When making admissions decisions, some colleges consider the applicant’s ability to pay for college, and others do not. “Need-blind” schools, such as Brown University, admit students without considering their finances. They often commit in advance to provide scholarships to any admitted student whose family cannot pay the full tuition, and some even make it possible for all students to graduate without loans.

Unfortunately, not every school has the endowment funding to be so generous. “Need-aware” schools rely more heavily on tuition to fund their operations, and make admissions decisions that take into account how much each student is likely to pay. They may still offer generous financial aid to some students, but they also need to balance it out with plenty of students who can pay most or all of the fare. 

External scholarships tend to consider either need or merit, but not both. Remember, though, that these terms can be broadly applied. Given the high cost of college, even relatively high-income families can be eligible for at least some need-based aid, and there are a dizzying array of merit scholarships celebrating a wide range of achievements. Learn more about merit scholarships at Road2College.

Time is of the essence as your high school junior builds, researches, and narrows down their college application list. This might sound easy, but good research takes time. This winter and spring are the optimal times for juniors to tour colleges that they’ve already researched online. 

To make the most of your time on campus, be sure you and your student both know a college’s general offerings before you arrive. For example, if you have an avid skier who’s likely to study math or physics, they should know if there’s a ski club and have a general idea of the structure of the math and physics majors. 

Over a single vacation, we recommend visiting an area in which several potential schools are located. If you visit Pennsylvania, for example, you could visit Lehigh, Drexel, UPenn and Swarthmore, but only if they all offer the program in which you are interested. We find that it’s most effective to visit no more than two schools per day, because each info session and tour can take upwards of two hours. Taking in the information during the info sessions and walking around campuses is more tiring than you might think!

The information sessions are the college sales pitch. Listen carefully to what the guides say, and what they don’t say. Do they mention student life, study abroad, the diversity of the student body? Be prepared with specific questions to ask the guide, based on your interests and on research you’ve done about the school’s programs. As you walk around the campus, get a feel for the vibe. The college students are likely to be on their campuses during the high school winter and spring breaks. Try to talk to them — it’s entirely fine to ask them questions like “what do you like most about this school?”

Think about the size and location of the school. Is it walkable? Is it too flat or too hilly? Is there enough of a town or city around? What happens if you are studying late and want a snack? 

Above all, we recommend that you keep a journal or record of which school you visit, your thoughts and reflections on your time at that school. Take photos and tag the locations, and after each tour, make more notes or dictate voice memos. We have a journal template that we give to our students to help them stay organized with their reflections.

By Susan Alves, MA, PhD


We all find it challenging to stay productive at this time of year. So many distractions pull our attention away from our day-to-day commitments. If these distractions are fun, like parties, gift shopping, and holiday get-togethers, we still can become overwhelmed. Even if we do not celebrate a holiday at this time of year, we experience the swirl of a society in an overdrive cacophony. The students in our lives are no different.

Although middle school, high school, and college-age students may tell you that they have it under control, most could benefit from your support if they are to stay productive and happy during these busy weeks. Beware the notion that multitasking is effective. Usually, it is not. Conversely, slowing down and choosing to focus on one thing at a time often produces better-quality work. Concentrating on one task at a time also can leave room to enjoy one’s work. Have a conversation with your student about how they are feeling and about how they are experiencing the responsibilities they are juggling. Find that sweet spot where a real conversation is most likely to happen. (Hint: It might be while driving somewhere with your student.)

Our minds can become overloaded with extraneous information and tasks to complete. When this happens, our productivity suffers. Students are no different. They may need help sorting through what is essential, what can wait, and what can be skipped. Try asking open-ended questions so your student can articulate what is necessary to them. If their answers do not match your priorities, stay in the conversation so you can better understand how they think. Work your way to a negotiated agreement. Especially if you are prone to the breathless activity of multitasking, partner with your student for a few weeks to pare back, slow down, and focus on what really needs to be done. Together, you can alleviate the extraneous load you both carry at this time of year, making room for greater productivity and better understanding and appreciation of each other.

Susan Alves, MA, PhD is the Principal of Mindfulness Tutoring & Coaching. She is currently completing a graduate level certificate in Executive Function with Landmark College (VT). Susan has a private practice that focuses on building young adult clients’ executive function skills.

Don’t twist yourself into knots trying to choose an activity you think it’s what the admissions office wants to see.


Volleyball players
Photo: Vince Fleming via Unsplash

We all know that colleges want to see that a student has participated in extracurricular activities and community service. We also know that parents and students alike find themselves worrying that they’ll pick the wrong ones, or do them incorrectly, or not do enough of them, or do too many.

It’s important to remember that these things aren’t important because the college wants to see them. The college wants to see them because they’re important, and they’re important because they demonstrate something about who you are, whether that’s leadership, commitment, care for others, or a desire to learn new things.

Instead of choosing an “impressive” activity, choose something you care about, and then look for opportunities within it to demonstrate your best qualities. For example:

Leadership and Teamwork

Leadership doesn’t just mean being the team captain or club president. Have you helped a younger student get up to speed? Come up with a new idea and put in the work to make it happen? Identified someone else’s good idea and boosted it, even though it wasn’t your idea? Those are all ways to demonstrate that you’re an important part of a team — and will be an important part of the campus community and the teams or organizations you join in college. 

Commitment and Dedication

Consistent effort over time delivers results — in school and in life. Whether it’s daily practice learning an instrument, early workouts with your sports team, or showing up week after week to package groceries at the food pantry, a long-term devotion to something shows that you’ve got the persistence to succeed in college.

Resilience and Learning New Things

If you fall out of love with musical theater, or have to quit soccer because of an injury, or if your fundraiser is a total flop, that’s not a failure. That’s an opportunity: to be resilient, to handle setbacks, to rethink your approach, to try something new. Being great at something is impressive, but so is the humility it takes to start something knowing you’re not good at it yet. 

Yes, that’s almost the opposite of the bit about commitment and dedication. But remember, you don’t have to be everything to everyone: you just have to be yourself. Your extracurricular activities and community service are just some of the ways you’ll demonstrate that to other people, and they shouldn’t be merely hoops you jump through for an application.


By Nicole Locher

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that affects children and adults. It is genetically based and can pass down from parent to child. While ADHD will show up differently in each person, these are the most common symptoms: 

  • Daydreaming a lot 
  • Forgetting or losing things 
  • Squirming or fidgeting
  • talking too much 
  • Making careless mistakes or taking unnecessary risks 
  • Having a hard time resisting temptation 
  • Having trouble taking turns 
  • Having difficulty getting along with others

ADHD Can Be a Strength

With the proper diagnosis, treatment and support, ADHD can be a strength. People with ADHD tend to be creative thinkers and can actually be “hyper focused” on subjects that hold their interest. This can result in developing a high level of expertise in a particular subject and lead to successful careers for individuals with ADHD. Famous people with ADHD include Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Bill Gates and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few. 

What Can Parents Do?

Talk with your doctor and your school if you see symptoms of ADHD and to coordinate a proper evaluation and diagnosis done by either psychologists, neuropsychologists, or developmental pediatricians.  These professionals will then come up with a treatment plan that could include pharmacological interventions (medication), and/or behavioral interventions, which provide children with strategies to manage their symptoms at home and school. You also will need to work with your child’s school to ensure that they get the accommodations and support services they need through a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Additional Resources


A student on a video call with a professor and a textbook.
Photo: Dylan Ferreira via Unsplash

By Simon Ginet

Restaurants are open. Parks are full. Masks have virtually disappeared. But the pandemic definitely still happened. As the world crawls back to some degree of normalcy (whatever that is), it is sometimes possible to forget that the better part of the years 2020-2022 even occurred. At times I have marveled that the whole experience seemed like a dream (an extended fever dream, perhaps), and that there is no way it actually happened.

But it did.

And it provides an explanation for why things that have come a little easier to an older generation may be puzzlingly difficult for a younger one. A significant consequence of the pandemic is the effect it had on students, students who are now looking towards college.

The college application process has never been particularly easy. There are essays, tests, recommendations, financial documents, plus the uncertainty of the process and the soul-searching of determining where exactly one wants to go. But at least when I was applying to school, we had a wired-in structure that put us on this track from the first day of 9th grade. Not everyone was talking about college at this age. I didn’t start thinking about it until 10th or 11th grade. But teachers were, counselors were, school administrators were, parents were, and the system was designed to move us along the path to college, whether we were thinking about it the whole time or not.

The concern of these educational figures did not disappear with the onset of the pandemic. But the daily structure did. And the question of “what do I want to do in four years?” was replaced with “what exactly is going on?” and “what am I going to do today?” This might explain why students are struggling with motivation, even confusion, with regards to their futures.

I was not exempt from the educational tolls of the pandemic. I spent the last 14 months of graduate school virtually. When the whole thing ended, I was not thinking about the future so much as getting through the present. This is the effect that a global crisis can have on the psyche. Slowly I started to put some pieces back together, make my way into the workforce, and take the time to think about what I wanted with my life and what my future might look like.

This group of college and workforce-bound students may not all be coming out of the blocks raring to go. The tolls on mental health are not insignificant. Students lost access to their friend groups, their sports, arts and their other extracurricular activities. This loss created a certain hole that bordered on (or crossed the border into) the traumatic. Students may not be war veterans, but having a significant form of clarity and structure dismantled so quickly does have a strong debilitating effect. This is especially true when loneliness and other mental health issues are at play.

What I know for sure from the last few years is that I never could have persisted through it all without the support of my family. I imagine it was difficult for my parents to watch me struggle, to hear about 6-hour Zoom classes, overwhelming assignments, and social confusion. They must also have sensed that absence of curiosity about my future. I imagine it is difficult for you to watch your children struggle, too. My parents showed up when I needed them, and shifted their focus from “what do you want to do after?” to “what would help today?”

Let’s take heart from the fact that we’re on this path, and on it together.

Keep working on the support. We’ll keep working on the essays. And we will work our way towards a future that we can share and be proud of, even if the students don’t see it yet.

For feedback on this piece or any questions about what it was like to be a pandemic student and a post-pandemic graduate, feel free to contact me at simon@astartingline.com.

Why Isn’t My Bright Kid Doing Better in School? 


By Nicole Locher, A Starting Line Admission Consultant & Learning Differences Specialist

Do you have a bright kid who struggles in school? Are they disorganized, missing deadlines, getting distracted easily, and/or struggling with reading and writing? Is there a gap between their academic potential and their grades?

As parents, it can be very frustrating when we see our kids struggling in school. However, we need to recognize that these struggles could be signs of an underlying learning difference or learning disability. Many parents tend to shy away from any notion that their kid might have a “disability,” but learning disabilities are actually very prevalent.

In spite this prevalence, the signs of learning disabilities can be hidden and often go unnoticed and undetected until later school years. If ignored until academic demands increase, learning differences can seriously impact a student’s self-esteem and motivation. If caught and remediated early, students can go on to achieve success in school and their careers. 

This is Part One in a series of articles on two of the most common learning differences: Dyslexia and ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), which affect about one in five students in the U.S. In this series, we will highlight symptoms, common misconceptions, amazing strengths, ways to help your teen, and what to expect and prepare them for when they head to college. 


Part I: Dyslexia

Clearing up Some Misconceptions about Dyslexia

The most common misconceptions about people with dyslexia is that their poor reading is due to laziness, or that they’re not bright and can’t learn to read or write. In fact, people with dyslexia have average to above average intelligence, and with the appropriate intervention, can become strong readers and writers. Some also believe that dyslexia is a vision problem and that people with dyslexia see letters backwards, a misconception that has been perpetuated by a scene from the Percy Jackson filmes, where Percy can’t read the words because his mind is scrambling the letters. None of these are accurate.


What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a language-based learning difference that is neurological in origin. It affects organization in the left part of the brain that controls the ability to process the way language is heard, spoken, read, or spelled. It is genetic and can be passed down to children through their parents, and ranges on a continuum from mild to severe.

Students with dyslexia need extra help learning to recognize and work with word sounds. They learn best through multisensory, structured phonics reading programs grounded in the scientific evidence of how the brain learns to read. Teens may also need help with writing and spelling and may benefit from accommodations such as extended time on tests, access to class notes and presentations, audio books and speech to text/text to speech assistive technology. 


What Are the Signs of Dyslexia in Teens? 

Teenagers May Have Difficulty With:

  • Reading, including reading aloud 
  • Writing & Spelling
  • Mispronouncing names or words, or problems retrieving words
  • Summarizing and comprehending what they’re reading
  • Understanding jokes and idioms, such as “piece of cake” 
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Memorization
  • Organization
  • Doing math problems, especially word problems


The Strengths & Advantages of Dyslexia

While having learning differences comes with challenges, there are also significant strengths and competitive advantages. People with dyslexia tend to be creative, innovative, outside-the-box thinkers who can see patterns and solutions to problems that others often don’t see. Many use these traits to turn complex information into new professional strategies. It is estimated that about 40% of entrepreneurs and 30% of CEOs have dyslexia. Business leaders such as Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, former Cisco CEO John Chambers, billionaire investor Charles Schwab, Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver have said that their dyslexia gives them a competitive advantage. 

Many colleges have become much more inclusive of students with dyslexia, and employers are increasingly seeking their innovative thinking. Last year “Dyslexic Thinking” became recognized as a vital skill by LinkedIn,as it matches with the Top Ten skills needed in today’s workplace. Even NASA actively seeks scientists with dyslexia because of their strong problem-solving skills and excellent 3D and spatial awareness.


What to Do If You See Signs of Dyslexia

While it’s best to be identified and receive help in early grades, it’s never too late to get help! 

    • Talk with your doctor who might recommend types of testing to diagnose dyslexia.
    • Reach out to your student’s teacher and school in writing. State your concerns, describe what you are observing and mention if reading challenges and/or dyslexia run in the family. Request a comprehensive evaluation for language based learning disabilities.

After being evaluated, your student may qualify for a 504 Plan Accommodation Plan or an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for Specialized Educational Services. See resource links below for more information.



For more information about evaluations and about the IEP eligibility process: 


A young woman walks into a college classroom holding books.
Javier Trueba via Unsplash

Most students should plan to apply to ten or twelve schools. If that sounds like an awful lot, it is!

Fortunately, most schools use the Common Application, a web platform that stores student information and sends it to schools when the student is ready to apply. The student can edit their Common App at any time, up until it’s submitted to schools.

Some colleges require supplemental materials as part of the Common App, but it’s still a lot more convenient than filling out an entire application for each college.

Some schools use the alternative Coalition Application, and a few states, including Texas and California, have a single application system for their public universities. Only a handful of colleges, most notably MIT and Brigham Young, use their own applications.

If you don’t want to complete so many applications, or if you’ve got a clear favorite, look into Early Action and Early Decision timelines.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen. 

A student walks past stone campus buildings.
Victoria Health via Unsplash

Once you’ve thought about your student and the kind of environment where they’ll thrive, it’s time to take a closer look at each school on your short list. Most students today apply to about eight or ten colleges, so your research list should have at least that many.

Students can connect with other applicants and current students using Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. However, all the usual caveats about social media apply. These sites are not always reliable, and any account or thread followed may contain misinformation. On these sites, students should follow several accounts to ensure they get a broad view of the schools that interest them. 

If possible, students should visit their top priority schools during the school year. An in-person visit during the semester will provide the most accurate view of life on campus. Your student should be sure to speak to both faculty and students.

Most schools also offer web-based virtual tours. Virtual tours made by students can easily be found on YouTube, TikTok, and Campus Reels. Keep in mind that a virtual tour created by a school is marketing material and tours created by students will be of greatly varying quality.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Man in a blue and white checked shirt looks out over a college campus.
Jason Rojas via Unsplash

The best advice parents and guardians can give their student(s) is to choose their colleges based on “fit” – how well colleges would meet their criteria, including cost. Perceived college prestige or rankings are not relevant to “fit” and arguably should not play a role in choosing a school. Students will excel at schools where they are challenged, supported, happy, and fulfilled. 

There are many online self-assessments that students can take to identify the types of schools best for them. Stephen Antonoff’s materials are generally considered among the best, and begin with a look at the student’s level of independence, enthusiasm for different kinds of work, and personality. 

Basic questions and the results of the self-assessments will kick off the search. As they narrow down the list, students and their family should consider if they:  

  • Have a preferred state or region 
  • Want a co-ed or single-sex college 
  • Enjoy an urban, suburban, or rural setting 
  • Prefer a small, medium, or large college
  • Have an interest in joining fraternities and sororities
  • How important athletics are to their college experience
  • How important student body diversity is to them
  • What student organizations they may want to join
  • Whether they want to study in a religiously oriented school
  • Financial aid availability (don’t just look at the sticker price

There are more than four thousand colleges and universities in the US, but you may be surprised by how quickly you can narrow down the list! 

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen. 

A woman looks at a budget document on her laptop.
Sincerely Media via Unsplash

The good news about the eye-watering tuition prices you see on college websites is that fewer than half of families pay the full sticker price.

There are two types of financial aid: merit-based and need-based. Merit-based aid is given by the school and is based on a student’s performance in high school. Colleges will offer merit aid to the highly qualified students they want to enroll. Need-based aid is given by schools based only on demonstrated financial need, not on merit. Generally, the more selective the school is, the more likely it is to offer only need-based aid. Some schools give a mix of merit and need-based aid. 

Most schools will use information submitted by the student via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); a few use the College Scholarship Services (CSS) profile. Both will require the submission of tax returns and a great deal of other information. The FAFSA will produce an estimated family contribution (EFC), the amount a family can be expected to pay for college costs, according to the government’s algorithm. However, this number is not a guarantee of aid. It is simply a data point used by colleges when calculating a financial aid package. Each college will have a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their website that provides the most accurate information on a family’s expected contribution. Unfortunately, there is no standard NPC: each college has its own. If families need to take loans to cover a gap between the financial aid offered by the school and what they can actually afford to pay, they should think very carefully about how much debt they want to take on, and what type of loan would be best. Financial aid award packages can be appealed if families do not think they are accurate.

The college your student attends will be the largest source of aid. There are other sources, including thousands of private scholarships, but they are typically small, difficult to find, and time-consuming to complete. Some students may decide that the time it would take to find and apply for private scholarships is not worth the relatively small amount of money they might receive if they win. Scholarships from a state for its public colleges can be substantial, so if financial aid is a major concern, be sure to look into state schools.

Most state colleges also offer lower prices for residents, and many have regional reciprocity programs for residents of nearby states

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Notepad surrounded by crumpled up discarded drafts.
Steve Johnson via Unsplash

The personal statement can be intimidating. For many students, it’s one of the first times they attempt expository writing about their own lives and ambitions. And it’s not a low-stakes matter: how you approach the essay really does matter. 

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an excruciating process, and can even be enlightening. Remind yourself that it’s not terribly different from any other writing assignment, take a deep breath, and follow your writing process:

    • Brainstorm: Some students may feel like they “don’t have a story” to tell in their personal statement. However, diligent and creative brainstorming will always uncover rich, interesting topics. You can write it down or talk it out, you can use whiteboards or sticky notes, but do not neglect the brainstorming.
    • Draft: Let that rough draft be rough. Editing too early, or worrying about phrasing and spelling when you’re still trying to get your ideas down, is something even professional writers struggle with, but it’s worth it. 
    • Revise: Students should expect to revise and polish their essays repeatedly. Six or eight revisions are common. It can help to have a friend, family member, or one of the coaches from A Starting Line review and make suggestions. We also recommend reading your essay aloud, to make sure you know it sounds like your voice.

As you choose your topic, be sure to consider why the college is asking you to write this essay, and what your response shows (not tells!) about the kind of student you’ll be.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Corkboard calendar
Monica Sauro via Unsplash

In addition to deciding what colleges to apply to — and how many — you’ll also have to choose among several different possible timelines, including regular decision, early decision, and early action. The most common, of course, is “regular,” but there are two different ways to apply early that students and their families should consider.

Early decision (ED) plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend the college to which they’d applied ED. Students may apply to only one school for ED: acceptance by that school is a binding contract and students must withdraw all other applications when accepted ED. The decision to apply to a school ED is a decision that must be made carefully. Most students do not apply ED to any schools because they are not ready to commit so early in the search process. 

Early action (EA) plans are nonbinding — students receive an early response to their application but do not necessarily have to commit to the college(s) until the normal reply date of May 1. Students may apply EA to as many schools as they wish. Deadlines for ED and EA are typically a month or 6 weeks before the regular decision (RD) deadline, usually between October 15th through January 15th. 

Should I Apply Early?

One of the chief advantages of applying ED and/or EA is getting admissions decisions earlier. Students applying ED or EA to schools with November 1st deadlines may know by New Year’s where they will be going to college, which makes it a lot easier to enjoy the second half of senior year. 

In addition, acceptance rates for ED and EA pools are generally higher than those of the RD pool, mostly because colleges believe that early applicants are highly likely to enroll if accepted. If you have a clear first choice college, early applications are a great idea and could even boost your chance of getting in.

They have their disadvantages, however. First, students need to start a lot sooner to meet those early deadlines. That can be a stressful rush, especially if you’re not quite sure which colleges you’re interested in attending yet. 

They can also be quite a commitment, especially ED. Even with EA, families may need to make an acceptance decision before they get complete financial aid package information from other schools, so they won’t be able to compare the exact cost of every school.  

Regular and Rolling

Regular decision is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s by far the most common choice. Deadlines typically start as early as October 15 and run as late as April 1. Generally, the more selective the school, the earlier its deadlines will be. Applying RD gives the student the most time to complete their application and the advantage of being able to compare all their financial aid offers before choosing a school.

Rolling admissions, typically offered by public colleges and universities, provide the most flexibility. Students can submit their materials when they feel ready, and schools will usually respond six to eight weeks later. The earlier the application is submitted, the sooner the student will get the decision. Deadlines are often late – in May through July – so students will be able to assess their RD acceptances before deciding whether to apply to any rolling decision schools. However, the earlier you apply, the better chance you’ll have at getting some aid. Apply later and there might not be much aid still available.

Different colleges will have different deadlines and application options, so be sure to check school websites and the Common Application to help you plan your schedule.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Colleges are looking for students who demonstrate leadership. But what does that even mean?

Leadership is a surprisingly slippery concept and there’s no end of books and guides and seminars about how to lead and why. Johns Hopkins even offers a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership

Fortunately, you don’t need an advanced degree to develop your leadership skills. You don’t need to win a student government election or even be the president of a club. Instead, think of leadership as a practice and a skill, something you do every day and get better at as you go. 

Our favorite way of looking at student leadership comes from The Student Leadership Challenge, which describes five things that student leaders do: 

  • Model the Way: Lead by example, and demonstrate the behaviors and attitudes that you want to see in others. Don’t just talk about doing good, but take action to set a positive example.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision: Motivate others by helping them to see a shared vision for the future. Be clear and specific about your vision, and it will be something that others can believe in and work towards.
  • Challenge the Process: Question the status quo, and actively seek out ways to make things better. You may need to take risks to create change. 
  • Enable Others to Act: A leader facilitates the work of the whole group, and provides the resources and support that others need in order to achieve their goals.
  • Encourage the Heart: Recognize and appreciate the efforts of others. Celebrate successes and help others to feel good about their contributions.

You can do those things in ways both big and small. Whether you’re leading formal organization — or starting your own — or just being kind to others, leadership is something we can do every day that helps us improve ourselves and the world around us.

What should you do if you want to attend a small college, but you also want a broad range of courses or access to very specific facilities that are available only at a larger institution? 

One option is to look for colleges that share courses and resources. For example, students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford can easily enroll at the other institution, and the schools even run frequent bus service from one campus to the other. That’s especially handy if you want to study things like The Growth and Structure of Cities, which is a major offered only at Bryn Mawr. Students at both colleges are also able to take classes at Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, although logistics can be a little tricky because those schools are further apart.

Similarly, the Five College Consortium allows students to enroll in courses and use the resources of UMass Amherst, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Hampshire, while on the West Coast, enrolling at any of the Claremont Colleges grants you access to Claremont McKenna, Scripps, Pitzer, Pomona, and Harvey Mudd, as well as resources from several graduate schools!

If you enroll in a college that’s part of a consortium, it’s best to choose the one where you’ll be spending the most time, because travel off-campus can be time consuming.

Early on in my career, I learned that when someone asks you a question, it helps to find out why they want to know before you start to answer. That gives you the context you need to provide the best possible response.

This is especially true when you consider college application essays. Why does a college want to know about a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure? 

The answer, of course, is that they want to know how you’ll respond to challenges, setbacks, or failures when you get to college. 

I think of it as an unasked question hanging in the air around every prompt: “… and why does that make you someone we want to have on campus?” 

Why would Stanford want to see a letter you write to your imagined roommate? They’re looking for students who can live well with other people.

Why would Princeton want to know about a new skill you want to learn in college? They’re looking for students with concrete and specific personal growth goals. 

That’s not to say that you should just try to tell the admissions office what you think they want to hear. Far from it. 

Instead, when you’re brainstorming, keep that unasked question in mind to help you identify good topics. If you want to learn how to type, how to do a new TikTok dance, and how to meditate, which one is going to be more interesting to admissions? If you have ten ideas for things to tell someone you’ve just met, which of them are likely to lead to a polite and fruitful conversation?