"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 16personalities.com, 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 youvisit.com.

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

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

5. Check out the "report cards" at niche.com.

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 extra-gross. George Fox is turning in his grave. 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 by our “friends” up on Wisconsin Avenue (that was clever, right?!).

If you are not familiar with the story, you can get up to speed here: https://www.today.com/parents/college-counselor-warns-parents-stop-sabotaging-other-kids-t151612

I’ve actually been following the Sidwell drama 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 chosen to express this in a very immature way. So, why I am I writing about any of this? Well, I have a few thoughts and I think most parents considering an independent school education for their children can learn 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, they 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 literally 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! #truth

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, to be frank, 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 WAY more for those kids than public school counselors could have ever done, but the parents’ expectations were also WAY 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. I know at least two independent school college counselors in this area that I would 100% say are “horrible” so I certainly cannot deny that they 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. 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!

Reader Questions: Teacher Recommendations (Part One)

Today, we are back to 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 make sure to address it in a future post!

Q: 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?

A: Yes, teacher recommendation letters are very important! As colleges and universities attempt to determine who a student is and how a student might fit within their academic environment, letters of recommendation give admissions committees a chance to learn about an applicant’s talents and personality in the classroom setting from someone they know they can trust: teachers.

One very, very common mistake is that teachers are not really given the support they need to write these letters. Most simply don’t know how to write a good letter - they don’t know what that entails. When I worked in admissions, I saw this all. the. time.

Teacher Letters of Recommendation Help.png

Let’s start with recognizing the ways in which a seemingly nice letter can hurt an applicant. First, we have the “generic letter”.

“I highly recommend Joey. He is an asset to my classroom and a pleasure to see each day. He takes his work seriously and is a good role model to his classmates. I am confident that he will bring this same work ethic to college and will achieve much success.”

Nope. We just learned absolutely nothing about Joey. The committee thinks: “This teacher knows nothing about Joey. He was probably a good student but must not have distinguished himself very much.” This is the most common type of recommendation I see from well-meaning teachers who think that they are writing a beautiful letter.

Next, we have the “let’s change the subject” letter.

“Allison has the nicest smile - it brightens the entire classroom every day and makes it a great place to learn. She’s also an amazing lacrosse player and brought the entire team to the state championship!”

Nope. When an admissions committee reads about that smile, or the lacrosse championship, they think: “this teacher had nothing else to write about. Allison must not be as great in math class as she is at lacrosse!'“

Next, we have the “growth and potential” letter.

“Matthew has achieved so much growth since he began at Langley as a freshman. I know that he will continue to grow more as a person and a student during his college years, and look forward to hearing about his continued improvement when faced with the rigors of college life.”

Nope. When an admissions committee reads about an outside activity that is not related to the course, they think “Oh boy. This teacher had absolutely nothing positive to say about Matthew, even in terms of extracurricular activities or personality! We are not going to take a chance on Matthew’s potential for growth when we could take a student instead that has already achieved that growth!”

So, you have reason to be concerned. The good news is that the recommendation letter challenge is very easy to overcome. The first step is to ask the teacher the right way.

1. Tell the teacher what you need and give him an out. This is not the time to be shy. Moreover, don’t put pressure on them: no teacher wants to disappoint a student, but a teacher with hesitations is not the right person to be writing this letter. I recommend that all of my students ask for letters of recommendation with the following language: “Do you think you know me well enough to write me a supportive letter of recommendation?”

You are making it very clear that you need a recommendation that is supportive, while also making it very easy for the teacher to decline the request on the basis of how well they know you.

2. Next, ask the teacher if she has a questionnaire that she uses to collect information to write the letter. Many teachers today have questionnaires like this (more so at private schools, but there will be some teachers at every school that use these). Good for them! Teachers that ask students to fill out questionnaires are generally experienced recommendation-writers.

3. If the teacher does not have a questionnaire, offer to provide your own notes to assist in the process. No, you are not telling your teacher what to write. He can ignore every word. However, you are doing the hard work for him. You are giving him examples and anecdotes that he can’t possibly remember because he teaches a hundred kids at a time.

Next up: preparing the notes and/or questionnaire answers. We have you covered - stay tuned!

Reader Questions: Setting Yourself Apart

Today, we are back to 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 make sure to address it in a future post!

Q: Every college counselor says that teenagers need to “set themselves apart,” but what does that even mean? Why is this important anyway?

A: First of all, you don’t really need to worry about this unless your student is trying to go to a highly competitive school. Less competitive colleges won’t be focused on whether an applicant is unique or not; they have other priorities.

The reason this becomes important for students applying to the most selective colleges and universities has to do with the quality of the applicant pool to those institutions: in other words, most of the applicants are completely qualified for admission! There are so many kids applying to the same programs with the same straight As and the same test scores. When an admissions officer reads a hundred files from excellent students and has to pick five of them, which will she pick? The ones that stand out. The applicants that “set themselves apart” are the ones that stand out from the rest of the pack in positive ways.

Twenty years ago, stellar grades and exceptional SAT/ACT scores were essentially a guarantee that a student would get into a highly selective college. Now that times have changed, we suggest that students hoping to gain acceptance to America’s most selective colleges and universities consider building their own unique brand at the start of ninth grade. The good news? It sounds more complicated than it is. If you do this right, it won’t be difficult at all.


1.  Discover your passions

What do you love?  What gets you out of bed early on a Saturday morning?  You’re more than just a student and you’ll want to show that to colleges.  Are you passionate about community service or a cause?  Can you connect that to your favorite musical instrument or sport?  Have you dreamed of starting your own business and selling your artwork?

Take some time early on in your high school career to reflect and brainstorm how you want to spend your time when your head isn’t in a book.  Don’t just sign up to be a volunteer because you think that will look good down the road to admissions counselors.  Instead, choose activities and organizations that align with your strengths, values and passions.  When you combine what you’re good at with what you love, you’re pretty much destined for success!

2.  Show commitment

How will colleges know that you’ll be a dedicated student and a great ambassador for the university?  They will not simply look at what you do outside of school - they will delve deeper and look at your level of commitment.  The longer you’ve been involved with a team, a program, or a non-profit, the better.

If you’ve been a key contributor to an organization for years, you’re proving to the admissions counselors that you take commitment seriously and are involved for the right reasons.  It also shows that you’re personable, work well with others and understand responsibility.  

Here at DC College Counseling, we always encourage our students to show, rather than tell.

3.  Go above and beyond

Get out of the “good enough” mindset.  Even if you have no clue where you want to go to school or which majors interest you most, you can still lay the foundation for an impressive college application by trying your best and making the right choices - even when you don’t think anyone else is paying attention. In the long run, your hard work will pay off.

Don’t be shy.  Always think: “What could I do to improve the world around me?” If you think of an idea to improve your community, your school, or an organization, don’t keep that information to yourself. If you end up with achievements as a result, reach out to your local media or nominate your work for a coveted award.  A little publicity can always affect and improve the quality of your brand.

Scandal Aftermath: Regulation

In my last post, I discussed my fear that the SSD process would become even more difficult after the events of last week. When it comes to the next topic, I’m actually hoping for a much-needed change in an area that needs more oversight: the unregulated educational consulting industry. I touched on this a little bit when I was on Fox 5 on Tuesday night.


I am normally not one for big government but I really believe that some sort of regulatory body for my industry is needed - badly. Ironically enough, I don’t think that the Rick Singer con-artist-types are the real problem in terms of preying on the public. Anyone working with him knew what he was doing and they knew what they were doing. Of course, it is completely unfair that those students were admitted over other qualified students, but I don’t think that Rick Singer’s behavior actually represents an enormous threat to the country at large from the college counseling community. Especially now, I would hope that parents and students would know better than to resort to fraud.

The much bigger problem, in my opinion, involves the consultants on the opposite end of the spectrum - the “I just got my child into UVA and now I’m qualified to provide this service to others” type. The numbers vary depending on the source, but when I started my business back in 2010, there were about 2,500 educational consultants nationwide. Now, that number approaches 15,000. That’s pretty incredible to consider.

Even so, only about 1,850 of those 15,000 belong to IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Why? Because IECA requires its members to be qualified. We have to visit a certain amount of schools, obtain graduate degrees in relevant fields, acquire years of experience, provide references, and agree to a code of ethics. On the other hand, the vast majority of America’s 15,000 educational consultants do not belong to any organization that requires its members to qualify for membership or abide by a set of best practices.

It’s very difficult for a consumer to differentiate between those with experience and those without, because a lot of college consultants embellish or even flat out lie about their background. There are local consultants right here in our area that have nonsense all over their websites. It kills me to see this. How is it that the local barber requires a license and education professionals do not? I really think it’s appalling.

Most don’t visit colleges, don’t pursue professional development and continuing education, and I would put money on it that some of them probably don’t even pay taxes on their income. I know that there are many hard-working families out there that end up falling for this and it really upsets me to see that happening. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And I truly say this out of concern for the general public, not because I am trying to cut down on the competition (I have a full client load each year and ultimately have to stop accepting clients during each application cycle, so I am not impacted by the hucksters from a business standpoint- I’m just embarrassed to be associated with them).

I implore families to ask potential consultants how many colleges they visit each year. Better yet, ask some detailed questions about those visits, or about educational sessions attended at recent conferences. Even if the regulations that I want aren’t possible in terms of exams, qualifications, or professional development, why can’t the educational consulting industry create a system similar to FINRA’s BrokerCheck? An easily accessible, mandatory background report of each consultant in the industry would give consumers the ability to separate the good from the bad.

I know I probably sound frustrated, but I am frustrated. These individuals are preying on innocent families and taking advantage of the overwhelming fear that parents and students feel about the college admissions landscape today. I realized last week that so many of the major players in the college admissions industry are right here in Northern Virginia (College Board in Reston, IECA in Fairfax, NACAC and Common App in Arlington) and I really believe that our local elected officials have a duty to start stepping in as a result. I am not a particularly political person, but I am going to make my voice heard on this!

Scandal Aftermath: Students with Disabilities

I have a regular twice-weekly conference call with a long-time client, and we were on the phone Tuesday morning when the news hit. We were speaking on my landline, so I was able to notice when my phone started lighting up over and over again with each email I received about the situation. We sort of digested the news together before getting back to to our issues at hand. “Back to doing it the old-fashioned way!” she joked.

As the day progressed, and particularly when I came back home that night and read the entire 204-page criminal complaint, I became more disgusted by the minute. I still can’t wrap my head around how these people thought they would possibly get away with this kind of behavior. However, the entire situation has raised a number of issues in my mind that I’d like to address in the coming days. We’ll loop back to reader questions soon!

I’d like to start with the the impact of this situation on students with disabilities. I am often approached by media outlets to serve as an expert resource on matters relating to the admissions process; today, I discuss this very issue in U.S. News. I served as an SSD Coordinator for a number of years at an independent school as one of my duties as their Director of College Counseling, so I am pretty well-versed in this process. I also help a number of my own clients go through the extended time process each year, and I have a child at a Fairfax County Public School with a 504 Plan. So, I have done this as a school administrator, an outside consultant, and a parent.


I would assume that anyone reading this post is aware of the ways in which Rick Singer manipulated the SSD process, but I’ll recap just in case: he worked with families to fake disabilities during psycho-educational evaluations order to get incorrect diagnoses, then pushed the kids through the system (including repeated appeals in some cases) until they were granted extended time through their schools and testing agencies. At that point, he was able to use the relaxed regulations for students with legitimate disabilities (individual proctors, private testing environments, and so forth) to cheat the system through fraud.

This is going to make the system so. much. harder. for all the kids out there with legitimate disabilities. It honestly makes me sick to my stomach to think about. School systems in our area, as well as the College Board and ACT, are already concerned about parents “working the system” and they already make it needlessly difficult in many cases. So this will, in effect, take a broken situation and make it worse. This is going to be crushing for the students who need these accommodations and are entitled to them under federal law.

In recent years, the College Board has relaxed their standards a little bit by agreeing to give students the same level of accommodations that their school system provides them in a school-based setting. This is where kids at independent schools have an advantage, because those schools will generally give them what they need without a fight. On the other hand, I have found Fairfax County to become more and more difficult in recent years. The longer parents wait, the harder the accommodations are to get, especially for a bright child without behavioral issues. This is why I made sure that my daughter had them on record now, even though she doesn’t actually need them at the moment (she has a diagnosis to support them so this is completely on the up-and-up). I don’t want to find us in a position later where she needs them and can’t get them because she has good grades without a history of accommodations… and I see this happen ALL THE TIME!

Fortunately, from my experience as a parent, the process was very easy. Her school counselor was amazing and really advocated for her. The reason for this, I would imagine, is that most parents of first-graders aren’t out there falsifying diagnoses (give it another ten years!). However, this is not the case on the high school side. Counselors in our area see overzealous parents pushing for unnecessary accommodations, and now the kids who actually need them can’t get them as a result.

I can think of two clients in particular this year who tried to get accommodations and were turned down, and I genuinely believe that the decisions were wrong. It makes me so sad to watch them struggle when I don’t think that they have an equal playing field. I also have two separate seniors right now who had to appeal the process repeatedly - over and over again - until they were finally approved. It cost their families so much money and time. Talk about inequity - how many families have the resources to keep filing these appeals? Most Americans would not have been able to pursue it. Both of these students’ ACT scores skyrocketed once they finally got the time that they deserved, which has now had a major impact on their college choices and merit scholarship offers.

It’s not a coincidence that each of my examples above relate to female students. This didn’t make it into the story, but I actually told this reporter that I actually think that high-achieving girls are going to be the hardest hit if we see even more crack-downs because of this scandal. I referenced this recent article from the New York Times (a must read for any parent with a daughter) - as the author states, girls are “relentless” and “hyper-conscientious". Not all of them, of course, but by and large, most girls learn to over-compensate for any difficulties that they face in the classroom. The end result leads to sleepless nights, anxiety, and a feeling of never being good enough.

At the same time, they manage to squeak by with decent grades as a result of so much hard work. Their parents usually don’t realize that there is a problem until they are in tenth or eleventh grade when they simply cannot keep up anymore, or when their standardized test scores show major discrepancies when compared to their high levels of academic achievement. It’s usually too late, though, because they have already established a pattern of long-term academic success and it’s next to impossible to get the accommodations after that. Now you see why I made sure my daughter had her accommodations in place as a first-grader! I am not going to find myself in this situation if I can help it, after watching so many girls suffer needlessly.

Why so much focus on girls? Well, boys tend to react differently in a situation without needed accommodations. They are much less likely to over-compensate from an academic perspective and tend to act out behaviorally. So, teachers and parents notice at an early age and it’s just a lot less common for them to make it to tenth or eleventh grade without the help they need. It happens, just not all that often.

All in all, I sincerely hope that College Board, ACT and the school systems will take time to consider what has happened here in the context of the bigger picture before rushing to judgment. There are so many capable students who need these accommodations and rely on them for the equal opportunities they deserve.

If you would like to learn more about standardized testing, extended time, or any of these issues as they relate to your own child’s individual situation, feel free to come in for a one-time strategy session.

Reader Questions: Resumes

Today, we are continuing 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 make sure to address it in a future post!

Q: When [my son] applied to college, you helped him create a resume. Now it’s my daughter’s turn, and I have heard from some people that resumes are no longer required but others say that we still need to send one. Can you clarify? If she does need to do it, what kind of resume do we send?

A: Students used to be able to include their resume as part of the main Common Application, in the writing section. This option was removed and students were not able to submit them at all for a few years. Some resorted to mailing it into the admissions offices as a work-around. This was not helpful and flooded the admissions offices with extra documents that were not anticipated. Because of this, the Common App changed its policy again to allow colleges to choose whether or not they would like to receive resumes in the college-specific supplement. We recommend that our students keep a resume on file for use in these supplements, summer program applications, scholarship applications or even as a template for their first internship resume in college. At some point, this will be used, and it’s better to have it ready than to scramble down the line.

Perhaps you’re applying for a scholarship and a resume is required, or maybe your colleges of choice allow you to attach yours as an additional document in the supplement section. Regardless of the motivation, it is evident that presenting a well-written resume gives the admissions office - or a future employer - a few more reasons to place your application in the “Yes” pile.


Besides the obvious (proofreading!), let’s outline a few key strategies to use while crafting a strong resume:


Before you start typing, jot down your greatest accomplishments on a piece of paper. Categorize those achievements under “Education,” “Leadership,” “Professional Experience,” “Extracurricular Activities,” “Skills” and “Honors or Awards.” You may not use every section within your resume, but this is a good place to start.


Transfer the information you wrote down above into your computer. Under each heading, describe how you actively engaged in the organization, made improvements, sought out challenges, exceeded expectations, etc. Do this using action verbs and quantifiable phrases, such as “under my leadership the club surpassed all years previous in donations, raising $15,000 for our annual giving campaign.”


Once you’ve populated your resume with the most pertinent information, it’s time to go back and format. At DC College Counseling, we advise our students to keep their resumes to one page, using a legible font without additional frills. The point of this resume isn’t necessarily to show your creative capabilities, but to display everything you bring to the table.


Yes - you now have an amazing resume and it’s natural that you want to share it with everyone! However, it’s important to follow directions. If a college wants your resume, they will offer you the upload option in their supplement or will request it another specific way. Do not mail the resume in as a work-around when a college does not ask for it or offer the option to upload it. It will appear that you are not following directions and do not respect the process.

To receive a full step-by-step resume template, or to schedule a coaching appointment with one of our resume experts, please book a session here.

Reader Questions: Grades vs. Rigor

Today, we are kicking off 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 make sure to address it in a future post!

Q: We are about to finalize sophomore year course selection and can’t decide what to do. Is it better to make Bs in AP classes or make As in easier classes? With the time involved in X’s soccer commitments and Boy Scouts, there is no way he can make As in AP classes. He’s very intelligent and wants to do well, he just doesn’t have time and we can’t push him to spend five hours each night on homework when he doesn’t get home until 7:00. I told him I would check with you before he decides whether to take AP U.S. History and AP English over regular U.S. History and English 11. He’s hoping to go to Georgetown.

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A: If X is still hoping to go to Georgetown, he needs to take the most challenging courses available to him and he needs to make As in those classes. There is simply no way around this. He also needs to continue to have a vibrant extracurricular and leadership profile, so dropping soccer and Boy Scouts is not an option either. Note: I am not suggesting that it is healthy to stay up until midnight every night studying. It’s not healthy and it’s not what I would want my own child to do. But if this is the only way for him to make straight As in rigorous courses, he’s either going to have to do it or he’s going to have to find a new college choice.

Imagine that you are at Thanksgiving dinner and run into your niece, who just graduated from college. She is working as a temp at Facebook (could there be a more perfect place to start your career?!) and is angling for a permanent job offer. Could you take a second to give her some advice, she asks?

She REALLY, REALLY wants this job, but she recently came to the conclusion that she’s simply not able to attend meetings and get all of her work done. If she’s going to finish her work, she just doesn’t have time to go to meetings. There are just not enough hours in the day to do both; she’d have to come in really early and stay really late, and she would barely get any sleep once her commute is factored in. There would be so many ramifications for her work-life balance and she clearly just is not going to be able to do both. Which should she pick, she asks you?

DC College Counseling

What would you tell her? Is she more likely to get the job she wants if she stops attending the meetings or if she stops making deadlines?

A. Skip the meetings

B. Forget the deadlines

C. Find a less demanding job at a company that prioritizes work-life balance

D. Suck it up, Sally

The bottom line: just as there will always be another eager 22-year-old who is happy to skip hot yoga to prove his worth in the office, there will always be thousands upon thousands of other high school students that are able to manage rigorous courses and straight As alongside a slew of impressive extracurricular activities.

There’s nothing wrong with adjusting priorities. Your niece could find a ton of great jobs that wouldn’t over-work her and would still give her the chance to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But if she wants to work at Facebook, she’s going to need to make these kinds of sacrifices. And if your son wants to go to Georgetown, he’s going to need to make sacrifices too.

Maximizing the High School Experience: A Teacher’s Perspective


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

High school: two words that ignite strong emotional reactions in adults everywhere.

For many of us, these words bring back memories of a carefree time. For others, high school may be associated with awkward school dances or that one teacher.

Today, however, for adults whose kids are quickly approaching the teenage years, the term high school can trigger a very different reaction. Anticipation. Anxiety. Confusion. Due to the constantly evolving nature of technology and advances in pedagogical theory, school looks much different today than it did 20 years ago. I have no doubt that these advancements, coupled with the fact that the college process becomes more competitive every year, contribute to any nervousness parents may feel as their children approach high school.

I’ve been fortunate to work both as an English teacher and an administrator at two very different local schools--a JK-12 independent school and a public high school. In my current position, I teach the most advanced level of English offered at my school, as well as general education English. What I’ve learned is that regardless of the type of school your child attends or the academic rigor of their classes, the recipe for success is largely the same. With the right habits, high school doesn’t have to be something your children get through. It can be something they actually enjoy.

Here are some suggestions to promote your child’s success in high school:

Create a routine. Especially if your child is taking a rigorous course load, transitioning from middle to high school, the workload can feel overwhelming. It is essential for students to create a consistent after-school routine to juggle their many academic and extracurricular demands. This will look different for each student. Most kids need a short break after school before diving back into school work. But the students I teach who struggle with procrastination and completing work lack a set schedule outside of school, and this often leads to working into the early morning hours. This obviously takes a toll on not only their academic records, but also their physical and mental health.

Discover and pursue interests. It’s not a coincidence that the most involved students in high school are also some of the most successful. Encourage your children to get involved with something they are truly passionate about (or to discover what that even is). Whether it’s sports, clubs, the arts, or student government, extracurricular involvement will enable them to form connections with their school beyond the classroom. Students who invest in their schools in this way often begin to care more about how they do in the classroom as well.

Self-advocate. Changes in best practices have led schools to offer many opportunities we simply weren’t afforded as students. These include the ability to ask for more time on assignments, and to retake or make corrections to assessments. Most teachers offer these supports, but in most cases, your child will have to ask for them. Many schools also build study hall time into their schedules for students to seek help from teachers.

Build relationships with teachers. I continually tell my students that they will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This of course leads to laughter and that classic teen eye roll, but it’s true! Students who create a positive, respectful, and friendly rapport with the adults in the building reap the benefits, whether that means using their classroom as a quiet study space after school, getting extra help, or receiving glowing recommendations for leadership opportunities or even college.

Do things right the first time. I teach students who, feeling stressed about everything on their plates, often rush through reading or assignments just to get them done. While this can be tempting, even for adults, rushing through work often results in students having to redo their work or relearn concepts, and performing poorly on large assessments. Making sure their academic work is done right will actually save your child time in the long run, and make the learning stick.

After graduating from Clemson University, McClain began her career in education at Flint Hill School, where she worked in Upper School Admission and coached field hockey and lacrosse. McClain then graduated from George Mason University with a masters degree in Secondary Education English and Curriculum & Instruction, and began to work for Fairfax County Public Schools as an English teacher. Currently, she teaches IB English Literature II and English 11.

Future clients interested in more tips to help maximize the high school experience can book a Strategy Session here.

Current students interested in working with McClain on their college essays can make an appointment here.

Independent School Admission Tips for Success

In my last post, I briefly discussed the two top considerations that independent school admission officers use to evaluate a candidate’s fit. This time around, I’d like to share some practical tips to help families achieve success in this process:

  • Do your own research and keep an open mind. It can be really easy to make decisions about the right school for your child based on information from your friends or even friends of friends. However, you will receive the best information about a school from the school itself. Scour their website (i.e., go beyond the admission page). Have conversations with not just admission professionals, but also current parents, students, and faculty (many schools can make these connections for you if requested). It is important to keep an open mind when considering the “best fit school” in which your child will thrive.

  • Visit schools, and visit early! I encourage you to schedule tours at a wide variety of local private schools with your child. This will enable you both to determine what you are really hoping to find in a school, and to ensure that you are applying for the right reasons. Most tours include conversations with not just admission officers, but also teachers, coaches, and administrators, making them a great opportunity to learn about schools’ communities and values. I suggest visiting schools the spring before your child applies so that you know exactly where you will apply as you enter the fall admission season.

  • Be aware of admission deadlines. Most local private schools require that applicants complete all steps of the admission process by mid to late January for admission the following year. Many won’t even consider an application if even a small part of it is submitted late.

  • Attend school events.  A great way to get to know a school is to attend its events. Admission events are effective for learning the nuts and bolts of a school, and spending quality time with the admission team and some administrators. However, even more valuable to truly understanding a school is attending community events--homecoming, sports games, arts events, etc. This will enable you to observe and interact with students, parents, and teachers in an authentic environment. Also, attending multiple events, admission or otherwise, sends the message that you are serious about the school and helps admission committees remember your child come decision time.

  • Schedule a shadow visit. If you move forward with submitting an application to a school, most private middle and high schools will offer you the opportunity to schedule a “shadow visit.” This means that your child will have the chance to actually attend classes at the given school for a half or full day. You should take this opportunity, as it will help your child determine if he or she can see themselves in each school environment. On the other hand, passing on a shadow visit suggests to the admission committee that a family might not really be interested.

  • Prepare your child, but don’t overdo it. Most admission processes for middle and high school require a student interview. It is important to talk to your child about what that will be like. Share that they will have a conversation with a member of the admission committee, and that this is an opportunity for them to get to know him/her as a candidate “off paper.” The admission committee will ask questions about the student’s interests, educational habits, home life, etc. Parents should also encourage students to be themselves and relax. Over-preparing your child will often lead to anxiety, a robotic conversation, or excessively rehearsed responses.

  • Follow through on the little things. Encourage your child to write handwritten thank you notes to tour guides, the interviewer, any coaches/teachers who met with him/her, etc. You as a parent should also do the same, either with a handwritten note or email. This may seem like a small gesture, but these personal efforts are remembered.

Hitting the Rewind Button: Independent School Admission in the D.C. Area

There are many benefits to living so close to our nation’s capital, including the incredible options we are able to pursue for our children’s education. Not only is the D.C. area home to some of the best public education systems in the country, but it also includes excellent private options. On the other hand, these many great choices can create confusion. Where should my child apply? What is the process like? What are her chances of getting in? It’s not an easy decision and it’s one with which I continue to struggle myself, as a parent.

Northern Virginia Private School Admission Consulting

When I started DC College Counseling back in 2010, my goal was to use my expert knowledge to guide families through the college admission process. Even though I ultimately spent eight years of my career working in independent schools, independent school admission was not on my radar. However, along the way, two developments occurred: first, families began to ask if we could assist their younger children with private school admission after we worked with their older children during the college admission process. These parents realized how much we were able to help simplify everything and wanted the same level of assistance at an earlier stage.

After guiding families through that process a few times, the next development occurred in the form of a lightbulb that went off- we realized that we were actually uniquely poised to do so with an insider’s perspective on each school community, because of our college admission work! We assist so many area private school students with the college admission process that we have picked up quite a bit of insider knowledge along the way. While it wasn’t initially our intent to use it in this capacity, we actually have a pretty clear view on the strengths and challenges of many area schools. Not only do we know their communities, their administrators, their curriculums, and their teachers - we are able to learn about the school within the context of the very reason many parents opt for private school in the first place - outcomes.

If you are stressed about the private school admission process, remember these key points:

Schools genuinely want to set your child up for success. They are looking for students who they believe, first and foremost, can thrive academically within their specific rigorous college preparatory environment.

Schools also seek students who will diversify their student body. Yes, this means fostering racial and ethnic diversity within the community. However, diversifying student interests and talents is considered to be just as important. Independent schools want to welcome students who have genuine and unique passions and who will be engaged in the life of the school.

Try to move forward while keeping these ideas in mind, and begin to develop a strategy to show your student’s diversity and potential for engagement. However, you also need to make sure that you are putting your child in the right environment. If they don’t have the capacity to succeed, it’s not the right fit.

Stay tuned for more specific tips in our next post, and good luck to all of the families hearing their independent school decisions in the next week!