how they work, go here. Then use these sites to browse courses:

For Seniors Trying to Make Their College Decisions

Here are some resources to use to help you get a sense of your best-fit college without visiting in person.

Virtual Tours: Many colleges offer virtual tours and admission sessions on their websites. Start with the college’s undergraduate admission page for the latest offerings. Then try online college tour resources like Campus Reel (virtual tours of more than 300 colleges) and YouVisit (over 600 college tours).

Social Media: Most colleges have Facebook groups for admitted students. Join them to connect with other admitted students and read the discussion. Search for YouTube videos on your colleges of interest to find students sharing information and experiences about their colleges. Continue reading

Coronavirus Impact on Standardized Tests: SAT, ACT, AP & IB Exams

coronavirusemoji2Every day, the College Admission Landscape is being altered in response to the Coronavirus. Here are a few very new and important updates on what has recently changed.

How Colleges Are Reacting to the Canceled ACT and SATs

Multiple colleges have announced they will be going test-optional next fall and cite the Coronavirus and test cancelations as the reason. Case Western Reserve University and Boston University, for example, will both be test-optional just for the 2020-2021 application season. Both Oregon State and the University of Oregon have announced they will be test-optional going forward (although the majority of merit-based scholarships at the University of Oregon will still require test scores). Tufts University announced it will have a 3-year trial with test-optional admissions next fall. MIT, while still requiring the ACT or SAT, will no longer consider subject tests. 

Harvard University has stated that 2021 applicants will not face penalties if they are not able to submit AP or SAT Subject Test scores. More colleges will likely announce application changes for next fall soon. Sign up for my blog to be kept up-to-date on major changes.

No May IB Exams

On March 23rd, the International Baccalaureate announced that this year’s IB exams, which were supposed to be given from April 30th to May 22nd, will be canceled due to COVID-19. The IB made this decision based on worldwide school closures and the need to maintain a single grading scale for the 200,000 students in IB courses all over the world.

The IB’s statement details how schools should handle the semester’s remaining coursework, which may include projects and oral examinations (for language classes).

IB exams are normally a key part in determining which students are awarded IB Diplomas or IB Course Certificates. This year, however, students will receive their diplomas or certificates based on their course performance only, rather than on exam scores. These diplomas and certificates are still awarded by the IB, but they’ve extended the deadline for schools to send in their students’ coursework and final grades.

IB exam scores also play a role in college credit. Just like AP exams, IB exams are standardized, so colleges often reward high scores in certain IB exams with course credit in the same areas.

How will colleges assess course credit for students in IB courses with no exams? The IB’s statement did not provide a definite answer to that question, but stated that its members have “consulted with universities and in order to support students [the IB] will continue to work closely with universities and colleges as they receive results.”  Continue reading

Subject Test Specifics & Who Should Take Them

TestSAT Subject Tests include more than 20 different tests focusing on specific disciplines, such as English, history and the social sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and foreign languages. There are no longer any colleges requiring subject tests, but there are schools that, until COVID-19,  strongly recommended them but now state they will “consider them if submitted” (Brown, Duke, Emory, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, Rice). The tests are also still considered by additonal colleges as a way for students to strengthen their applications or highlight skills in a particular subject area.

Additionally, they may still be required if a student is applying to an accelerated BS/MD program (i.e. Boston University, Northwestern University) or to an engineering college within a larger university (i.e. University of California, Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins).  All students applying to colleges that admit less than 20% of their applicants should carefully research what each of their colleges require and recommend. 

What is the difference between the SAT (or ACT) and SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT (and ACT) is a college entrance exam, testing what students learn in classrooms and how well they apply that knowledge. SAT Subject Tests focus on a single subject and indicate a student’s readiness to take college-level courses in that subject.

Each subject test lasts one hour and consists entirely of multiple-choice questions. Generally, the SAT/ACT can account for as much as 30% of your application (combined with other academic factors including GPA, class rank and course rigor). In contrast, the Subject Tests only account for about 2% to 5%. Therefore, the SAT/ACT should be your top priority when it comes to college admission tests.

How Colleges Use Subject Tests

Some colleges value the Subject Tests as a key indicator of college readiness for specific programs. For example, UC Berkeley “recommends Math Level 2 and a science Subject Test for its Chemistry and Engineering colleges;” UC Irvine “recommends Math Level 2 and a science for its engineering, pharmaceutical and physical sciences schools;” and UCLA “recommends math Level 2 and a science test for its School of Engineering and Applied Science.” Some colleges also use them for course placement or class credit. Continue reading

High School Course Selection Tips

bookstackThe high school transcript is almost always the most important piece in a student’s application. While an individual student’s abilities and interests must be considered, there are general tips for success:

1. Take a balanced set of classes. Most colleges have preferences beyond what is required for high school graduation, and the most competitive colleges like to see students take courses each year in English, science, math, the social sciences, and a foreign language.

2. Know the admissions guidelines for your top choice colleges and interests. Research college preferences to learn about course requirements for specific colleges and majors. Additionally, review the admission policies of out-of-state public universities, which often have different requirements than your home state.

3. Take advantage of college-prep courses. Students don’t need to take every AP or IB class, but colleges like to see students take advantage of the academic opportunities offered. A student’s course choices will depend on the selectivity of the colleges they want to attend as well as how the student has done in previous courses.

4. Show colleges a positive trend. Colleges like to see a high level (or an improving level) of rigor and success throughout a student’s high school years. If a student thinks they could get a B+ or higher in a higher-level class, they should consider taking the higher-level course.

5. Take a strong senior year of courses. Colleges want to admit students that seek challenges, not avoid them. Be honest about your choices. For example, are you deciding to be a teacher’s assistant because you love the subject and helping others, or because you are avoiding a class that would push you? Continue reading

College Admissions: The Year in Review

ChangeThe year 2019 did not disappoint those who love change in college admissions. Here are highlights prospective students should be aware of.

Changes to the NACAC Code of Ethics

Last year, the Justice Department stated that the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) rules violated antitrust laws and reduced student choices. In order to preserve the organization (and avoid a costly legal fight), NACAC members reluctantly voted to remove four key protectionary provisions at their annual conference. 

How will this impact students? 

The deleted protections prevented colleges from offering exclusive incentives to students applying Early Decision (e.g., special housing or scholarships), and rules that prevented colleges from recruiting students once they committed to a college. With the restrictions removed, admission experts predict many colleges will begin “poaching” students after the May 1 deadline in order to fill their classes (May 1st is the enrollment deadline for selective colleges, but an increasingly irrelevant deadline to many others); others predict colleges will raise their deposits in order to avoid being raided by other colleges for their students. 

The Admission Scandal and Admission Changes

Of course, the most publicized event of 2019 was the Varsity Blues College Admission Scandal. While there will always be individuals who manipulate the system, the vast majority of those who work in college admissions (including NACAC, HECA, and IECA members) do follow strict ethical guidelines. Time will tell if there will be any positive, systemic changes as a result of the scandal, but many colleges took it as an opportunity (or responsibility) to review admissions policies, especially around recruited athletes. 

A recent Bloomberg article reports that Yale, Pomona, and Bowdoin are performing “spot checks” with this year’s application cycle, taking the time to verify information students put in their applications. “Beyond athletics, we will be implementing measures to reduce the risk of fraud in all applications,” Peter Salovey, Yale University’s president, stated in a letter. The goal is to encourage students to be honest – even about the little things. 

Standardized Test Changes

The College Board, which administers the SAT, started a firestorm when it revealed last spring that it had been quietly sharing an Environmental Context Dashboard (aka, the “adversity score”) on students’ SAT reports with a few colleges (including Duke, Yale, and Florida State) and that many more colleges (100-150) would be seeing this score in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. 

The adversity score was made up of the average of two rankings, one for the school environment and one for the student’s neighborhood environment. The intent was to offer colleges information about a student’s socioeconomic and educational environment, thereby helping colleges understand how much of an achievement a student’s SAT score is in light of their background. Students, parents, and high school counselors, however, were told they would not be able to see the score attached to students’ files.

The announcement immediately sparked a rush of criticism about both the predictive value and fairness of the test. The College Board responded by agreeing to provide additional background information with colleges instead of one arbitrary score, changed the name of the dashboard to the less objective Landscape, and agreed to share details with the public on Landscape’s methodology. 


In October, the ACT announced big changes to what it will offer students this fall. Starting with the September 2020 test, the ACT will offer Section Retesting, a listed Superscore, and online full-length tests with faster scoring (two business days).

Section Retesting will allow students to retake one, two, or three sections instead of having to retake the entire test, but is only available to students who have already taken a full-length test. There is no limit to the number of times students can retake sections. While this sounds enticing to ACT test-takers, experts argue it favors the wealthy and will drive up the scoring curve. 

The ACT will also be adding a student’s calculated “Superscore” (a composite of a student’s top section scores across multiple test dates) to students’ Section Retesting report. The ACT is strongly encouraging colleges to allow superscoring (which would save families additional fees when sending multiple reports), but colleges set their own policies regarding test scores. It remains to be seen if and how colleges will change their policies in light of ACT’s enhancements.

Test Optional?

A coalition of advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in November against the University of California, demanding that its nine undergraduate campuses stop requiring applicants to submit ACT or SAT results. The group argues that the standardized tests are inherently biased against the poor. If the UC system becomes test optional, many predict this will drastically change the college admission landscape and more colleges would follow. A review of SAT and ACT relevance by a UC task force is expected to conclude by the end of the 2019-20 academic year.

Other Trends in College Admissions

To learn about other trends in College Admissions, read NACAC’s State of College Admission Counseling Report. Highlights include:  

-Colleges are increasing their use of selecting Early Decision applicants to fill a large portion of their classes.

-More colleges are offering to put students on their waitlists, but admit very few of them. 

-A high Student-to-Counselor ratio remains in schools (in 2016–17 each public school counselor was responsible for an average of 455 students).

-Admission Offices continue to identify grades, high school curriculum, and test scores as top factors for first-time freshmen.

-Colleges, on average, accept 66.7% of their applicants.


Kristen Miller is an independent college counselor in Portland, Oregon and is the founder and owner of College Bound & Ready.

Financial Aid Award Letters

cashWhen your financial aid award letter comes in, don’t get too excited when the bottom line looks like this:

Estimated Remaining Cost = $0

After All Aid Applied

(including loans)

It’s easy to miss the fine print (“After all aid applied, including loans). That zero doesn’t mean that you are getting a full-ride scholarship, so make sure you look closely at the details.  Colleges like to package their award letters so it looks affordable, but only you can make that determination.  Colleges usually list “free money” (grants and scholarships) at the top.  This is what you care about the most, as it is money that comes off of your total cost.  After that, colleges will list loans and work-study, often with funny names.  Most loans fall into a few categories:

1) Direct Subsidized (government pays the interest while the student is in school)

2) Direct Unsubsidized (student pays the interest, or it accrues and is capitalized)

3) Direct (Parent) PLUS loans (for graduate students or parents of dependent students)

Colleges often list all or some of the above and possibly work-study (depending on your need) in varying amounts and subtract this amount from the total cost of attendance (minus grants and scholarships) to give you a delightfully, small bottom line.  But your real cost is the first subtotal (Cost of Attendance minus free money), PLUS interest and fees if you take out loans. Continue reading