Smarter Supplements: Digging Deeper

Last week, I shared our approach to supplemental essays and discussed a specific example of the way that one general answer could be modified to fit four separate schools’ prompts. Today, I’m going to dig a little deeper to model the DC College Counseling approach to the entire supplemental essay writing process.

Let’s pretend I’m the student.

STEP ONE: Outline a plan of attack during an essay coaching meeting.

College Essay Help Northern Virginia

My essay coach would work with me to complete the tasks in the last post, mapping out common themes between supplements and helping me select an appropriate text. This may involve needing to read a new book if I hadn’t read anything appropriate (but we try to avoid extra work as much as we can!).

If students want (or need!) to start fresh with a new book, we often recommend the New York Times bestseller list to choose something that’s not too fluffy (but that also sounds like a piece of fiction they might actually read in their spare time). It’s better to pick something recent because it sounds like the student reads on a regular basis and isn’t digging up the one book he read on vacation three years ago.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to have to use a book from 2016 because… I’m digging up the one novel I read on vacation three years ago :) Don’t judge - I read a lot, but it’s all non-fiction! I am choosing to write about “Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice” by Curtis Sittenfeld. I was an English major in college so this isn’t too out of left field for me. An admissions officer would see that it fits with the rest of my imaginary profile. It was also a New York Times bestseller as well as a “Best Book of the Year” from NPR, so it’s not quite as random as it seems.

STEP TWO: Free-write some general thoughts on the book without responding to any of the specific prompts.

Note: I wrote these as myself as if I was actually completing the assignment. So, if this sounds like the voice of a 35-year-old instead of a high school student - that’s why! As we have covered before, we work very hard to help our students maintain their own unique voices.

Here’s my stream-of-consciousness free-write: In addition to being a fun book for me to read, this book also pushed me to think critically about myself as a reader. I chose to major in English in college because I really enjoyed writing (and I knew that I was good at it). I also absolutely loved to read, but not obscure texts from centuries ago. What I didn’t realize at the time is that English majors don’t read or write any more than other humanities majors - they just stick to English literature rather than history, politics, or other subjects. Eventually, I got really sick of analyzing decades or centuries-old literature that actually didn’t interest me all that much. I spent a lot of time skimming and reading Spark Notes (are Spark Notes still a thing?).

Eligible showed me that a “boring” or “outdated” read can actually be exciting if one gives it a chance. I was able to step back and think about how centuries-old language can mask relevant themes, and I wondered about how much I had missed over the years because I was turned off to various texts for superficial reasons.

I also thought about how our struggles as individuals persist over the generations. Pride and Prejudice was written more than 200 years ago, but women are still thinking about the same kinds of social and economic issues - just in a different context.

STEP THREE: Use information from the free-write to craft a RESPONSE TO EACH PROMPT.

NOTE: I’m not going to write out a full essay for each prompt in this blog post the way a student would, but I’ll give a general idea of the approach I’d take.

Boston College Supplement Essay #1 (400 w): Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?

I have always been an avid reader, but Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible gave me important insight into the value of broadening my literary horizons to include classic works of literature. I used to avoid these books, believing them to be outdated and difficult to read; yet, as I tore through the pages of this re-imagined version of Pride and Prejudice and acknowledged the present-day relevance of Austen’s original themes from the 19th century, I realized that social and political issues are often timeless, persisting from generation to generation. Moreover, I recognized that I had likely missed important lessons by always reaching for the latest best-sellers. With Eligible in mind, I felt inspired to read some of the texts that I had avoided over the years: 1984, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451.

UVA College of Arts and Sciences Supplemental Essay (250 w): What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible challenged me to push beyond my natural inclination for modern literature. As I tore through the pages of this re-imagined version of Pride and Prejudice and acknowledged the present-day relevance of Austen’s original themes from the 19th century, I realized that social and political issues are often timeless, persisting from generation to generation. Moreover, I recognized that I was likely missing important lessons by always reaching for the latest best-sellers. With Eligible in mind, I resolved to read some of the texts that had intimidated me over the years: 1984, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451.

Dartmouth College Supplemental Essay D (250 w): “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

Through Eligible, her re-imagined adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Curtis Sittenfeld helped provide new meaning to the old adage: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Eligible captured my imagination with the idea that the core challenges of modern life are not so different from those with which Jane Austen’s 19th-century characters also struggled. I realized that social and political themes are often timeless, persisting from generation to generation, and that I was likely missing important lessons by always reaching for the latest best-sellers over classic works of literature. As I tore through Sittenfeld’s pages, I resolved to use her influence to choose to read some of the texts that had intimidated me over the years: 1984, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451.

Emory University “Tell Us About You” Essay 1 (150 w): Which book, character, song, or piece of work (fiction or non-fiction) represents you, and why?

Reading has always been my guilty pleasure. For as long as I can remember, I got my fix wherever I could: under the covers with a flashlight as a child, slipped between textbooks in high school math class, or by the dim light of my iPad while feeding my newborns more than a decade later. Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s re-imagined modern-day version of Pride and Prejudice, represents me in that it mirrors my long-standing ability to find relevant meaning in text, regardless of setting. My love for reading has always aligned with my ability to grasp themes and connect them to my own experiences, hopes, and dreams, despite superficial differences.

Points to notice:

  • Even though my responses didn’t require me to be all that specific, this would have been really difficult to write if I hadn’t read the book.

  • I was able to cut and paste a lot between the first three answers, giving myself a solid base from which to approach each of these prompts.

  • None of these answers are exactly the same: I had to modify each individual answer to bring language from the prompt into my response. In order to do this, I had to constantly ask myself: are you answering each question that the prompt asks?

  • The last response was ultimately very different and I had to take some creative liberties with the actual content: that’s fine. Remember, colleges will only see the essays submitted to their own school: they won’t see what is sent elsewhere. It’s okay if the various answers don’t perfectly align with one another when they are all on the same page together.

STEP FOUR: Bring drafts to essay coach meeting.

After receiving TONS of reminders about completing the step three drafts in a timely manner, I would then bring my drafts to my next scheduled essay coach meeting. During the session, essay coaches would help me to further develop and edit these initial pieces.

STEP FIVE: Look for follow-up edits from Colleen.

Okay, this is getting confusing now with “Colleen-as-student” and “Colleen-as-Colleen,” but hang in there with me. If I were a student, I would wait a day or so for the actual Colleen (me!) to follow up with an additional level of edits above and beyond those completed at the essay coaching meeting. I do this for all of our students without charging them for any additional time beyond their essay coaching appointment, because I think that it’s helpful to have another layer of review.

STEP SIX: Finalize edits at home before next essay coaching meeting.

After “Colleen-as-student” receives her additional edits and suggestions from “Colleen-as-Colleen,” “Colleen-as-student” would then finalize them at home before bringing them back to the essay coach meeting for final approval.

STEP SEVEN: Make additional changes with essay coach during the meeting and begin to plan out the next round of essays.

I would go back to meet with the essay coach to put the finishing touches on everything and we’d begin Step One again with our next round of essays.

STEP EIGHT: Approve any additional post-meeting “finishing touch” edits from colleen, confirm with Rebeccah that the essays are considered complete, and write the second round of drafts for the new essays.

As of mid-July, we have extremely limited availability for ongoing work with seniors in the Class of 2020. If you’re interested in grabbing one of the very last first-round slots or having first priority for the second-round waitlist, don’t wait to book your Meet & Greet session.

Work smarter, not harder (but don’t take it too far!)

In our work tracking the pre-release of the HS Class of 2020 / College Class of 2024 supplemental essay prompts, we have begun to link similar prompts together. This allows students to reuse as much material as possible while making modifications to existing essays, rather than reinventing the wheel for each school.

We share this information with our students to try to make things as easy as possible for them as we help them outline their essays.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The key to success with this method is making sure that students ACTUALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION ASKED IN EACH PROMPT. Most of these can’t be copied verbatim- they need some adjustment.

Here’s an example:

Boston College Supplement Essay #1 (400 w): Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?

UVA College of Arts and Sciences Supplemental Essay (250 w): What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

Dartmouth College Supplemental Essay D (250 w): “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

Emory University “Tell Us About You” Essay 1 (150 w): Which book, character, song, or piece of work (fiction or non-fiction) represents you, and why?

By choosing to write about a novel, a student could theoretically write about one work while meeting the requirements for each prompt:

  • A “novel” for BC

  • A “work of literature” for UVA

  • A“book or story” for Dartmouth

  • A “book” for Emory.

2020 Supplemental Essays

This is SO much easier than writing about a song for Emory, a story for Dartmouth, a work of science for UVA and a speech for BC.

However, the prompts aren’t all the same: the student would need to modify the response for each school to varying degrees.

BC and UVA are pretty similar - drawing insight and inspiration from a book can be discussed in a way that = feeling challenged from a book. On the other hand, Emory’s approach about how the book represents the student would require substantially more tailoring. The reason I keep emphasizing the modification is because a lot of students miss this step, for some reason. They see a similar prompt and just copy verbatim and call it a day. I’m all about shortcuts but that will NOT work!!

To recap:

  1. Look for themes across prompts.

  2. Adjust the responses to fit the exact questions asked.

2019-2020 Coalition Updates

Anyone who has set foot in my office during the last twelve months or so has heard me complain about the Coalition Application. It’s seriously the most user-unfriendly software I’ve ever used. It’s also hard to fully grasp how frustrating it is until you’re in the midst of using it.

In any case, we have two major updates today:

  1. The University of Florida, one of the first schools to go Coalition-Exclusive (before Virginia Tech), made the decision today to join the Common App. This is HUGE for Floridians! Here in the DC area, most kids don’t apply to UF, but there’s a lot of chatter that maybe some of the other Coalition-Exclusive schools will follow suit (cough cough Hokies cough cough).

  2. The 2019-2020 Coalition Application launched without much fanfare. I tried to log on to update my guide for students, and… well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

2019-2020 Coalition Application

Welcome to the new season, folks!

In other news, I have continued to update the database of 2019-2020 Supplemental Essays - check out the latest additions!

Common App's New (Grammatically Dubious) Member Question

Who in your life is depending on you? What are they depending on you for?

You heard it here first! This query will be added to the Member Screen short answer questions that colleges will be able to include on their individual supplements. Start thinking about this- who depends on you?

Siblings, parents, neighbors, club members, teachers, volunteers.. there will be many ways to answer this question.

Northern Virginia College Counselor DC College Advisor Common Application New Member Questions

We don’t have any information about word limits yet, and it’s likely that they will vary on a school by school basis. My prediction is that most schools will choose limits between 100-250 words.

You can actually see all of the Member Screen questions here. Again, schools decide on an individual basis which questions they would like to include, so every single school will not ask every single one of these questions.

Current clients will work on these questions during the first few days of August before coming in for editing sessions during their two-hour individual college counseling meetings that begin on August 5.

P.S. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out the fact that this question ends in a preposition. #smh

Database of 2019-2020 Supplemental Essays

We are knee deep in supplemental essay work over here (for schools both on and off the Common Application), and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon!

Rather than continuing to compile various blog posts with updated essay topics, I decided to create a separate page that I will continue to update as the season continues. Click here for the latest, and don’t forget to bookmark the page for future reference!

2019-2020 Common Application Supplemental Essays

Since the last time I posted, we have a number of new essays, including University of Richmond, Tufts, and more. We also have confirmation that Villanova will not be reusing the same essays that they used last year, so don’t start on those!

Common vs. Coalition vs. Institutional: How to Choose?

With so many choices, it can be hard to know which application to submit for which school, so I thought I would provide some guidance to help families navigate the various application options.

Always choose the Common App

If a school accepts the Common Application and ANY other application, always go with the Common App. Always. Regardless of the other factors involved (the only exception to this rule would be for a “priority” application that waives the application fee, IF AND ONLY IF the application fee represents a financial hardship or concern). This will save you a lot of time!

Coalition App vs. Institutional/Systemwide Apps

Unfortunately, this decision isn’t as clear-cut because there’s more to consider. This became lengthy as I typed it out, so I decided to put together the infographic below to make it easier to understand.

Don’t Forget: Not every school offers a choice!

There are still plenty of schools out there that do not offer an alternative to their institutional and systemwide applications. When you’re considering the infographic below, make sure that you only include the ones that offer a choice when asked to do so.

Which schools require the Coalition Application Common Application Northern Virginia DC College Counseling

Examples of Schools in Various Categories

Schools requiring institutional or systemwide applications:

The University of California system-wide application, College of Charleston

Schools requiring the Coalition Application (a.k.a. Coalition-Exclusive):

Virginia Tech, University of Maryland

Schools with abnormally difficult institutional or systemwide applications that offer the Coalition Application as an alternative:

ApplyTexas (the University of Texas systemwide application)

Schools with typical institutional or systemwide applications that offer the Coalition Application as an alternative:

JMU, Clemson

Note: All requirements are accurate as of June 11, 2019


  1. Have you read the newest on Sidwell from The Atlantic? Sigh.

  2. UVA has now released their 2019-2020 supplemental essays! I knew they’d be coming soon, but I didn’t anticipate them quite this soon. Regardless, I’m happy, because they didn’t change very much from last year.

  3. A lot of kids will need to be able to write about a book for the first UVA essay (I personally think that’s the easiest way to approach that prompt). I suggested some options here back in January but will do another post soon about some new summer releases. In the meantime, I’m just loving this throwback from The New York Times. So many fun memories associated with reading some of these.

  4. Southwest is having my favorite sale of the year! There are a ton of round-trip options from the DC area under $100 - perfect for college visits all over the country. The reason I love booking Southwest for my own college visits is because of their cancellation policy, which makes everything so much easier. I don’t have to stress about whether the dates will work or if something is likely to come up. If something comes up, I just cancel.

  5. I can’t believe this is the last full week of the school year. CRAZY! We are getting so booked up for August and are in the process of adding additional essay coaching meetings for kids that want even more support. We just added a few Sunday afternoon slots with Alan earlier today.

Supplemental Essays 2019-2020: First Round

And they begin!

Northern Virginia College Counselor DC College Advisor 2019-2020 Supplemental Essays Common Application

In the past week, three schools have released supplemental essay topics:

University of Georgia

University of Chicago - boy are these rough, as per usual!

University of Texas - Austin - scroll down to “essay” and “short answers”

These join the personal insight questions (otherwise known as essays) from the University of California system, which have been out for a little while now.

In our office, all of our clients are either finished or nearly-finished with their main essays, so we try to knock these supplemental essays out when we can to avoid scrambling during the month of August after they are officially released. To do this, we stay on top of everything in advance to make sure we have the most up-to-date information on which essays are released and when. This way, we can plug away at them with our students a little bit at a time, all summer long.

We have family meetings in June or July, after we have final junior year grades and all standardized test scores are in. At that point, we try to finalize the college list. We keep a very large master list with each student’s name on the x-axis and every college you can imagine on the y-axis. As schools begin to release their prompts, Rebeccah keeps track everything on the master list and will notify students accordingly.

Some more recent news: there will be a variety of updates to the Common Application that will be rolled out in July. I’m a little nervous about what this will mean for the activity section, because it sounds like that part has the potential to result in substantive changes. This part of the application hasn’t been updated in any meaningful way for a very, very long time, and I’m crossing my fingers that the changes won’t be too dramatic!

Happy writing!

Impact of College Admissions Policy Changes at UVA and Virginia Tech

What is it with 2019? Just as it seems as if the college admission world is coming to terms with a recent scandal or seismic policy change, something new hits!

This week, everyone is talking about two major pieces of news from public universities in our very own state. These announcements from UVA and Virginia Tech will dramatically impact the admissions process for the state’s residents, especially students in Northern Virginia who generally face more competition in contending for spots at the most selective Virginia schools.

Colleen Ganjian UVA College Admissions Expert.jpg

Here’s a breakdown of each announcement and what it might mean for your kids:


The Announcement:

UVA has added a binding Early Decision (ED) option in addition to their existing Early Action  (EA) option.

The Context:

UVA actually offered a binding ED option for decadesbut removed it in 2006. Their purpose for getting rid of it? Equity. Due to the nature of the binding commitment, ED plans favor students who do not need to rely on merit scholarship funding and who don't need to compare scholarship offers to get the best deal. UVA has been pretty outspoken about this issue since they first removed the option, which makes this announcement even more shocking.

What this Means:

Is this good or bad for students? It depends on the perspective of the student and their goals.

For students who have their hearts set on UVA, this is a very good thing.

Especially for students in our geographic area, applying to the school as ED applicants will enable them to stand out amidst a sea of other applicants with similar demographic profiles. Even better, they will hear back from UVA before the holidays.

Because UVA’s EA notification is so late (end of January), students have not been able to strategize with a combination of an EA application to UVA combined with an ED II application to another school if the UVA application wasn't successful. A lot of families struggled with this decision because holding out for UVA meant substantially limiting a student’s chances at other ED and ED II schools. Now, this will not be a problem for students applying to UVA ED, because they will have time to apply ED II at another school if their UVA decision isn’t favorable.

On the other hand, students whose second choice is UVA are more disadvantaged than before. Historically, UVA admissions decisions been very predictable (I previously blogged about this here) because they haven't taken demonstrated interest into account. A student with straight As, the most challenging course load available to them, and a 34+ ACT from any high school in Northern Virginia should have been admitted provided that they had good essays, activities, and recommendations. Now that demonstrated interest is a factor, this won't necessarily be the case.

UVA, like other schools with ED, will very likely select some slightly less qualified candidates-- students who may not have gotten in when ED wasn’t an option-- because they are willing to make the binding commitment. In turn, this will very likely make getting into UVA by applying EA or regular decision more competitive.

Bottom line: for kids who are hoping for an Ivy (or similarly competitive top-tier private school - Duke, USC, Northwestern, etc.), UVA’s ED option is problematic.

Virginia Tech

The Announcement:

Virginia Tech has over-enrolled their freshman class in a very substantial way, particularly in the following majors:

General engineering (or undecided engineering)

Mechanical engineering

Aerospace engineering

Biomedical engineering


University studies (undeclared)

Exploring technologies (part of university studies)

Students pursuing majors in these subject areas were contacted this past week and offered three options for deferring their admission:

Guaranteed Admissions Program - GAP2020: Take a gap year with guaranteed admission to Virginia Tech in Fall 2020. This option allows you to take a gap year and receive an additional $1,000 scholarship renewable for up to four years. You’ll now have the opportunity to travel, work, engage in a service project, or any other endeavor that is important to you. We will honor your current Virginia Tech scholarships and give you priority for on-campus housing when you enroll at Virginia Tech next year.

Guaranteed Admission Transfer Program GRANT2020: Wait a year to enroll at Virginia Tech while taking classes at your community college. Choose this option and save your first day on campus for fall 2020! You'll still be guaranteed admission and we will honor your current Virginia Tech scholarships and give you priority for on-campus housing when you enroll next year. This option also provides you with a grant equal to the costs you will pay for tuition and fees for attendance at a Virginia Community College System (VCCS) institution during the 2019-2020 academic year. Additionally, you are eligible to apply for a grant of up to $5,000 to support an internship, cooperative learning experience (co-ops), study abroad or other experiential learning opportunities during your enrollment at Virginia Tech. We will provide academic advising support to ensure that your VCCS credits will transfer and count toward your Virginia Tech degree..

Experience 2020: Summer start and summer finish tuition-free, with fall or spring enrollment on campus. Start taking courses at Virginia Tech during our summer session (which begins July 9) with 6 credits (2 courses) tuition-free. Then enroll full-time (15 credits) beginning in either the fall or spring semester. During your term away from Blacksburg, you can choose to enroll at a community college or take a semester off to travel, work, engage in a service project, or any other endeavor that is important to you. Return to campus to finish the academic year in the summer of 2020 with up to 9 credits (3 courses) tuition-free. An additional grant of up to $2,000 will be available to you to support internships, co-ops or other approved experiential learning opportunities during your enrollment at Virginia Tech. Regular tuition and fees apply for fall or spring semesters.

(Source: Virginia Tech Fall 2019 Summer Enrollment Options)

These “opportunities” are purely optional and none of the students are forced to participate.

The Context:

 This past year, Virginia Tech added an EA option to their existing ED offering (essentially the opposite of what UVA will be doing next year). This over-enrollment snafu further highlights the importance of applying ED if Virginia Tech is a student’s first choice, because we will see a major difference in acceptance rates between students applying ED and EA for Fall 2020 admission.

What this Means:

Unlike the situation at UVA, where some stand to benefit, this is not good news for anyone from an admissions perspective.

For the HS Class of 2020, Virginia Tech's over-enrollment will have a trickle-down effect. To make up for the extra 1000 students the school enrolled this spring, they will have to under-admit in the upcoming admission cycle. This will very likely lead to another record-breaking year with the lowest-ever acceptance rate (by quite a large margin). We saw the exact same scenario play out this year at UCLA in the wake of substantial over-enrollment during the 2017-2018 admissions cycle.

 Another interesting part of this announcement to keep in mind is that almost half of the over-admitted students are enrolled in the College of Engineering. And almost half of that particular group are enrolled in just two majors: computer science and computer engineering. Unfortunately, while applicants hoping to pursue these majors will be most substantially impacted, all engineering applicants, and even students pursuing admission in other undergraduate colleges, will face greater admission challenges than previous years. Non-engineering students entering the university with an undeclared major were also heavily impacted, by the way.


Now, before you throw your hands up in exasperation, try to find some peace of mind in knowing that this shouldn’t change the way your child is approaching the admissions process.

 No matter what is happening in the news cycle with regard to college admissions, students need to focus on what they can control: trying their hardest and taking every opportunity available to them while narrowing their strategy and approach to the admissions process. The more work completed in advance in terms of research, school visits, applications, and essays, the easier the process will be.

Struggling with these kinds of decisions? Set up a strategy session today to kick off your college admissions process on the right foot!

"Adversity Scores": The College Board's Environmental Context Dashboard

There has been a LOT of buzz over the past week about the College Board’s new “Adversity Score” / Environmental Context Dashboard, which C.E.O. David Coleman discussed publicly last Thursday.

I think that most people reading this blog post probably have a general understanding of what this is by now, so I am not going to summarize it. You can read more here and here if you are interested in a general overview. Instead, I’d like to share a few reasons why I think this is a bad idea.

Discussing the ECD on CNN last Friday

Discussing the ECD on CNN last Friday


Almost exactly twenty years ago, there was a similar initiative that was met with similar outcry. I don’t think most people realize this. Why is College Board repeating a failed project? Yes, the other one factored race into the calculations, but the reasons for the backlash are more or less the same.


College Board is going to assign scores to students without sharing those scores? Seriously? I get it - they’re trying to cut down on potential challenges - but what if there are mistakes? Students’ counselors can’t even see the scores. To make it even crazier, they won’t release the methodology. Why are they making this so difficult? What’s the problem with just being up front? I know this is a wild thought, but what if there’s an error?This happens! It’s a little disconcerting that they won’t even provide school counselors with the ability to glance over scores for a few seconds to consider whether things look more-or-less correct. Although, the more I think about it, I suppose they’d have to release more information about the methodology for counselors to be able to hazard a guess. Either way, this is a real problem.


As I mentioned, we don’t know the methodology in terms of the calculations and weighting. We do, however, know the list of factors that will be considered (although we don’t know how they will measure the factors). Let’s take one of them that hits close to home for me: the score related to single-parent households. When this story first broke, I thought about how I would have been considered a student living in a single-parent household at the time I graduated from high school, but my younger brother would not have. Our father died of cancer when I was 11 and he was 7, but our mother remarried during his senior year in high school. We both certainly faced a lot of adversity, but one could make the (very accurate, in my opinion) argument that I had four more years of a two-parent household than he did and was therefore better off - even though I was the one in a single-parent household at the time I graduated.

Taking this even further, what about kids with divorced parents? I have plenty of clients that are divorced, but both parents are very actively engaged in their kids’ lives. Are those students living in single-parent households? If the very-engaged dad lives in a condo in Tysons and the student lives with mom in McLean, is that student really worse off than the student in Vienna whose parents are married, but dad has been deployed for the last year? I honestly don’t see how you can consider all of these various scenarios without context.


Despite everything I wrote above about the difficulty of calculating some of these factors on a per-student basis, the College Board is making it even worse by calculating them on a neighborhood and high school-basis. So instead of faulty-but-at-least-individualized assessments, they are simply combining general averages to calculate the individual student scores. So maybe the student with the high single-parent score grew up in a clear-cut single-parent situation that no one could argue about, but he doesn’t even get credit for it because his neighbors are primarily living in two-parent households. You can’t quantify individualized information with general data!


Look - I’m not happy with the current system. I think it’s unfair on many levels. There are SO many things I don’t like about it. But at least we all know there’s a problem and we can try to work on it. I would much rather deal with a broken system that leads to constituents seeking a well thought-out solution than a quick fix that doesn’t make sense. At least in the first scenario, there’s hope for change on the horizon.

Tailoring our work to better serve our families!

Every year, my team and I at DC College Counseling seek out ways to better serve the families and students we work alongside. We thoroughly appreciate that each student’s needs are one-of-a-kind and always try to provide individualized services that meet each client’s needs. This is why we structure our packages differently from many other educational consulting firms. We realized early on, for example, that some students need hours of interview prep and others don’t have a single college interview - every one of our packages is hourly-based, so that it can be customized to meet the needs of the individual.

This spring, though, we decided to take it a step further. We’ve started asking all new students to take a personality test loosely based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I referenced this in a prior post, but it’s been a very useful process and has given us the opportunity to tailor our work to best mesh with each student’s individual personality type. If we can learn about our students prior to their sessions, we are able to gain insight into their motivations and goals. We can even use the information to help develop voice and writing style down the line.

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Personality tests are becoming more and more popular in the professional world, but we believe they can also help parents better understand their children and set them up for success long term.  We encourage you to visit, take the 12-minute test and ask your kids to do the same.  Don’t forget to ask your spouse, too - the feedback will blow your mind!

3 key benefits to taking the “16 Personalities” test for your family:

1. Parents can learn their own parenting styles and adjust their strategies according to each child’s personality traits.

2. Parents can help their high-schoolers discover career paths and college majors that best fit with their personality type (this alone should be reason enough to take the test!)

3. It encourages students to become more introspective, while appreciating their strengths and working towards strengthening their weaknesses

I’m an “Entertainer” - and while I wouldn’t say that every small detail is accurate (I plan ahead to a fault, while my personality type tends to struggle with that), SO much of it is.

A good challenge is always appreciated by Entertainer personalities, and they make wonderful and inspiring counselors, social workers, personal coaches, and consultants who improve employee or customer satisfaction … People with the Entertainer personality type are able to take a social and relaxed attitude and use it to get everyone else on board with practical tasks that just need to get done… there’s hardly a better personality type to have around in a dynamic, hectic work environment.

Pretty crazy, right? I guess I am in the right line of work!

Practical Tips for Researching Colleges

College List Research Northern Virginia

As we’ve begun the process of finalizing college lists with this year’s junior class, we realized that lists of school recommendations aren’t all that helpful if students aren’t able to narrow that broader list down to one that is manageable. This is especially the case when trying to prioritize which schools to visit.

Below I have outlined our recommendations to help students work toward finding their home away from home for the next four years, once they already have a starting point of schools from which to choose.


1. Spend time exploring each school's website. I would specifically recommend looking for information on the following:

(a) General Education Requirements - How strict/liberal are they? How do they align with your preferences?

(b) Career Center - What do they offer? What statistics do they share? Be wary of any school that brags about a 100% acceptance rate to certain graduate programs - this usually means that they restrict where you can apply to manipulate their statistics and is not a good sign, in my opinion, for a number of reasons. What about internship opportunities?

(c) Residential Life - What is the dorm situation like? What kinds of activities are offered on weekends? 

(d) School Mission - A lot of people don't pay attention to mission statements and I think this is critical! This will give you a lot of information about a school's priorities. 

(e) Alumni Relations - Which cities are represented most with alumni gatherings? How often are events planned? This will give you an idea of the strength of the alumni network.

(f) Major Information - What is offered? What are the major requirements and options? What extracurriculars are available in conjunction with that major?

(g) School Newspaper - My secret weapon! You'll learn about everything, good and bad. 

EXTRA TIP: Write lots of notes during this part of your research. These will come in handy during the supplemental essay process.

2. Take a virtual tour, either on the school's website or at

3. Create an account at Princeton Review's website ( and read their write-ups. I particularly like the "students say" perspective vs. the "school says" perspective.

4. Read reviews at (I like the "most answered questions" part).

5. Check out the "report cards" at

6. If you want to buy a book to read profiles, I like the Fiske Guide the best, personally, but I also don't really think this is necessary because you will find so much online! Some people like to read a book, though, and that is fine too!

Once you’ve checked off these steps, you should end up with a clear grasp of which schools deserve a planned visit and which do not. Don’t forget that I ultimately recommend a final college list of about ten schools: one dream reach, three “regular reaches,” three middle schools, and three safety schools.

If you have any burning questions about school, college, graduate admissions, or even high school in general, please shoot us an email and we will be sure to get back in touch.

Sorry, JMU! I tried!

I love college visits, and almost always leave campus thinking: “WOW, I want my kids to go here someday” or “No, this one is even better!” It’s rare that I leave a visit without a smile on my face - there are so many great colleges out there and it’s really hard to pick a favorite. I love playing the “If I were going to college today, where would I go?” game with myself!

With that said, it’s pretty rare for me to finish a visit feeling less-than-impressed. For a while, every time I had a visit that didn’t knock me out of the park, I questioned myself a little bit - especially if it was a school that had rave reviews from others.

Prime example: JMU. Every time I visited the campus, I’ve blamed one reason or another for the fact that I didn’t like it. After all, disliking JMU feels sort of disloyal as a college counselor based in Virginia! It’s a really good school, they have some wonderful programs and opportunities, and they are a perfect distance from our area - and my former students there are so happy. And I can’t forget the amazing food!

JMU Visit College Counseling Northern Virginia

So, the first time I visited on a blazing July day, I decided that I didn’t like it because it was just too hot. Not a great way to see a school. Then it was raining - definitely a bummer. Nobody likes a school in the rain. Well, the third visit - on a gorgeous day - solidified the fact that it’s not the weather, it’s JMU. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I just don’t like the place. I really want to like it, but I don’t. There- I’ve said it!

My most recent visit in April - a GORGEOUS day but that didn’t make a difference.

My most recent visit in April - a GORGEOUS day but that didn’t make a difference.

First, I think it’s a very unattractive campus. A pretty campus means a lot to me, and I wouldn’t personally feel the need to settle if I was comparing options for myself - there are so many other amazing schools that also have gorgeous campuses. I was trying to describe JMU’s aesthetic to someone the other day and explained that it kind of reminds me of mid-90s construction (so many palladian windows- which of course I did not capture in a photo!!) meets corporate campus meets industrial park meets traditional bluestone. The quad is very pretty but the rest of the campus just falls flat to me. Not to mention, the buildings surrounding campus vaguely remind me of post-Civil War dilapidation! I just really don’t like the atmosphere.. and I’m not even going to mention the dorms!

I do like the quad!

I do like the quad!

Sorry, but this is not a pretty library. I just want to attack it with a power washer.

Sorry, but this is not a pretty library. I just want to attack it with a power washer.

The Honors College -this building is pretty.

The Honors College -this building is pretty.

Next, I think that the public streets (and even a highway!) running through campus make it feel very choppy and disjointed. This bothers me a lot.

JMU Streets Northern Virginia College Admissions
JMU College Counseling Northern Virginia

Finally, I absolutely hate Harrisonburg. While I’m a fan of the drive-through Starbucks, I think Harrisonburg would be a pretty unappealing place to live, especially coming from our area. I feel like it’s just seen better days… about 150 years ago! I wish I had taken some photos of the surrounding area but anyone can find them online.

Why am I writing all of this out? Well, I learned from the experience, and I hope you can learn from it too.

First of all, I realized that I just had to follow my gut. If you don’t like a school, don’t force it. Yes, factors like rain can make a huge difference, but at some point you have to trust yourself. I’m obviously not visiting for the purpose of making my own college decision, but most students and parents visiting colleges WILL be. So, trust yourself. This is a big decision and if you don’t like the school, even for superficial reasons, that’s ok. There are so many options.

Secondly, and this is sort of along the same lines, everyone’s individual opinion is based on their own background and preferences. Don’t think too much about what friends or classmates like or dislike about a school. This is YOUR decision.

Lastly, campus visits are a must. Today we have virtual tours, ratings, reviews, you name it - but there’s not really a substitute for a good old-fashioned visit to campus. Maybe you will absolutely fall in love with JMU, like thousands and thousands of other students- but you won’t know until you go see it for yourself!

The Final Decision!

The “National Candidates Reply Date” of May 1 is quickly approaching, so we’ve come up with a few last minute tips to help parents support their children through what may be their first major life decision.

(Side note: it’s also completely okay if parents are the ones making the decision! In my family, s/he who will be paying the bills will be playing a large role in the decision-making process, although I know many families approach this from a different mindset!)

College Admissions Choices Northern Virginia

1. Consider which factors matter most when reflecting on the idea of “best fit.”

This goes beyond a generic pros and cons list. First, think about which factors are most important to your family. Academic ranking in a specialty field? The institution’s post-grad job placement rate? Extracurriculars that the school (and specific major) offer? What about location - do you want to embrace a college town or big city? After answering the questions that your family and student find most significant and weighting the answers accordingly, rank each school and see which name lands at the top.  

2. Reach out to your network.

Do you know any alumni who attended the schools on your final list? If you have any questions about their college experience at said school, general or specific, now is the time to ask. Chances are, if for some reason they cannot give you an answer to one of your questions, they’ll know who can and will put you in contact with the right person to provide you all of the information you’re seeking.

3. You may have to make a decision before you think you’re ready.

Students have to send a deposit to one school by May 1, and yes, this is still the case if your son or daughter is waiting to hear back from a potential waitlist option. Don’t fret if you’re admitted to your top choice school after sending a deposit to another school - you are still able to accept the waitlist spot. Just be open and honest about the situation to that first institution, letting them know right away that you’ve been admitted from the other school’s waitlist. Note: You will typically lose your deposit from the first school, generally $500 - $1,000.

4. Whatever you do, don’t double deposit!

I can’t stress this enough! Some parents may think they are protecting their child by considering a “double deposit,” the term for depositing at more than one school at a time. First and foremost, it is unethical to make this kind of commitment to more than one school, and it takes a spot away from another deserving student.  Colleges can and often do share lists with one another, and it’s not worth the risk.  Institutions almost always rescind their acceptance offers if they discover a student double deposited. 

5. Trust your gut.

You know that this-just-feels-right feeling you experienced when you first visited campus? Well, that means something. Beyond the college’s rankings and all of the other statistics, percentages and numbers thrown at you, the most important question is – could this be your home away from home? Would you be happy here? We can’t stress this enough to the students and families we work alongside. Select the school that lets you answer these questions with a resounding “YES!”

College Visits: What to Wear?

Of all of the advice that I could provide about the many different topics relating to college visits, this is what I write about? Truth be told, though, I would estimate that about 3/4 of the parent-student fights relating to college visits revolve around what to wear!

The parent that embarrasses their student with too many questions on the tour is definitely in second place, and I’ll get to that another day! (Pro tip, and I’m looking at you, dads: don’t grill the tour guide about boys spending the night in dorm rooms. Your daughter will never forgive you. Save it for a private, anonymous phone call to the residence life office!)

In any case, since I’m all about stepping in to be the bad guy, I’m happy to discuss appropriate outfits. Parents and students: free to screen-shot this and show it to one another instead of fighting!


I am writing this particular post for a typical visit involving a campus tour and information session, because most colleges do not provide on-campus interviews anymore. I realize there are still plenty that do (Wake Forest, W&M, etc.), but the majority do not. If you are attending an interview on campus or meeting with a professor, I would advise taking it up a notch.


I know it sounds silly, but this is the biggest mistake that I see. In news that will shock absolutely no one, I find that teenage boys are the one group that is not at fault for this particular issue :) However, I do see it a lot with girls and parents (or boys whose parents picked out their outfits).

For girls, it’s primarily about the shoe. Most of you cannot walk in heels, which is okay. You are a teenager and no one expects you to have extensive experience with heels! At best, you will look kind of silly if you show up to a campus hobbling around in shoes that make it difficult for you to walk. Worst case, you will look like you have no common sense. At the same time, you don’t have to wear a pair of grungy sneakers, either: find a comfortable flat. I personally LIVE in Rothy’s on college visits and even better, they are eco-friendly! If you are set on sneakers for the tour, that is fine as long as they are clean and you swap them out for something dressier for the information session.

For parents, I’d really try to avoid wearing a suit. I know this can be tempting, but think business casual, or even a cross between casual and business casual. If you wear a suit, you will stand out. In general, you want to avoid standing out and you just want to blend in with the group. I promise that when a tour guide comes back to talk about a parent that stands out, it’s not in a positive way. By the way, the “no heels” rule does not apply to moms. Typically, a grown woman who would choose to wear heels on a campus tour is used to walking in them, so that’s fine.

I’m going to throw the boys in here too - please, please, do not force your son to wear a suit. He will look silly and out of place. This is even worse than you wearing a suit, because at least you will likely look comfortable. More on what he should wear later.


Yes, I had to say it! Just because you don’t want to overdress doesn’t mean under-dressing is okay, either. It’s not. Anything ripped or torn (even fashionably so) is off limits. Certainly, nothing objectionable. I’d put the MAGA hat away, or basically any hat for that matter. In general, if a shirt has words written on it, it’s probably not appropriate to wear. Jeans are fine as long as they are “nice” and in good condition.

Also, make sure that your clothes are pressed and clean. The same khaki shorts and collared shirt will present very differently if they are wrinkled vs. straight out of the dry cleaning bag. I would strongly advise wearing a different outfit in the car if you are taking a car ride longer than an hour or so. Wear something comfortable and then stop at a Starbucks near campus to change. Even if you have a shorter car ride, you may want to err on the side of caution and bring a change of clothes just in case you spill something on yourself. I am notorious for spilling iced coffee (what can I say!) so i always have a change of clothes ready.


Especially if your visit will take place during spring break when the weather is unpredictable, make sure to consider layers. Even if you don’t want to hold extra options with you, keep them in the car. Particularly if you are visiting multiple schools in the same day, it’s very possible that the day will start off cool, become warm, and then end cool again. You don’t want to freeze or melt!


Don’t wait till the morning of the trip to pick out your outfit. Set it all out on your bed a few weeks in advance, so you have time to buy something new if needed. I would recommend laying out everything that you’d like to wear and making sure that it all looks good paired together (including shoes and any accessories), and then once you have it all picked out, try it on to make sure it fits well. This is really important, as you could wear the nicest, cleanest, most appropriate outfit and it will not look good if it doesn’t fit. Think Goldilocks: avoid clothing that is too big or too small, and shoot for “just right.” Also, if you have any doubts about how something will fit while walking (i.e. a skirt that might ride up), practice walking around the block.


College visits in the rain are the worst. If you are visiting a school locally and it’s easy to postpone your trip, you may want to do that. Otherwise, dress accordingly so that you are prepared rain or shine! If you’ve flown all the way to a school and it does rain, try not to skip the tour, as tempting as it will be. Make sure to pack rain gear and an umbrella for each person that will be touring, even if it doesn’t look like rain will be in the forecast. It’s better to be prepared, and you just know that if you lug all your raincoats somewhere, it won’t end up raining - so think of it as an insurance policy for good weather! On that note - don’t forget your sunglasses, either!

There is (apparently not) "that of God" in the Sidwell College Counseling Office

I’m sure that approximately zero percent of my readers just got that reference, but I couldn’t help myself! I graduated from a different Quaker independent school (elementary) before heading off to Choate, so maybe that’s why I find the recent antics at Sidwell to be so troubling. I’m not Quaker, by the way, nor are most of the kids who attend Quaker schools. But I very much respect and identify with their belief system, which runs 100% contrary to the behavior exhibited up on Wisconsin Avenue.

If you are not familiar with the story, you can get up to speed here:

I’ve actually been following the Sidwell story for quite a while and there’s much more to it than what has been reported in the mainstream media. Long story short, there’s a lot of unhappy parents that believe that the college counseling office is “not doing a good job” and it seems that a select few have become outspoken about it. I’m writing about it because I think that there’s a bigger-picture lesson that parents considering an independent school education can take from the situation. I warn you that this is going to be a long post!

There are amazing independent school college counseling offices in the DC area and there are also really poor ones. However, I really believe that the problem here comes down to expectations. If parental expectations about their college counselor’s role are not in line with reality, families can have the best independent school college counselor on the planet and they will not be satisfied with that person’s performance.

I have a unique perspective on this because I spent a total of eight years working in two independent school college counseling offices. I directed one of those offices for six years, and started my business while there (it grew rapidly and I had to step down so I could concentrate on it full time). For a while, though, I had a foot in each role. It was not until that time that I was really able to understand why a parent at a top independent school would hire an independent counselor. In fact, I will admit to being a little offended myself whenever I’d previously found out that one of my students’ parents had contracted with an independent counselor. This didn’t happen often at all because independent counseling wasn’t as widespread then, but I can think of 2-3 occasions. I am embarrassed to admit now that I took it sort of personally and thought that maybe they didn’t have confidence in me.

This was not the case at all. I was totally wrong.

The reason that independent school parents hire independent school college counselors is because the function of the job is TOTALLY DIFFERENT. As an independent counselor, I can do anything I want for a student as long as it’s within ethical/moral guidelines. I’m also compensated accordingly.

I can work alongside Jennifer, McClain, Alan or Elizabeth, collaborating together to spend twelve hours helping a student craft an amazing essay that we think about for years to come because it is just that great. I can ask Rebeccah to hound a teenage boy and finally start texting him repeatedly because he refuses to do his 15-minute HW assignment between meetings and we NEED HIM TO FINISH! Or I can have her run to Staples to pick up a leather portfolio and fancy paper for a student who needs to leave for her audition in less than 24 hours and is unprepared.

I can help an enterprising teenager fill out paperwork from the State Corporation Commission to incorporate her very legitimate business (which should have been incorporated anyway a long time ago), giving her the ability to take it up a notch in her activities section by reporting that she owns an LLC. I can pick out outfits for interviews and sign kids up to get the Skimm for an easy way to be informed on current events (I can also send someone home to change when she shows up in yoga pants on the way to a college fair… eeek!).

I can help with rush resumes and head shots, a ton of summer camp/program applications - I can even moonlight as a miniature babysitting agency by passing out phone numbers via private message to members of the Vienna Moms facebook group after a few girls tell me they wants to babysit more hours to enhance their activity list but don’t know how to make that happen! Actually, speaking of Vienna Moms, I can even find a former client a very legitimate and impressive internship off that same group when she comes home after freshman year to stop in and visit, and confides that she dropped the ball with her school’s career center. And I can get into about five million fights with my husband who goes to bed alone most nights and yells at me that I have no boundaries because I am sitting in my home office writing emails at 2 a.m. and boomeranging them to be sent at 9:30 the next morning!

I could literally write a novel about all of the random stuff that my awesome team and I do on a daily basis to help “our kids” reach their ultimate goals. And while I’d like to think that it’s because we are just that amazing, the truth is that it’s also because we have the capacity to help in this way. Yes, we enjoy it and we are good at it, but we also have the time. And, as I mentioned, we are compensated on an hourly basis for this work.

In my office, we work with about 30-40 students each year on an ongoing basis before closing our doors to new clients in a given cycle. We also have 6 rockstars on our team providing help. If we did not have that kind of ratio, we would not be able to give the help we give.

To be clear: I could not do ANY of this stuff for the kids with whom I worked in my position as their school college counselor. Well, I guess I did sign some of them up for the Skimm, if I’m being honest. But it was just a very different kind of relationship. It’s not that I loved them any less - I actually really enjoyed them and am still in touch with many of them and their parents. I LOVE seeing them move through their adult lives on social media (the fact that some of them are parents already sort of blows my mind). So my inability to go above and beyond wasn’t about a lack of care, concern, or professionalism on my part - it was just about time. When you have a ratio of thirty kids to one counselor, it’s a matter of math. I did much more for those kids than public school counselors could have ever done, but the parents’ expectations were also much higher than the public school parents.

Now, we have 25, 35, and 55 hours of time to work with students on a 1:1 basis - plus another 20+ hours of individual administrative help (aka nagging) provided to each student, depending on their package. Is it any surprise that we can do more for them?

I will never forget (I wonder if I should post this - I won’t say which school it was) meeting a prospective parent on a tour given by a member of the admissions staff at a school at which I worked. That in and of itself was not strange, as I met prospective parents all the time. But on this particular day, everything was unusually quiet because there were no kids in my office and the hallway was empty. As they left, I could hear the person telling the parent information that was patently false about the services that my office provided. I can understand a little spin, but this was just … not true. You should have seen the horror on my face! I was younger at the time, and it was hard for me to speak up, but I did - in a professional way - because I felt like I had a moral obligation to do so. I think about that moment all the time, basically every time an independent school parent comes into my office and tells me that their counselor is horrible.

Maybe the counselor is horrible. That’s totally possible. Counselors like that exist. However, upon digging a little deeper, it’s typically the case that the counselor in question is not horrible at all. It’s just that the admissions staff may have been a little creative in terms of the expectations that they set back when they tried to sell the school to the family.

So when they reach the college process, parents automatically assume that it must be the counselor’s fault that she doesn’t have time to edit multiple drafts of essays, provide individual interview prep or analyze an activities list. I don’t blame them at all - I’d be furious too if I paid amounts that often add up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars based on inaccurate information!

In reality, the reason the counselor doesn’t have time is not because she’s incompetent or lazy. It’s because twenty-nine other families are asking for the same thing in her eight-hour work day. Depending on the school in question, she’s also teaching one section of a class, coaching a sport, working car line duty, planning college nights, responding to questions from over-excited fourth grade parents, and the million other responsibilities that come along with life at an independent school. She’s writing the school profile. She’s planning the junior college trip. Hosting a hundred college reps. Oh and attending “administrative team,” “management team,” and “department head meetings.”

Oh and here’s the best part:

Guess what Sidwell is looking to pay their new counselor to replace the one that everyone has issue with (not the one who wrote the letter)? Keep in mind, this person must have 3-5 years of specialized experience. I can’t verify that this is true, but the salary range listed on at least one website for this position stated $45,000-$58,000 per year.

Why would anyone accept $45,000-$58,000 per year to deal with what is probably a sixty-hour work week and an abusive parent community chock fill of unrealistic expectations? I mean seriously?

So, here’s my advice (I know it took a while to get to it!). Look at an independent school education for what it is: a luxury that is often-times completely worth the money for a multitude of reasons, but one that will probably NOT, and I repeat NOT, tip the scales to get your child into a better college. Your child can get into a fantastic college from any of the high schools in our area. I work with kids that do, every single year, so I can promise that for sure. The kids from independent schools generally do end up with better recommendation letters, and if their counselors are willing to make counselor calls, that’s very helpful. Other than that, though, there’s not a heck of a lot of direct impact to admissions outcomes once you strip away the other variables that account for parental income, student ability, drive, etc.

I want to be clear that I’m not anti-independent school at all. I actually LOVE independent schools. There are a zillion reasons to go that route. If there was an independent school for elementary-aged children on our side of the Potomac that I felt would be a good fit for my family, I would be all for it - we just don’t have very many options within a reasonable commute because our public schools are so strong. I firmly believe that kids who graduate from independent schools have a whole variety of advantages and that my education had a large part in shaping my personality, abilities, and professional success.

So, parents, manage your expectations. Think about what you’ve been promised and whether it is reasonable given the staff in place and the ratios. And if you find yourself in a position where you’ve been the victim of “creative” marketing techniques, for the love of God, please do not take it out on your overworked and underpaid college counselor. Start advocating for change and put pressure on your school to increase their staff to be able to actually provide the services that they advertise to prospective families!

Top Tips for Success as a College Freshman (a.k.a. Read the Syllabus)

Today’s post is brought to you by Alan Montroso, one of our fantastic essay coaches!

Side Note: This was very much an unplanned coincidence, but this serves as a great example of a piece of writing that “shows voice,” as I discussed in my last post. You can really hear Alan in your head while you read his words. He’s a funny guy and a gifted writer, and that’s why our clients love him! Thank you, Alan!

Alan Northern Virginia College Essay Coach

As an instructor of undergraduate courses in literature, a teaching assistant in writing courses across various disciplines, and an adjunct professor of freshman writing, I want to offer some first-hand advice for students beginning their college journeys. Here are some tips from the front of the classroom, some things that your professors would like for you to know or keep in mind when you enroll in our courses.

It’s Probably on the Syllabus

Professors are required to design rich, complex, detailed syllabi that align with university policies and indicate classroom rules and regulations. We take great care in making these syllabi and trying to predict every possible question that might arise over the course of the semester; that is why we usually spend the entire first class discussing the syllabus. While it is possible that the course schedule might change due to unforeseen cancellations or the need to adjust based on student performance, policies and procedures WILL NOT CHANGE. The syllabus is like a contract with our students to ensure that they know how to succeed in our classes – and what could lead to their failure.

The syllabus is also a source of much information. Among your professor’s pet peeves, I guarantee, are questions from students that are plainly answered in the syllabus. “How many absences before I fail this class?” “See the syllabus.” “Am I allowed to use my cell phone in the classroom?” “See the syllabus.” “What texts are we required to purchase?” “SEE THE SYLLABUS.” Before you approach or email your professor with a logistical question, check your syllabus!!

Attendance Matters

One mistake that many of my freshman students make is assuming that attendance is simply not a big deal. You’re an adult now, right? Free to make your decisions about what to do with your time! Sure, but that does not mean your professors are unaware of your absences. How can we allow you to pass our classes if you are not present for them? Your professor will make very clear at the beginning of the semester how many classes you can miss before you are asked to withdrawal from the course or receive a failing grade, so take note and only miss class if you are ill. We will not exempt you from the policy if you suddenly take ill at the end of the semester but have already skipped a few classes early on.

Note as well that letters from your parents or doctors do not have the same weight as they did in high school. While we certainly want to know – and may excuse you based on circumstance – why you are absent, a dentist appointment or even a doctor’s visit due to a cold or flu does not likely mean that your absence is excused. Generally, only rare or severe situations will lead to an excused absence. Again, we do want to know where you are if you have to miss class, and we are more likely to pardon a student who has shown their commitment to our class by keeping us informed, but unless the circumstances are dire, we are not likely to excuse those absences.

Let Your Professor Know if You Are Struggling

Too often students are scared to let their professors know if they are having troubles with certain assignments. I have had many students simply choose not to submit assignments rather than let me know that they needed more time or did not know how to complete their work. While we expect that you can follow basic directions, we also understand that you are all coming from different schools in different parts of the country where you have been taught differently. Many professors – not all, but many – are willing to work with you by adjusting due dates as needed, scheduling office hours appointments, or finding other solutions to address your needs. However, we cannot help you if we don’t know that you need our assistance.

Moreover, we also understand that many students will encounter emotional and mental challenges as young adults. While we cannot make exceptions for a project due to a bad breakup, we TAKE VERY SERIOUSLY matters related to your emotional and mental health. We are not qualified to serve as counselors, but we will ALWAYS find a way to get you the help you need. NEVER hesitate to let us know if you are struggling in such a way.

Learning Outcomes versus Test Scores

Most professors that I know loathe tests as much as I do. We hate writing them. We hate assigning them. We hate grading them. What we want is to know that you have learned from the material we are teaching, rather than merely memorized what you thought would earn you an “A” on an exam. While we do often give tests, what we truly value is all the other evidence of your learning. Most of the learning outcomes described in our syllabi cannot be measured by exams alone. Participate actively in class. Take your writing assignments seriously. Produce a truly groundbreaking or creative project. Ask questions during guest lectures. Chat about our classes with us during office hours. We value these other proofs of your learning much more than your ability to ace an exam.

Alan S. Montroso will be receiving his PhD in English Literature from the George Washington University in May. His scholarship focuses on the relationship of humans and the environment in medieval literature. He has taught English Literature courses and served as a writing instructor at GW while working on his PhD, and is presently employed as an Adjunct Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College.

Future clients interested in more tips to succeed during freshman year in college can book a Strategy Session here.

Current students interested in working with Alan on their college essays should contact Rebeccah at admin at dccollegecounseling dot com - Alan works mainly via skype during the academic year, so we don’t have him up on our online scheduling portal for in-office meetings.

Reader Questions: Voice

Today, we are back with the last post of our “Reader Questions” series! Have a burning question about school, college, or graduate admissions, or even high school in general? Please shoot us an email and we will add it to the queue for the next round!

Q: After attending information sessions with my daughter, I noticed that admissions officers at all types of schools recommend that students write an essay that shows their “ voice.” I am not sure that I understand what voice is and how to show it? How will they actually know whether it is her voice or not?

A: In writing, the concept of voice generally refers to the author’s style - their unique tone, characteristics, and personality. Basically, it’s what makes the piece “sound” like the author. You are right that admissions officers discuss this a lot! This is because many parents (and college counselors) try to take over the essay process. Admissions officers WILL KNOW if an essay is written in your daughter’s voice. Keep reading for an example at the end of this post.

Student Writing College Essay

It is natural for parents to want to do everything in their power to make sure their children are offered the best college opportunities possible. As a result, it can be very tempting for parents to exert too much control over their children’s college essays, both in terms of topic selection and the manner in which the essay is written. Sometimes, parents may even think about writing the entire college essay for their kids. Either way, the result is usually the same. The college admission officer will see that a parent or other adult became overly involved in the writing process, and most likely, this will also make them wonder what other aspects of a student’s academic career a parent has influenced, leading the child’s integrity to be questioned.  

Colleges value the personal statement as an opportunity to get to know students “off paper.” It is one of the few opportunities students have to distinguish themselves from the thousands of otherwise similar applicants with straight As and high test scores. By the time students begin considering their college essays, it’s one of the only part of the application that they can still fully control (if only we could go back to repeat ninth grade math class for a better grade...). This is why it is so important for students to maintain control of their essay--it is their opportunity to share what matters to them, which is typically something that is not reflected in the rest of the application. When parents become too involved in this part of the process, the essay will often be riddled with clichés and thesaurized vocabulary. And when “sounding smart” and writing about what one thinks an adult wants to hear becomes the focus, the authentic voice of the student becomes lost.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t read your child’s essay? Not at all. But know where to draw the line. It’s very, very hard to get this right - even for professionals - so I can completely commiserate. I think it’s actually harder for parents who write a lot in their “day jobs,” because they usually have a professionally-trained written voice that is about as far off as you can get from teenage creative writing. No one struggles with this more than attorneys! After years of trying to achieve the perfect balance ourselves, we adopted the WOW Writing Workshop method and have never looked back.

Aside from limiting parental involvement in the college essay, there are several other steps that students can take to make sure their essays provide a clear understanding of their personalities. Essays with voice are essays that sound natural. This does not mean that they should be written in the way that a student speaks or texts, but it does mean that it must sound like a teenager wrote it. The essay should tackle a topic that matters to the student. Sometimes, the best essays are about everyday, ordinary situations that reveal something meaningful about the writer. Strong college essays are descriptive, precise, and perhaps most importantly, honest. And while the essay should not be over-edited by an adult, it should be clean, or error-free with regard to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. This will allow the student’s ideas, and thus their distinct point-of-view, to be the focus.

Let’s take a look at a few opening sentences of an essay written from an adult’s perspective, and then from a student’s:

Adult’s Perspective

When I consider the aspects of my childhood that have most influenced my identity as a soon-to-be college student, the many traditions and rituals my family has built over time immediately come to mind. Our Christmas traditions, which include wearing matching Christmas pajamas and eating a fondue feast every Christmas Eve, have been especially monumental in teaching me the importance of valuing the little moments in life.

Student’s Perspective

By the time one enters high school, wearing matching outfits officially becomes uncool. But every year, for just one day, my brothers and I enthusiastically commit this form of social self-slaughter. Clad in our red and white, tight-in-all-the-wrong-places PJs, every member of my family of six squeezes onto our living room couch for our annual Christmas photo--perhaps the only time that my teenage brothers and I agree to be photographed without objection.

Be honest...which essay would you rather read? Which one sounds like it was written by a student? Which one seems like it will tell an interesting story, rather than simply answer a question? The second one is better because it is written in student-friendly language that is still “clean.” It also reveals an important part of the student’s life--one that an admission officer definitely wouldn’t know about otherwise--in a vivid, unique way.

If you do feel like you need some extra help, please reach out. Most of the 11th grade students working with us on an ongoing basis are either finished with their main essay or just about there! Set up an appointment today for a “Meet & Greet” to discuss how we can support your family.

Reader Questions: Teacher Recommendations (Part Two)

Today, we are finishing up our second part of the response to our reader question about teacher recommendation letters. Have a burning question about school, college, or graduate admissions, or even high school in general? Please shoot us an email and we will make sure to address it in a future post!

To recap, our reader asked:

My daughter goes to Madison and loves her teachers, but there are so many students in each class. Every time we attend an information session, colleges talk about the importance teacher recommendation letters. I’m starting to get nervous that she will wind up with a “blah” letter just because her teachers are so busy. I just don’t think they know her very well. Are these actually that important? Is there anything we can do to get around this?

Our first post detailed the best way to ask a teacher to write a letter of recommendation. Today, we will focus on how we help students provide their teachers with meaningful notes that result in great recommendation letters. Note: we are certainly not suggesting that you write the letter for your teacher! This probably goes without saying, but writing the letter on your teacher’s behalf is not the right approach. Besides the fact that it is fraudulent, it would also be really insulting to hand your teacher a pre-written letter.

Here at DC College Counseling, we begin by giving every student a detailed questionnaire. We have carefully chosen questions that allow our students to articulate their strengths and academic interests while also reminding their busy teachers of their performance in class throughout the year - from accomplishments to challenges. Each of our questions are targeted to make sure that the teacher has all of the information he needs to write a superb letter - putting the burden of the leg work on the student and making sure that nothing is overlooked. Parents and students tackling this type of work at home can come up with their own sets of questions that relate to the student’s progress and performance in the classroom environment.

Great Teacher Recommendation Letters College Admissions Process

Here are some tips consider while answering these questionnaires:

Tip #1: Provide as much information as possible!  In addition to basic ideas, such as your favorite units and overall performance in their classes, we also encourage you to think of ways that their classes have impacted you in real life, inspired you in your extracurricular activities, or could relate to your chosen academic path. Ask yourself questions such as: 

  • Did you create a truly explosive project for your chemistry class? 

  • Have you developed new and exciting interests because of cultures you studied in a foreign language class? 

  • Are you pursuing admission at colleges with strong STEM programs because you were so inspired by your Algebra II or Physics teacher? 

  • Have you gained any related experience from summer jobs or internships? 

  • Do you have a closer relationship with a family member because of something that you learned about world history? 

Providing details your teachers might have forgotten will help them enliven their pictures of you! 

Tip #2: Keep your letters different! Since your teachers will be using your request letters to inform the content their recommendations, we also encourage you keep your request letters quite different from one another. These letters should be personal and illustrate different strengths. Moreover, you want the college admissions folks to get a broad range of your abilities and personality, rather than multiple letters simply repeating the same things. It’s fine to cover the same themes (after all, that would only make sense - your strengths and weaknesses as a student are likely to be relatively similar from class to class, regardless of the specific course content). However, this is the time to think back to the “show, don’t tell” advice that you have probably heard so many times. Make sure to include plenty of anecdotes unique to that particular course. Your teacher can then pick and choose which to include - or maybe these will jog her mind to think of an entirely different anecdote to share!

Tip #3: Don’t worry if you didn’t get the highest grade from your favorite teacher!  We ask our students to address that type of scenario in the questionnaires (if applicable), because teachers generally respect a student who struggled but put forward their best effort. Odds are good that a student in this situation will have exhibited many other qualities worth praising beyond the actual grade itself. 

Tip #4: Get some help! Once our students complete their two separate questionnaires (one for each letter), we will review their responses and weigh in to identify the most important pieces of information: the details that will trigger their teachers’ fondest and most important memories of their time together in the classroom. We will also help our students fill in any major gaps that could resonate with college admissions committees. Once that questionnaire is complete, we help our students transform their answers – using only the information that our students have written – into a narrative format that is chock-full of informative information. Students working at home should ask their parents or maybe even a different teacher for help with this process. It can be useful to have another set of eyes to help differentiate compelling material from fluff, or even worse - excuses!

Students who follow the above guidelines will be in fantastic shape, no matter how many letters of recommendation their teachers need to write. Remember, though - this entire system will only work if you have positive anecdotes to share and a good experience to reference. If you are disrespectful, fail to do your homework, and chat with your neighbor instead of paying attention all year long, all the notes in the world are not going to help you!

We tackle this process with our ongoing clients in late spring of junior year, typically after spring break. However, we can help other students on a one-time basis through 11th grade strategy sessions. Book yours today!