The Edge Our college admission blog

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!). 

College Access & Success For Underserved Students

by Katie Z, Ph.D August 1, 2016



Brookings Graphicrecent report out of Colorado included this graphic from The Brookings Institution. Take a good look at it and you’ll notice that a college graduate born in the lowest income quintile is, at 20%, more likely to be in the top income quintile than to remain in the very lowest quintile. Likewise, a New York Times article, asking the question, “Is college worth it?”, firmly concludes: Yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close. For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable. 

Not that a college education is only about future earning power. A great deal of research has also considered more “fuzzy” indicators, like happiness and well-being, along with such factors as health status and employment satisfaction among college graduates. You can guess what the majority of these findings show, and it’s summed up well by the mere title of this piece from The Huffington Post – “Want To Be Happier And Healthier? Then Go To College.”

All of the above being as it is, it’s a sad state of affairs that large gaps exist in the college access and success prospects of different groups of students. Underserved students (e.g. minorities, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and/or first-generation students), in particular, would greatly benefit from having access to high-quality guidance during the college admissions process, and yet many are never given the opportunity to take advantage of this type of support. Why? Some of the most common barriers to college access among underserved student groups include an information gap, low expectations, and negative stereotypes. However, other barriers to college enrollment may also be tied to logistic challenges, such as not living in geographic proximity to four-year colleges or having other responsibilities (e.g. taking care of family members) that students may feel put them out of the running for an undergraduate education.

Our advice for school counselors, teachers, and administrators who work with underserved students?

  • Work to close the information gap! For instance, make sure that students are aware of fly-in programs; the FAFSAPell Grants; scholarship opportunities; the Federal Work-Study Programimportant dates; the College Scorecard; college application fee waivers; the list of over 800 colleges and universities that are now test-optionaladmissions options (in terms of applying early decision, early action, regular admissions, or rolling admissions); useful websites; and the fact that many schools have support programs in place for underserved students, like Wellesley College’s WellesleyPlus program and MIT’s First Generation Program.
  • As was noted in this article from The Atlantic, “The reality of it is that a lot of low-income kids could be going to elite universities on a full ride and don’t even realize it.” College could be more affordable than students suspect! Along these lines, ensure that students and their families consider a college’s net price (and not the sticker price) when thinking about where to apply – a great tool for this is Pell Abacus! For example: Net Price Examples
  • In thinking about putting together a college list, also make sure that your students are aware of prospective colleges’ graduation rates. Schools with higher graduation rates, in general, do more to support their students as they progress towards that crucial graduation day finish line!
  • Take advantage of some of the incredibly useful resources that are out there and at your disposal. For example, in helping students to develop a robust and well-balanced college list, you can use Admitster’s free (and very cool) online College List Builder tool!
  • Know that The New York Times publishes an annual College Access Index, which is “a measure of top colleges’ commitment to lower-income students – defined by the economic diversity of the student body, the price that colleges charge, and their graduation rates.” You can find the most recent list by clicking here.
  • Tune into the many wonderful organizations out there that are working to promote college access for underserved students, including QuestBridgeReach HigherCollege SummitCollege Possible, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
  • Stay abreast of news and developments in the dynamic worlds of college admissions and higher education, for example, the 2014 release of the White House’s Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students report, the work of the Coalition for Access, Affordability & Success, and the recently released Turning The Tide report. A great way to stay tuned in to developments is through such organizations as Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education!
  • Encourage college representatives to visit your high school, such as through the organization of a college fair, helping to create a school culture in which the idea of going to college is viewed as a viable post-high school next step. Along these lines, help students to decide which of the Common Application essay prompts to write about, hang college banners on the school walls, and support students in the discovery of new colleges and universities that they perhaps have never before considered. In short, take little steps that collectively help to create a college-going culture in your school.
  • You can also organize college admissions and financial planning information sessions for parents. A step such as this shows that you have high collegiate expectations for your students and also helps families to see college as an achievable goal.
  • Encourage students to challenge themselves academically, for instance, through enrollment in Advanced Placement courses. If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, or offers only a few select AP options, know that students can also take AP courses online.  Some examples of organizations that offer online courses include Apex Learning Virtual SchoolThe Virtual High SchoolThe Keystone School, the National University Virtual High School, and Virtual High School. Furthermore, some colleges and universities offer online AP courses, for instance, the University of California and Northwestern University.
  • Another great strategy is to set up a mentor program in your school. One option is to encourage alumni who are currently in college or who have graduated from college to pair with current high school students, aiding them by sharing insights and lessons drawn from personal experience on the college journey. You can also consider mentor programs outside of your school, for instance, mentor2.0, a “Big Brothers Big Sisters’ technology-enriched, emailed supported, one-to-one youth mentoring program”, or Strive For College.
  • Finally, consider working with Admitster’s school partnership program, Partnership For College Success, to ensure college coaching for every student at your school, and starting as early as the 9th grade. Through this program, our experts work side-by-side with you to assure that your students and families have access to personalized and comprehensive college admissions guidance, including accurate and timely information and sustained support throughout the process.

Through collaborative, all-hands-on-deck initiatives, we can make real progress towards securing college access and success for all students.

Test Prep – Motivating The Unmotivated

by Admitster July 28, 2016


Today we welcome to the blog Mr. David Recine, a test prep expert at Magoosh, working to level the playing field “by giving every student access to effective, affordable, and engaging test prep tools.” 
David earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and has a master’s from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Not only has he taught K-12, university-level, and adult education classes, but he’s also worked with students from every continent. You can follow David on Google+ and Twitter, and learn more about him by clicking here!

If you work with high school students, it’s your job to make sure that teenage learners are successful in their current studies. But you have another job as well: ensuring that future opportunities are available to your students, including helping to open the door to undergraduate level study after high school. One challenge is that many students are more comfortable dealing with academic matters in the here and now, thinking not about the possibility of higher education but preferring to live only in the present. On the other end of the spectrum, some students are thinking about their upcoming university prospects, but are a little too concerned. For these ambitious students, exam prep can be grating and stressful. Either way, it’s essential to find ways to motivate your students who hate test prep. Read on!

Competitive Test Prep To Motivate Students

GrandPrize“Gamification” is a popular buzzword these days, and with good reason. There are many ways that you can take a difficult task, either in a work place or at school, and turn it into a motivating game! You could, for instance, hold a series of ACT and SAT essay contests, giving away prizes to those students who submitted the strongest essays in a given week or month. Prizes for improvement could be given out as well. Another gamification approach that’s worked well with many of my students is to turn sets of multiple choice answers into prompts for an in-class competitive quiz. Students can form teams and decide on the answers to ACT and SAT multiple choice questions, with points awarded to the fastest team with the most correct responses in each round.

Individual Games & Challenges

Not all test prep games need to be played competitively or in teams, however. Many can be effectively played alone or with just one study partner. For example, to practice for the skills found in the ACT English and SAT Writing & Language sections, you can challenge a student to write a short essay that contains all of the most common mistakes they’ll need to correct on the exam. Turning the tables like this, encouraging students to break the rules of grammar, mechanics, and style, is another activity that’s really motivated my students. For an added, stimulating challenge, make a rule stating that students can’t make the same writing error twice.

There are many great activities that gamify math functions as well. One especially useful game is the “1 to 21 Challenge.” In this game, students need to take three consecutive single-digit numbers, and put the numbers into math functions that get the results of 1 to 21. For instance, if a student uses the numbers 4, 5, and 6, they could start out with:

  • .5*(6-4) = 1
  • (6+4)/5 = 2
  • 4 – (6-5) = 3

…and so on, all the way up to 21. Many learners who are not otherwise comfortable with math find this game to be motivating and challenging. To ensure that the your students are motivated to build test skills for their college entrance exams, specifically, limit their game play to math functions and symbols found on the ACT or SAT tests.

Make Sure That Test Prep Materials And Activities Are Free And Conveniently Available

For students who struggle with test prep motivation, access to test prep books and assistance can seem like a wall that isn’t worth climbing. Make your students aware of the fact that many top notch practice materials for the ACT and SAT are available online instantly and free of charge, and provided by the official makers of the exams, no less! Show your students the free official SAT practice PDFs and videos from the College Board and Khan Academy, and direct them to an easily downloadable official ACT practice test or two.

Provide Students With Information About User-Friendly Test Guides

Another huge motivation killer for some students is the seeming complexity the ACT, the SAT, and the whole test-taking process. Motivation often wilts because the test structure looks too complicated, or the sequence for test registration, scheduling, fee payment, and so on seems too cumbersome. To clarify this process, you can refer students to a wealth of online SAT guides and advice, for instance the College Board’s student-friendly Big Future website. For the ACT, I recommend going with good third party FAQs, such as those found in Magoosh’s online ACT guides, both for the ACT as a whole and for the new ACT essay prompts. High-quality school partnership programs, such as Admitster’s Partnership For College Success, can also go a long way towards demystifying the college admissions and test prep taking processes – and having the correct information in-hand at the right time can, in itself, be very motivating! 

Dear First Generation Students, You Got This!

by Admitster July 21, 2016


Today we’re thrilled to welcome back Mr. Lawrence Alexander, who is not only the Director of College Admissions at The Ivy Key and the Director of College Counseling at The White Mountain School, but who is also a proud first generation college student. 

As a college counselor who is also a first generation college student, I am ever cognizant of the treasure I’ve been entrusted with. I counsel my students with an appreciation for the path they’re taking because it’s the same path I traveled. I was born and raised in New Jersey by working parents whose retirement plan was to ensure that my sister and I received the best education possible. I pen this blog post today for first generation college applicants, their guidance counselors and teachers, and for those parents who are mortgaging hope in the education of their children.

The college admissions process is hard, yes, and sometimes you might lose your way in the maze of deadlines, test prep, essay writing, extracurricular activities, financial aid terms, recommendation letters, and campus tours…but YOU GOT THIS!

Final Final Maze
1. Students – Start EARLY. Every student entering high school should be developing a post-secondary plan. For those students who see college as a part of that plan, you should be pitching a tent in the office of your guidance or college counselor and seeking out opportunities to distinguish yourself from your peers. The latter can come in the form of student leadership initiatives, employment, or participation in summer enrichment or pre-collegiate programs, to name but a few examples. As early as 9th grade, students should be working to excel both inside and outside of the classroom. Many colleges and universities employ a holistic philosophy when reviewing a student’s application. That is, they want to know how you performed in the classroom and on standardized tests BUT they also want to know what impact you’ve made in your school and community. Start that process right away!

2. Parents – Start EARLY. College tuition is expensive, I know, and it’s going to cost you more if you fail to devise an admissions strategy early. Working with your student’s school and/or organizations like Admitster can help you to improve your student’s prospects for both admission to financially supportive schools and for scholarship opportunities, helping to reduce your out-of-pocket cost. You should also work with your school counselor to assess your family income and your expected family contribution. Having a clearer understanding of your family’s financial situation, along with knowledge of prospective schools’ net prices, can help you to start building a robust college list with your son/daughter – and the earlier you’re able to make these assessments, the less stressful the process will be. Students will be upset if the family finances are a secret that hamstrings their college attendance once it’s too late to explore viable alternatives. In other words, be prepared to help your student tackle the financial considerations that are so crucial to the college admissions journey!

3. School-Based Staff & Counselors – Start EARLY. As you assess your school’s capacity to serve the college counseling needs of your students (particularly your first generation and/or lower-income students), seek out reliable college access partners like Admitster to work alongside your existing guidance program. I have partnered with many organizations to develop longitudinal and scaffolded grades 9 – 12 college advisory programs, empowering schools to develop the college-going culture to which they aspire. First-generation college applicants often need more direct support with the rudiments of their applications (e.g. essay writing, college list creation, and financial aid counseling). Resources in schools are often scarce and budgets often have allocations beyond the reach of the building leaders. All of that notwithstanding, where you do have the resources, why not devote them to ensuring the post-secondary success of your students?

Some recommended resources:
1. For families who are new to the FAFSA, click here.
2. This is a great list of colleges that meet 100% of student-demonstrated need.
3. Useful online resources to help students on the path to college are only a click away!

In closing, first-generation college goers are often defined by what they lack, but they HAVE SO MUCH. If students possess the right mindset, if parents invest time and energy early in the process, and if schools invest in the right resources at the right time, you’ll form a college-going army that can’t be stopped.

You GOT this!

Yours in Partnership,

Lawrence Q. Alexander II


p.s – My mother never let me keep my Bachelor’s degree; it’s still on the living room wall in her home. Whenever I ask for it she says, “You just got the degree, I did all the work!” I think I better let her keep it 🙂

Partners In Student Success

by Katie Z, Ph.D July 14, 2016


Quotes abound about the role of high school guidance counselors in helping students on the path to college, but this one, by Samar Khurshid, taken from a Gotham Gazette article, is among my favorites – “The role of guidance counselors in schools is increasingly being recognized as an essential factor in student support and key driver to help prepare students both for graduating from high school and succeeding in higher education.” In other words, the role of the school guidance counselor is paramount to student success! Unfortunately, in many high schools around the country, guidance department resources are strained, other in-the-now issues and non-college-counseling duties take precedence over a focus on the future, and counselor-to-student ratios fall far behind the ideal. Regarding that last point, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250:1, the national student-to-counselor ratio in public schools is a grim 478 students for every 1 counselor! Further, that same article states, “NACAC estimates that under current ratios and current time on task allotments, students in public schools can expect less than an hour of post-secondary education counseling during the entire school year.” Less than an hour?! Are you reading this? Something is very wrong with the picture these numbers are painting. And Team Admitster is not, of course, the only stakeholder to take note of these distressing statistics. In a recent USA Today article, First Lady Michelle Obama discusses what she sees as the two worlds of college counseling:

There’s the world of high schools where the question isn’t whether students are going to college, but where. From the first day of freshman year, students are shepherded through the process, often by school counselors who ensure they enroll in the right classes; prepare for the SAT and ACT; meet their application deadlines; and choose a school that best meets their needs and get the financial aid they need to pay for it. Then there’s the world of the schools that most of our kids attend where school counselors are too often under-valued and overstretched, and they simply don’t have what they need to do their jobs.

RunningInPlaceAnd then there’s this, a report by Public Agenda entitled, “Can I Get A Little Advice Here? How An Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students’ College Aspirations.” The title sums up the study’s findings well, and the research also suggests that “students who are poorly counseled are less likely to go directly from high school into a college program – a step that is highly correlated with dropping out of college.” Please note that poor counsel does not necessarily mean being given bad advice, but simply that students bear the brunt of the strained and burdened counseling system, which many schools struggle to keep afloat given the rightfully high demands of students and families coupled with the limited supply of counselors and hours in the day. On top of all this, the college admissions process is not black and white, but rather a complex and muddled affair, fraught with an ever-changing landscape, milestones to be met, and preparations to undertake. Counselors and school administrators are doing all they can to help their students, but the overall situation is frustrating and oftentimes feels like an exhausting sprint, running ever faster and faster just to stay in the same place.

The aforementioned Public Agenda study ends with these words: “We hope the findings here will generate innovative thinking about ways other institutions and other entities could lend a hand.” Admitster’s Partnership For College Success program is just that, an innovative program through which our college admissions experts work with high school administrators and counselors to bring personalized and comprehensive college admissions counseling to EVERY student, and starting as early as Grade 9. Click here to learn more – after all, we are all stakeholders in the success of our students, and the promotion of college access through intelligent admissions advising is a very tangible step in that direction. It was Chris White, a high school counselor who sits on The Common Application’s Board of Directors, who said, “Not all students have sufficient access to school counselors, and we all need to work together to figure out how to bring information to the students who need it most.” We believe that ALL students benefit from college counseling, and our program works with schools in a partnership to promote student success.

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