The Edge Our college admission blog

Showing You Care (In Your College Essay)

by Katie Z, Ph.D September 8, 2016


We’re thrilled to feature another post by our in-house writing expert, Greta Myers.  Prior to joining the Admitster team,  she taught AP English at a college preparatory academy in Seattle, where she also served as Head of the English Department. As a teacher of high-school seniors, she walked her students through writing their college application essays every year, and has seen students who show depth of character through their essays, as well as read essays that fall short. Read her timely advice on how to best communicate caring and commitment in your college essay!

A year ago, one of my AP Literature students said something to me that I’ll never forget. When I asked my class why students are tempted to cheat, this young woman responded: “Colleges only care about grades. They don’t pay attention to how we get them.” Her words haunted me. What if she was right? What if, amidst all the grade-grubbing and test-taking, colleges had ceased to care about students’ integrity and character? Well, according to a recent report, entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Making Caring Common project, my student was wrong – what a relief!

College admissions committees are increasingly looking for students who demonstrate that they care deeply about something, while standardized test scores and GPAs are decreasing in importance. These higher learning institutions have come to realize that students who are self-motivated and demonstrate strong character are often more successful than students who are simply jumping because Harvard says “jump.” For students and parents, this is good news. That is, these shifting priorities from admissions panels give students permission to prioritize activities they love and – dare I say it? – spend fewer hours studying for the SAT. It also reminds all of us that integrity is not something to be thrown to the wayside in the pursuit of the Ivies. Rather, it is the cornerstone of a productive life, and can also help to boost college applications.

So, how exactly does this manifest itself in a personal statement? After reading hundreds upon hundreds of essays, both as a teacher and an expert at Admitster, I can tell you that the students who demonstrate “caring” in their writing are easy to spot. What’s more, those are the essays that are remembered. Here are some tips to consider in your own personal statement brainstorming – and life planning.

DO: Show The Before And After

In order to show that you care about something, readers need evidence that the “something” has played a transformative role in your life. Ergo, we need to see a transformation. Begin your essay describing who you were before this person, place, or thing entered your life. Be honest about your weaknesses and initial failures; not only will that establish your credibility, but it will also make us cheer for you later when you need to describe your strengths without sounding arrogant.

One of my favorite essays came from a student who candidly described how, in his pursuit of popularity, he’d let his grades fall apart during his sophomore and junior years. Seeing a shockingly low GPA mid-junior year stunned him into action. He drastically shifted his priorities to focus more attention on school and, for inspiration, even started reading books about successful people. When I worked with him during his senior year, he was one of my most motivated students. This was because he had learned to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and not only to earn a high grade.

Nice DayAnother memorable essay came from a girl whose father had decimated her self-esteem after years of verbal abuse. The changing moment for her was receiving a kind and encouraging text from a friend in a moment when she really needed it. She made a point to start spreading similar encouragement, leaving post-its for her friends in their lockers, thanking her teachers, and writing notes to her basketball teammates. She grew in her own confidence and earned positions of leadership. Reading about this student’s journey made her transformation convincing and her kindness vivid. Both students allowed obstacles to ultimately strengthen them by choosing to care. This was highlighted through seeing the full arc of where they began, as compared to where they ended.

DO: Provide Evidence

Students who are pretending to care about something often only have hyperbole to lean on: “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.” To a reader who doesn’t know you, these are wasted words. Why should they believe your statements if there’s no evidence to back them up? Students who actually care about something usually have proof to demonstrate their passion.

As an example, one young man started tutoring fellow students out of a grudging obligation to fulfill a service requirement (there’s the “before”); however, he fell in love with teaching and continued tutoring long after his obligation had ended. He went on to develop a tutoring curriculum that was adapted by other teachers and learning professionals. Another example comes from a student who wrote about feeling inspired from seeing street art in Iceland. She then went on to describe her own efforts to create “livable art” by building a small tea-house in her backyard, complete with French doors, bookshelves, and a sitting area. Both students supplied concrete facts showing they cared enough to apply effort to their passion. It’s no surprise that colleges are seeking these kinds of young people. Someone with passion, follow-through, and a strong work ethic makes a great college student, not to mention a successful adult.

DO NOT: Get Saccharine Or Pitiful

I’ve read more essays than I care to admit wherein the student describes a child in a developing country with a beautiful smile and shining eyes; the essay writers often identify this child as displaying “pure joy.” This would be a beautiful image if we could count on it being true, but often what the author displays through overly-flowery writing is naiveté. Readers ask, “What is the definition of joy here? How do we know this child was expressing more than just childish delight?  Does the student know anything about this child beyond the fact that he has a beautiful smile?” Real caring usually doesn’t lead to a primrose path of happily-ever-after, as most people discover challenges and flaws when they make an effort to truly invest somewhere. Therefore, sugary descriptions should be avoided as they ultimately undermine credibility. Similarly, if you want to write about something sad or difficult, don’t try to elicit pity from your reader with woe-is-me statements. Instead, stick with facts.

One memorable essay came from a student who traveled to Guatemala on a service trip and became horribly ill. She described her “sick room” – the mosquitoes, the heat, her fellow invalids, the kind teacher who cared for them – all facts. Later, she described her resolution to do something to care for her teacher, since she hadn’t been able to carry out her original goal to help the Guatemalan people. I still remember this student’s description of collecting money from all the sick students, then weakly waddling to a nearby art studio to purchase a painting that their teacher loved, but wasn’t able to afford. The story showed the student’s positive attitude, sense of humor, initiative, heart for others, and that she cared – and without dipping into syrupy sweet prose or a resentful tone. How? She described the facts of what had happened.

DO NOT: Fake It

Many college essay writers try to fake caring. They start by describing an important moment, but typically have little to share about how they subsequently changed. The result is unimpressive. In contrast, students who project genuine caring often admit their passion started off as a guilty pleasure – the moments spent in the basement working on an art project when Civics homework was waiting, or stopping to play basketball with a downtrodden neighborhood kid instead of rushing to work. One of my busiest former students wrote her personal statement about the inspiration she encountered when playing with an old film camera in an abandoned lot when it happened to be bathed in sunlight. There were a million other things this student could have spent her time doing, but instead she let passion grow. She explored, she experimented, she fed her creativity. Later, she found herself doing the same sort of exploration when studying the human brain, and wrote about how her experimentation with a camera had ultimately lead to her desire to study neurology. She took her eyes away from the grindstone long enough to discover what she actually loved, and is now on her way to becoming someone who will tangibly care for others as a career. Other times, students stumble into caring by taking action first. I can think of several students who participated in community service activities as a school requirement, but were then transformed in spite of their initial reluctance. When a genuine transformation occurs, there’s usually a profound story to tell.

If you’re not sure how to begin seeking out something to care about, take a lesson from these students. Put down the phone, step away from the screen, and seek out a service opportunity that intrigues you, or give yourself permission to indulge a passion. Moments of whole-hearted investment ultimately shape students into the motivated, compassionate, proactive individuals that colleges are looking for. The Turning The Tide report is great news for high-schoolers. No longer do students need to focus on what they’re supposed to do or who they’re supposed to be; instead, students are encouraged be who they actually are.

For more information on writing your personal statement, or to ask Greta a question, send her an e-mail at


Personal Essay Outline Template

by Rachel Katzman August 18, 2016


This outline, developed by our Admitster Writing Experts, helps provide a structure your personal essay, and can be applied to any prompt on the Common Application. Keep in mind, while writing that these are sections, not necessarily paragraphs. Use it as a road map to make sure that you are both telling your story and answering the prompt.

Also, don’t forget word count! The Common App Essay is 650 words. You can edit later, but if it takes you two pages to write the first two sections, you’re writing too much!


HOOK: Open with a sensory image, or an attention-getting phrase.  Admissions officers read tons of these essays, so you need to make sure yours gets them interested right away.  “Slice” directly into the story so that they’re immediately engaged.



EXPAND THE STORY: Now that you’ve got their attention, help us understand the whole picture.  What’s the context of this moment?



WHAT IT ELSE THIS AFFECTS: Continue to expand the story, and help us see what other areas of your life this touched or how it connects.  Give us the whole picture of who you are, and begin to show us how this impacted, or even changed you.



HOW THIS CHANGED YOU: This is the place to showcase your strengths.  Using the story you’ve been telling, show us how you matured, strengthened, and developed as a result.  Make sure to provide evidence and specific details so that your changes are verified with facts.



CONCLUDE: Tie up the essay by looking towards your future.  How has this experience prepared you for success at college?



If you want more help with your essay, you have choices!

Welcome to Your 2016-2017 Common Application!

by Rachel Katzman August 1, 2016



For those of you anxiously waiting, the Common Application is officially open and ready to use for this year’s college applications! Over the coming months, you will meticulously enter and review with a fine-tooth comb your personal, academic, and activities information. However, we want to focus on the section that just became available with the August 1st launch: Your Colleges!

It’s time to put your Admitster College List to Work!

We hope you’ve been using our College List Tool to research and create your personalized short-list of colleges and universities! Now, you get to take this list and put it into action! The first thing you will have to do is log into and create and store your username and password somewhere safe.

Then, you will want to click on “College Search”, where you can simply search for each school by name and add them to your list.  Once you have added all of the colleges you like (you can add as many as 20), click Dashboard and you will see your college list– it’ll be called “My Colleges”.

For each college, you will see four things: Questions, Assign Recommenders, Submission, and Writing Supplement (obviously, submitting is the last thing you want to do!). In order to understand the requirements of each college on your list, you will need to click on each college, and do the following:

Start with the “Questions”:  You want to carefully look at the Questions for each school. Here’s where you’ll see all the school-specific short answer questions, as well as prompts to enter things like your desired major or program. Oftentimes, entering a specific program (for example in engineering or the arts) will “trigger” some additional required questions and information. So it’s wise to enter in your major for each school (and maybe play with a few alternatives) so you can see you how a choice might impact what’s being asked of you in any given application.

Watch out for the “Other” Section: In many of the college’s Question section, you see something called “Other.”  I’ve seen this section contain straightforward questions, such as an honor code. I’ve also seen it be a somewhat hidden repository for longer supplementary essays. Some unfortunate students have not noticed these until they go to submit applications. Therefore, you should click through every single section, no matter how small it seems, making sure you don’t miss a thing!

Preview each Writing Supplement: Most of the time, this section includes the supplementary short essay questions. For example, you might be asked to elaborate on an extra-curricular activity, or explain your interest in the school. For strategies on crafting your responses, read this blog post.

However, oftentimes, colleges might have more extensive essays that are just as long as your college essay! You’ll be wanting to get to work on these quickly, as it may impact your topic selection for your Common App essay (as you generally should not write about the same topic in two essays).

Don’t over-rely on the Dashboard View: This is a helpful tool, for sure. It’ll have a symbol for each school that requires a writing supplement. As we’ve learned, since these supplements sometimes appear in the Questions section,  the Dashboard might inaccurately not list a writing supplement for each school. Again, this is why you need to carefully go through every section!

While the Dashboard presents application deadlines for each college, these are for regular decision admissions only. You will be responsible for tracking any earlier deadlines, such as Early Action, Early Decision, and Merit Aid scholarships.

Know when to work off-line: For any written content beyond the essentials, I’d highly suggest moving off the website and onto a separate document. You don’t want to accidentally submit rough drafts or lose work during a crash!

Word Count and Character Count: As you manage these written components, pay careful attention to the directions on each prompt.  Most questions will have a clear word count (very rarely is it unlimited). However, many short responses will often have a character count, or even a line-count. This implies that they are looking for precise responses (I’ve helped more than a handful of students edit an eloquent 250 word short essay to a pithy 250 character statement.)

So, now that you’re in this year’s application- have some fun, poke around, and most importantly, get organized. If you start to feel overwhelmed, we are here to help you succeed! Our college advisers have expert knowledge of each school and their requirements, and can give you the extra support you need to submit impressive applications to each school on your list!  Remember, we offer a free consultation to any new client (rising seniors- we’re looking at you!). 

Admitster’s School Partnership Program

by Katie Z, Ph.D June 23, 2016


College Coaching For Every Student

If you’re an administrator or guidance counselor at a high school in the United States, there’s a decent chance that your students have little or no access to a college counselor. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, using Spring 2012 data (from the nationally representative High School Longitudinal Study of 2009), reported that:

  • “Less than two-fifths of counselors indicated that their school had a counselor whose primary responsibility was college applications or had a counselor whose primary responsibility was college selection”, and
  • “About half of counselors (54%) reported that their counseling department spent less than 20 percent of their time on college readiness, selection, and applications.”

diplomas smallStudent-to-counselor ratios vary greatly by school and by state, but the national average is an unfortunate 471 students to 1 counselor – click here for more details. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reported that, across the country, one in five high schools completely lacks a school counselor! And that’s not all. A 2015 Survey by Achieve, Inc. reported that “of the 767 college instructors from four-year and two-year colleges, universities, and technical institutions”, 78% believed that high school graduates are not well prepared for higher education. This New York Times article sums the situation up well: “… public high schools across the country struggle with staggering ratios of students to guidance counselors.” Grim.

There is a great deal to consider when pondering college admissions strategies for each of the individual students at your high school – not only in terms of thinking about where to apply and whether each senior has a finalized college list that is robust and well-balanced (in terms of reach, target, and safety schools), but also whether students would be advised to apply early action or early decision, via the regular admissions process, and/or to schools with rolling admissions policies.

Along these lines, the 2016-2017 Common Application Essay Prompts have been released, but what is the best college essay writing strategy for each student? Should students take the SAT or the ACT, and how can they best prepare? To further consider are the backgrounds and personal stories of your students (and how to make that uniqueness shine in their respective college applications), the financial aspects of applying to and attending college, individual circumstances (e.g. being cognizant of the resources that are available to first generation students as they engage in the admissions process), course enrollment advice, thoughts regarding who would be best suited to write letters of recommendation, issues pertaining to social media, gap years, college tours, fly-in programs, summer plans – the list goes on and on, and taking into account all of the above for each of your students is certainly a tremendous undertaking. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin!

On top of everything, there has been a complete whirlwind of changes in the college admissions world over the last few months. More schools are becoming test-optional; changes have been made to the FAFSA;  the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Making Caring Common project released its influential Turning The Tide report; and the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success has emerged on the scene (e.g. these 58 colleges and universities will accept the Coalition application for the upcoming admissions cycle)!

What are you (the school principal or guidance counselor) to do? After all, college counseling has been shown to have a significant impact on college access and should be an important aspect of a student’s high school experience. Still, with time, personnel, and other resources often strained, how can a high school’s administration bring such a program, emphasizing individualized attention and college guidance, to fruition?

Admitster’s Partnership For College Success Program can help. College coaching for every student in your school? Flexible, customized guidance and support? Comprehensive services for schools, students, and families? YES! Click here to learn more about Admitster’s school partnership program, helping every student to succeed on their journey to college.

Score Choice & Super Score

by Katie Z, Ph.D June 21, 2016


While the SAT is more closely resembling the ACT these days, there are still many differences between the two tests that you should be aware of. For instance, did you know that while a number of colleges and universities will super score your SAT results, far fewer will super score your ACT? Specifically, students often have the score choice option, but whether super scores will be considered or not is up to individual schools.

Wait, what?! Score choice? Super score? What is all of this?



An excellent question!

Score Choice – Score Choice has been an option for ACT test-takers, but for students taking the SAT and SAT Subject Tests, Score Choice was only introduced by the College Board in March of 2009. If you take the test more than once, as is recommended, Score Choice allows you to determine which scores you send to colleges (by testing date for the SAT and ACT, and by individual test for the SAT Subject Tests). Keep in mind, however, that some colleges will require that you submit all of your test scores – in those cases the element of choice is gone. For more information on ACT Score Choice click here, and for SAT and SAT Subject Test Score Choice information click here.  Know that Score Choice is optional and if you opt not to use it then all of your scores will automatically be sent.

Super Score – This is where things get interesting! Some colleges will consider the best of your standardized test section scores across multiple test dates, adding them together for your super score.  For instance:

May 31st blog


Not all colleges and universities partake in super scoring, however, so know ahead of time if your dream colleges are super scorers or not. For a list of SAT score use practices at different colleges and universities, click here, and the colleges on this unofficial list will super score your ACT. This is crucial information to have in-hand when considering your score-sending strategy so, as ever, be informed, as you’re then in the strongest position to make the most appropriate journey-to-college decisions!

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