College Admissions

Coming Full Circle in South Bend

Gosh, it has been such a busy fall and I have clearly been a failure as a blogger lately! I will start posting regularly again once things calm down a little. Today, though, I felt inspired.

As many of you know, I visit about 30-40 colleges per year. Often times it’s easiest to do them in spurts, on pre-conference tours with other counselors. These marathon visits are absolutely exhausting because it’s school after school after school, but we get great face time with the admissions officers, and the visits are much more in-depth than they’d be if we just signed up and toured a school as a member of the general public (although I do those too). During the past few days I have been to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross College, St. Mary’s College, and Goshen College. Tomorrow is Purdue University, Valparaiso University, and Bethel University. Then I am headed to Louisville for a conference and finally to check out the University of Kentucky in Lexington before heading back to DC. My feet are about to fall off :)

The reason I’m blogging today is not to share information about those schools, although I do want to post more about my visits because I have learned a TON. I’m writing a post because staying in South Bend has really made me think about the crushing disappointment of college admissions decisions and how they can be so utterly devastating for a teenager.

When I was 17, there was nothing more in the world that I wanted than to go to the University of Notre Dame.

I don’t think my desire to go to ND was based on anything concrete besides a really fun weekend visit on campus when I was a junior, but I had made up my mind and ND it was. My college counselor told me that despite my high SAT scores, it was a stretch. Obviously, though, she did not know what she was talking about. Of course I was going to get into Notre Dame! I had worked so hard!

When I think back to myself as a teenager, I was pretty savvy, or at least I thought I was! I went to boarding school, was very independent, thought I knew more than everyone about everything, and I was highly skilled at convincing people to give me what I wanted. I zipped up and down the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak most weekends alone or with friends, and even had elite status on my favorite airline because I was so used to jet-setting all over the place! The thought that Notre Dame would not accept me was a concern, sure, but I really did believe that I would get in. I deserved it. Just like tens of thousands of my peers did :)

Most teenagers believe that they are invincible. The rules do not apply to them. Common sense does not apply to them. Graphs and scattergrams on Naviance and Scoir do not apply to them. Girls, by the way, are much worse than boys when it comes to this.

When I got outright rejected (not even deferred!) from Notre Dame, I was SHOCKED. Devastated. Hysterical.

Of course, it wasn’t about Notre Dame at all. It was about the fact that I really wanted something that I couldn’t have. Man, that is a really hard lesson to learn. That no matter how badly you want something, how badly your parents want it for you, or how many people you can sweet-talk, it’s not going to happen. That is absolutely crushing, but it’s also part of becoming an adult and slowly realizing how the world works.

I see this same scenario play out year after year, and what I certainly didn’t realize at seventeen is that it’s even more devastating for the adults involved than the teenagers. To watch your child be rejected - it’s like a dagger to the heart. It’s just horrible. Especially when there are lots of tears involved.

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So if find yourself in this position in December (which some of you will, given the absurdly low acceptance rates that we are sure to see yet again), here are my words of wisdom: getting rejected from Notre Dame was the best thing that could have happened to me. I really mean that.

It’s like that movie Sliding Doors: if I had gotten into Notre Dame, I would not have ended up at Wash U, which had an incredibly flexible curriculum that allowed me to graduate a year early without too much trouble. If I hadn’t graduated early, I wouldn’t have decided to “take a year or two off before law school”. I’d probably be an attorney somewhere with piles of paperwork on my desk instead of having a blast on my entrepreneurship journey. I would definitely not have met my husband the week after I graduated when I was 21, wouldn’t have my kids, and so forth.

Much more importantly, though, I wouldn’t have gotten the wake-up call I needed to understand that life wasn’t fair and that things were not always going to go my way - whether I “deserved” them or not. This rejection, as painful as it was, represented a turning point that helped me become the person I am today and had a very positive ripple effect on many other areas of my life. 18 years after I first stepped foot on this campus, I can truly say that I am so very grateful that things worked out the way they did.

So while there’s not going to be any bigger advocate for a student than me, know that if the dream school admissions decision doesn’t come back favorably, all is not lost. Things will work out. I promise!

Practical Tips for Researching Colleges

College List Research Northern Virginia

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Check out the "report cards" at

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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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!