The Most Underrated Section of any College Application

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For the past twelve years I have helped a multitude of students successfully navigate the college application process and during that time I have noticed a disturbing trend that can sometimes mean the difference between a coveted acceptance letter and a disheartening rejection missive. While most students rightfully dedicate the majority of their high school careers towards raising their grade point averages, optimizing their standardized test scores, and cultivating compelling topics to discuss in both their Personal Statement and supplemental essays, many tend to overlook another essential component of their application: the Activities List. An unheralded part of the Common App whose mere existence many students are unaware of at the outset of the process, the Activities List is one of the very few opportunities that students have to distinguish themselves from their peers on their own terms. And colleges endow this section with more importance than most students could ever imagine!

Sure, standardized test scores and high school grades are the two greatest determinants of whether or not a student will be accepted into a school. But as the number of worthy applicants increases each year and colleges remain flooded with tens of thousands of applications that feature nearly identical test scores and grade point averages, admissions’ panels have become increasingly reliant upon other factors to help weed out their hyper-competitive applicant pools. The Activities List is, perhaps, the seminal metric that Admissions’ officers have gravitated towards in recent years and should be thoughtfully considered as one embarks on their college applications.

What is the Activities List?

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A de facto high school “resume” of sorts, the Activities List affords all applicants the invaluable opportunity of enumerating their greatest interests, passions and values in the form of “activities.” Students are able to enter as many as ten extracurricular activities on this Common Application section and to provide brief explanations of their relationship with each activity. To complicate the exercise slightly, the Common App also asks that students “rank” each entry in order of importance to them (i.e. Activity #1 would be of  greater “importance” than Activity #2 and so on). Each entry also requires students to state the specific high school years in which they engaged in the activity as well as to approximate both 1) the number of hours the student participated in the activity per-week and 2) the number of weeks of participation throughout the year.  A final yes-or-no question at the end of each entry inquiring as to whether or not the applicant plans on participating in that activity in college concludes the proceedings. The whole section is frustratingly simple, but like most resumes can take an inordinate amount of time to get just right.

Why is the Activities List so important?

Colleges have placed increasing importance on this section for a few very important reasons. First and foremost, the Activities List is one of the rare opportunities throughout the entire Application process in which a student is able to transcend their “numbers” and project a three-dimensional representation of themselves that captures the essence of who they are and, importantly, what they may want to accomplish in college. If a student is intent on one day becoming a doctor, for example, and has fashioned his/her schedule towards volunteerism at health centers and internships at medical laboratories, colleges will use the Activities List to better understand that student’s level of commitment in achieving that goal. And while students are also able to divorce themselves from their numbers and reflect on their goals in their Personal Statement essay as well, the Activities List can effectively substantiate such aspirations and add proper perspective as to how any given activity may fit into the broader context of that student’s life.

The Activities List not only provides colleges an invaluable glimpse at the overall tapestry of activities a student has partaken in throughout their accomplished high school career, but HOW much time that student has devoted to a specific endeavor. By being able to ascertain 1) the gross number of hours an applicant has spent towards a specific pursuit as well as 2) how highly a student “ranks” that same activity, Admissions’ panels are able to employ what I have termed a “passion calculus” to gauge both a student’s interest and ability in a given activity. This is important because in recent years colleges have begun focusing on admitting incoming Freshman classes that feature a well-rounded “student body” rather than the traditional well-rounded “student.” And as colleges seek to accept applicants who posses highly specialized skill sets, Admission Offices have been increasingly reliant upon the Activities List to determine students who are both self-motivated and expert in specific fields.

My Advice

Spend time thinking about extracurricular activities early and often! I encourage students to begin busying their schedules as early as middle school with different activities in the hopes that they discover some interests that they are willing to “dedicate” themselves to for years to come. While it may not be a life-long pursuit, it has been my experience that colleges reward young students who are willing to sacrifice their most precious commodity (i.e. time) in the pursuit of certain endeavors. And, remember, schools are hoping that just a few activities account for the lion’s share of a student’s extracurricular time and interest. So whether it be volunteerism, music, sports, or after-school clubs, don’t be afraid to experiment with different activities and fully commit to an interest. Colleges are counting on it!

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5 Important Components to a College Application

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With the exception of California’s fleet of public universities and a handful of other institutions across the United States, nearly all “regular decision” deadlines fall sometime between December 15th and January 15th of each year. While a fortunate few students are in the unique position of applying to one or several schools “early,” the overwhelming majority of students will be following the “regular” deadline cycle. Upon returning to high school in September of senior year, most students will have approximately three months to create, refine and submit all of their college application materials to their schools of choice. It is during these particularly exhaustive few months that students are tasked with the prospects of juggling their most challenging academic workloads to date while moonlighting as de facto college application project managers responsible for the fate of their next four years of education. Substandard applications and missed deadlines can be the unfortunate bi-product for students who are trying to survive the most challenging slog of their young, adult lives!

 

In the hopes of streamlining the college application process while alleviating the stressors associated with it, I generally advise my students to break the college application process down into five smaller components or “projects” that they should account for weekly. Assuming that standardized tests have been completed and any additional materials have been prepared (i.e. artistic submissions, athletic recruiting film…etc.), all students will need to focus on a) finalizing their official “college list” b) asking their teachers for recommendations and coordinating logistics with their Guidance Department c) composing their 650-word Common Application “Personal Statement” d) creating their Common Application “Activities List” and e) writing “supplemental essays” for each school.

While some of these tasks may require drastically more work output than others, I find that there is still tremendous value in monitoring each individual project steadfastly. There are frequently several dynamic elements associated with each project as well as fluctuating deadlines that can contribute to important work components being lost in the fray. Therefore, I highly recommend that students break down the college application into its most essential elements. If students can create project deadlines for each of these five tasks and complete their work piecemeal, the totality of the college application process becomes much less stressful and students find themselves accomplishing their goals within the allotted 3-4 month time frame.

What Every Successful College Essay Has in Common

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Let’s face it, the college essay component of the Common Application may be among the most influential 650 words one composes in a lifetime. Crafting a truly memorable and impressive “personal statement” that helps distinguish an applicant from his or her peers has become a particularly challenging feat as schools continue to be inundated with record numbers of applications each year. Yet, an increasing number of high school students struggle with this written exercise because they are seldom (if ever) asked to express anything noteworthy about themselves in an academic climate increasingly beholden to standardized tests.

The Common Application does its best to help alleviate the stressors associated with the autonomy of this assignment by offering applicants an option of five different topics to write about, each of which are meant to inspire the author to share an essential characteristic about his or herself that helps define them. Even with such creative guidelines in place, however, many applicants still struggle to understand what subject matter they should be tackling and stylistic choices they should be making in their respective essays because there are few (if any) clear indicators as to what Admissions Officers are looking for in any given year.

For the last ten years I’ve helped well over a hundred students craft their personal statements and have been confronted with countless questions about this anxiety-inducing essay of great import. “Should the essay focus on my accomplishments or can I reveal an interesting life philosophy?” “Are serious essays usually better received by Admissions Officers or can I infuse the essay with humor?” “Is it okay to include personal anecdotes and, if so, can I write about my dog?”

The truth of the matter is that there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. The only universal truth I’ve discovered throughout my  experiences editing personal statements is that every successful essay possesses one inimitable trait: an authentic narrative voice. For example, one student may flounder when articulating events of serious consequence, but may be an exceedingly compelling writer when interspersing comedic flourishes into an otherwise banal story. Therefore, I encourage those embarking on this difficult assignment to try writing about a topic of genuine interest to them (rather than a topic they believe would be of interest to colleges). Adopting this approach will help an applicant discover their all-important narrative voice and enable them to write with an infectious authenticity that colleges can’t help but be intrigued by.

3 Tasks to Complete the Summer Before Senior Year

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Now that the school year has officially ended, both students and parents can breath a collective sigh of relief! The summer has finally arrived and should be treated as an important time for rest, fun, and the pursuit of enriching extracurricular activities. While the three-month summer break should be just that (“a break”), there are three tasks that I always encourage prospective high school seniors to engage in over the summer to alleviate the stressful college application experience once they arrive back at school.

1) Research (and Visit) Prospective Colleges
Seniors are often surprised by how little time they actually have to complete their college applications once they return to school in the Fall. “Early” applications are often due within 6-8 weeks after school resumes (November 1st) and “Regular Decision” applications only a few months thereafter (January 1st). Because there is such a preponderance of work to finish in such a short period of time, I always encourage students to visit as many schools as possible before they commence their Senior year. Try spending a few weeks at the beginning of the summer researching prospective schools and dedicating the second half of the summer to visiting as many of those schools as possible. Remember: Colleges remain open all summer long and are expecting visitors. Make sure to take formal campus tours and log your name into their “Campus Tour” Registers (FYI: some schools place added weight on applicants who have visited their campus).

2) Prepare for Upcoming Standardized Tests
An overwhelming majority of prospective Seniors will (and should) attempt to improve upon their SAT/ACT and/or Subject Test scores at least once during the Fall of their Senior year. My advice to these students: Do not let procrastination set in! I have helped students prepare for the SAT & ACT exams for well over a decade and can say with confidence that focused students tend to experience their biggest score increases over the summer. Completing as little as 30 minutes of test prep each day throughout the summer will not only help stave off potential rust, but will enable students to demonstrably raise their all-important test scores in the Fall.

3) Begin Working on the “Personal Statement”
Perhaps the most time-consuming and challenging aspect of the entire college application experience is the 650-word “Personal Statement” section to the Common Application. Most students are not used to writing about themselves and often struggle with the exercise, at least initially. Therefore, I always encourage students to begin thinking about possible Personal Statement topics at the beginning of the summer and to attempt to craft at least one or two successful drafts of the essay by the conclusion of the summer. I will provide more tips on how to write a successful Personal Statement in a later article.

 

2 Ways to Improve Your Reading Score on the SAT & ACT

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The SAT and ACT’s “Reading” portions are often the hardest sections for students to improve upon.  While students can easily raise their Math and Writing scores by learning various mathematical formulas and grammar rules, respectively, there aren’t any such shortcuts for the Reading section. The SAT and ACT’s Critical Reading sections vary slightly (the SAT features vocabulary questions, for instance, while the ACT does not), but the principles of both tests are very much the same. Students who are rather voracious readers typically fare better on the Reading portion because they are able to identify the subtleties and nuances in the passages that the SAT and ACT test on.  I have found that the following two tips have helped students develop the requisite skills necessary to be successful on the Reading sections of both tests.

1) Read 30-60 Additional Minutes Every Night
It is important to make a commitment to reading more leading up to the exam.  Most students are able to demonstrably improve their reading comprehension skills in as little as 2-3 months of consistent nightly reading. I encourage students to begin this process by reading anything that they may find appealing (sports stories, biographies, magazine articles etc.).  As students progress in this process, however, they should eventually transition to more challenging material, such as the New York Times or New Yorker Magazine. Such publications are representative of the passages the SAT & ACT will include in their tests. Remember: it is always better to read slower if it will enable you to understand each detail of the text.  Speed and accuracy will improve over time.

2) Keep a Vocabulary Journal
While many test prep centers advocate memorizing thousand word vocabulary lists in preparation for the Reading section, I’ve found that it is always better to learn new words as you naturally encounter them.  If students are engaging in 30-60 additional minutes of reading a night (see point #1), they will most assuredly stumble upon scores of new words.  It is important to practice good reading habits and not to skip over any words that you cannot reasonably define or explain.  I recommend that students stop to catalogue each word they do not know by writing it down as well as its part of speech (noun, verb…etc.), definition, and the sentence of the article/book in which they encountered the new word.  Students will soon not only develop an organic list of new words that they have taught themselves, but will be better able to integrate this new vocabulary in to their vernacular.

It is important to remember that there are no shortcuts or quick fixes for the Reading section.  It takes hard-work and determination to experience success on this section.  However, these two basic approaches have yielded great results with students who have historically struggled on these sections of the test.

When is the Right Time to Take the SAT/ACT?

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The recent New York Times article When to Take the SAT chronicles a disturbing new trend in which students are preparing for and taking the SAT & ACT exams at an earlier age than ever before. The article points out that more than ten times as many middle school students completed an SAT test in 2014 than in 2010 and that this trend is likely to continue in the years to come. School districts at the middle school (and elementary school!) levels have already begun implementing SAT/ACT test prep into educational curricula while an increasing number of Test Prep Centers are advocating preparing for these exams at younger and younger ages!

The fact of the matter is that the SAT & ACT are very important exams that students should spend considerable time preparing for, however, there is very little to be gained by studying for these tests before Sophomore year. Both exams test students on advanced mathematical, grammatical, literary, and, in the case of the ACT, scientific principles that are rather universally included in Freshman, Sophomore and Junior high school curricula. The overwhelming majority of students I work with on these exams see their scores rise rather significantly from the end of their Sophomore year to the end of Junior year as they finish learning the aforementioned concepts in high school. Furthermore, there are seven SAT and six ACT tests administered each academic year with no limit or penalty for taking these tests multiple times. If test-anxiety is an issue, students can take the SAT and ACT exam as many times as they want their Sophomore, Junior and Senior year to achieve their desired.

In my experience, the best course of action is to focus on school work before weighing various test prep options one’s Sophomore or Junior year.

Developing 2 Effective Study Habits in the New Year

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I can’t think of a better time than the beginning of a new calendar year to implement important changes to your academic routine. Students are better attuned to the expectations of their teachers and are beginning a brand new grading period. While working hard is paramount to any successful academic campaign, I have found that the following three simple tips enable students to study more efficiently and to achieve greater success in their courses.

1) Try Not to Stay Up Too Late
I cannot think of a more important piece of advice than this one! Contrary to popular belief, high school and college students work very hard. They are expected to spend at least seven hours of their day attending classes before completing homework. It is no wonder that an increasing number of scientific studies suggest that students become less productive in their tasks as the evening progresses. Assignments that may only take a student an hour (or two) to complete when they possess more energy right after school may riddle a student later in the evening and require many more hours of attention. I always recommend that my students complete their homework right after school and have found that this simple schedule change can make all of the difference in the world.

2) Don’t Allow Yourself to Be Distracted While Working
There are more distractions facing students in 2015 than ever before. There are literally thousands of television channels to watch and an even greater number of fun and interesting apps to play with. Our phones, tablets and laptops are seemingly always in tow and represent an insidious distraction that prevents many students from focusing on their work. I always recommend that students begin the practice of distancing themselves from these distractions by purposefully housing their electronic devices in different rooms then the ones they will be studying in. Such discipline enables students to clearly focus on the task at hand and prevents them from being involuntarily distracted when they are trying to complete their work.

I encourage every student to spend a few weeks experimenting with these two subtle changes. I think you will be happy you did!