Episode 92: Don’t Use These Two Filters for Your Teenager’s College List!

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Well, it is time to start narrowing your teenager’s long summer list of college options–that is, if he or she made such a list by using our 10 assignments this summer. Of course, if your teenager did not make such a list, there is still time to do so, but get moving. I would recommend taking his or her top 20 college choices and running through the 10 assignments at breakneck speed, because the time to narrow down that list is fast approaching.

1. The Numbers Game

We have promised you some ways to filter your teenager’s long summer list of college options, and I guess we will have to pay off on that promise. But, I have to say, that I don’t want to make the final list too short. We have said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available at amazon.com) that we would expect to see about 8 to 12 colleges on your teenager’s final list–that is, the list of colleges that he or she will actually apply to. However, if our summer challenge led you to put more colleges on your teenager’s list of options than you had expected and if you now hate to see them go, I could be happy with a somewhat longer list than 8 to 12. Maybe not 20 applications, but surely as many as 15.

We know that applying to too many colleges has become an unpopular notion, partly because people believe that applicants themselves have caused colleges’ increased selectivity by applying to a slew of colleges and, thus, giving too many colleges too many applicants to choose from. Regardless of that, we still believe that kids should have the best selection of colleges possible–both when applying and hopefully when choosing, after admissions decisions have been sent out.

And we know that it is not free to apply to most colleges, unless you have received a waiver based on your income or based on your teenager’s excellent high school record, and we know that money does not grow on trees. But I think it is hard to argue that paying $50 or $75 to add a college to the list is a bad investment–if that college might indeed accept your teenager.

If our 10 assignments this summer worked correctly, you and your teenager should have found yourselves putting colleges you had never before considered on your list. We wanted you both to branch out, look outside your geographic comfort zone, and consider types of colleges you had not thought about before. We challenged you to pick one college in every state, for goodness’ sake. We were serious about persuading you to look beyond what you already knew about colleges.

We have found that the biggest problem many of you have is that you don’t know anything at all about most colleges. That’s not your fault, of course. Worse yet, there is really no one to tell you about most colleges. That’s why we started this free podcast.

Let us say again that you should not rely on your teenager’s guidance counselor or college counselor in school. I was reviewing the college options of the daughter of close friends of mine last month. Let’s call her Kate. Kate and her parents had met with the counselor at Kate’s private school to have the college discussion. Kate’s father came away impressed by what the counselor knew and by the counselor’s advice to them. I could not have been less impressed. Not only did the counselor suggest colleges that made little sense to me, given what I know about Kate, but she also took colleges off of Kate’s list that made far more sense for Kate than the ones she put on. This is not an isolated example. Parents, you have to do your own homework. Most counselors know only what they know–and what they know tends to be about colleges that many previous graduates of the school have attended and colleges that are located in their home state. That’s not good enough.

And so, it’s a numbers game. Keep enough colleges on the list to ensure that your teenager ends up with some choice. If the colleges are chosen well to begin with, that number should be 8 or 12 or maybe 15. But don’t adopt an arbitrarily low number now and use it to filter out too many colleges on your teenager’s list before he or she can even apply.

2. The Visiting Game

Here is another filter we are concerned about: the college visit. Recently, I spent some time talking with parents who were in the process of taking their daughter on several college trips in August. Let’s call her Maia. I listened to Maia’s reaction to a college that I had thought would suit her fairly well. Maia didn’t like the college. I asked her mother why. This is what her mother said: “She liked the campus. But everyone she met was snotty, and the tour people had no idea what they were talking about. She hated the feel of the school.”

Let’s think about that for a minute. My feeling is that, if you visit a college in the summer, about all you can legitimately react to is the campus. I don’t think there is an obvious “feel of the school” when the regular students and professors are not there. I am not sure whom she could have met–perhaps other kids on the tour, perhaps kids there in some kind of summer program, who might not attend the college during the year. Finally, I never took a college tour where I thought the guide didn’t know a heck of a lot. I do know that colleges try very hard to choose personable guides and train them quite seriously. Look back at Episode 57, which focuses on college tour guides, if you don’t believe me. So, I am not sure what Maia was reacting to.

What I do know is this: It is very difficult to tell what a college is like when you visit it in the summer. I would urge you not to use a summer visit as a filter for ruling out colleges that you thought were otherwise appropriate for your teenager, unless it turned out that you or your teenager truly hated the actual campus or the surrounding area or the campus housing or felt that it was somehow unsafe. Those things don’t change from summer to winter.

As we have said before, visiting colleges is a time-consuming, hard-to-schedule, often expensive undertaking. There is actually plenty of time to visit colleges after your child has been accepted, when you can see the college in full swing in the winter or spring. If you have used reasonable criteria for putting colleges on your teenager’s list, that is a good enough first step. Once acceptances come in, you and your teenager can decide which ones are still worth visiting. It might be that you can narrow the choices down to just two or three among the acceptances, thus saving a lot of time and money and effort.

What is probably necessary is for your teenager to have seen a couple of college campuses, just to get the idea of what a college campus is. Showing your teenager a variety, even if they are all relatively close to home, would be most instructive–for example, a sprawling rural campus with many buildings and natural areas and its own transportation system; a walkable, enclosed suburban campus with ivy-covered buildings and manicured grassy quadrangles; an urban campus without any boundaries that tell where the campus stops and the city starts; and a commuter campus without housing. Giving your teenager an idea of what a campus could be might be enough for right now.

3. Next Week

As we mentioned last week, the first deadlines for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1–are fast approaching. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already started to use your own filters to narrow down your teenager’s list. However, you will still need a few colleges on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful. The rest of you will certainly need to start thinking about which colleges will stay on your list and which should come off now.

So, next week’s episode will focus on filters we think you should be using to get that list down to 8 or 12 or 15.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 91: Think Harder About Community Service

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Hopefully, you have finished your 10 summer assignments designed to expand and then investigate seriously the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. So, let’s review what those 10 assignments were:

You will recall that our original challenge when the summer started was to do these assignments for 50 colleges–one from each state. But even if you did it for just half that many colleges, congratulations. And, as we said right before the Labor Day break, we hope you did it for at least 20.

Now the time has come to start narrowing down that list–finally! As the first deadlines approach for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1?you and your teenager will want to skinny that list down to a manageable number of colleges, perhaps 15 or so. It seems likely to us, however, that if your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already skinnied your list down substantially. That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t need a few colleges still on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful.

So, we are going to help you with that narrowing process starting next week. This week, we want to make a few comments on a subject that we believe in strongly and that we have talked about in two of our summertime Facebook Live chats–and that is community service. Today’s episode, however, addresses community service through the lens of the college application essay, which we hope all of you are starting or maybe even already editing this month.

Watch our Facebook Live chats on community service at the end of this post.

1. Community Service: The Background

Let’s start with some background. Some months ago, back in Episodes 61 and 62, we took a look at a new report that grew out of a meeting hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions. The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. We have referenced this report from time to time in subsequent episodes as well.

The list of “endorsers” of the report included every Ivy League institution plus an impressive list of about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities.

The question we have asked about the report and its endorsers is this: How much do they mean it? The jury is still out on that and might be for some time to come. But without getting into the politics of all that, which we believe are quite significant, one thing that is addressed strongly in the report is the value of community service. Four of the 11 recommendations in the report revolve around community service done by high school students, and personally I think that these might be the most sincere recommendations in the report. Let’s listen again to just the first of these recommendations:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen?that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests?that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions. Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

Here’s what that probably means: that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service should last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. As we have said before, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City with substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.

I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant. The report is talking about sustained interactions over time that would speak to the genuine concern that a student had for whatever the community service project was. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on “high-profile” and “exotic” one-week community service projects in “faraway places”–unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer in some structured way and perhaps during other school vacations as well and/or had some other kind of follow-through during the rest of the year.

2. Frank Bruni’s Op-Ed Piece

Enter Frank Bruni’s excellent and though-provoking op-ed piece in The New York Times on August 13, 2016, provocatively titled “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?

I would like to read you the entire piece, but The New York Times might be slightly annoyed by that. So, let me offer a few quotations that are likely to send you off to read the full piece yourself, and you should absolutely do that. Here is how Mr. Bruni begins the piece:


This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.

‘An awfully large percentage of my friends–skewing towards the affluent–are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,’ he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them ‘with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,’ he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, ‘This cutie made it so hard to leave.’

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

‘It rubs me the wrong way,’ Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it ‘if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.’

‘No passport or customs line required,’ he added.

Hernandez reached out to me because he was familiar with writing I had done about the college admissions process. What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived. (quoted from the article)


Well, Mr. Bruni and Mr. Hernandez, it bothers us here at USACollegeChat as well. And I suspect it bothered the endorsers of the college admissions report, too. We know that it is tempting to pursue some community service option that looks spectacular on your college application, but it seems that those spectacular options are meeting with more and more skepticism by the college admissions officers. That problem is compounded when a student writes the all-important college application essay on such a community service experience. Here is what Mr. Bruni said about that:


‘The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre. (quoted from the article)


“Their own bloated genre”–that’s quite an indictment, I think. What that means is that kids have to be careful when they undertake to write their primary application essay about a mission trip or about other community service work. While Mr. Bruni says that he and Pérez and Delahunty don’t doubt that many students doing this kind of community service “have heartfelt motivations, make a real (if fleeting) contribution and are genuinely enlightened by it,” he also tells a number of rather surprising anecdotes in the piece about upper-income parents who can and do buy short charitable experiences for their kids just so their kids have something to write about. Those are the essays that college admissions officers are on the lookout for–essays that don’t appear to come from some genuine and long-term interest on the part of the kid.

Looking at the other side of the issue for a moment, we can sympathize with kids who are faced with community service requirements from their high schools or who believe they are faced with community service as a necessary aspect of their college applications–even it that is not their essay topic. We know that kids have lots of demands on their time, including after-school clubs and sports and SAT prep and music lessons and dance lessons and the very real family responsibilities that many kids have. We know that community service can become just one more thing to do?not for its own sake, but for the sake of the college application. And, as Mr. Bruni writes, “Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way?”

So, who’s to stop that cycle? My vote would be you, parents. It is your responsibility to ensure that any community service activity that is undertaken by your own teenager is done for the right reasons and is carried out with genuine interest on his or her part and with respect for those being served. That is not the high school’s or the colleges’ responsibility. And your responsibility for this doesn’t start when your teenager is a senior. It starts much earlier, perhaps even in middle school, if we are to take into consideration what the new report says–that is, that colleges should start looking for “at least a year of sustained service or community engagement.”

Mr. Bruni has a great ending to his piece, thanks in part to the words of Mr. Hernandez. Here it is:


There are excellent mission trips, which some students do through churches that they already belong to, and less excellent ones. There are also plenty of other summer projects and jobs that can help students develop a deeper, humbler understanding of the world.

Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’

Helicopter parents, stand down! Pérez’s assessment doesn’t mean that you should hustle your teenagers to the nearest Starbucks. It means that whatever they do, they should be able to engage in it fully and reflect on it meaningfully. And if that’s service work, why not address all the need in your own backyard?

Many college-bound teenagers do, but not nearly enough, as Hernandez can attest. He feels awfully lonely at the Flint Y.M.C.A. and, in the context of that, wonders, ‘Why is it fashionable to spend $1,000-plus, 20 hours traveling, and 120 hours volunteering in Guatemala for a week?’

He wonders something else, too. ‘Aren’t the children there sad, getting abandoned by a fresh crop of affluent American teens every few days?’ (quoted from the article)


That’s a stunning question from a 17-year-old. It makes me doubly proud of the work that some of our local teenagers do at Adventures in Learning, the nonprofit after-school program for low-income kids that we talked about in one of our Facebook Live chats. Maybe it isn’t as glamorous as going to Costa Rica to save the rain forest, but it’s something real that high school students can do, and they can see the results of their work in the lives of those kids every day.

One last word: Mr. Bruni writes, “A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist–and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.” Agreed, Mr. Bruni. It’s hard to create a nonprofit organization, especially one that has significant impact. So, teenagers, think about finding one near you and lending your support to it. And do that over time, not for a week. And look for ways to be a leader in that context?recruit other teenagers, make presentations at local community events, spearhead a fundraising campaign. We mentioned in one of our Facebook Live chats that Heifer International is a wonderful organization to volunteer with and that it offers suggestions on its website for volunteers leading their own activities.

Kids, there’s plenty of work to be done. Do some of it and then consider how to write about it thoughtfully in your college application essay. Be reflective. Be specific. Be persuasive. And be thankful that you had the opportunity to serve.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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Watch our Facebook Live videos about community service below!


Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay?

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As the college search for many of you begins in earnest this summer, here’s one way to ruin your summertime: Start talking to your child about completing the college application essay. Now, as you all know, some colleges require more than one essay and usually the second and third supplementary essays for those colleges, for example, are shorter and more geared to a specific question related to the college itself than the main essay, like the one in the Common Application. We gave one perspective on college essays way back in Episode 22 and another in Episode 49 when we recounted some sad experiences we had reviewing the college essays of about 100 kids in a top New York City high school. Today, let’s talk about that main essay.

Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay? on USACollegeChat podcast

In this episode, we would like to chat about what might be at the crux of the problem in putting together a compelling essay–and that is sounding original and impressive when the applicant is still a 17-year-old.

1. The Common Application Essays

Remember, first of all, that not all colleges require essays, particularly community colleges. But let’s start with the Common App “personal statement,” which most students who have to write any essay will find themselves writing. Since over 600 colleges take the Common App, these essay prompts are likely in your child’s future.

The Common App essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, for that reason, the Common App people can tell you which prompts were the most popular. Here is the breakdown as of last January (quoted from The Common Application website):

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

I have to say those figures seem entirely understandable to me inasmuch as I, too, think that the essay prompt that proved to be the most popular is likely to be the most straightforward to write about and the most likely to be easily adaptable to most kids’ situations. But let’s look at the exact wording of all five options (quoted from The Common Application website):

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (47 percent)

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (17 percent)

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (4 percent)

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. (10 percent)

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (22 percent)

On the whole, I think these are reasonable prompts and relatively interesting prompts (without being overboard interesting) for high school seniors, though I do think that the writer has to be careful to bite off something that he or she can chew. For example, students, I wouldn’t suggest choosing global warming as a problem you’d like to solve unless you can say something very specific, unusually persuasive, and ideally somewhat original about it. It’s hard to propose the solution to an international crisis in 650 words.

2. Hugh Gallagher’s Essay

When I was in Maine this weekend, college admissions expert Allen Millett told me about a college application essay that was news to me–though I guess people who do online dating have been stealing from it for years. Allen had heard about it some time ago from his colleague at New York University, the college that admitted the student who wrote the now-famous essay. That student was Hugh Gallagher, who said this in his 2008 video interview with The Wall Street Journal:

It was 1989 and I was applying for colleges, and I thought it was really absurd for them to ask me at that age, you know, who I was or what I’d done because I hadn’t done anything.

I feel as though truer words were never spoken.

Anyway, Mr. Gallagher wrote the following essay in response to a question about significant experiences or accomplishments that helped define him as a person (that is, of course, a 17-year-old person):

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently.

Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400.

My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA.

I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid.

On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin.

I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

Mr. Gallagher’s point is, I believe, obvious. This essay doesn’t solve your child’s problem of writing about himself or herself; it just points out how difficult getting a grasp on what a reasonable accomplishment or talent or interest or problem solution might be.

As with all assignments, the more time your child has to think about the essay and sort through his or her young life to consider what might make sense to write about, the better off you all are. And here is some excellent advice that I can’t imagine anyone will take: Try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that often many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.

3. The U.K. Weighs In

And now let’s cross the Atlantic and see what is going on with college essay writing in the U.K. Earlier this spring, the BBC reported that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles the process of admitting students to British universities, had noted that “[u]niversity applicants are overly reliant on a few ‘hackneyed phrases’ in their personal statements” (quoted from the article “University hopefuls urged to keep applications ‘personal'”. The BBC article quoted the UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook as saying that “[t]he personal statement is supposed to be personal.” In the U.K., the essay focuses on why applicants are planning to study a particular course or subject and on any skills or interests they have.

To prove the point about “a few hackneyed phrases,” the UCAS published a list of the 10 most popular opening lines used by the over 700,000 applicants in their personal statements last year. Here they are (as reported in the article):

  1. “From a young age I have (always) been..” and then typically “interested in” or “fascinated by” (1,779 applicants)
  2. “For as long as I can remember I have…” (1,451 applicants)
  3. “I am applying for this course because…” (1,370 applicants)
  4. “I have always been interested in…” (927 applicants)
  5. “Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…” (310 applicants)
  6. “Reflecting on my educational experiences…” (257 applicants)
  7. “Nursing is a very challenging and demanding (career/profession/course)…” (211 applicants)
  8. “Academically, I have always been…” (168 applicants)
  9. “I have always wanted to pursue a career in…” (160 applicants)
  10. “I have always been passionate about…” (160 applicants)

So, maybe our U.S. college applicants are more creative than our U.K. friends, but maybe not. The lesson here, students, is don’t put the words “I have always…” in the first sentence of your essay–unless you want to be like thousands of young Brits.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 77: How Many Colleges Are Kids Applying To?

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play Music,iTunes,Stitcher, or TuneIn.

So, it’€™s the first week of June, and we are assuming that we have been whatever help we could have been to those seniors who are graduating now and moving into their college lives. As Charles Dickens once said, college might well be a combination of the best of times and the worst of times; but, I believe, for most of us, the best of times won out. Marie and I are wishing you the very best. Kids, if you need advice while you are there, give us a call. We have been through it all–decisions about majors and minors, living arrangements, extracurricular activities, sports, study abroad programs, part-time work, internships, etc.–€”and we are here for you.

How Many Colleges Are Kids Applying To? on USACollegeChat podcast

Now, parents, we are turning to the younger kids, who are winding up their junior years and moving into a summer of thinking about college before those college applications rear their ugly heads in about three or four months.

In this episode, we want to talk about the number of applications that students are submitting these days and the number that students should be submitting, a topic we talked about many episodes ago. What we are not talking about is the selectivity of colleges in admitting students. We talked about that recently (in Episodes 70 and 72) and about how the selectivity game among high-ranked colleges has gotten out of control. (By the way, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges is about 65 percent, regardless of the selectivity race.)

As it turns out, parents, you have no control over college selectivity in admissions, but you have plenty of control over the number of applications that your children submit. So, let’s look at the statistics.

1. The New Statistics on Applications

According to an article by Mike McPhate in The New York Times on April 11, 2016, students are applying to more colleges than they used to:

In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. By 2013, that group had grown to 32 percent. (quoted from the article)

Researchers talk about a variety of reasons for that growth. First, students are getting increasingly worried about getting into college as the number of students applying grows. Second, students are getting increasingly worried about getting into the college of their choice when so many colleges continue to get record numbers of applications. You might recall some anecdotes from our virtual nationwide tour of colleges. For example, applications at the public flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst have doubled in the past 10 years (that is, there were 37,000 applications for just 4,650 seats in the Class of 2018). Or, in the past 20 years, applications at the public flagship University of Connecticut have tripled–€”at the same time as SAT average scores have gone up a combined total of 200 points on two subtests.

And third, the growing popularity of the Common Application, which started in 1975 and now serves over 600 colleges, makes it relatively easy to apply electronically to additional colleges with just a few clicks–at least when those additional colleges don’€™t have supplementary application questions to complete.

Of course, as more students apply to more colleges for fear they won’€™t get into any, more applications flood the market, and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle–€”at first glance, great for the colleges, not so great for the applicants. However, because so many students applied to so many colleges and because they can go to only one of them, colleges are putting more students on their waiting lists so that the colleges will have students ready to fill the seats of admitted students who choose to go elsewhere. According to a New York Times article, even Yale University put just over 1,000 students on its waiting list–€”more than half as many students as it accepted.

But let’€™s look at the typical applicant, according to an article by Anemona Hartocollis in The New York Times on April 20, 2016:

The number of students using the Common Application . . . rose to 920,000 through mid-April, compared with 847,000 at the same time last year, said Aba Blankson, a spokeswoman for the Common Application. . . . [T]he overall average is 4.4 applications, though many students apply to many more, Ms. Blankson said. (quoted from the article)

So, just about four or five applications is what the typical student submits through the Common Application. Of course, in addition, these students could have submitted applications to colleges that do not take the Common App. We will talk about the notion of four or five applications in a few minutes.

Is there a difference by region or type of high school? Evidently, yes. Here is what Ms. Blankson said:

Charter school students in New England submitted the most applications, at nearly seven per student, followed closely by private school students in New England and the Middle States (a category including Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), with more than six applications each. . . . Home schoolers and public school students in the South and Southwest submitted the fewest, about three each. (quoted from the article)

These data are not too surprising, given the long-standing tradition of private schools and private colleges for children of wealthy families in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states and the prevalence of super-popular public flagship universities in the South and Southwest, which draw so many students in that part of the U.S. If a student is headed for a public university in his or her home state, fewer applications will be required compared to a student headed to a private college in or outside of his or her home state.

2. What This Means for You

So, what does this mean for you and your child as you begin the college search and start thinking about how many colleges to apply to? For one thing, it means that applying to seven or more colleges is not crazy; lots of students do that now. However, all that depends on the colleges you and your child are interested in.

If your child is headed to a public university in your state–€”and especially if your child is truly thrilled to be doing that–€”you will likely not need to make seven applications. However, if your child is headed to a public or private college in or outside of your state–€”in other words, if your child is interested in pursuing a variety of options–€”you will likely need to make seven applications or more.

Maybe this will be your very first decision. It’€™s always hard to figure out what the first decision is. But my thinking now is that the degree of variety in the colleges your child is considering is what will help you decide how many colleges should be on your child’€™s list.

Of course, if you have listened to many episodes of USACollegeChat, you will know that we love variety, especially when it comes to geographic variety and getting students outside of their geographic comfort zone. We talked about the incredible variety of colleges nationwide when we did our virtual nationwide tour (see Episodes 27 through 53). There are so many appealing colleges to choose from–public and private, large and small, near and far–€”that I would not limit myself too soon if I were in your shoes, parents and kids.

So what is the right number? Every expert and every college counselor has a number. Some seem surprisingly low to me, but maybe that’€™s because I like kids to preserve their options. I believe that it is important to increase the chances that a kid will say on May 1, “€œI am going to (fill in the name of a college), and I am thrilled about it!”€ What could be a better start to a college career than that?

In our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available through Amazon), Marie and I offer a recommendation of applying to 8 to 12 colleges. If you have the time and money (since applications cost money, unless you need and have gotten application fee waivers), I would err on the side of an even dozen. And remember, we are right here to help you!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say?

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Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say? on NYCollegeChat podcast: How many colleges should your high school student apply to on NYCollegeChat podcastToday’s episode is an official stop on our blog tour to get the word out about our new book—How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. We appreciate the hosts of the other blogs we have visited on our tour—both through written guest posts we have done and recorded interviews where we have had the chance to chat with great hosts. We have enjoyed all of it. Here are the links to our virtual tour so far:

November 2: ParentChat with Regina

November 4: The College Money Maze

November 5: Parents’ Guide to the College Puzzle

November 6: Mission: Authors Talk About It

November 11: Together with Family

November 12: NYCollegeChat

November 13: The Staten Island Family

November 16: Road2College

November 18: Viva Fifty

November 19: Paying For College 101 Facebook group

November 20: Underground Crafter

November 24: High School Survival Guide

How To Find the Right College is now available for sale as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback workbook on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The great thing about the tour was that the hosts of the blogs we visited told us what they wanted us to talk about, so all we had to do was talk. On this stop, we had to decide what to talk about. As we thought through what is likely to be going through the minds of our listeners who have high school seniors right now, we decided to talk about a question that will keep coming up over the next two months: How many colleges should my child be applying to?

You would think that this question would have gotten asked and answered at the beginning of the college search, but we believe that it gets asked and answered over and over again as the time to finish up college applications gets closer and closer.

In the interest of full disclosure, it happened to me. When my daughter was applying to colleges five years ago, we developed our list carefully—partly because she was looking for a dance major and that limited our choices significantly. We got almost to the end of the application season before we realized that she didn’t really have a safety school on the list—that is, a school that we were confident she would be admitted to. At the last minute, I remember saying something like, “Oh, no. We had better get a safety school on this list. Let’s choose a great campus of The City University of New York.” And we did, and that put our minds at ease—even though she didn’t end up needing that acceptance after all.

So, let’s talk about safety schools and about how many schools should be on your list. For more information on both of these topics, check out our book as well as our recent episodes of NYCollegeChat, which have taken our listeners on a virtual tour of public and private colleges in every region of the U.S.

As we said a few weeks ago when we did an episode about putting the final touches on that all-important college application essay, we had an opportunity recently to talk with about 100 high school seniors from one of New York City’s best public high schools—the kind of high school where students have to take an admissions test to get in. In addition to looking at their college essay topics (go back and listen to Episode 49 for that discussion), we asked them to make a list of colleges that they intended to apply to and a list of colleges that they would like to apply to, but weren’t for whatever reason (e.g., it was too expensive, it was too far from home, it was too hard to get into). After looking over their lists, here is what we noticed:

  1. Too many students do not spell the names of colleges correctly. Okay, I know this seems like a low hurdle, but you would be surprised at the mistakes we saw. For example, one of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Stony Brook University, which we talked about in Episode 50.  That’s S-T-O-N-Y, not S-T-O-N-E-Y. Another of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Binghamton University. That’s B-I-N-G-H-A-M-T-O-N, not B-I-N-G-H-A-M-P-T-O-N. And here’s one that adults sometimes get wrong, and it’s not really a spelling mistake: It’s Johns Hopkins University, not John Hopkins University—named for its benefactor, 19th-century philanthropist Johns Hopkins, an entrepreneur and abolitionist.
  2. For most students, there appeared to be little difference between the two lists of colleges—they were equally hard to get into, equally near and far away, equally expensive, and so on. In other words, I couldn’t figure out why the students weren’t applying to colleges on both lists. This observation led me to believe that they had not done a very good job of sorting through college options and applying their own criteria (that is, their own deal breakers, as we call them in our book) to the full set of college options in order to create their own list.
  3. As good students in a highly respected New York City high school, these kids had two great options for safety schools—the campuses of the public State University of New York (SUNY) and the campuses of the public City University of New York (CUNY). And yet, there were a lot of second-tier and third-tier private colleges on their lists—colleges that I imagine were meant to be safety schools for these kids students from a well-known high school. These second-tier and third-tier private colleges were not as good or as respected as many of the public SUNY and CUNY campuses. So, why were they on the lists? As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, there is no prestige in going to a private college—just because it is private—when it is worse than a good public university.
  4. Very few students had any public flagship universities outside of New York State on their lists. As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, we believe that public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of the higher education system. Here’s what we said in our book:

For many students, the public flagship state university is the place to be. Just remember, the best and the brightest high school students who live in the state really want to go to their flagship state university. Why? Because these universities are relatively inexpensive, academically respectable, well regarded across the state and across the country, often very competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. What could be better?

Some of my favorite colleges to talk to kids about are these great flagship universities, which many families, especially here in New York, never even consider. Many of the best flagship universities are as hard to get into as any top-tier private college—for example, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, UC Berkeley, and more. But some are less selective than those, making them super-appealing choices from many perspectives, including cost, caliber of the students, caliber of the faculty, and campus life. High on my list of great universities you didn’t consider: the University of Colorado Boulder. High on my list of intriguing universities you never dreamt of: the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. High on my list of interesting choices that a good, if not quite great, student from the Northeast can likely be admitted to: the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford and Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. For a good out-of-state student from a different part of the country, Ole Miss and LSU could serve as interesting safety schools.

So, looking at your child’s college list one more time, how many colleges is enough? Here is what we said in our book:

Of course, there is no right answer to that question. Through some common sense thinking and discussion, we could probably agree that applying to just two or three colleges sounds like too few and that applying to, say, 15 colleges sounds like too many. The right answer for your teenager probably lies somewhere in between, depending on how much variety there is in the kinds of colleges you are considering and depending on how many deal breakers you and your teenager have [when it comes to the types of colleges to put on the list].

For example, you can see right away that deciding to keep a student close to home for college—maybe even within commuting distance—would limit the number of options available to that student (unless, of course, home is a major metropolitan area, like New York City). Such a student might feel that five or six applications would be a reasonable sample of the variety of opportunities available close to home. On the other hand, deciding to send a student away to college would open up an almost limitless number of options. Such a student might feel that even a dozen applications would not be an adequate sample of all the opportunities out there.

As you and your teenager add more deal breakers—that is, more restrictions on the colleges you want to consider—you probably will feel better that fewer applications can cover the remaining college options. For example, let’s say you and your teenager have decided to limit your applications to small, private, four-year colleges in upstate New York that have French majors. With all of those restrictions, four or five applications might feel like plenty (though you might need a safety school, in that case, and perhaps a public one).

One more point: Your teenager should apply only to colleges that he or she actually knows something about and wants to attend. That might sound obvious to you, but it is not nearly so obvious to high school students as you might think. We find that students sometimes cannot explain why they are considering a certain college and sometimes cannot even find it on a map—even on a map of their home state. We have often used this minimum standard: If a student cannot find a college on a map, then he or she probably shouldn’t apply to it. Such students need more help in applying their deal breakers to a list of possible colleges, in finding out about a good many of them, and then in narrowing down the possibilities to a reasonable number—probably about eight to 12.

So, we notice that a couple of sources, like The College Board, are suggesting that the right number is probably from five or six to eight colleges. I think five or six is low, and here’s why. I want every kid to have some options—after any acceptances come in—for two reasons. First, a kid who has some choices likely feels better about his or her decision about which college to attend; a student who has only one acceptance—unless it was based on an Early Decision application and it is the kid’s dream choice—might feel a bit less excited about attending that college. Second, a kid who has some choice likely feels better about himself or herself when chatting with classmates in school and outside of school as all the kids compare their college acceptances. Now, I admit that maybe this is the mother in me speaking and that this is what I wanted for my own children. But I would like kids to feel satisfied with—even proud of—their college choice so that they will do the very best they can when they get there.

So, College Board or not, I am sticking with eight to 12 applications. By the way, as you are looking over the application requirements for each college on your list, we think you are going to find that some applications require little to no more effort than the work you have already done to complete others, especially if those colleges accept the Common Application and have no required additional essays. Other than perhaps paying an additional application fee, you really lose nothing by going ahead and applying.

Even though it is the second week of November, if you have a senior at home, we believe that you still would find our book to be helpful in these next two crucial months. And if you have a younger teenager at home, you will definitely find our book to be helpful as you and your child discuss your deal breakers and make that perhaps life-changing college list.

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why you should check out the percentage of applicants a college accepts when choosing a safety school
  • Why your child should apply to more than one SUNY or CUNY campus at a time
  • Why eight is not enough

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.