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?

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.

For example, Brown University has three supplemental questions for first-year applicants:

1. Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? (You may share with us a skill or concept that you found challenging and rewarding to learn, or any experiences beyond course work that may have broadened your interest.) (250 word limit)

2. What do you hope to experience at Brown through the Open Curriculum, and what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community? (250 word limit)

3. Tell us about the place, or places, you call home. These can be physical places where you have lived, or a community or group that is important to you. (250 word limit)

When you come across these supplements, how should you handle them?

Give yourself time. The supplements are something that many people think they can handle quickly. They start using the word just, and that’s always a red flag that you’re not being as careful with something as you ought. “It’s just for this one school. There are just three questions, and they’re just 100 words each.” Putting these questions off until the last minute can be a huge mistake. Because of the conciseness required, these often take just as much time and effort to answer well as a full 650-word essay. It’s not going to be quick or easy, so give yourself plenty of time to work. (Today is October 29. If you’re reading this because you’re about to start your supplementals for a November 1st deadline, you will obviously need to skip this step.)

For each question, ask yourself: is this question about me, is it about the school, or both? Hint: it’s never just about the school. Some questions are only about you. For example, they may ask you to explain an extracurricular activity; they may ask you for commentary on your grades; they may ask you a personal question. Other questions may be about you and the school. They’ll ask you some version of “why are you applying here? What about us appeals to you?” They may ask you to explain with specific details how you think you’ll fit into the school community. With these questions it’s extremely important to remember that, while they’re asking you to talk about them, they’re also asking you to talk about yourself. These questions are about your potential relationship with the school, and that includes both of you. These questions are not trick questions meant to quiz you on how well you really know the school, nor are they asking for you to flatter them by telling them what’s so great about their campus. They’re trying to assess how well you fit into the school and your class, and the more you explain that, the stronger your response will be.

Ask people about your answers before you write them. Especially for questions that are about yourself, you should talk to people about the questions. Have discussions with friends, family, and teachers. They may have a better insight than you do about a response that would be good. It’s not against the rules or dishonorable in any way to discuss these. You don’t have to answer them in secret.

Answer the question. Answer the question they ask, not the question you wish they had asked. Be direct, and be honest. Use standard paragraph format, opening with a topic sentence that answers the question as simply as possible. Answer as if you can only write a single sentence, and then move on from there to explain that answer.

Dont’ be fancy. You haven’t got room to build up a narrative or show off your most flowery language. Follow Stephen King’s rule: “any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” They really want you to be concise. They want to read through your answer quickly (sometimes very very quickly) and know something about you. They’re building a first impression, and you don’t want that impression to be that you never get to the point.

Don’t let anyone else write your answers. This should go without saying, but it needs to be said. You should answer the questions, not anyone else.

Ask people about your answers after you write them. When possible, read your answers aloud to people. Get their feedback. Look for patterns in their feedback. You don’t need to take every single piece of advice you get—especially when it contradicts someone else’s advice. Getting feedback and advice, even light editing, is not a problem. Letting someone else edit so much that it essentially becomes their writing instead of yours is a problem.

Answer the supplemental questions, even if they’re optional. Your answers to these questions are not going to be deal breakers. You’d have to write something extremely inept or offensive for an admissions officer to decide “I was going to recommend we admit this person, but now that I’ve read these 200 words I’ve changed my mind.” For the most part, letting them get to know you a little better is going to work in your favor, so don’t be so scared that you refuse to answer them.

Thanks for reading! College Vine has essay guides for at least 100 specific school applications if you want more detailed advice for your schools. 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

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.

The College Readiness Benchmark. Through years of surveying college students and comparing their college success to their SAT scores, the College Board has a pretty good idea of what a college-ready score is: 480 on Reading & Writing, 530 on Math. 1010 total. What do they mean by “college readiness”?

Students with an SAT Math section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in algebra, statistics, pre-calculus, or calculus.

Students with an SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in history, literature, social sciences, or writing classes.

So this is the most basic answer to the question. If you get over 480/530, then you’re probably ready for college. And since it’s a test that really only gets used for that one thing, being college-ready is a good score. You can read all about the Benchmarks here on the College Board website. Many people find this definition of a “good score” completely unsatisfying. A 75% chance of getting a C is not necessarily their idea of “good.”

The minimum to be considered for the prize. Imagine one of the colleges you apply to has a Presidential Scholarship worth $25,000 per year. To be considered for the scholarship, you have to earn at least a 1250 combined SAT score, submit an essay, sit for an interview, and submit two letters of recommendation. The winner of that scholarship is going to based on the essay, interview, and letters. A student with a 1250 gets a shot at the scholarship just as much as a student with a 1550. Getting in the door is all that matters. 1250 is a good score, period, even if it’s right at the cut-off. This is the academic equivalent to the sports truism that “there’s no such thing as an ugly win.” If your score gets you considered for something you want, then it’s a good score.

Percentile. Probably the most intuitive way to understand your score is to look not at the score itself but at the percentile. The percentile means your score was better than ___% of students who took the same test at the same time. What constitutes “good” is completely subjective and up to each individual, but you probably already have an emotional sense of what you want. For some, it’s to be in the top half. (The SAT is designed for the average score to be right around 1000, so “top half” and “meets the college readiness benchmark” are kind of the same thing.) Some want to be in the top 25% or top 20%. Some, whether they achieve it or not, will not believe that their score is good unless it’s in the top 10% If you have PSAT, SAT, or ACT scores already, you can find the percentile and ask yourself how you feel. You’ll probably have a sense that you think your scores are good or not good. If you haven’t already got test scores, do some thinking and decide ahead of time what percentile will feel “good” to you.

What you get on your second try, after studying. You take the test once, and you get a score. It reflects how you did just giving it a try. Then, you take some time to really study and prepare. Maybe you work with a tutor or prep class. Maybe you use Khan Academy or some other online program. Maybe you just keep taking high school classes and gaining a better understanding. Then you take the test again, and this new score reflects your raw talent plus your careful preparation. Whatever that second score is, that’s good. Even if you’re disappointed in the number or percentile, you’ve got to be happy with your raw talent plus your careful preparation. That combination can get you far in life. Don’t knock it.

It depends on your grades. Almost everyone recognizes that some people just don’t have the same talent for standardized tests as some other people. Most selective colleges, even the ones that aren’t test-optional, place much more emphasis on grades and course rigor than they do on test scores. The higher your GPA, the more likely people are to overlook your test scores. What constitutes good test scores depends to some degree on how good your grades are. Beware, though, that there are different ways to interpret a large gap between test scores and GPA. A high GPA and low test scores may mean that you’re a really bright student who just isn’t great at multi-choice tests. Or it may mean that you’re not so bright but were able to game the system, especially if you come from a high school with plenty of grade inflation. High test scores with a low GPA may mean that you’re a brilliant student who was bored with school and needs a challenge, a real diamond in the rough. Or it may mean that you’re smart but lazy, hoping to skate by on your test scores without contributing much else. Disparities in your grades and test scores are open to interpretation, so you need to be aware of that.

It depends on where you’re applying. The SAT and ACT are college application tests. They won’t be used for anything else after that. So a good score depends on where you’re applying. Most schools will tell you what their test mid-range is. That’s the range of scores that half of their students scored within. To take one example out of thousands, Sarah Lawrence College has an SAT mid-range of 1240-1410. Half of their students scored within this range. 25% scored higher, and 25% scored lower. So if you’re hoping to go to Sarah Lawrence, a score over 1240 is good. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be accepted, just as a score below that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be denied. But if your score is within the range of 75% of their students, then you can stop worrying about test scores and focus on other parts of the application.

It doesn’t matter: what’s important are your GRE/LSAT/MCAT scores. This is basically an extension of the “minimum to be considered for the prize” idea. If you’re ambitious and want to go on to graduate study, then those tests—GRE for grad school, LSAT for law school, MCAT for med school—are the ones that you should feel pressure about. Don’t sweat the SAT/ACT as long as it gets you into college somewhere.

There are some common, but less objective and healthy ways, that plenty of people use to gauge whether a score is good. I don’t endorse these, but it really helps to be aware if your thinking falls into these traps. Self-knowledge is the best knowledge.

What your parents say is a good score. There are some students for whom the factor that matters the most is approval from their parents. A good score is whatever makes their parents take notice and be proud. If you get scores that do make your parents proud, that’s awesome. It’s a great bonus. But if you’ve got parents who aren’t going to be satisfied unless you get a perfect score, then that can be really rough and damaging. At the end of the day, though, it’s a college entrance exam, not a parental love exam, and you’ll be much better off looking for a more objective way to think about your scores.

Higher than your older sibling got. Closely related to parental approval is comparison to older siblings. It stinks to be compared unfavorably to an older sibling, and it feels good to score higher than they did. Ultimately, though, this says nothing about your success in college or beyond.

The round number higher than whatever you got. I had a client once who had a 1390 on his SAT. And he hated his score, because he wanted the round number of 1400. I have no doubt, though, that if he got a 1400 he’d be upset it wasn’t a 1450. Some people are like that. They’re the people who’d rather get an 86 on a test than an 89, because the “one point from an A” drives them nuts. They’ll probably grow into the type of adult who would hate to match 5 out of 6 numbers on a Lotto ticket, because they’d “only” win a million dollars and come so close to the big prize. If you’re one of those people, I’m not judging you. I’ve got love and compassion for you. But there’s probably not anything I can tell you that might make you happy about your test scores.

Thanks for reading! What do you think is a good score? 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

Schools can, and should, teach college affordability

This month the Department of Education released a study titled “What High Schoolers and Their Parents Know About Public 4-Year Tuition and Fees in Their State.” You can read through the entire report in a few minutes, but here are the key findings:

Overall, 11 percent of 9th-graders in 2009 reported estimates of annual tuition and fees at a public 4-year university in their state that were close to the actual average tuition and fees. Fifty-seven percent overestimated tuition and fees, and 32 percent underestimated them.

When students were asked about their confidence in their tuition and fee estimates in 9th grade, 27 percent reported “not at all confident.” Two years later, when most students were in 11th grade, 51 percent reported that they did not know how much public 4-year colleges in their state charged for tuition and fees.

One-quarter of 9th-graders disagreed or strongly disagreed that college was affordable. Two years later, one-third of these students reported the same. In addition, the percentage of 9th graders who planned to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program declined from 51 percent when they were in 9th grade to 45 percent 3 years later, when most students had just completed high school.

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?

But after a few minutes of thinking, I had to ask: why wouldn’t 9th graders have an idea of how much college costs? Look through any school district’s curricula and public materials, and “college readiness” is going to be all over the place. Thousands and thousands of schools are cultivating a “college-bound culture.” My middle school daughter wears a uniform to school, but on Fridays she gets to wear a college t-shirt or sweatshirt instead. My second grade daughter’s elementary school has college flags and banners covering the walls of the cafeteria and gym. They do this because they want to emphasize college readiness, to show all students, even in kindergarten, that they are expected to be on a path to college. So shouldn’t they mention cost at some point? Especially if the students are so bad at estimating the cost, with real consequences?

If you’re of the mind that elementary school-aged children really ought not be thinking about the cost of college, that they should be focused more on reading, writing, and running in the playground, I totally understand. We don’t want our kids growing up too fast. However, if your elementary school already includes elements of college-bound culture, then I hope the school will also find places to repeat these two basic principles to students: “College is expensive, like buying a house or starting a business. But college can be affordable if you plan ahead.” That’s all. No need to push the merits of 529 plans or calculating Return on Investment. But it seems like a disservice to reinforce that all kids can go to college if we’re not also reinforcing that paying for college takes time and planning.

In middle school, I’d keep repeating and reinforcing those basic ideas: college is expensive, like buying a house or starting a business. But college can be affordable if you plan ahead. At this point, I’d also start introducing some of the basic terminology: sticker price vs. net price; merit aid vs. need-based aid; gapping; undermatching, net price calculator. I’d also make sure they see this chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics often.


For high school students—all high school students, beginning in 9th grade—I’d keep reinforcing the principles and terms from earlier, but then it’s also time for some real-world examples to help students understand some of the complexity.

Here’s a chart I put together for students here in Houston. Imagine handing this chart to high school students and asking “which school is the most affordable?”

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 11.32.10 AM.png

If you look just at the sticker prices (I like calling them “maximum” to emphasize that many people pay less than sticker price), then UT Austin is clearly the cheapest, followed closely by A&M. Those are the least expensive tuitions if you’re paying cash.

But….if you’re not paying cash, if you need financial aid like most people, then things become much murkier. Rice is the only school on the list that meets 100% of need. Other schools may recognize that you need more financial aid than they’re able to give you, and you’re stuck trying to make up the gap. That 100% assurance makes Rice seem like a good bet.

But….subtract the average financial aid package from the listed tuition and fees, and you can see a different picture. Rice does look affordable: the average actual tuition and fees once you subtract financial aid is only $1,273. That’s great! But the public universities all have a negative net price. On average, first-year students at those schools pay no tuition and fees, and still have financial aid left over to start covering room & board, books, and living expenses. So long as you get the average financial aid package or more, then they’re probably a lot more affordable. But their average need met tells us that, even if the tuition & fees are little to nothing, there may not be enough aid to make room & board, books, and living expenses affordable. It depends on your individual aid package.

But….financial aid usually includes loans, money that has to paid back. And when you look at average debt upon graduation, TCU—which has by the far the highest price when deducting average financial aid from list price—also has by far the lowest average debt. This may be because their aid includes more grants and fewer loans; it may be because they just have a lot fewer students with financial aid; it may be because the people with the heaviest debt loads are less likely to graduate. The chart doesn’t say.

By working through these tough questions and puzzling numbers, students can accomplish a few things. They’ll have a better estimate of public 4-year tuition and fees, because they will have looked at those prices. They’ll also understand that listed tuition and fees is only a part of the overall picture, and that different schools approach financial aid differently. Ultimately what they’ll learn is that you don’t know for sure what a university will cost you until you apply and get a financial aid package. You can only know what’s affordable after you’ve gone through the process, not before.

One thing that parents and educators hate is setting children up for failure. We may not always be skilled at avoiding it, but we sure do hate it. When it comes to college readiness and college-bound cultures, leaving price out of the conversation is arguably one of the best, easiest ways to set students up for failure. Let’s all agree not to do that.

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

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.

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 live near the coast in Georgia. Are you, your family, and your community doing ok after Hurricane Florence?

My family and I are doing fine after Hurricane Florence. We were lucky in that it skipped us over and we just had Hurricane Michael come through today. We had school cancellations so that gave me time to work on college stuff.

Do you have any deadlines coming up soon? What about any visits or college-related activities? What does your October look like in terms of college admissions?

The deadline for the application for UC-Davis Regular Admission is coming up on Nov 30th and since they do not use the Common Application I have been putting my energy towards them. I currently attend Savannah State University as a Dual Enrollment Student so I will be taking advantage of their upcoming Open House to explore what I do not already know about the campus and the admissions process. I am also actively working on the Common Application to send out since all my other schools have application deadlines in January.

The FAFSA just opened up. How soon do you plan to submit yours? Do you have all the information you need?

My parents have already begun the process of applying for FAFSA and I am looking towards them to complete that process.

How much money do you anticipate spending on college admissions? In terms of application fees and other expenses, how much is this going to cost your family?

With the application fees and taking the SAT again, I am looking at the cost being between $500-$600.

Other than college applications, what else is going on for you at school? What kinds of things are you involved with at school?

I am finishing my midterms at Savannah State. I am involved with multiple clubs at high school such as the Environmental Club (President), Anime Club (Vice-President), Beta Club, National Honor Society, and Math Club. Anime Club is busy focusing on creating a Manga and I am hoping to create more activities for the Environmental Club working with the Oatland Wildlife Center since they have re-opened after tornado damage.

What other types of groups or activities are you involved with outside of school? How busy do you feel on a day-to-day basis?

Outside of school, I have a job dog walking. It is currently a busy season in Savannah for activities so I volunteer with the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Savannah Historic Foundation. I feel pretty busy daily. I am focused on my classes and getting ready for college.

How are you feeling about college applications right now? What's your current mood as far as college goes?

Right now I am feeling scared and stressed about the process. I have a chart up in my room to remind me of deadlines and application requirements.  I have to create visual reminders to help me due to my ADD/HD. About college, in general, I am nervous and excited.

What's the general mood of your senior class? You say that most of your classmates are also applying to college. Do people talk a lot about college applications? Does that common experience help you bond, or is it competitive?

I am on campus at Savannah State full time so I do not spend a large amount with my fellow seniors from my high school. We see each other at clubs and tend to focus on those activities or when we see each other on campus we are talking about our shared classes. I do know that quite a few of my classmates are applying to colleges, but I have heard many of my classmates talk about joining the armed forces. Savannah is a big military town with several bases.

Let's do our monthly checkup on "The List." Last month your list was:

George Washington U.

U.C. Davis


  N.C. State

  Michigan State

  Kent State

  Southern New Hampshire

Are there any changes to that?

Add Savannah State University to the list.

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-November. 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

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.

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

Do you have any deadlines coming up soon? What about any visits or college-related activities? What does your October look like in terms of college admissions?

So, besides trying to get all my applications sent in before Thanksgiving break, my big deadline is November 15th. This is when all applicants who wish to receive priority scholarships must submit their apps. A few days later, on the eighteenth, I’ll be participating in another round of auditions in the greater Houston area. Before November, though, October is a busy month! I want to finish all of my essays and short answers over the week (and over this GREAT three-day weekend we have!) so I can go to my local writing center for revisions before the end of October. There’re a few colleges I still want to visit, and I’m trying to pencil in dates to go view the campuses this month as well. Besides that, I’ve filled out all of my information on my applications, so I just need to finish the essays, submit my test scores, and send my transcripts.

The FAFSA just opened up. How soon do you plan to submit yours? Do you have all the information you need?

My school has a FAFSA night on October 16th, and so I plan to use that to help me fill out my application.

How much money do you anticipate spending on college admissions? In terms of application fees and other expenses, how much is this going to cost your family?

I’m really trying to narrow down my list so I don’t have to pay more than about five or so application fees. On top of the average $50 per app, it’s also another $15 to send my SAT scores to each school. So, bare minimum, I believe I’ll be paying nearly $400 on applications alone.

Other than college applications, what else is going on for you at school? What kinds of things are you involved with at school?

I am involved with my school’s theatre program, our choir, and am a fairly regular member in student council. The week of October 8th, we have our first choir concert of the year, and then the week of the 22nd, I’m playing Dorothy in the theatre’s production of the Wizard of Oz. Between auditions, school, and rehearsals, it’s become a lot to juggle. I really enjoy doing it though, and I’ve gotten so much more effective at managing my time wisely because of the activities I participate in.

How are you feeling about college applications right now? What's your current mood as far as college goes?

I’m nervous about applications! Due to a Texas law, because I’m in my top 6%, I’ll get automatic acceptance into any public Texas university. The thing is, I still have to actually apply, and it’s become a real procrastinator’s struggle to get me to even think about my admissions essays because I feel as though they’re meaningless to an extent. Despite this, I have every intention to make my essays perfect, and so that’s why I’ve been pushing off starting them. I have made my bed, now I get to lie in it.

What's the general mood of your senior class? You say that only a third to a half are applying to college--is that something that gets talked about a lot? Are most of your classes with other college-bound students?

So the mood of my senior class varies greatly. Many of my classes are with college bound kids, and I’m assuming all of them have at the very least begun their applications. About half of those have actually submitted applications, so depending on what part of the process they’re at, it’s on a scale of extremely stressed to enjoying post-application bliss.

Last month you mentioned your major a few times, and I get the sense it's STEM related. You also mention auditioning for theater scholarships. What's your intended major? 

Originally, I planned to only major in Biomedical Engineering. All the schools I first liked had very good programs for it. However, after auditioning last week, I’ve been looking at double majoring or having a minor in theatre. Currently, I’m looking into schools that have both a biomedical engineering degree or something very similar and offer a BA in Theatre.

Let's do our monthly checkup on "The List." Last month your list was:

  Johns Hopkins

  Carnegie Mellon

  U.T. Austin (top choice)




  U.C. San Diego

It’s crazy, but my list has changed a lot in the past few weeks! I’ve decided I only want to apply to one out of state college, and that is Carnegie Mellon because I really like their Biomedical and Theatre programs. University of Texas at Austin is still my top school, but I’m looking into other schools in-state that are more affordable and also feature a nice Theatre program.

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

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.

The KU Excellence scholarship

Who is it for? Out-of-state students applying to the University of Kansas as freshmen. They also have a set of scholarships for Kansas residents.

How much is it worth? It lowers your tuition to be the same as in-state students. That’s currently a discount of $16,210 per year, or $64,840 total. That’s a lot of money.

What do you have to do to qualify? Have a 30 ACT score or a 1360 SAT score, and also have a GPA of 3.75 or higher. If your scores or grades don’t meet that standard, they also have some smaller scholarships with a lower score/grade threshold. There’s no extra work to qualify—no essays or interviews—and every out-of-state student who qualifies gets the scholarship.

How did I find it? I just went to the University of Kansas website, clicked on Admissions, and then clicked on Tuition and Scholarships. Whatever schools you’re thinking about apply to, you should do the same. They’re not hiding their big scholarships, because they’re trying to use them to entice you to apply and enroll. Ironically, it’s often the biggest scholarships, like this $64,000 one, that have the least amount of extra work or luck involved. Don’t pass up these opportunities.

 Screenshot from  KU website

Screenshot from KU website

The Stephanie G. Hoffman Scholarship Fund

Who is it for? Jewish college students from the San Francisco area.

How much is it worth? $2,000-$5,000.

What do you have to do to qualify? “Major in library science, English literature, or related field, with the intention of working with underserved children to excite them through reading to pursue higher education.” This is quite specific.

How did I find it? I wanted to show that religious organizations are a great place to check for scholarships, and that they are often regional instead of national. So I Googled “scholarships for Jews in San Francisco.” Sure enough, the top hit is the website for the Jewish Community Federation & Endowment fund of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. They list the Hoffman Scholarship fund as well as 10 other scholarships specifically for Jewish students in the San Francisco area. Whatever your religious affiliation and geographic region, there’s probably a similar site for you.

 Screenshot from  JCF website

Screenshot from JCF website Scholarship

Who is it for? High school or college students. Must be at least 14 years old to apply.

How much is it worth? $500.

What do you have to do to qualify? You must have at least a 3.0 GPA, like or follow on Facebook, and write an essay on “your ideas about the use of multimedia and data visualization in K-12 classrooms.”

How did I find it? Just out of curiosity, I Googled “scholarships for average students.” That led me to a whole section on FastWeb for scholarships for average students. The one from is a great example of the corporate scholarships I talked about last week. They give away $500 a year, and they gain Facebook followers and consumer research about how to keep projectors useful in classrooms. One essay for a possible $500 doesn’t seem like much, but imagine you’re trying to win a dozen of these to really make a dent in your tuition bill—it will take a lot of writing, and there’s no guarantee with any of them.

 Screenshot from

Screenshot from

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. Next week, I’ll have two more Meet the Class updates. 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

Grace is keeping up the pace

Grace is preparing for two November 1st Early Action deadlines, and she’s already got her FAFSA submitted. As much as she’s keeping ahead with college applications, you might think she has plenty of spare time to work on things. Not quite. Read the October interview below, and read her September interview 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. 


Do you have any deadlines coming up soon? What about any visits or college-related activities? What does your October look like in terms of college admissions?

My main deadline is November 1st.  I am applying early action to Fordham University and Hofstra University and I must have my Common App in by then.  I completed most of my college visits in April of Junior year, so I feel comfortable with that.  Also, the FAFSA just opened and my parents already completed and filed it.  The only other deadline is for the CSS profile, which some, but not all, of the colleges on my list require.

The FAFSA just opened up. How soon do you plan to submit yours? Do you have all the information you need?

My parents realized how important it was to me to get that done early, so they started it on October 1st and finished on October 2nd.  Now, they just have to complete the CSS profile, which will be done and filed by Columbus Day.  They gathered all the information they needed before it opened, so that their stress level would be lower.

How much money do you anticipate spending on college admissions? In terms of application fees and other expenses, how much is this going to cost your family?

I am applying to 10 schools at $70-$75 per application, so that would normally cost around $750, however, 2 schools gave me an application fee waiver.  I am very grateful for that.

Other than college applications, what else is going on for you at school? What kinds of things are you involved with at school?

I am very involved in my school’s Theater Club and our Fall play is opening November 1st also.  I have a major role in the play and we are rehearsing every school day for hours.  I also am taking 3 AP classes, which have quite a bit of homework. 

What other types of groups or activities are you involved with outside of school? How busy do you feel on a day-to-day basis?

As I explained above, Theater Club is pretty intense right now!  I also am a  Co-Captain for the Dance Team at my school, and we are practicing for Pep Rally which takes place the day before Thanksgiving.  In addition, I rehearse once a week for my school’s A Cappella group.  As for my outside dance classes, I take 4 a week.  I have very little down time, so time management is very important for me.

How are you feeling about college applications right now? What's your current mood as far as college goes?

Some days I feel so excited to apply and I get excited when I think about starting a new life in New York.  Other days, I feel stressed and the prospect of leaving home.

What's the general mood of your senior class? You say that almost all your classmates will be going on to a four-year college. Does that help bond the class together, or does it get competitive? Do people talk about their college applications a lot?

People talk about their college applications constantly.  It does not feel competitive at all, my class is comprised of some very nice people!  The general mood swings between happiness to end high school, and stress about getting the information filed in a timely manner.  

Last month you mentioned a Theater minor. What's your intended major? Do you have one in mind?

I intend to start with a Biology major, because I want to do something with Science, specifically animals.  However, I also will see where it goes from there.  Communications interests me too.

Let's do our monthly checkup on "The List." Last month your list was:



Boston University


Six unnamed others

What are the other six? Are there any changes to your list?

I am also applying to NYU, Adelphi University, Marymount Manhattan College, SUNY Purchase, SUNY Stony Brook.  I just recently added Rutgers University to my list. 

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

Thinking about scholarships, part one

The whole college admissions process—choosing which colleges to apply to, completing the applications, waiting for responses, and making your final choice—is often overwhelming. Figuring out how to pay for college is even more overwhelming. We’re aware that there are scholarships available, but we don’t always know how to find them, how to evaluate them, how to apply for them, and even if they’re actually worth it. There’s a lot of complexity, and each individual’s situation is different, so it’s difficult to make a few simple rules for everyone to follow. So today I’d like to do some thinking about scholarships in general, and next week I’ll choose three or four individual scholarships to look at using the framework I explain today.

To understand scholarships, think like a donor.

Let’s start with the big money. Imagine I’m a wealthy person who has decided to spend a million dollars giving back to the community by funding college scholarships. With that kind of money, I can start my own scholarship fund. I’ll need to hire some lawyers to set up the non-profit organization. I’ll need to hire an accountant. I’ll need to hire at least one or two administrators who will process all the applications, put together a panel of judges, make sure the money actually makes it to the winner’s account at college, and coordinate with the lawyers and accountants and bankers. I’ll need a marketing company to help me advertise the scholarship to make sure that I get a good applicant pool every year. I’m going to easily spend five to 20 percent of my million just getting the fund set up and working, leaving me with less money for actual scholarships. Or…

I can call up a university, probably the one I graduated from, one that my children graduated from, or perhaps a local one in my community. I tell them I want to donate a million dollars for scholarships. Hooray! They’ll send someone from their development office (“development” means fundraising) to me, and they’ll treat me to a nice dinner. They’ll lay out several options for how to structure or limit the scholarships. They’ll offer to make more options if I don’t like those. They’ll ask me—politely and subtly—if maybe what I really want to do is donate two million? They’ll write an article about my big donation for their alumni magazine, and they’ll invite me to campus to be celebrated for my contribution. I’ll get lovely thank-you notes from the college president and development office. They can arrange for me to meet the recipients of my donation. What’s even better, virtually all the money will actually go to scholarships. They’ve already got the lawyers, accountants, administrators, and marketers, so I don’t need to bother with that. It’s easier, more fun, and more cost-efficient to donate directly to the school. There’s a drawback that the funds will only be used at that school, but that’s probably not a big deal to me. If they’re accepting good and worthy students, then I’m ok with that.

Which route to do you think I’m going to choose? Giving to the college. This is why almost all the big money for scholarships and financial aid is already at the colleges, and this is why you’re going to get most—or all—of your scholarship money from the college you attend, whether it’s in the form of need-based aid, merit aid, or both. That’s simply where the money is, because that’s where it makes sense for the donors to give. There’s also the power of interest and investment to help their big pile of money become an even bigger pile of money over time. There’s around half a trillion dollars of college endowment funds in the United States.

If it’s efficient for a million-dollar donor to simply donate to an institution, then it’s even more efficient for smaller donors. If I’ve only got a hundred thousand dollars to give away in scholarships, or a thousand dollars, or a hundred dollars, or twenty dollars, then I’m not doing this myself. I’m going to give to a larger institution that already has a scholarship fund set up. It may be directly to a college like the big donors, or it may go to my church, employer, union, social club, or a local charitable organization. The first place you look for scholarships outside of the college you’re attending is among the organizations you’re already involved with. See if any of your family’s employers have a scholarship fund. Check your church, temple, or mosque. Check any clubs, professional organizations or social organizations your family belongs to. Check any national organizations you belong to through school, like the National Honor Society. They probably have some kind of education fund, and you’re likely to qualify if you’re part of their group. These scholarships tend to be smaller, but they are also usually limited to members of the group, so there may be less competition. They’re also not usually limited to a particular college.

That covers individual donors and organizations. What about businesses? Do they have scholarship funds for people who don’t work for the business? Sure, though this is pretty limited. For one, they might get a lot of hurt feelings and opposition from their employees if they give more money to outsiders than they do to their own people. Also, very large businesses may give to education in ways other than individual scholarships. A pharmaceutical company, for example, may decide to sponsor a chemistry lab and endow a biochemistry professorship rather than give undergraduate scholarships. A big company may sponsor the school theater or student center to bolster their reputation as generous patrons.

But small companies do often sponsor small scholarships. They often, though not always, want something in return. Yesterday I scrolled through a wide assortment of scholarship listings, and a huge number of them are sponsored by a small company that requires students to write an essay or make a presentation about how important that particular industry is. Some want you to take a survey or send photos. Not to be too cynical, but many of these scholarships are just basic prize drawings to entice people to their business, only you get a tax write-off if the prize is a “scholarship.” I’ve known tons of students who begin their senior year thinking they’re going to apply for as many of these small scholarships as possible, and then decide that they’re just not worth the time and effort. There can be a lot of work and risk involved.

That’s a run-down of how the donors think. How should you think about scholarships? There a a few questions to ask yourself to guide you.

How much do I need? A lot! All of it! That’s the response you’re going to get from your parents, and they’re not wrong. But you want a more specific idea of how much you need, because the scope of the need determines your approach. If your EFC is small—from zero to a few thousand dollars—then you’re going to need the Big Money, and you know where to find that. Every hour scoping out colleges that meet all or most of determined need is better spent than every hour applying to $500 scholarships. If your need is smaller, or zero, and what you’re trying to do is fill in smaller gaps in your financial aid package or make extra spending money for a better meal plan, then the smaller prizes may be a better fit for you—you’re not going to get much of the sympathy vote for need-based aid, and that’s fine.

There’s also the very real but fairly rare problem of getting a lot of outside scholarships, and then having your college deduct that from your need-based aid. If they’ve determined you need $20,000 to attend and they can provide it, when you submit the check from your $10,000 scholarship you won, they can (legally and ethically) say you no longer need that $10,000 from them…and reduce your need-based aid by $10,000. You’ve done the work to get the extra ten thousand, but you end up not getting anything extra from it. Most universities have a line at which they don’t bother with this—$5,000 is a number I’ve heard a few times. Get less than $5,000 extra, and they don’t worry about it. Cross that line, though, and they’ll reconsider your need-based package. They don’t publicize the line, and it may be more of a grey area than a solid line, but this is something you should ask about when you receive a need-based aid offer.

What communities do I and my family belong to? Start close to you. What local, regional, or national organizations do you and your family belong to, and do they offer help? Money is often easier to get if you’re an insider, so begin with these. For example, I was pretty involved in my Methodist church when I was in high school. I chose to go to a Methodist-affiliated college. This was just luck; I didn’t choose them because they were Methodist. But I did get a really nice scholarship from my regional Methodist Council, and I also got a low-interest student loan through the Methodist church. The Baptists next door didn’t have access to these, but they probably had Baptist help available that I didn’t.

How big a fish am I and how small is my pond? You’ve got to be honest about yourself and your aspirations to find the right kind of merit aid. It helps to think of athletic scholarships. Only about two percent of high school athletes get athletic scholarships, and not all of those are full rides. The people who are going to get the big scholarships to the big schools are the ones who have already been identified as being the best in the country—or the world. It’s okay to be proud of being the third-best runner on your school’s cross-country team, but don’t expect that to pay for your college. However, if you’re not looking for a big scholarship to a big school, then there are probably Division III schools (who don’t have athletic scholarships) who would like to see you on their cross-country team and may be able to find a little extra academic merit aid for you.

Now translate that same idea to academics. If you’re valedictorian and president of the NHS, that’s fantastic! But every school has a valedictorian, so there are hundreds of thousands of you. It’s going to help you get into a great college, but that alone is probably not going to get you a full ride for academic excellence. There’s too much competition. If your ACT scores fit the mid-range of the prestigious college you’re applying to, they’re probably not going to offer you merit scholarships to entice you. But a less-known school where your ACT scores would be in their top 10% might be willing to shell out a lot more money to allure you. You have to decide how badly you want to go to the more well-known school, and if you can pay the extra price.

What am I willing and able to do? Are you willing to go to your fourth-choice school if they offer you thousands more dollars than your top-choice school? Are you willing to take out thousands of dollars in loans without knowing what job you’ll have after college? Are you willing to spend 100 hours applying to scholarships, knowing you may not win any of them? Are you able and willing to work part-time, or even full-time, to pay for the bill yourself? Can you save now for the extra things you’ll want to do in college, like studying abroad or joining a sorority? It’s best for everyone involved if you work on honest answers to these questions before you start applications or receiving financial aid offers. These are discussion to have with your family as soon as possible.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. Next week, we’ll look at several different actual scholarships to analyze them and see how we might think about them. 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

Revisiting Affirmative Action

Friday a judged cleared the lawsuit against Harvard to go forward, and the trial is set to begin October 15. The case, brought by Students for Fair Admissions, alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions. They point to some of the softer, more subjective parts of admissions that are meant to provide a broader look at students for holistic admissions as the way that they are kept out of the school. There are things like notes and ratings for likability and friendliness that can be open to bias. Edward Blum, the political activist behind SFFA, was also instrumental in Abigail Fisher’s Supreme Court case against U.T. Austin.

Last week we learned that Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown are also under Department of Justice scrutiny for discrimination against Asian-American applicants.

As the legal arguments around affirmative action make it toward the top of the national news feed, it seems like a good time to re-post my piece from this time last year, “What’s wrong with affirmative action?”.

If you're involved in college admissions from any angle, then you've given some thought to Affirmative Action, which means using race as a factor in deciding who gets admitted to a college or university. I want to talk about that.

First, let's get some common misperceptions out of the way real quick. Affirmative Action in college admissions does not mean using a quota system. A school cannot decide beforehand that they're going to end up with a class that's, for example, about 30% white, 30% Asian American, 20% Hispanic and 20% African American. Quotas were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1978. The Supreme Court has also said that schools must consider "race-neutral alternatives" before implementing race as a factor for admission. Even if a school has racial diversity as a goal, which many do and is constitutional, it must first try race-neutral ways to achieve that goal. You can read more about this here.

There are two recent cases that have received a lot of headlines and discussion. (We have to use "recent" in relative terms. In Constitutional Law world, a decade is pretty recent. These cases move slowly through the system.) One is a complaint filed with the Department of Justice in 2015 against Harvard by a group of 64 groups representing Asian Americans. That complaint--and a similar lawsuit--are about groups, not any particular individual. They claim that Asian Americans, on average, need to have higher SAT scores to get admitted to Harvard and other elite schools than students, on average, of other races. They also claim that the racial make-up of Harvard is pretty consistent over the years despite fluctuations in the racial make-up of applicants. All this points, they say, to Harvard essentially using a quota system, which is not legal.

The other recent high-profile case was Abigail Fisher's 2008 suit against UT-Austin, which got all the way to the Supreme Court in 2016. When Fisher was not admitted to UT-Austin, she sued them, claiming that she had been discriminated against because of her race. UT-Austin does use race as one of several factors in their admissions decisions, and Fisher had a higher G.P.A. and test scores than some other students who were accepted but are not white. The case went to the Supreme Court (twice, actually), and the Court ruled in favor of the university, not Fisher. They upheld the law that race is constitutional as a factor in admissions, and they said that UT followed the rules and stayed within the law.

Fisher, and other individuals who challenge their rejection because of possible race factors, thought that she deserved to be accepted to UT based on grades and past performance. She says so in this video: "It should come down to, you know, your grades and your activities, and whether or not you deserve to get in, and it should be based on merit, and it shouldn't be based on any other external factors."

The conflict over Affirmative Action is really about this notion of deserve. Who deserves to go to college, and what makes them deserving? Fisher's and other similar complaints--even, to a lesser degree, the Harvard complaints--have a past-centered view of deserve. They point to past achievements like grades and test scores to show that they deserve admission more than people with lower grades or test scores. This definition of deserving, which is so common it's often thought of as common sense, is the root of the "Am I Worthy" mindset. Students, parents, and schools worry a lot about grades and test scores, because GPA and scores are thought to indicate individual and group worth.

Universities surely share this mindset--they spend time worrying about numbers and rankings, too--but they temper this with a more future-centered view of deserve. Importantly, universities acknowledge that the supposedly fair and objective measures of worthiness aren't necessarily fair. Universities understand that SAT scores correlate strongly to the income and education level of a student's parents. They understand that grade inflation is higher at wealthier schools. So virtually every college in America looks at GPA and test scores, but they also make sure to look at other things. Most ask for essays or examples of student work. Many ask for interviews. Some take "demonstrated interest" into account. Some take "legacy" status into account. And some, but certainly not all or even most, also take race and socio-economic status into account. 

Universities look at all these other factors because they're just as interested in shaping the future as rewarding the past. They want a larger and more diverse talent pool than just the people who did well in the past. They think future success is built differently. The traditional notions of deserve just aren't as important to them. Because colleges know they are often the gateway to individual and social success, inclusion, diversity, and long-term justice may be as important to them--or more important--than the short-term common sense of taking the already-acknowledged success stories and moving them forward. Universities are reaching for ways--not always successfully--to balance past performance with future potential. This is, in the big picture, a good thing. A society cannot be robust or innovative or a world leader if it only rewards past success. It must also create future success. We need our universities to help us do this.

I'm sympathetic to individual students like Fisher who do what they're told to do for college admission success but then don't get what they were promised. None of us like being denied something we think we deserve, and we shouldn't expect Fisher or others like her to feel differently. Many people said some pretty ugly things about Fisher, and I wish they hadn't. For what it's worth, Fisher graduated from L.S.U. years ago and works in finance. She seems to be doing just fine.

But still, ultimately the colleges are right. Almost everyone wants to see more equity and equality in the world, but people are individuals who can only do so much to fix it. Large institutions like universities, though far from perfect, really can help with this problem if we'll work with them. Universities are big places where big things happen. Changing the way the world works is literally what they're there for. They need some room to try things out and experiment with outcomes as much as we individuals do. They're not just honor societies to recognize top high school students.

So what does this mean for high school students? In this world where Affirmative Action exists and race is sometimes a factor, what can you do? What should you do?

Believe schools when they say they use a holistic process for admissions. It's really common to act as though GPA, rank, and test scores are what really matter, and things like essays and background are just marginal add-ons. Please understand that schools are looking at the whole you, and do the very best you can with that.

Change what you can, accept what you can't. There are some things you can't do much about. Like your race, your geographical location, and your family's background. At least when it comes to college admissions, don't spend much time thinking about those things. There are things that you have more control over, like your grades and extracurricular activities. There are also things that seem pretty integral but that you can change with time and effort, like your motivations and reactions to setbacks. But these things, from your GPA to your attitude about life, are more difficult to change as time goes on. If you have a lower GPA than you want your 9th grade year, you can turn things around--if you have a low GPA your senior year then there's not much time to fix it. And there are some things that you can change quickly and drastically, right now. You don't have to finish your college essays until moments before you send them out, so there's time to keep improving them. Focus on the things you can still control at the moment. 

Never, under any circumstances, accuse another person of having what they have or getting what they get only because of their race. Do not assume that people of color are admitted to universities only because of their race. Yes, race may sometimes be a small factor, but it is never the only factor. Never assume a white person is admitted to a school only because they're white. Yes, white privilege is real, but even the most privileged white people still have much more to them than their privilege. Even if you want to fight racial injustice--in whatever way you want to define that--keep the big picture in mind and respect in your heart. Don't be nasty to people.

And whatever you do, don't let your college admission success define you as a person. You're much bigger than that, much more important. 

Thanks for reading! If this was interesting to you, please share it with people who might also find it interesting. 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

Increase productivity by going low-tech

Increase productivity by going low-tech

There are several theories about what’s going on, but the one that seems to feel right to a lot of people is that the computers that are so good at helping us save time are just as good—or better—at helping us waste time. This seems especially true since the advent of the smart phone. The tools we have to help us be productive are filled with distractions that kill productivity.

Apply with Sanity conducts student workshops

Last week I conducted a 90-minute workshop with students at Carnegie Vanguard. If you have a group of students—anywhere from 5 to 200—who would benefit from Apply with Sanity, I can do the same for you! Contact me and let me know what you’re looking for. Every workshop and presentation is completely customized to your needs and your group.