Don't submit that Mission Trip essay!

If you’re finishing up your college application essay and it has to do with a mission trip you were part of, I’m going to ask you not to submit it. At least not yet.

Some of the most common complaints against the Mission Trip essay is that it is cliché and therefore admissions officers are really tired of reading it because all the mission trip essays sound the same. To be clear: both these things are true. But I really don’t like that as a reason to avoid the Mission Trip essay. It reinforces the idea that your job is to write something the admissions officers will like, so they’ll like you and admit you—if you know they don’t like that essay topic, then you shouldn’t write about.

But your job isn’t to be a product that you’re “selling” to the colleges, and you shouldn’t change what you write about based on the idea that your meaningful experience isn’t valuable because colleges are tired of hearing about it. That’s part of the “Am I Worthy?” mindset, and that mindset is dangerous. The truth is, most high school students have similar experiences. Common, shared experiences are some of the most meaningful things we have in our lives, and we should’t downplay them simply because they’re common and shared.

The reason that I urge you to avoid the Mission Trip essay is because most—not all, but around 80%—of the Mission Trip essays I’ve read were self-congratulatory, condescending, and often self-defeating. They were just bad essays. If I could combine all the elements of the not-very-good Mission Trip Essay, it would sound like this:

I have it so good. I’m humble. My life is fantastic, and I’m relatively wealthy. I mean, not as wealthy as I want to be, obviously, but pretty lucky. And because I’m so lucky, I think it’s important to help others who aren’t as lucky, at least once in my life. Probably more often, but at least once.

And it’s for this reason that I signed up to go on my church’s mission trip to a poor country in Central America. There are a lot of poor, unlucky people down there, so it’s a good place to go to help.

When I first arrived, it turned out to be so much poorer and less lucky than I even imagined. Most of the buildings in the village had no electricity, and most homes had outdoor latrines instead of running water. Yuck! They gave us the best lodgings in the village, because we were their guests and they felt obligated to give us the best, even though we are much wealthier and luckier than they are. But still, my phone ran out of charge pretty quickly into the trip.

After spending some time in the village, however, I noticed a few things. The kids of the village all played soccer together in the afternoon and seemed to have a sense of community. All the people in the village were kind and generous to us, at least as kind and generous as they could be. People seemed to really enjoy having us there to help them. They smiled, and didn’t feel the pressures of the modern world. They had a type of rustic happiness that I’ve never known in my busy life in the United States. It’s a type of happiness I could almost envy.

On my trip I learned to really think about helping people. I had kind of thought about it before, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone on the trip. But I extra-thought about it. I learned that the people we help also have things to offer us. I want to continue helping other people and learning what they have to teach me.

Most importantly, I want to learn to help other people in less-lucky places by going to your college. There’s not really anybody quite that poor at your school, and I hope to make myself even more wealthy and lucky by attending your school. Who knows, maybe even a lot more wealthy. But I still want to find small ways to help people while I’m there. It’s important to help people and to learn from places I’ll surely never visit again. Because, as previously stated, I’m humble and like to help people.

Were all the Mission Trip essays I read that bad? No, of course not. But it’s surprising how many did fit this mold.

If you have something valuable to say about your mission trip or other volunteer experience, that’s good. Don’t avoid the Mission Trip essay. But you want to make sure you do better than most. The main thing you want to do is to make sure that you’re grounding the essay in some specific quality that you have that you want people to know about. The point of the essay is to explain yourself, not just tell a story about something you did. The experience you had will be supporting evidence, not the main idea. And hopefully it will be one of several examples, not the only one. I understand that’s hard to do in such a short space, but it’s also hard to be convincing with a single example.

Another mission trip essay that would be good to submit is one that is quite different from the rest. If your volunteering trip wasn’t successful at all, but was in fact a complete disaster with no redeeming qualities—I’d like to hear about that. I’d like to know what you learned about yourself. If your volunteering experience didn’t reinforce and strengthen some of your finer qualities but instead made you question yourself and your values, that would be interesting. If you were on the receiving end of a volunteer activity, not the volunteer, and have something to say about it and how it molded you, that would be very interesting. There are plenty of ways to write a really good essay about a mission trip or volunteering activity. But ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Am I using this story mainly to prove that I’m a good, caring person? And if, so do I have any other evidence that I mention?

  2. Do I talk about the people I’ve helped in one-dimensional, condescending, or stereotypical ways?

  3. Do I talk about myself or my group in one-dimensional, condescending, or stereotypical ways?

  4. Do I talk about the people I helped—or myself—in racist, sexist, nationalist, or other ways that can be hurtful?

  5. Is my essay vague enough that almost anyone else on the trip with me could have written the same thing?

  6. Knowing that many other people will be writing similar essays, am I sure that mine is well-written enough that it will not stand out for its technical errors or lack of editing?

If a volunteering experience, especially a mission trip, is important to you and you think it’s a good way to explain yourself, go for it. Really! Just, please, make sure you’ve gone through these six questions first.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Faulkner is chugging along

Faulkner had been working toward a lot of the same goals and deadlines as most other high school seniors. She’s taking the SAT one more time, finishing up her first college application, looking ahead to sending out a big batch of applications through the Common Application. On top of all that, she’s taking actual college courses at an actual college for her high school. Read all about her progress below!

Meet the Class gets updated each month from September to May. Each installment features an interview about both the facts and the feelings of where the student is in the process.

Interviews may be edited lightly for clarity and grammar. Names may be changed to protect privacy. 


You mentioned re-taking the SAT. Is that for the November 3rd test? Did you do anything different to prepare for this test than previous tests? How did it go?

I was going re-take the SAT on November 3rd, but I missed the deadline, so I will be re-taking the SAT on December 1st. I have not had time to study as much as I did for the October SAT, so I am a bit worried.

Last month you said that your first application deadline is November 30, for UC Davis. How is that going? Have you also been working on the Common App, or will that wait until after UC Davis is done?

I plan on doing my UC Davis application during Thanksgiving Break. I will do the common application after I finish my application for UC Davis.

What essay prompt(s) are you working on, either for UC or Common App?

The UC Davis application only requires the SAT essay.

Do you have a of supplemental writing prompts, or are most of your Common App schools only asking for the main essay?

As far as I know, most of my Common App schools are only asking for the main essay.

How do you prepare for an essay? Do you have a pre-writing process or any writing rituals?

When it comes to essay writing, I will write the first sentences I think of before I forget them, no matter what part of the paragraph (introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion) the sentence is supposed to fit in, and if the sentence does not work as the essay progresses, I can simply delete it.

You say that you're on the Savannah State campus full time. What's it like to be a high school student on a college campus all the time? Does it affect how you think about college or your future plans to have this "sneak preview"?

Being a high schooler in college is helping me realize what kind of college I want to go to; one that is large enough that is has a lot of different kinds of classes, but small enough that the teachers at least know my name.

What college courses are you taking this semester?

I am currently taking Environmental Science, Introduction to General Psychology, English Composition 1, and World History.

The monthly list review. Last month your list was:

George Washington U

UC Davis


NC State

Michigan State

Kent State

Southern New Hampshire

Savannah State

Are there any changes to that?

I have added Texas A&M to my list of colleges.

Thanks for reading! If you have college admissions questions for Faulkner, leave a comment or email me. The next round of Meet the Class interviews will be in mid-December. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth.

Photo by Angela Elisabeth.

Would you use a college matchmaker?

Allow me to throw a hypothetical at you. A type of thought experiment. If it were available, would you use a college matchmaker? Imagine a company says

We’re a team of college admissions experts. We’ll talk to you for about an hour to understand what you’re looking for and what’s important to you. We’ll get your transcript and test scores. We’ll get your FAFSA from your family. We’ll get you to write a Common App essay. And that’s it. We take it from there, and by March 1st we’ll have three to five good-fit schools you’ve been accepted to and can afford. All you have to do is choose from those. Our fee is not cheap, but it’s within your price range.

Would you want to use this service?

(Remember, this is a hypothetical thought experiment, so don’t worry about technical objections. How will they get teacher recommendations? What if the schools require supplemental essays? How will I demonstrate interest? What if they can’t guarantee results? Let go of those questions and focus on the big question: if you could hand most of the work over to experts and not have to deal with the application process, but you would have to let the experts do most of the selection for you, would you take that deal?)

Pay close attention to your answer, and work on explaining why. Because this is an imaginary situation, don’t let “it doesn’t really work that way” be a reason for your answer. Maybe you’ll get to things like:

Yes, because the process is so overwhelming that I’d be willing to give up control if I trust the people doing the work.

No, because I want to make sure I have an emotional connection with the school, and nobody else can do that for me.

Yes, because they have a lot more information about a lot more schools than I can find on my own.

No, because that takes the fun out of an important decision in my life!

Yes, because that takes the stress and confusion out of an important decision in my life!

Whatever your reasons for answering yes or no to the question, write them down with a “because” statement. If you’re not sure, write down your reasons for answering yes and no with “because” statements.

Your answers to this question are going to tell you a lot about your values when it comes to selecting a college. People rarely ask about your values in this context, so you may not have given it much thought. But for such an important decision, it’s really best to think about your values.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of choosing the “right” school without realizing that you don’t really think the differences between all those colleges are so big, and you’d rather spend the time and emotions on something else. It’s just as easy to get caught in a cycle of procrastination and indecision because you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to find help. Understanding what you most value—what’s really important to you—can help you stay on track and make the experience better and easier.

If you want to dig even deeper into the exercise, take your “because” statements and make another level of “because” statements. So, for example, “No, because I want to make sure I have an emotional connection with the school, and nobody else can do that for me,” becomes “I want to make sure I have an emotional connection to the school, because for me a lot of my identity and confidence is tied to the organizations I belong to.”

This may feel a bit like navel-gazing at first. No applications are actually getting processed while you’re making because statements about your because statements. I understand. But if part of your stress or anxiety about college comes from not knowing exactly what you’re looking for—which is completely normal—then this can be an extremely valuable and time-saving exercise. Self knowledge is the best knowledge, and contemplating the hypothetical can help a lot.

Also, if you decide that yes, you would absolutely hire a college matchmaker if you could, then please consider hiring a college counselor. They’re not going to actually apply to schools for you, but they can help you move through the process much more easily. Especially if you can tell them what you really value in college.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring

Want help this spring?

By far the most popular time for one-on-one coaching is in the spring. Especially juniors, but on-the-ball sophomores also want to start getting ready for a sane college admissions process.

If you're interested in help from Apply with Sanity, get in touch! From a single hour editing essays to a full package that works through the entire application process, I can help!

Let me know what you need, and we’ll make it happen.

What should you do over the winter break?

I know that late November is a little early to start suggesting things to do over the winter break. But a) admit it: now that Thanksgiving is over, you’re already thinking about your winter break, and b) since “don’t do any more college stuff than you absolutely have to” is one of my suggestions, you may want to plan ahead a little. Read all my advice below. Do you have any other good advice I left out? Leave it in a comment, we’d all love to hear it.

Rest. This sounds obvious--of course you're going to rest. You have several weeks with no school! But for lots of students--and adults--it never quite seems to work this way. You stay up too late, thinking you'll sleep in, and then you have to get up earlier than you expected. Or you spend too much time in bed or on the couch, and you feel sluggish and dumpy. You can only get good rest from your break if you decide that you're actually going to and schedule for it. Decide that you're going to get 8-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, and then plan accordingly. The time you spend awake will go much better if you do.

Spend quality time with people. Now is a great time to catch up with friends and family, but, like good sleep, quality time with people is also elusive. You go to parties and gatherings, you have text or Snapchat conversations, you spend a little time with people...and then you realize that you didn't really have any good conversations. Quality Time is usually thought of as time you spend with another person giving them your undivided attention. Schedule some time for this with a few good friends and/or family members.

Re-assess. Now is a great time for reflection and regrouping. Here are several exercises to try to keep that conversation with yourself productive and useful.

Highs and lows. Like a lot of families, at our dinner table we often go around and share our high and low moment of the day with each other. It's a better conversation starter with school-aged kids than "how was your day?" and it reinforces that every day has both the good and the bad. Take some time thinking about--and sharing with someone else--your high and low points over the fall semester and your college quest. What worked? What didn't? What felt good? What felt bad? Consider it all.

Two-month time machine. When evaluating your semester and planning ahead, think about a two-month time machine. If you could go back two months to re-try the fall, what's one thing you really wish you could change? You obviously can't really do it, but it's a good way to think about "lessons learned."

Restate your dreams and aspirations. Take some time and write a personal mission statement for the year, especially if you're a senior and moving on to college next fall. Or if you don't want to be so college-centric but want to spend time thinking about what's really important to you, try the "last-year test" method of thinking about New Year's Resolutions

Read. It's really tempting to read nothing--or nothing of merit--over the break. You've read so much over the past few months, so why do it on vacation? The answer is simple: now you get to choose what to read, and you can make engaging your intellect fun for yourself. Besides, if you're ready to concede that the only reason you read or learn is because you're assigned to by authorities, then you may want to re-think the whole college thing. Take back control of your mind by reading something. It doesn't have to be Important Literature if that's not what you like, just choose not to be a mental slacker.

Don't do any more college stuff than you absolutely have to. As contrary as it may sound, you really should use your time as a true break and not college-planning time. If you put things off with the idea that you'd do them over break, that's perfectly normal. But get them done first and with focus. You're not going to send out good applications if you're finishing them a little bit at a time while you also finish gift shopping and meet with friends. Make a plan to finish your college to-do list as quickly as possible into the break. If you have December 15th or January 1st deadlines, get those things sent out first and with focus. There's no good reason to wait until the 14th or 31st to send those out.

Don't expect other people to work over the break just because you do. Virtually every year of my time teaching high school I got at least one over-the-break plea from a student. They wanted one last look at an essay, or a last-minute recommendation sent, or help getting their English grade up a little but before the final grades were turned in. How I responded depended on the nature of the request and the student doing the requesting. Sometimes it really was an unexpected opportunity for a really on-top-of-things student, and I happily did what was asked. Sometimes I put forth a minimal amount of effort to just get along. Often I just said no. But please remember that sending other people things to do over the break feels about as crappy and unfair to them as it would to you if they gave sudden unexpected homework over the break. Don't do it.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. I’ll have “what to do in the spring semester” advice in mid-December. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Kati has an acceptance!

For many people, there’s something special that happens when they get their first college acceptance. College gets a bit more concrete and a lot less abstract. Possibility becomes more clear. Reality feels more real. This seems to be the case for Kati, who got her acceptance to the University of Texas at Austin. She knew she had automatic acceptance coming, but making it official has still allowed her to cut down her to-do list a little bit. Read the whole interview below.

Meet the Class gets updated each month from September to May. Each installment features an interview about both the facts and the feelings of where the student is in the process.

Interviews may be edited lightly for clarity and grammar. Names may be changed to protect privacy. 

Kati attends a comprehensive public high school in Texas

You have some deadlines coming up on the 15th and 18th. Are you ready?

Yes! I have applied to one of my schools, and have applications nearly done for two others. I plan to get all of them submitted by Thanksgiving, and the rest of the break will be spent working on scholarships.

Did you get to go on any visits like you were hoping? If so, where did you visit? How did it go? Any insights?

I did not. School itself has given me a full plate! Between working weekends with rehearsals every Saturday, nightly homework, and getting various other things ready to actually graduate, I haven’t had any time to tour campuses. The only college I have not been to on my new and improved list is Carnegie Mellon, and it’s something I still would like to try to do.

How did The Wizard of Oz go? Is that your last high school play, or will there be more later in the year?

Wizard of Oz was wonderful! It’s always a great time going up on stage and performing. I definitely shed some tears on the last night. However, it will not be the last high school play I will participate in, for we have our UIL One Act Play in the spring. As a plus, I’m also going to be directing a 30-45 minute show in our blackbox for the very end of the year. I’ll be my high school’s first ever student director and we will perform for the first time in our blackboxes, so I am absolutely thrilled for that.

You're interested in both Science and The Arts. Do you find a lot of overlap in your activities and interests? 

Sadly, no. It’s been really difficult to find colleges that have programs to support both STEM and Theatre majors. When I auditioned for theatre-based scholarships, I had a few schools tell me flat out that I could not double major with their program, which was a bummer for me. Sciences are normally easier to double major with theatre, because they’re in the same vein in a really remote way, but because I am interested in engineering I had to turn down a lot of offers. While they don’t overlap now or even hardly in college, I’m still passionate about pursuing both and will try to obtain, at the very least, a minor in theatre.

Do the schools you're applying to have a lot of supplemental writing prompts, or is it mainly the Big Essay you've had to do? 

UT had three additional short answers, all 250-300 words, on top of the essay that was required. Carnegie also requires three similar questions on top of the big Common App essay. TAMUCC does not require any additional writings.

How do you prepare for essays like these? Do you have a pre-writing process or any kind of writing rituals?

I definitely have to be in the mood to write an essay. If I know I am going to be prone to distractions for whatever reason during a given time period, I know I will have to try a different time. However when I finally DO reach that point, I normally start with the prompt. I’ll write out everything it is asking as its own question and then answer those separately in a brainstorm. After brainstorming, I’ll try to find patterns and similarities in the things I answered so I can connect them and form a cohesive essay. I’ll fill out the bodies, write a conclusion, and then spend another day or so coming up with a creative introduction. Afterwards I’ll reread, revise, get a peer’s opinion, revise again, and then the essay is complete. It’s definitely a long and winding process, but it’s the only way I can be sure I have all the t’s crossed, i’s dotted, and know I’ve said everything I want.

Do you mind sharing a brief summary of your Comm App essay? Or at least tell us which prompt you're tackling?

I plan to write about the “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time” prompt, and I want to write it about directing and theatre. I haven’t gotten enough written to give any kind of solid summary yet, though!

Monthly check-up on your List. As of last month, your list was

Johns Hopkins

Carnegie Mellon

UT Austin (top choice)




UC San Diego.

Any changes to that?

Yet again, my list has changed. However, I feel confident that this is how it will stay. I have applied and gotten accepted into the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ‘em!). I will be submitting applications to Texas A&M Corpus Christi on the chance that I want to solely pursue theatre and Carnegie Mellon before Thanksgiving, which are my safety and reach schools respectively. My list has shrunk considerably, but this way I spend less on applications and I am only applying to schools I can actually see myself living at.

Thanks for reading! If you have college admissions questions for Kati, leave a comment or email me. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

The State of College Admissions

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling, or NACAC, released its annual “State of College Admissions” report. The report is based on a survey of over 2,200 high school counselors and almost 500 college admissions officers. You can read the full report here. It’s worth at least browsing and checking out the charts. Here are my top take-aways for smart, ambitious college-bound high school students.

What we all write about is not what’s normal. Based on what you read in the headlines (and on places like Apply with Sanity), every high school student hoping to go to college plans to apply to 12 or more colleges. They all balance AP classes, multiple sports, 100 hours of volunteering per month, and life-changing overseas trips. They all want to go to Harvard, Stanford, or M.I.T. They all apply to Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T. They’ve all crafted the perfect “sob story” essay, even if their sob story is more imagined than real. They twist themselves into ethical and emotional pretzels deciding which ethnicities to check on their applications. And yes, these things are true of some applicants. But you know what?

That’s not normal.

Only 35% of incoming freshmen applied to seven or more schools. Yes, that’s more than the 10% who did so back in 1995, but it still means almost two thirds of students apply to fewer than seven. Highly selective colleges, those accepting fewer than 50% of applicants, only make up a fifth of the picture: 19.5% of colleges fall into this category, and 20.9% of students attend a school in that category. The majority of universities say that your race/ethnicity, geography, first-generation status, ability to pay, or gender have no influence on their decision. Fewer than 5% of schools give any of those factors “considerable influence.”

(So why do we spend so much time writing about the extremes and not what’s normal? Good question. For one, what’s normal is, by definition, not really news-worthy. Nobody clicks on a headline that reads “a few million students graduated from high school and most will go on to college for at least a little while…just like every year.” Similarly, students who follow the tried-and-true method of “doing well in high school, applying to a few colleges, and enrolling at the one with the best fit” aren’t coming to places like Apply with Sanity to get a better grip on the process.)

The answer to “what do colleges want” may be changing, a little. For years, everyone knew that not all high school classes are created equal. A high GPA built on less-rigorous classes isn’t nearly as good as a slightly lower GPA built on AP or other college-prep classes. Colleges pay more attention to your strength of schedule, grades in the college-prep classes, and class rank than overall grades. But that may be changing.

The percent of colleges who say that grades in college prep courses is of “considerable importance” has dropped 9 percentage points over the last decade. The percent who say grades in all courses is of “considerable importance” has gone up by 29 points. Strength of curriculum has also dropped in importance at many schools.

There are a couple of possible explanations for this. It may be that college prep classes have become so normalized that there just isn’t as much of a difference between a college-prep schedule and a regular schedule. It may be that colleges have realized that students taking 15-20 AP classes over four years of high school, often for no reason other than “it looks good to colleges,” isn’t very wise. It may be that the past few years are a blip, and things will go back to the way they were. So I wouldn’t advise dropping all your rigorous classes for extra study hall or teacher aide periods, but I definitely wouldn’t advise getting yourself stressed about how to engineer the perfect strength of schedule, either. The best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student.

What colleges want on average may be different than what the college you’re applying to wants. While it’s pretty simple to look at the chart and see that factors like “ability to pay” or “interview” are given little emphasis overall, that doesn’t mean that certain schools don’t pay more or less attention to factors individually. If you have a minute, go to the report and read through pages 20-22. Here are some examples of variations it mentions:

For first-time freshmen, public colleges valued admission test scores more highly than private institutions.

Smaller colleges rated the interview, teacher/professor recommendations, and demonstrated interest more highly for each applicant group.

Private institutions gave more weight to race/ethnicity, gender, high school attended, and alumni relations when evaluating the applications of each student group.

Private colleges gave greater consideration to ability to pay when evaluating first-time freshmen and transfer students.

Your counselor is probably overworked. NACAC and the American School Counselor Association recommend a counselor for every 250 high school students. The average found in the survey, 243, is good. But again, there are huge variations. Private schools tend to have a much better student-counselor ratio, as do smaller schools. Large, public high schools tend to have it much worse. Some states, like New Hampshire and Vermont, have it better. California, however, only has an average one counselor for every 708 students. In Arizona, it’s 1 to 902! And by the way, counselors on average only spend a third of their working time on college admissions work—they have a lot of other things on their plate.

The admissions “game” works both ways. We’re used to students and parents asking questions like “how will my odds of acceptance increase if I apply ED?” and “should I take that wait list spot and hope I get a call, or should I just let that school go?” Parents and students can get really caught up in strategy. Colleges and universities have to strategize, too. They don’t all use the same model. For example, schools with lower yield rates—the proportion of accepted students who actually enroll—are more likely to offer Early Action and to accept more students through Early Action. Private colleges tend to use wait lists more than public colleges, and highly selective schools tend to use wait lists the most and to put more students on a wait list. University admissions offices are obsessed with their yield; they need exactly the right number of qualified students to show up in the fall. Early Decision, Early Action, wait lists, recruitment, and financial aid are all tools that they use to get that yield. Different schools, with their different strengths, weaknesses, budgets, and reputations, use those tools differently. They’re not just passive entities waiting for students to apply and get judged—they’re playing the same sorts of admissions games to get what they want and need.

Colleges still use the basic tools to recruit you. While colleges are definitely trying to be more tech-savvy and up-to-date with messaging, they still mostly rely on the basics to get in touch with you. The recruitment strategies most often given “considerable importance” are email, website, campus visits, and working with parents. Online advertising, texting, and social media are given much less importance. So even if you’re young and cool and live completely in an environment of Snapchat, Whatsapp, and whatever else is popular with teens this year, you ignore email and the World Wide Web at your own peril. And hey, talk to your parents, too.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring

Need help with essays?

Before I wrote about college admissions for high school students, I was an English teacher for 17 years. I’ve edited and helped with hundreds of college admissions essays—both the longer essays and the shorter supplemental questions.

If you’d like prompt and professional feedback on college application writing, contact me and we’ll set it up!

The cost is $150 per hour, with a minimum of $150. People rarely end up using more than two hours.

Grace sent out all her applications

Grace surprised me this month. I knew she planned to apply Early Action to a few of her top choice schools, but I also knew that she had a lot of extracurricular expectations with the school play. So I was not expecting to hear that she took the extra time to go ahead and just send out all 10 of her applications early. But that’s what she did, and she says it feels great. Read the full interview below, and catch up on Grace’s past interviews here.

Meet the Class gets updated each month from September to May. Each installment features an interview about both the facts and the feelings of where the student is in the process.

Interviews may be edited lightly for clarity and grammar. Names may be changed to protect privacy. 


Did you get your Fordham and Hofstra EA applications out? How does it feel now that you've actually sent off some college applications?

I actually got all my applications out!  I sat down at the computer on October 28th and looked at the EA ones and the RD ones and thought that I should just do all of them and take that stress off my plate.  It took about 2 and ½ hours to check through all of them and hit submit.  It did not feel real at first, but after a few days I kept saying to myself: I am so glad I got this done!  While other people were stressing until the bitter end, I was thankful that I no longer had to worry.

How's the play going? You had opening night on November 1st--how many performances will you do? What play is it?

The play was great!  It was “A Funny Little Thing Called Love,” a 5 act series of vignettes about romance.  It was performed over 3 nights and it was so much fun!  The week of the play is known as “Hell Week.”  We practice every day and are at the school until late at night.  This was another reason that I submitted all my applications in one sitting a few days before the November 1st deadline.  I knew that there was just too much going on and I had to remove some stress!

Would you mind giving a brief summary of your Common App essay? Or at least tell us which prompt you tackled?

I chose the prompt which asked you to explain one background, interest, or talent that was meaningful.  I chose to write about the first time I went to see the Nutcracker when I was 4.  I cried at intermission, because I thought it was over.  My mother explained that there was more and I remember being mesmerized by it.  When it was over, I turned to her and pointed to the stage and said:  I am going to do that!!  I started dance lessons a few months later and have been taking ballet, tap, jazz, and now pointe, ever since.  I also wrote about how dance has led me to theater, which is a big part of my life.  I felt my application would be incomplete without this information.

Do the schools you're applying to have a lot of supplemental writing prompts, or is it mainly the Big Essay you've had to do?

I took a 2 day workshop over the summer to help with writing the big essay, so a good portion of it was written when I started school.  However, I still had to write 5 more supplemental (shorter) essays.  Mainly, they were centered around “why our school?”

How do you prepare for essays like these? Do you have a pre-writing process or any kind of writing rituals?

While writing the supplemental essays, which I said were primarily: why did you pick this school, I outlined what I wanted to say before I started writing.  I stayed away from things like:  you have a great academic program or you are located in a big city.  The schools already know where they are located and they already know they have great academics.  I tried to connect with the schools on a more personal level.  I wrote that I am from a small town that is not very diverse and I wanted the experience of being in a big city where I could meet and interact with people from many cultures.  I also wrote about my experiences when I visited their campus and how I felt walking around on their campus.  I feel that this allows them to see that I have really thought about what it would be like to go to school there and how I would fit in.

You're interested in both Science and The Arts. Do you find a lot of overlap in your activities and interests?

There really is not a lot of overlap, because they are so different.  However, I have found that I am a more successful student when I have an outlet for my creative side.

You're looking at colleges in a particular area of the country, fairly close to home, which is common. Can you give a sense of why you've chosen to stay in that area?

I really wanted a big city and I really wanted New York, because of theater arts.  However, I also know that I want to be close enough to home so that if I have a bad week or am sick, I can go home for a weekend or my parents can come visit.  I still need that connection.

The monthly List check-up: as of last month, your list was

Fordham (Applied EA?)

Hofstra (Applied EA?)

Boston University




Marymount Manhattan College

SUNY Purchase

SUNY Stony Brook


Any changes to that?

Yes.  A Stony Brook representative came to my school and while talking I learned that they eliminated Theater Arts as a major.  Even though I would only take it as a minor (which is still available there),  I was dismayed to hear that.  My sense was that it could easily be a program they will fund less and less.  I still applied to the school, but it is a factor I will take into consideration if I am accepted.

Thanks for reading! If you have college admissions questions for Grace, leave a comment or email me. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

More about recommendation letters

I joined a Facebook group of college counselors and consultants recently, and this week there was an interesting conversation. Basically, a counselor had realized that some of the teachers at their school were writing student recommendation letters that were badly written, form letters, or both. Lots of others commented that the counselor should do something immediately, perhaps instigate refresher training for teachers on the campus, or maybe even district-wide. And it hit me that I was a high school teacher for 17 years who wrote dozens of rec letters, and I’d never had any sort of training or guidance. Unlike at some other districts, we just had to figure it out. Or not.

I remember a fellow teacher coming to me for advice about writing rec letters a few years ago. He said he’d done a solid job of explaining the student’s good qualities, but was having trouble knowing how to explain the student’s shortcomings. He didn’t seem to believe me when I told him that he didn’t need to explain the shortcomings.

I remember my principal once telling us that we were not to send off bad recommendation letters—that if we didn’t recommend the student then we should just decline to write a letter. I’d love to know the story behind that one. However, the principal didn’t suggest any kind of guidance for how to write good rec letters.

I remember someone telling me about being on a scholarship committee. There was one local teacher who recommended someone for the scholarship each year, and each year used the exact same letter. He just changed the name. Since he did this every year, and since he always claimed the student was “the best student I’ve ever taught,” it came to be a joke among the scholarship committee. They tried not to hold it against the student being recommended, but there’s only so much you can do to ignore the bad letter.

With all this in mind, I’ve updated my “How do I ask a teacher for a recommendation letter?” section on the website. Read it below.

Understand what you’re asking for. Have you ever seen a letter of recommendation? Have you ever written one? Do you really understand what you’re asking for? Take some time to get familiar with the type of letter you’re asking for. Look at these examples with comments. You’ll have a better idea of who to ask, when to ask, and how to ask if you have a better appreciation for what all goes into a good recommendation.

Write one for yourself. Seriously. Put yourself into the mind of the teacher you want a letter from, and try to write your very best letter about you as if you were that teacher. Think about what qualities that teacher would say stand out, and think of narratives and examples that teacher could give about you. Do not try to send it as if they wrote it! That’s not what this is for. Probably nobody will see the letter you write, but it’s a great exercise. Self knowledge is the best knowledge, and few things help you know yourself like having to explain yourself.

Make sure you ask someone who can help you. Like the essays and interviews, recommendation letters are one of your opportunities to show colleges that you’re an interesting person, not just a transcript. So make sure you ask for recommendation letters from teachers who know you as a person. Some schools specify which teachers they want letters from, and there’s nothing you can do about that. But when you have control, get teachers who will say great things about you. If a teacher is likely to just rehash what’s already in your transcript, then you’ve lost a big opportunity. If a teacher is writing letters for a lot of other students, then that teacher may not be able to write a unique and personal letter for you. A teacher who had you for a class and also sponsored an activity you were involved with is ideal. A teacher you’ve had good rapport with and who knows you as a person is going to be better for you than a teacher you doesn’t know you as well but gave you higher grades.

Understand that it’s a personal favor. Teachers are not required to write recommendation letters, and they’re certainly not required to write good ones, so treat it as a favor. When I was a teacher, I liked it when students set up an appointment with me to come and talk to me about rec letters. I preferred to know why they were coming so I could prepare questions or suggestions. I loved it when a student sent me an email asking to come by later and ask for a rec letter. However, I also worked with teachers who didn’t care for this approach. They feel like they have to have the same conversation multiple times. So there’s no one best approach.

But whatever you do, ask for the letter politely and with lots of time to spare. Don’t rush the teacher or treat it like a foregone conclusion that they’ll write you one. And never corner a teacher while they’re trying to get someplace else.

Give them some direction. Hopefully you’ve given a lot of thought to what personal traits you want to discuss in your application essays. Let the teachers who you’re asking for recommendations know what those traits are. If there’s a particular story or example you’re hoping they’ll write about, let them know. Teachers may or may not follow up on that, but it can’t hurt to ask. Which do you think will get a better rec letter:

·      “Mr. Holloway, can you write me a letter of recommendation?”


·      “Mr. Holloway, I’m putting together my college applications, and I’m really trying to emphasize my creative problem solving. Would it be possible for you to write me a letter of recommendation? I was remembering the time in class when the computer crashed in the middle of my Power Point presentation and I still found a way to get the information across without it.”

Unless the teacher asks for it, I don’t think you should give them a copy of your transcript or your résumé. It makes it too easy for the teacher to write about what’s already in your application. Instead, offer to send the teacher any information or reminders they need. Even better, offer to show the the letter you wrote for yourself. It’s a common practice in business to have people write their own recommendations to be edited and sent off. Show the person you’re asking a letter from how confident you are and what you need by offering your letter. However, don’t offer to write the first draft yourself unless you already have it written.

If they say no, don’t be pushy. This should go without saying. There are a number of reasons a teacher might say no when you ask for a recommendation. Don’t assume you know what the reason is, and don’t be pushy. Someone who can’t or doesn’t want to write a letter isn’t going to write a good one. If the teacher who says no is one who a college requires a letter from, let that teacher know and see if there’s something you can work out. But do this as a follow-up, not in the same conversation where the teacher initially says no.

Say thank you. A recommendation letter is a personal favor, so make sure you thank the teacher profusely. Thank the teacher when they agree to write the letter. Say thank you again—in writing—when the teacher sends the letter. When you get accepted to any school that the teacher recommended you for, say thank you again. A thank-you gift is not required, but is a nice gesture. But don’t give one until after the letter has been sent—you don’t want it to look like a bribe. 

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

What's important about the Harvard trial

Arguments in the Harvard trial wrapped up last week, and the judge is expected to make a ruling some time in the next few months. If you haven’t been following the case, here’s a pretty good summary of what you’d need to know.

Before I talk about the Harvard trial, I want to explain why I wasn’t going to talk about the Harvard trial.

The case is complicated and—at least at this point—kind of boring. Harvard is accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. There is no evidence that anyone with policy power at Harvard decided that Harvard wanted fewer Asian-American students or tried to find a way to deny more Asian-American applicants. That’s not what this case is about. The claim is that Asian-American applicants aren’t being accepted as often as test scores and GPA would lead a person to expect, especially when compared to the test scores and GPAs of accepted students of other ethnicities. They claim that one part of the admissions process is very vulnerable to bias against Asian Americans. When the case makes it to the Supreme Court—and it probably will—then the arguments will concern large constitutional questions about race as a factor in college admissions. At this stage, however, the trial is largely an argument between two economists’ analyses of the admissions data.

I have little faith in the motivations of the group bringing the suit. Harvard is being sued by Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, on behalf of a group of anonymous Asian-American students who were denied admission by Harvard. While I believe that equity and access for Asian-American students is important, and while I believe that most people at Harvard also think it’s important, I’m not convinced that SFFA actually thinks it’s important. SFFA isn’t trying to make sure that Asian Americans are better protected against discrimination; SFAA believes that there should be no racial protection whatsoever. SFFA is challenging Harvard because they want to end Affirmative Action altogether. Remember that in its current state, Affirmative Action may not include any sort of quotas. It also requires schools to use non-race-based methods of increasing diversity before any consideration of race can take place. For SFFA, that’s still too much, and they’re representing this group of students—who, to be fair, have a legitimate grievance—as a way to try again to knock out Affirmative Action.

What do I mean by “try again”? SFFA is an offshoot of Project on Fair Representation, and both are headed by Edward Blum. Blum is also behind Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenged affirmative action, and Shelby County v. Holder, which challenged a portion of the Voting Rights Act.

The point of this case against Harvard isn’t that Harvard is accused of keeping out Asian-Americans to make room for more white kids, but that it doesn’t let in enough Asian-Americans because it’s making room—through racial considerations—for Hispanic and African-American students.

Do I think that Blum is a bad person who whines about “reverse discrimination”? No. He seems to be a smart man who has made it his cause to implement a strict reading of the Civil Rights Act. Fine. But I do I think Blum really cares about the plight of Asian-Americans as they face stereotypes and bias? Nope. Not at all.

The primary reason I wasn’t going to talk about the Harvard trial is that it’s unlikely to affect anyone who is currently in high school, even if they’re applying to Harvard. The case has already been plodding along for four years, and it will take several more for it to make it to the Supreme Court, where there may or may not be lasting consequences. When you’re trying to compose a great essay for your current application, you’re probably not too concerned about the applications beginning five or six years from now. The case is very interesting to legal scholars and people who work in college admissions, but not necessarily very interesting to high school students. So I haven’t written about it.

But then I saw this article in last Wednesday’s New York Times. It’s an interview with five first-year Harvard students talking about admissions in light of the lawsuit. The students that reveal that, even though they were accepted to Harvard and are currently students there—they still have a lot of anxieties over their status and how they got in. The student who is a “double legacy,” because both her parents went to Harvard, faces the perception that legacies aren’t actually qualified to get in, that she only got accepted because of her legacy status. At the same time, a student who comes from a low-income background and is on full financial aid worries that people think he only got in because he’s poor. Both the students with Asian backgrounds worked to not seem like “the typical Asian” on their applications. Despite all the talk about Holistic admissions, all of them seem to be sure that there’s one single “hook” that got them into Harvard, even if they don’t know what that hook is.

The interview article really hit me. If there’s any discussion about fairness in admissions, even discussions that won’t be decided for years or decades to come, of course they affect people in high school now. Of course many people who come from privileged backgrounds will worry about how that privilege is perceived, and of course many students from less privileged backgrounds will worry about how that background is perceived. And to have debates about privilege and fairness as part of the daily national news can only make the pressure more intense. I feel silly for thinking it had nothing to do with current students.

So here’s, finally, what I want to say about the Harvard trial to current high school students. In the spring, I like to remind students that if they didn’t get into their top-choice school, or even fifth-choice school, the place they’re going still has what they’re looking for. If you want prestige and accolades, if you want strong social bonds and life-long friends, if you want knowledge and connections to help you begin your career, if you want to explore your interests and figure out who you really are—you can do those things at any university, not just the “elite” ones.

But the inverse is also true. Even if you do get accepted to your top-choice school, that won’t erase your anxieties and vulnerabilities. Those are personal and a part of you, wherever you are next year. Working hard to be accepted to the school of your choice is a good thing; working hard to understand yourself and address your fears and self-destructive habits is a good thing. But they’re not the same thing.

If you’re worried about how your race, ethnicity, wealth, or social background might affect your college applications, you’re not alone. But understand that getting everything you want may do nothing to alleviate those worries. They may, for a time, make it worse.

It’s not a particular college that is going to make you happy or unhappy. Whichever college you go to will have its own way of enhancing some happiness and also enhancing some unhappiness. You’ve got to do that work, for yourself. And you don’t have to wait until college to get started.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

Yes, you can write about that

One of the most common questions I got from students working on their college application essays when I was a high school teacher was "Is it okay to write about...?"

Is it okay to write about my depression? Is it okay to write about coming out as homosexual? Is it okay to write about how I used to be a really bad student? Is it okay to write about being an abuse survivor? Is it okay to talk about being bullied? Is it okay to talk about the time I was a bully?

Yes, it is okay. Nobody is asking you to hide any part of yourself, to feel shame, or feel unworthy. In many cases, it would literally be illegal for an admissions officer to discriminate against you based simply on the topic your essay. They ask you to write essays to make sure your writing skills are sufficient, yes, but also to get to know you as a person.

That being said, it's important to think about why you would write about that. Whatever specific narrative or example you give, you want your essay to illustrate personal qualities or traits that aren't already demonstrated in your transcript and that show your readiness to do well in college. 

Battling depression, or being queer, or having suffered academic setbacks doesn't make you any less able to do well in college. But it doesn't necessarily make you any more able to do well in college, either. So decide what personal qualities this particular issue might highlight as evidence.

So, for example, your essay isn't about the incredible difficulty of coming out to your family, it's about how you've learned to have difficult or contentious conversations without falling apart. Coming out is the example you give, or one of several examples you give.

For example, your essay isn't about your diagnosis as bipolar, it's about how self-knowledge has made you a stronger person and better thinker. Working through your bipolar diagnosis is your example, or one of your examples.

The main idea is this: the difficult thing you want to talk about but aren't sure you should talk about? Go ahead and talk about it. But it's not your thesis, it's your concrete evidence.

I don't say that to diminish the importance of your identity or the reality of your struggle, just to make sure you keep your eye on the key parts of your essay. Always begin with asking yourself: what about me makes me likely to do well in college, and how do I best show that? 

Once you know it's perfectly fine to be yourself, however you define that, go back to focusing on how to write the best essay.

If you haven't yet decided that it's fine to be yourself, if you haven't yet got help or had a real discussion about something you need help with or need to discuss, there are people out there who care and who want to help. Please find them and take care of yourself. 

Thanks for reading! This post originally ran in October 2016. Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

 Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

How should you handle supplemental questions?

How should you handle supplemental questions?

While it’s common knowledge that most college applications involve writing an essay or two, it’s not as well known that many—but not all—also require you to answer some shorter questions. These are often referred to as “supplemental questions” or “supplemental essays,” because even schools that participate in the Common Application may ask you to supplement the common essay with some short questions specific to their admissions program. These questions usually ask for very short and concise answers, ranging from 50 to around 200 words. They’re not essays, but they’re more than just filling in a blank with objective information.

What are good test scores?

What are good test scores?

It’s a question I hear all the time: “I got _____ on the SAT. Is that good?” Everyone would like to know that their test scores are good. That they’re valuable, that they’re going to help a student get what she wants, like admission to a top-choice college or a scholarship. The problem, of course, is that none of us are quite sure what makes a test score “good.”

What I’d like to do today is go over all the ways I can think to answer that question, from the fairly objective to the completely dysfunctional. There are a lot of ways to think about your test scores.

Schools can, and should, teach college affordability

Schools can, and should, teach college affordability

So basically: high school students don’t know what college tuition costs in their area; they realize they don’t know; many assume it’s unaffordable; many give up on college because of their (often inaccurate) estimates of cost.

These findings make a lot of sense. The actual cost of college is complicated, because it’s different for each person at each university. It’s completely reasonable not to look into college if you’re pretty sure you can’t afford it. And really, why would we expect 9th graders to know how much a college education costs?

Faulkner is dodging hurricanes

Faulkner is dodging hurricanes

I don’t mean to make light of disasters, natural or otherwise. I live in Houston, so I understand how serious and tragic hurricanes are. But still, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything that exemplifies the fervor of college admissions season quite like “We had school cancellations [because of Hurricane Michael] so that gave me time to work on college stuff.” Read about that, and everything else Faulkner is up to this month, below.

Kati is juggling

Kati is juggling

You’ve got automatic acceptance into your top-choice school. Life is easy, right? Not if you’re also in the choir and the lead in the school play. And you’re having second thoughts about your major. And you want to do some more campus visits. And you’ve completely shifted your college list from what it was just a month ago. And you have a bit of writer’s block. And your top-choice school may not be your top-choice school in another month. Kati’s got a lot going on right now. Read below for the full scoop.

Thinking about scholarships, part two

Thinking about scholarships, part two

Last week I wrote about scholarships and a few big-picture guidelines to use when searching for funding. Think like a donor to understand why the big money is probably going to be at the college itself. Look to the organizations you already belong to. Understand how much you need and what you’re willing and able to do. This week I’d like to give three specific examples of what I’m talking about to see how this works.