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!

Early Admission Trends of 2018-2019

Is it me or is winter moving very quickly this year? I’m not sure if it’s because most holiday breaks lasted further into January than usual, or because of all of the inclement weather-related school cancellations in January - but I feel as if I blinked and February came around!

Now that we are past the immediate post-deferral stage with our seniors, and our juniors are all at various stages of their college essays with the Wow Writing Workshop, I can finally take a minute to digest all of the news from the early round! I thought it would be a great time to share some of the trends that I noticed, because this year was a real game-changer. Those of you who know me in person are probably rolling your eyes, because - yes - I said the same thing last year too. The truth is, though, every year just gets crazier and crazier. The landscape is constantly changing and students need to understand and adapt to the changes in order to maximize their chances of success.

In late December, I waited with baited breath as most of the early admission decisions came in. I have posted before about this on our facebook page, but it’s a really stressful experience. I’m not big into politics, but I can imagine that it’s a bit like working as a political campaign manager. No, I’m not the applicant, and the campaign manager isn’t the politician - but when you put your heart and soul into helping someone else achieve their goals over a very long period of time, it’s only natural to become emotionally invested in the outcome. Fortunately, I belong to a great online forum of other college admissions professionals with whom I can share perspectives, results, and experiences to learn about trends nationwide. Around decision time, posts run the gamut from commiseration to celebration to a whole lot of anxiety, but at least it is nice to be in good company. I noticed a particular comment by the Director of Enrollment Applications at the University of Miami, Jay Jacobs, that stuck out to me and essentially summed it all up. He generously agreed to let me share it publicly with my readers:

A lot of us are much more competitive due to increased applicant pools. We are now in the era where “last year” will never look and feel like “this year.” “This year” will look and feel different than “next year.”

Doesn’t this say it all? It’s hard to imagine that the changes are so extreme from year to year - but they are. I had never thought about it that way before - rather than the “before” and “after,” we’re really in a constant state of flux.

Here were some of the biggest trends I noticed:

#1: Early applications were up - WAY up. Boston College dealt with a whopping 56% increase in early applications between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. Can you even wrap your head around that?

#2: Applications from underrepresented populations were also WAY up. This is not surprising given that underrepresented populations are being actively recruited to top schools. UVA explained that “the number of minority applicants increased by 24 percent, and the number of first-generation applicants increased by 18.6 percent. Included in the increase in minority applicants was a 32.5 percent rise in African-American applicants and a 21.9 percent bump in Hispanic applicants.” Brown described their overall application increase of 20% as “staggering” and followed up with the fact that applications from the Midwest had risen by 43% in the past year. Confused by the Midwest reference? You shouldn’t be - it’s sparse country.

#3: Schools are filling up enormous percentages of their classes through binding early decision spots. I won’t write about why they do this, because I’ll save that for another day - but I’ll explain why it’s relevant: the more students that a school admits early, the less students that the same school can admit regular. This turns into a situation where the “overall acceptance rates” that are typically posted on institution web sites are simply inaccurate. You must dig deep into the school’s Common Data Set - or use a chart like this one - to determine the acceptance rate that corresponds to a given application type.

For instance, the most recent data showed that Hamilton College filled up 53% of it’s class through early decision. This resulted in an enormous differential - their ED acceptance rate was 41% and their RD acceptance rate was 22%. You just can’t consider a school’s “overall acceptance rate” when you are dealing with two wildly separate processes.

Same thing with Cornell - they filled up 42% of their class early, and those students were admitted at a 26% acceptance rate. Their regular decision students, on the other hand, were admitted at an 11% rate. If you go by these schools’ published acceptance rates, or those written in guidebooks, you’ll get a third percentage entirely - one that is not accurate for early decision or regular decision. That’s pretty scary when you consider that a lot of families are using inaccurate information to guide their decision-making.

What do I think about these trends?

To be honest, I’m not sure that my personal feelings matter all that much. I understand why the colleges are making the decisions that they are making and I understand why the applicants are making the decisions that they are making - and it doesn’t matter whether we agree with them or don’t agree with them- the bottom line is that we need to accept them as our reality. I thought this article was a great one in terms of dealing with frustration and the messaging that we are sending our children. As Jay suggested, this is just going to become a more competitive process every year - we may as well accept what we cannot change and start strategizing accordingly.

Yes, I'm Still Very Much Interested

There was a little bit of back and forth on our facebook page last week about whether it is a good idea to send a letter of continued interest (LOCI) to UVA or not. I’m actually really glad that came up, because it’s a perfect example of why it is so important to work alongside one’s high school counselor. UVA’s page for deferred students indicates the following:

Other than midyear grade updates or new standardized test results, we will not be able to review any edits to your application or additional information. Please do not send additional information, including recommendations, during this time.

I agree with the person that commented on the facebook page - this certainly sounds like they don’t want any kind of application updates. However, after years as a school counselor in which I had quite a few counselor calls myself - and many more years helping school counselors make those calls (including this year!) - I can assure students that UVA will still accept updates to a student’s application if there are updates to share. And to be honest - if you don’t have any updates to share about your senior year, that’s not a good sign. Hopefully, a student’s senior year represents the climax of an exciting an engaging high school experience - so why wouldn’t you share these new accomplishments? One of the blog comments, written by a UVA admissions officer, reinforced this message:

If you feel there is an important update, it's fine to upload that in the portal. We don't expect that and interest is not a factor, so we don't push people to do that.

The bottom line: go see your school counselor! That person will be able to help let you know the best course of action. Write your LOCI, but ask for your counselor’s help in tailoring it to the specific school(s) of interest. With a school that does not take demonstrated interest into account, like UVA, that will require a very different approach than a school like Emory, for which demonstrated interest is extremely important.


Here is our template for writing a generic letter of continued interest to solidify that post-deferral foot you have in the door:


Your first priority in your introduction is to graciously thank the admissions officer for reviewing your application and clearly express that said school remains your very first choice.


This may be the most important paragraph within the letter.  Most likely it’s been several months since you submitted your application, which means they are in need of an update.  Did you recently receive a scholarship?  Were you awarded an honor?  Perhaps you started a new job or became caption of the basketball team.  Think of 1-3 achievements to highlight what it is that happened since the admissions department heard from you last.


Have you visited the campus again? Did you meet a current student, recent grad or alumnus?  Include these topics in a personal story that further exemplifies why this school is your perfect match.  Be sure to share a new detail and not something that could be found or inferred through your initial application.


Thank the admissions staff once again for their time and consideration, while restating your intent to attend said university upon receiving acceptance.

And lastly.. don’t forget to PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS!

You’ve meticulously combed through your application and you want to handle this letter with the same care.  

If you know whom you’re writing to, make sure to include their name.  For example, start your letter with “Dear Ms. [insert last name].  If you’re unsure which admissions officer will receive your letter “Dear Admissions Officer” will suffice.

Make sure never to convey any negative feelings you have about being waitlisted or deferred in your letter of continued interest, in any communications with the school and to any alumni or faculty of the university.  Those feelings are best shared with trusted confidants, such as your parents, counselor, or us!

Double check your deferral/waitlist letter for any instructions or requests the school may have for you.  In some cases, schools will say they do not want any further communications with applicants and will let you know their final decision by a specific date.

For further insight into creating a pitch perfect letter of continued interest, schedule an appointment at our office here.


Well, it’s been a week since the UVA decisions were released and I know that there are lots of unhappy families in Northern Virginia as a result. I get it: it’s an amazing school at an amazing price. Who wouldn’t want their child to go to UVA? What’s not to love? I meet with families all the time that actually chose to live in Virginia because of UVA when their children were very young - or before they were born! After that kind of commitment, of course an unfavorable answer would feel crushing. How could it not?

University of Virginia Admissions

The good news, from my end, is that UVA decisions still remain relatively predictable. A student with very high test scores and very high grades that has chosen the most challenging curriculum at his high school should be admitted to UVA, as long as the essays, extracurricular involvement and recommendations are equally strong. Yes, even if he went to Langley. Or McLean. Or Madison. Or Oakton. There are no mysteries here. In my opinion, the devastating “how could this happen” stories that relate to UVA usually involve amazing, phenomenal kids who are missing the test scores, the grades, or the rigor. Unfortunately, this level of predictability is not the same at most other top schools, where rockstar valedictorians working to cure cancer can be rejected without a second thought and we are all just left to sit back and wonder why.

At this time of year, we receive a lot of phone calls from the aforementioned unhappy families who have heard the news that is sometimes even worse than a rejection: a deferral. At least a rejection has a sense of finality. Deferrals raise questions, anxieties, and all kinds of emotions, and it’s no wonder that families decide to bring in a professional to help navigate the situation.

Here’s my advice:

  1. Determine what the deferral actually means. At Georgetown, literally every single student is deferred. No one is denied! Obviously, you are not in any kind of select group. At Columbia, on the other hand, very few students are deferred. A deferral means that you really may have a chance. All deferrals are not alike.

  2. Ask your high school counselor for help. Beyond the information that is publicly available, such as the fact that Georgetown defers everyone, your counselor should be able to help you find out information specific to your unique situation. This takes place through what is known as a “counselor call.” Your counselor can set up a phone appointment with the admissions officer at the school from which you were deferred in order to hear insight on your decision. Independent counselors, by and large, cannot make these calls; however, I regularly work in tandem with school counselors to prepare them to make successful calls on my clients’ behalf. Teamwork!

  3. Write a letter of continued interest that shows your continued enthusiasm for the school, your willingness to enroll if admitted, and any updates that have occurred since the point at which you submitted your application.

Need help on your individualized deferral game plan? Fill out our intake form and we can help. Still up for the DIY approach? You’re in luck - come back next week to find a blog post devoted to formulating the most effective LOCI possible!

Thinking About "Going Greek"?

At DC College Counseling, we love keeping in touch with our past clients and hearing about their lives in college. Sorority recruitment at many schools just ended within the last week, and it has been fun to hear stories from our freshmen all around the country!

Along the same lines, many high school seniors watch their older friends on social media and come back to us with lots of questions about the process.

PC: Vanderbilt University

PC: Vanderbilt University

Here are a few thoughts that I put together for girls (and their parents!) to consider:

  1. GREEK LIFE TODAY IS NOT THE GREEK LIFE OF YESTERDAY. At least for girls, anyway. Rush has been replaced with recruitment, pledges have been replaced with new members, and hazing is NOT TOLERATED within the National Panhellenic Council. Sorority membership gives women the chance to make new friends, gain leadership experience, and be a part of something bigger. Yes, there are social events too, but this is not the main focus of greek life today - truly.

  2. THINK CAREFULLY ABOUT WHICH HOUSE IS YOUR TOP PICK. A friend gave me some great advice before I went through this process myself: choose the house with girls that are already like you, not the house with the girls you want to become. Do you like spending Friday nights watching a movie with friends while eating popcorn? That’s the house you want to join - not the one that is throwing mixers every night. Know who you are and what will make you happy. This is not the time to reinvent yourself. I found - both while in college and now as an adult watching girls go through the process - that the girls who were true to themselves ended up very happy. The “horror stories” are typically from girls who were set out to join the “top house” at any cost.

  3. DON’T FORGET TO ASK FOR RECOMMENDATIONS. You should have learned this already in the college admissions process! When a component of an application is optional, it’s really not optional. Same goes for sororities, particularly at competitive Southern state schools. It’s really best to make sure that you secure at least one recommendation from an alumna of every national sorority on campus. Don’t feel overwhelmed by this process - people are happy to help. I LOVE writing recommendations for girls with whom I have worked and I know most women feel the same way. Ask your teachers, friends’ mothers, and neighbors: you will be surprised to learn how many have a sorority affiliation. Trust me, they would love to do this for you.

  4. ALL CHAPTERS ARE NOT THE SAME. Part of the beauty of a national organization is that chapters are very different from school to school. Life in a sorority at the University of Alabama is going to be incredibly different from life in a sorority at the University of Michigan, which in turn will be incredibly different from life in a sorority at Boston University. Many schools do not have houses, for example. Learn about the culture at your own school as you determine whether you want to pursue greek life. The same goes for costs, by the way. Sorority membership is incredibly expensive at some schools, and it’s very inexpensive at others.

  5. “CHI OMEGA IS FOR A LIFETIME.” This statement was drilled into my head in college and I’m sure that every other organization has their own version of it. At the time, though, I did not really understand the value of being part of something bigger. It was not until after I graduated, when I moved to New York City knowing no one, that I began to appreciate what this meant. I was able to jump right in and become involved with a great group of women that I never would have met otherwise. When I moved to DC four years later, I was able to do the same thing. Now that I am a mother of two children, I have a built-in network of babysitters by calling the local chapter at George Mason. I can honestly say that I’ve gotten even more out of my sorority affiliation post-college than I did as an active member, and I’ve never even used it for networking purposes the way many women do.

  6. GRADES MATTER - Most senior girls are shocked when I tell them that their high school grade point average is a big part of the selection process, especially at big Southern universities that are not known for being as academically competitive in terms of admission. This is a good reason to keep grades up at the end of senior year. No matter how much a sorority wants to take a certain potential new member, they are forced to cut her if her grades do not make the cutoff (refer back to #1 - academics are a priority today!).

Wondering why this entire blog post is about sorority recruitment? The process - and experience - is very different for boys and girls, in both positive and negative ways. If you are interested in fraternity recruitment, we recommend picking up a copy of Alexandra Robbins’ new book, Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men. She wrote a similar book on sororities over fifteen years ago that is now outdated and an inaccurate representation of sorority life today.

All in all, this should be a fun and exciting time. If you have specific questions, please reach out to us!

Interview Like a Pro

The colleges are interested.  They’re requesting interviews with you.  Whether you’re sitting down with an alumnus, a current student or an admissions counselor, our interview prep at DC College Counseling ensures students are poised, confident and ready to showcase themselves in any interview scenario.

An interview, whether in person or on a video call, is another opportunity for students to sell themselves while allowing their passions and personalities to shine.  Here are three key tips to ace your next college interview!

northern virginia college interview tips


Put yourself in the shoes of the interviewer.  What would they want to know about you and your plans for the future?  Once you’ve brainstormed 5-10 questions they may ask, generate answers to those questions.


Are you seeking clarification from something you read online?  Are you interested in how you can build your own curriculum?  Do you want to know if you can start your own organization on campus?  Come up with 3-5 solid questions that could not be answered through online research.  Dig deep and get creative, show your interviewer that while they may have done their homework on you, you also did your homework on the school.


Again, and again, and again.  Nerves are natural, but you want to put yourself in a position of strength, where you know you will succeed.  Rehearsing is how you do this.  Whether you’re driving home from school or standing in front of your mirror, make time in the days leading up to your interview to practice both asking and answering the questions you’ve formulated above.

For further support and guidance on how to master the art of an interview, contact our office to schedule an appointment!

Winter Reading

I decided that today’s snow day would be the perfect time to recommend some “winter reading” in preparation for college essays, because summer will be too late!

Unless there are some major changes over the next few months, it’s likely that students applying to UVA, Emory, Wake Forest, Columbia, Davidson, Princeton and others will need to write an essay or at least reference a recent book read - in some cases, multiple books! Questions about books are very common in college interview settings.

What’s the best kind of book to pick for this purpose? Well, for starters, make sure it’s something that you’d actually enjoy reading. One common misconception is that it is better to pick a book that sounds “academic.” I actually think that this is the worst kind of book to pick! Any college admissions officer worth her salt is going to know that a 17-year-old did not sit on the beach reading War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged for fun. That will be perceived as extraordinarily inauthentic at best and a lie at worst.

Instead, my personal favorite type of book for this purpose would fall in the “popular non-fiction” category. Definitely geared towards a mainstream reader and easy enough for a beach read, but still relevant and important for an intellectually curious person. Bonus points if the book is somewhat related to a hobby, passion, or potential area of study.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy. This is great for anyone, because the opioid crisis is an enormous problem facing our society right now. However, I’d particularly recommend it for anyone interested in public policy, political science, medicine, public health, sociology or psychology.

  2. Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Another text that’s great for anyone, and it got so much press this year. A particularly good choice for education or social science majors.

  3. American Prison by Shane Bauer. A good option for those interested in law (particularly criminal justice reform) and race relations. This is a little less mainstream than the first two and may be a harder sell for someone that has no demonstrated interest in anything related.

  4. Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Another popular selection that anyone would like, but definitely good for those interested in technology or psychology.

Check out the New York Times for more ideas!

Cognitive Dissonance and the Check-Listed Childhood

How many parents out there have read Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, or watched her Ted Talk on the concept of what she defines as a “check-listed childhood”? I am starting to think that everyone in America must have, because her views seem to come up in conversation constantly. If you are not familiar, you can find the video of the Ted Talk here and it’s definitely worth watching if you can’t make time to read the book.

When I first watched her Ted Talk, I was mildly horrified. I agreed with everything she said, of course, and thought about her message during my first rodeo in the world of competitive parenting this fall. I have a first grader, and she took the NNAT on November 13 - my birthday (oh the irony!). I know that many other parents prepped their children for the test; I did not, and I felt really great about my clearly-superior parenting skills. I was going to do this the right way!

As mid-December moved into late-December and we still hadn’t gotten her score back, I turned into a crazy person. I checked SIS like a maniac. Or would it come in the Wednesday folder? In her backpack? Finally, I learned that the letters had been mailed and that I would receive the score on Christmas Eve through the mail. What first seemed like bad timing was actually incredibly well-played, because then parents couldn’t contact the school with questions and would have to wait two weeks to simmer down. Smart.

I spent most of Christmas Eve waiting obsessively for the mailman to come. I wanted it to be high, so she would have a good shot at the AAP program. I saw him come from an upstairs window and made my husband run out to grab it, and stood in the kitchen opening the envelope with my heart pounding, like a complete and total idiot. She is six years old. She did well, by the way, probably not high enough to be in-pool for AAP, but it was a good score. She is a smart kid. Still, I was disappointed (don’t worry, she was not home and she has no clue that this score even exists). Clearly, my decision to forgo test prep was not in line with my goal of a high score.

The entire experience helped me identify with my clients on a deeper level in terms of the concept of cognitive dissonance - particularly in relation to our goals for our children and the effort that it takes to achieve those goals. At the core, we all want our kids to be happy and fulfilled, right? I don’t think that there are many of us that want to push our children over the edge. We all realistically know that test prep for a first grader is probably not a great idea, just as we know that pushing high school kids to overwhelm themselves with coursework that requires studying until 3:00 a.m. each day is not a good idea.

Yet, and this is especially timely at this time of year with course registration on the horizon: how many of us actually modify our goals for our children in response to the decisions we make as parents? It was easy for me to say that I wasn’t going to prep my first-grader for the NNAT, but it was harder to feel fine with the eventual outcome. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t force twelfth graders to take AP Calculus or continue with a slate of activities that they no longer enjoy, but it’s so much harder to truly feel fine with the idea that UVA may not be in the cards anymore because of those decisions.

I don’t have a magical solution to solve this problem (I wish I did!). It would be so much easier if my daughter just scored perfectly on her own and if all the kids with whom I work are naturally Harvard-bound without any kind of intervention. Ultimately, though, I think that there is a balance between a check-listed childhood and free-range parenting, and that balance may look different for each family.

I would urge parents to consider these types of dilemmas while acknowledging the consequences in the context of our ultimate goals for our children. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily adjust our goals or adjust our parenting decisions, but we do have to come to terms with the idea that decisions lead to consequences, so that there are no surprises down the line in terms of an inability to achieve goals. There may be situations when we as parents decide that a little pain now is worth the end result, and there may be situations where we decide it isn’t.

As for me, I have a lot of strategy and planning sessions on my calendar this month and will be discussing course selections at length. I will continue to tell everyone that I highly recommend AP Calculus to students that hope to be competitive applicants to highly selective schools, if AP Calculus is an option on the table. Yes, even for the kid that’s not interested in math. And yes, a fourth year of a foreign language (not to be confused with level four) is equally important… IF the goal is UVA. But it doesn’t have to be!

Coming Home to Stay

I recently came across The New York Times article When a College Student Comes Home to Stay and felt it necessary to add my two cents, given my experience working with so many families and students over the years.

In previous generations, everyone looked forward to college. Arrival on campus for freshman orientation represented freedom, new friends, and a major step towards adulthood. Today, the lead-up to college has spiraled out of control, and arrival on campus represents so much more: a sought-after prize that justifies a decade (or more!) of sacrifice.

college admisions northern virginia.jpg

As students work tirelessly to perfect their college essays and try desperately to increase their ACT scores following years and years of pressure, they often can’t help but develop very unrealistic expectations about the end goals that they are trying to achieve with so much hard work. This idealized version of college certainly doesn’t leave room for imagining days caught in the rain without an umbrella, courses with terrible professors, evenings missing family and friends from home, or poor scores earned during the first round of exams.

When the bad days come - and there will be bad days, even at Harvard - students are stunned and surprised. They often start thinking something is wrong with them or that they cannot handle college altogether.  95% of the time, nothing is wrong at all; they are simply experiencing the ups and downs of daily life. Because this happens so often, I find it increasingly important to guide families during the college application process to maintain a realistic viewpoint, and I encourage parents to have discussions with their children about the realities of college and the “real world.”  

The better perspective these students bring with them to their freshman year of college, the less likely they will feel as if the world is crashing down around them when they are no longer in the top 10% of their class, get their first C in a course, or aren’t getting along with their roommate. 

Of course, there are also situations when something more serious is at play. Should a student come home from a break or their first year and not want to return, or transfer to another school, all is not lost.  Here at DC College Counseling, we not only serve high school students and their families that are embarking on the college application process for the first time, we also enjoy working with students who would like to transfer to a better-fit school.  Every year we assist students from a variety of backgrounds who were unhappy with their first college selection.  

Many of our clients are interested to learn that countless schools, such as UVA, have much higher acceptance rates for transfer students than incoming freshmen.  In fact, we find that students who do transfer schools often have better and more options available to them than when they applied to college during high school.  No matter what your family seeks or needs, always know that many options exist and we are here to help.

This year, I am thankful for WOW Writing Workshop!


It is finally that time of year again: everything has settled down, almost all applications are in, and we at DC College Counseling can reflect on the entire admissions cycle while everything is still fresh in our minds. Without question, the best decision that we made for the Class of 2019 was to undergo training in the WOW Writing Workshop method. As soon as I finished, I knew that we had to put it into use immediately, which we did! I’m happy to report that it was wildly successful, resulting in the best set of college essays I have ever seen - truly.

We are absolutely certain that this tried and true approach is the single best way to coach students to build essays that will result in acceptance letters from their top-choice schools, and I am excited to share a bit more about it here.  Students with a variety of writing skills and abilities are able to craft thoughtfully written stories that showcase who they are and why colleges should select them. Best of all, it’s not a painful process in the slightest!

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the WOW Writing Workshop is its focus on using the student’s voice - not mine, the essay coaches in our office, or their parents. I know firsthand that undergraduate admissions departments can instantly spot an essay that a student did not actually write (check out this article from the New York Times for more on that topic). Through the WOW Writing Workshop, on the other hand, all students are given the command to use their own voice and truly sell themselves in an authentic way.

The guided step-by-step program begins with understanding the essay prompts, such as those belonging to the Common Application and the Coalition Application.  This first step is critical to writing a series of captivating essays, as students can often miss the mark when they just jump right in to outlining the story they wish to tell.

The subsequent steps that lead up to the actual writing of the essay include brainstorming exercises, story ideas and themes centralized around what the student wants the admissions office to learn about him or her beyond test scores, activities and awards.  Instead of students regurgitating information seen in other parts of their application, the essays that allow students to stand out and shine, displaying unique aspects of their personalities, leadership styles or defining moments that shaped who they are or what they wish to study in their undergraduate curriculum.

Each step of the WOW Writing Workshop is matched with a video and set of exercises to keep each student on task and accountable.  This ensures that by Step 5, “Write Draft 1,” students are confident that they are answering the prompt correctly and to their best ability.  After the first draft is written, the remaining steps of the workshop focus on polishing and refining.

When it comes to revisions, the WOW Writing Workshop trains students to see their essays with a fresh set of eyes.  Alongside the students, the essay coaches and I will ask questions to fill in any potential storyline gaps and encourage additional detailed descriptions to really set the scene before tackling grammar and spelling corrections.  In the final two steps of the program, we will examine the essay and its prompt with a fine-tooth comb.  At the conclusion of the process, students will hold an exceptionally written essay that exhibits the “WOW factor.”

I have to admit that the last benefit of this program was somewhat unexpected. I have heard from a number of senior parents this year who felt that the process actually helped their students become better writers as a whole; not only were their students taking the steps needed to maximize the likelihood of acceptance letters from the schools of their dreams, they were simultaneously developing much-needed skills for the future. We are very excited to continue WOW with our next crop of students in the Class of 2020!