Monthly Archives: December 2011

How to finish college applications without going bonkers? The family chimes in.

Via Wikipedia.

After the frenzy of the past few weeks, our house is relatively calm. There will be more college-related tension to come, but for now, the pressure has lifted.

In a quiet moment, I cannot help thinking about the students — and their families  — still working their way through the ridiculously obtuse elements of the Common App, some college supplements, and some college websites. Once you’ve added the roller-coaster dynamics of the parent-teen relationship, the high emotions involved with the entire process, and the impending deadline for regular admissions:  yikes.

Just in case this might help:

For questions about the Common App, start with their Common Questions for Applicants here.

With questions for a particular college, take a look first at its admissions blog, if it has one. For example:

Still polishing essays or short-answers? Parents cannot write anything for you, but they can proofread, read essays aloud, double-check word- or character-counts.

Sometimes, the most helpful step is to walk away from the job for five minutes. Here’s what people in this house would do…

From Mod Squad Julie:  “I would go outside and shoot baskets for five minutes. The only thing is, I would probably stay longer than that.” Parent response: “What, you’d shoot until someone asked you to come back in and get to work?” Julie: “No, I usually say to myself I’ll go back to work after I make the next shot. Then once I’ve made it, I think: that felt good, let me do that again.”

From Mod Squad Linc:  “Take the dog outside and chase her around the house a few times. Wait. Pete’s done, right?”

From Mod Squad Pete:  “Take a music break, especially if you have a record player. Put an album on. I would recommend On Green Dolphin Street, by the Miles Davis Quintet.” [Whoops, there go ten minutes.]

From Mod Squad Dad:  “Get some exercise and fresh air — take a short, fast walk.”

From me:  Take a quick food break — make a smoothie, grab a handful of nuts to munch on. Then sit back down and plow through to the finish line — that will bring lots of positive energy.

Good luck to all!

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Counting Words, Counting Characters: Editing the Essay and Short-Answer Questions

In the final (!) push toward completing all college application submissions, here’s what it came down to at Camp StrangeCollege (where, yes, the parents and the senior are still talking to each other and still laughing):  counting words and characters to get that essence of brilliance to fit within the conscribed space.

Here’s a quick view of the writing assignments involved with applications.

1.  The 2012 Common App provides a choice of six essay topics — five specific prompts and one ‘topic of your choice.’ The app specifies 250-500 words and that these should not be customized for any particular college; customization should be done on a supplementary app.

Submitting this main essay (‘the Common App essay’) requires uploading a Word or Notes document; the doc ends up looking like an attachment to the application.

It is possible to submit a Common App essay with many more words than the recommended count.

So:  must one comply with the word limits you ask? Read the arguments from students who don’t see the need to cut their excellent essays here. Read the response from Alan Gelb, essay-writing advisor and author of Conquering the College Admissions Essay in Ten Steps, here, including examples of how to cut. [Pete has done his best to comply:  “Why would you want to irritate the people who have to read your essay?”]

2.  The 2012 Common App provides a second opportunity to write, “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below.” This response, limited to 1000 characters, is submitted by keying (or pasting) copy into a window provided on the online app.

It is not possible to submit a response longer than 1000 characters:  the window will not allow it.

3.  Many colleges accepting the Common App also require their own supplementary application, which should be found on both the Common App site and the college’s admissions site (but sometimes is on one or the other). Most of these supplements provide the opportunity to write a response to another topic. Or two. Word limits set by each college.

Please note that any time you are provided the opportunity to respond, most advisors will recommend you do not view this as optional. Write.

4.  A number of colleges — in their efforts to get a more personal view of the student than strict numbers (GPA and test scores) allow — also offer the opportunity to write answers to a series of short questions. These are often limited to 25 words or less. One of Pete’s applications specified fewer than 25 words or 175 characters.

Many of these short answers must be keyed (or copied) into a window that will not allow more than 175 characters.

5.  A number of colleges offer an additional supplementary application related to athletics or arts. Yes, those, too, sometimes offer the opportunity to write a few words. One of Pete’s most frustrating experiences was writing, re-writing, and polishing an essay until he and both parents were satisfied… to find out it was 3600+ characters and the space only allowed 2000. Yes, it would have been nice if the college had specified how much space was available. Since this was a copy-and-paste window, Pete only learned the limit when he pasted in the completed (or so he thought) essay.

Was the essay better at its original length or the cut-to-fit length (approximately 340 words)? Who knows. It certainly was more tightly-written as edited.

Hmm, I think I may be missing an opportunity or two.

6.  Some colleges read all applications with an eye toward their Honors programs; others require a separate application with an essay as part of that app.

There may be others I’ve not thought of.

Mod Squad Pete drafted a few first drafts during the summer. He wrote more — and through practice, better — essays when he worked on early admissions applications. By the time he got around to regular admissions responses, the writing and editing came more easily. Or at least accompanied by fewer complaints.

Pete on cutting to fit:

“Words [counts] are definitely different from characters.”

“It’s so much fun when you’re almost there:  only ten characters left to cut!”

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Congratulations, Pete! Next: Shifting Gears


Image via Wikipedia

First, we celebrate:  Friday afternoon, December 23rd, Mod Squad Pete submitted his last two regular admissions applications. Happy dance, no more Final Jeopardy theme song playing in my head, and Merry Christmas in one fell swoop!

A day later Pete completed a couple of letters to professors he’d met during college visits, reminding them of his interest and that his application was submitted.

Then he looked a bit stunned: “Really? It’s hard to believe all that’s finally done.”

It is.

Second, we switch gears:  Onward to the world of FAFSA and scholarship applications. Some students and parents may have been able to dual process, working on college and scholarship applications at the same time. Last spring or summer I thought we might be doing that here.


We’ll work together to try to find the best opportunities and then, lucky Pete, he gets to write more apps.

Continued best wishes to all the seniors working on applications!

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Early Reports on Early Admission: Tougher Than Ever

The first early admissions news we heard came around the beginning of December. Mod Squad Pete received news from two colleges on December 15 (email from one) and 16 (snail mail from the other). Pete has mentioned he might write about receiving college news for this blog, so I’ll leave it up to him for now.

A couple of reports came out this week on how the early admissions numbers look:  tough.

The NYT‘s The Choice provides a spreadsheet, periodicially updated, here. Screenshot below; the spreadsheet is downloadable from the link.

Click to enlarge.

The Daily Beast offers a report, including a slideshow with numbers, here.

“This is one of the toughest years we’ve seen in a long time,” said Mike Muska, the dean of college relations at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep, and a former senior admissions officer at several top colleges including Brown and Oberlin. “I’ve heard from colleagues all across New York about kids with 750 SAT scores across the board who were getting deferred or denied if they were unhooked.” (“Unhooked” is admission-speak for kids without a special skill or niche.)

The report included this speculation on why there were so many more early applications:

Not surprisingly, several deans said they’ve heard consistent concern over paying for college throughout this admission season. “People wonder how they are going to manage to pay for four years,” said Jim Miller, admissions dean at Brown. “Just a few years ago they could be confident about home equity loans or an intergenerational transfer; in short, help from grandparents. That is no longer the case.”

Money, or the lack of it in some state university systems, has triggered an increase in early-decision applications from students on the west coast, particularly from California. Several private colleges noted an increase in applicants from California high school students. “These are kids who would otherwise attend the first-rate colleges in the University of California system,” noted one dean. “But with higher tuitions and reductions in services, private colleges are looking much more attractive.”

Pete’s waiting to hear from one more early admissions application; regular admissions apps still in the works. [Drumming my fingers on the desk.]

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11 Mistakes I Don’t Want to Make on the FAFSA

Here we go again:  the last time this household faced down a financial aid deadline, I submitted the CollegeBoard CSS Profile on the day it was due.

The federal aid application, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, goes live January 1, 2012. Before we can submit the online application, we need to register for the FAFSA PIN, complete our 2011 tax returns, and complete the FAFSA worksheet.

Ok, this is going to be another pain in the neck and I want to do it right. So posts like this one:  The Top 10 Most Common FAFSA Mistakes are sure to catch my eye.

The mistakes are worth reading and protecting against, sure. But here’s the 11th potential mistake:  Don’t confuse FAFSA phishing sites with the real thing.

Take a moment and look at that link again. The website URL = Click to enlarge.

There’s a screenshot of that home page, and the fine print at the bottom reads: is NOT associated in any way with, the U.S. Department of Education or Federal Student Aid. Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy

The real FAFSA website URL = Click to enlarge.

Here’s a screenshot of the real FAFSA home page.

The imposter also states in the About page that it is not affiliated with the government site and warns against paying any fee to file the FAFSA.

Hmm. So why mimic the page and include “gov” in the address? This site provides information from the official FAFSA site, presented in a manner somewhat consistent with the official site, providing links to the official site. Are the Google ads worth enough money to make that effort worthwhile?

Don’t confuse me now, I’ve got work to do. Here’s the information I really need, straight from the source:

Important notes on how to answer questions

  • The words “you” and “your” always mean the student.
  • The words “school” and “college” mean a college, university, graduate or professional school, community college, vocational or technical school, or any other school beyond high school.
  • For dollar amounts, round to the nearest dollar and do not include commas or decimal points.
  • For dates, type numbers that correspond to the month, day, and year. Do not use slashes (/). For example, for August 17, 1959, enter 08171959.
  • References to the “school year” mean the school year from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013.
  • Do not mail in notes, tax forms, financial statements, or letters.
  • Contact the financial aid office at your college if you have unusual circumstances.
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3 Things High School Seniors Need To Do Right Now.

December 2011. Calendar by Mod Squad Emma.

Believe it or not, the important December countdown for most high school seniors is not:  “how many days til Christmas.” Most U.S. colleges set the regular admissions deadline for January 1. Eleven days away.

For any senior, like Mod Squad Pete, who just happens to not be done yet with college applications, here are the three things he or she should be doing right now…

1.  Finish the darn thing(s). Pete might have been 98% done on his regular admissions since before Thanksgiving. Each one has just one or two little things that still need doing. Get it over with already. (And yes, Pete, I’m talking to you.)

If there are questions stopping you, tune into the live chat the NYT‘s The Choice is hosting tonight, Wednesday, and Thursday. Here are the details:

The first night’s chat will take place tonight, on The New York Times’s main Facebook page: The two chats thereafter will be staged at The Choice blog’s Facebook page: All of the exchanges will be from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern time, and the counselors will answer questions in real time.

By the way, if you or your senior has all applications done, great! Skip ahead to task number 2. If you or your senior received acceptance via an Early Decision program, congratulations!! No more college applications! Skip ahead to task number 2.

2.  Sign up for the student and parent PINs for FAFSA. The first step in applying for financial aid is to apply for a PIN. Do that here. The steps are clear:

The PIN Application Process consists of 3 steps:
Step 1: Enter Personal Information
Step 2: Submit Your PIN Application
Step 3: Receive Your PIN

The online application goes live January 1, 2012, but the FAFSA on the web worksheet is available now.

3.  Take a deep breath and relax. 2011 may have been a big year with junior-year courses, SATs, college visits, becoming a senior, and writing applications, but just wait. The new year will bring the final semester of high school (requiring stick-to-it attention through the AP exams and finals), additional deadlines for financial aid and any scholarships (requiring more collaboration between student and parent), the emotional experience of receiving regular admissions results (some of us have had a glimpse of that with early admissions results), and making a commitment to one college.

Oh, right:  that’s just the first five months.

As always, good luck to all with those applications!

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Waiting for Admissions News: Are we there yet?

English: Bendetson Hall is the office of under...

Admissions building, Tufts. Image via Wikipedia

Now is the season of winter admissions results. Blog posts and tweets from admissions departments loom like the colored smoke above the Vatican: What does this mean? How does this affect his chances?

See CollegeSolved’s blog, How Much Admissions Transparency is Too Much?

“Mr. Einstein! Mr. Einstein! Tufts has already admitted thirty-three students!” shouted a nervous ED applicant. “No, that’s not right. They haven’t released their decisions yet,” responded a confident and seasoned counselor. True enough, Tufts has not yet notified early decision applicants of their decisions But my anxious senior was, nonetheless, moved to near-panic status after reading this.

The New York Times blog on college admissions, The Choice, provided Field Notes From This Year’s Application Season:

While our survey was unscientific, it brought into focus some themes, including increased applicant interest in public colleges – both in and out of state – and an apparent rise in the number of students who have been filing applications early this year, sometimes at the prodding of the colleges themselves.

From the same post, in a report from a counselor…

Mr. Evans of Penn Charter reported that the heightened early application activity had increased the need for “expectation management” and counseling regarding how to navigate the complex web of restrictions surrounding early applications for those filing a mix of early decision, early action and rolling applications.

In December the emails began to arrive. One of Mod Squad Pete’s classmates heard in early December. News of more emails trickled in.

Pete sent three early admission applications, one to each of the holy trinity of college categories: reach, fit, safe. Luck of the calendar dictated that the reach response would arrive first, in December. The other two, not til January.

The email will offer one of three responses:  acceptance, deferral, or thanks but no thanks. Spring decision emails may offer a wait list.

StudentAdvisor provides advice on whether to share your results: Posting Your College Acceptances on Facebook? Some Do’s and Don’ts.

Once upon a time, when students received the big envelope from their dream college, they called their friends. Now, students rely on social networks to break the news. All of a sudden, your feeds are flooding with acceptance posts. Not only does social media make it faster to share good news, it makes it easier to act in ways you wouldn’t in “real-life.”

Here are some of the stories we hear:

  • A student receiving news while in class, walks out of the classroom without a word to the teacher. He got in to his Early Decision choice, just needed to leave the room before he screamed. After he found a teacher in the hall to hug, he returned to the classroom of seniors to report his result (to their cheers).
  • A parent reads an admissions blog and knows the significance of the email’s confusingly vague subject line and must wait. The student has to read far into the email to understand he got in.
  • Another parent cries the day after her child’s rejection.
  • Meanwhile, the parent of an underclassman asks cheerfully, ‘How’s that college thing going?”
  • Another parent of an underclassman asks, “So where is Pete applying?”
  • A parent of a senior shares her daughter’s acceptance and scholarship offer: “It’s fun to start hearing the good news.”

From the College Solution, Lynn O’Shaughnessy reminds us, “Only 2% of schools reject more than 75% of applicants.”

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