The College Application from the Inside Out

The Decision Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checklist If You Applied Early and Haven't Heard Anything

Don't panic! You've got this.
December 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checklist If You Applied Early and Were Denied

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

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

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

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

2. Then regroup quickly. 

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

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

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

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

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

Checklist if You Applied Early and Have Been Deferred

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

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

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

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

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

- New (and good) grades

- New academic honors or awards

- New (and higher) test scores

- Anything that demonstrates your Core Four

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

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

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

Good luck!

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

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

Celebrate! Happy Dance! And make sure to complete these checklists.
December 14, 2016

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

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

Early Decision:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Follow through with financial aid deadlines and documentation.

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

Early Action:

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

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

If you decide not to accept:

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

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

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

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

How to Get the Most Out of Your Activities List

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you figure out what’s meaningful?

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

- Passion

- Talent

- Initiative

- Impact


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


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


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


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

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

What if your activities aren’t structured?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The application form lets you designate the activity as “Employment,” and if you’re spending a lot of time working, that will allow admissions officers to understand why you might not have as much time to devote to other kinds of activities. In the admissions world, there is nothing wrong with non-glamourous jobs. has lots more tips about how to maximize the Activities section of the Common App. Get your copy here.

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

Those Pesky Member Questions

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

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

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

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

What’s a Member Question, you might ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe yes… and maybe no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Help Your Recommenders Help You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of College Application Essays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin #3. Your personal essay is not personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin #7. You skip the personal essay entirely.

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

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

Get your applications in early with a minimum of drama.
November 7, 2016

January 1 college application deadlines will soon be here.

But you already knew that. 

DON’T PANIC. But don't dawdle either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t. gives you lots of exercises and worksheets and step-by-step instructions to help you with your essay writing, and we even show you sample essays that explain how those samples are effective from an admissions officer’s point of view. (At, we’re former admissions officers, and we’ve read enough application essays to last us a lifetime.) We know you’re way too smart to copy the essay samples or engage in any plagiarism, but you can get a sense of the range of responses that work really well for different essay prompts and let yourself be inspired, and also guided by plenty of tips based on actual admissions expertise.

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

Instead, organize your essay topics first so that you can figure out where the overlap is, and where you can recycle your essays. Did you know that you can even swap out the Common App essay for different colleges? You might want to mix-and-match different Common App essays with different supplemental essays for individual colleges. shows you how. 

4. Use the Common App Help Desk

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

Shout-Out from the L.A. Times

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

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

What Is Your Favorite Food?

How to tackle the Really Short Answer questions on your college applications.
August 5, 2016

Every year, we’re fascinated to read people’s answers to the Really Short Answer questions on college applications. For 2016-17, for example, we’re seeing those questions pop up on the applications for Yale, Stanford, USC, Princeton, UNC Chapel Hill, and Columbia, among others.

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

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

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

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

So don’t just say lasagna.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategies for Standardized Tests

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

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

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

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

Summer is Coming

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

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

Welcome to

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

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