Why College Applications are the Stuff of Greatness

“From the bureaucratic minutia to the deep introspection, submitting a college application is possibly the biggest achievement of your kid’s life to date”

~Kelly Corrigan

Years ago I read The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan. It was a funny book and I have enjoyed following her on social media ever since. She recently posted a piece about the fall of senior year in high school. When I read, “Something beautiful is being formed in the dumpster fire that is senior fall…the kind of growth that parents dream of”, I knew I had to write about it.

I have shared her piece below but I want to highlight a few points that she makes because they are spot on. When children are very young, often the answers to the questions in their life are black and white, good and bad, yes and no. You made the travel team? Good! Smoking cigarettes? Very bad! As children progress through adolescence, the answers become more nuanced and less clear: there are pros and cons to all choices. And this hits a crescendo with the college admissions process. Getting into Stanford is amazing but if you live on the East Coast, there might be a tradeoff with the distance. An acceptance at a likely school might be accompanied with a scholarship that is hard to turn down when you look at the cost of a reach school that admitted you. There is no perfect college…but we live in a country with so many choices. To quote Ted Fisk, the author of The Fiske Guide, “The American system of higher education is a real treasure”. (I actually wrote a piece about an interview that I saw with him, “Thoughts From Mr. Fiske [Or calm in the Heart of Application Season])

Kelly Corrigan lists the many attributes that a student gains from going through this process but she ties it up with a bow when she states, “Tell every high school senior you know this most-encouraging truth: making decisions, weighing fiscal demands, understanding yourself, managing a hundred to-dos, overcoming your worst fears-this is the stuff of greatness”. I love this quote because these are the skills that are required to negotiate adult life on a daily basis. I have posted Kelly’s entire piece below. If you know a senior that has applied to college, give them a huge congratulations from me!


In the early days of her senior fall, my daughter was projecting confidence about the college application process. She’d make a spreadsheet, things would be checked off, it’ll all come together, Mom. But right around this point, with classes and sports in full swing, college mutated from something exciting to that-which-shall-not-be-named. To inquire about, say, a 150-word supplemental essay was to provoke a fit of unholy madness.

It was probably no coincidence that her mood crashed just before the Nov. 1 early application deadline, as I bet it is doing in a couple million households across the country right this minute.

What I couldn’t have known then is this: Something beautiful is being formed in the dumpster fire that is senior fall. Regardless of outcome, the college application process itself can force the kind of growth parents dream of. Here’s why:

Making decisions is hard.

Imagine a heap of flea market jewelry where each piece is tangled in some way around another. SAT or ACT? When to take it and how many times? City school or the rolling hills of some rural outpost? Greek, Greek-lite or anti-Greek? Early action or early decision? Our kids decide. Ahh. But then a cool older cousin or trusted teacher points out a new wrinkle and they undecide. They scour College Confidential and rogue Facebook pages looking for some bit of truth they can trust. Decision fatigue is real. How many of us have the patience to separate each chain, bracelet and granny brooch?

Needing a lot of money is stressful.

Your kid is about to be the central figure in a shockingly expensive venture — with little visibility into what your family can bear. What percentage of your family’s savings is at stake? What kind of support did or will his siblings need? What are the chances of getting need-based financial aid or a merit scholarship? Is it O.K. to want a private education or is that greedy and unnecessary? And the doozy of all doozies: Is it always worth it? (Listen to Kelly Corrigan Wonders podcast to hear more on this question.)

Self-reflection is a mind-bender.

What are you good at? What was meaningful about your summer experiences? What should the admissions committee know about you? If this doesn’t seem all that dreadful, ask yourself the same questions. Are you shrugging? Grimacing like that toothy emoji? Recently when a friend of my daughter’s asked for help with an essay, I was tempted to suggest he write: “I don’t know anything; that’s why I need to go to college.”

Project managers are made, not born.

Humans are built for many things, but most of us live and die without learning to pilot a process this complex. Just how many items are on the average college application checklist? Let’s see: transcripts, recommendations, biographical info, resume, personal statement, supplemental essays, standardized tests, application fees. Next up, the harrowing process of securing financial aid. What happens if you leave a field blank? Will you ever know? Which brings me to the cloud of anxiety surrounding the whole thing.

College fear is based on a lie.

The lie is about consequences. The lie says this is a binary moment: You’re off to greatness or you’re doomed. The lie says there is no other way to get the life you want than by going to University of Stretch Dream Reach. That’s why they want it so bad.

But in all cases, for as long as we live, it is damn near impossible to know in advance if getting what we want is a good thing or a bad thing. Look at divorce rates. Or job satisfaction ratings. Some people are miserable and uninspired on every campus in America, even those dreamy dream schools, and plenty of people are thriving at schools with acceptance rates near 100 percent. (And here’s a bit of news: the majority of colleges in the United States accept most applicants.)

You couldn’t have convinced me of this in April 1985. I sobbed in my parents’ driveway, a rejection letter dangling from each hand. Four months later, I limped off to the only college that accepted me, and I love my life.

From the bureaucratic minutia to the deep introspection, submitting a college application is possibly the biggest achievement of your kid’s life to date — assuming you are letting them lead. And I’m here to say you should. Of course, executive function varies, and with it, so do the roles parents play. Are you one of the lucky who need only to be available for spot consultations? Or do you feel sure that if you don’t keep the reins tight, your child will grow old at your kitchen table, eating Oodles of Noodles in his underwear?

Deciding where you belong in the process has a lot to do with how you answer these questions: What will happen if you let them lead, and what will happen if you don’t? Another worthwhile thought experiment goes like this: If we decide they’ll find their way one way or another, if we agree that any one acceptance letter is not the prize, what could the reward be? Developing comfort with uncertainty? Expanding self-knowledge? Building new capacities and a sense of agency? Because that kind of personal growth is not too much to ask of this process. And what a grand outcome that would be.

Be warned, when you try to celebrate the litany of achievements a completed application represents, your kid will say the horrible thing they all believe: “None of it matters if I don’t get in.” Celebrate anyway. Leave a card on his pillow. Make a toast. Take her for fro-yo. Tell every high school senior you know this most-encouraging truth: making decisions, weighing fiscal demands, understanding yourself, managing a hundred to-dos, overcoming your worst fears — this is the stuff of greatness. This is, in fact, exactly the way to get the life you want. So, someone, please make the bumper sticker: MY KID APPLIED TO COLLEGE.

College Students Weigh in on College Admissions

“For an overachieving high schooler who wanted what the upper echelon of colleges promised, nothing seemed to be a valid hobby or interest unless you somehow turned it into a nonprofit, a start-up, or an international award.”

Yejin Suh, Princeton University Class of 2025

Greetings from the heart of the application season! I am sharing two pieces this month written by college students and their thoughts on selective college admissions. One of them is an opinion piece The New York Times, titled “There is Still One Big Trick for Getting Into an Elite College”, written by a junior at Stanford. The other was written by a sophomore at Princeton University and published in the Daily Princetonian, titled “3.98 Percent a Year Later: Reflecting on the Rat Race of College Admissions”

Both students express concerns about the college admissions process and the impact on students in America. What do you think?


One Word Parents Should Eliminate in College Admissions

Greetings! I am deep in the heart of application season, so my September post is behind schedule. I have one public service announcement on behalf of colleges and college applicants: there is no WE in college admissions!

Here are some things that I have overheard well-meaning parents say:

“We were hoping to get a 1400 on the SAT.”

“We have finished our applications.”

“We are applying Early Decision to _______________________.” (insert name of college here)

“We are scoring in the 1300s on the practice SAT.”

“We are almost done with the essay.”

“We are not sending scores.”

We all love our children and want the best for them. However, if you have a senior in high school, at this point in time, they are less than eight months away from submitting a deposit and you are about eleven months away from leaving them on a college campus. It is time to step away and allow the student to own the process. 

A good analogy for this is to think about a competitive swimmer. Parents that attend a meet are in the stands. They are not in the pool with their child as they swim in a race. And this is how to think about this process. One has to psychologically get out of the pool and go sit in the bleachers as their child negotiates this passage. That is hard! But the cold reality is that the more you step away now and let your child own their college admission journey, the more likely they are to arrive on a campus, prepared to engage, excel academically and thrive socially. 

So I know, it is hard to step back. I encourage families to start by changing their verbiage and dropping the “we”. In the end “we” are not going to college, just your child is. 

PS If you want some thoughts on how to handle friends and acquaintances that ask about your child’s college plans, read my post “Don’t Fall In Love”.

My Favorite Supplemental Essay Prompt

I am deep in the heart of essay writing season. My rising seniors focused on their main essay the first half of the summer. Now we are immersed in writing supplemental essays for the colleges that require them. Some of my students are writing fifteen or more, some only have a handful. It just depends on their list. 

As we approach this phase of applications, I am always amazed at the variety of questions colleges ask. Some are straightforward, like “Why do you want to attend our school?” or “Why do you want to major in the field you have selected?” But others are far more complex. There is a college that asks two big questions in their prompt: “Why are you interested in XXX University and how do you see yourself contributing to a diverse, inclusive, accessible and respectful campus?” And they want you to answer these two complex questions in a total of 250 words, not easy!

Some colleges give you a choice of two or more essays and allow you to select the one that you would like to answer. Other schools have multiple essays prompts for applicants to answer. There is a public flagship that asks a series of questions that you have to answer in 300 characters or less, basically two tweets!

My favorite essay prompts are from the Virginia Polytechnic University, fondly known as Virginia Tech. I love these prompts for two reasons. First, they are brief, 120 words each! Second, they are so original and they really allow students to share something about themselves. Whenever I have a student writing to these prompts, their answers are revealing and I learn something new about them. So here they are, go Hokies!

  1. Virginia Tech’s motto is “Ut Prosim” which means ‘That I May Serve’. Share how you contribute to a community that is important to you. How long have you been involved? What have you learned and how would you like to share that with others at Virginia Tech?
  1. Resilience is defined as the ability to adapt and learn from a difficulty. Reflect on a time that you have exhibited resilience. What growth did you see in yourself after this experience?
  2. Share a time when you were most proud of yourself either as a role model or when you displayed your leadership. What specific skills did you contribute to the experience? How did others rely on you for guidance? What did you learn about yourself during this time?
  3. Describe a goal that you have set and the steps you will take to achieve it. What made you set this goal for yourself? What is your timeline to achieve this goal? Who do you seek encouragement or guidance from as you work on this goal?

August 1st & the Common App is Open!

“The supplement is a chance to expand one’s candidacy, to reveal one’s personality, and to prove one’s interest. If the essay was the heart of the application, the supplement was it’s soul”

Becky Munsterer Sabky

~Valedictorians at the Gate

Today is a big day in the college admissions world. The Common App reopens for the 2023 admissions cycle. Students can see which colleges on their list will require supplemental essays and get started on them. They can return to school next month with their applications complete so they can focus on their senior year, getting the best grades in the most rigorous classes in their high school career and enjoying their last year at home. If you know a senior that needs to tackle the next stage of writing, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. The length can vary. I have seen questions that require an answer the length of a tweet. Others can be 500-1,000 words. Typically they are 150-250.

2. These pieces are usually shorter than the main essay, but they need to be polished. The supplemental essays should receive the same level of care and effort as the main essay.

3. You might see prompts that you can use more than once. Two examples that I often see are “Tell us about a meaningful extracurricular that you enjoy” or “Tell us why you want to study and why”.

4. Another typical supplement that colleges use is the “Why Us?” essay. In order to write this effectively, you need to craft a detailed piece with specific information that draws you to the college.

5. The supplement is an opportunity to show another facet of yourself that is not already a part of your application.

6. Colleges use this portion of the application to allow students to share their voice, more of their personality and their interest in a school.

If you know a rising senior, encourage them to get started sooner rather than later. As I tell the kids that I work with, “You can pay now or you can pay later, but you are going to pay.” Good luck!

Summer Admissions Fragments

Happy July 4th from the Jersey Shore! I am wrapping up work with my seniors and sending them all into the weekend with their Common App drafted and essays drafted. Here are some bits and pieces of news and information from the college admissions world:

~The University of Vermont is adding a round of Early Decision to their application plan this year. My guess is that they are trying to increase their selectivity in the national rankings.

~The Common App has announced that their blackout period will start on July 27th and they will reopen the application for the class of 2023 on August 1st. Make sure you save any work that you have completed so that it rolls over and is ready to go on August 1st.

~Several schools have shifted their application deadlines. The best source of information is the school websites. They tend to move them to an earlier date so take care to determine the dates for the schools on your list so you do not miss any deadlines.

~Test-optional schools have proliferated in the pandemic. Many schools that used to require an SAT or an ACT are allowing students to apply without scores. But there are some schools that require them this year. Applicants to MIT, University of Tennessee and the public schools in Florida and Georgia will need test scores. Double check the requirements of the schools on your list.

~Akil Bello is a leader in the college admissions world and he wrote an interesting piece for Forbes about standardized testing here.

~Many professionals in the admissions world question the UNSWR College Rankings and I advise families to never look at them. This article in the NYTimes about Columbia pulling out of the rankings for the coming cycle is interesting. I hope it is the beginning of the end for the ranking world.

I am signing off for a few days of R&R. I hope you have a relaxing holiday weekend.


Three Awesome Podcasts

Knowledge is power. If you are a parent with a child on the college admission journey, the more information you have, the more you can make smart decisions for your family around fit, academics, money and the multiple other considerations that go into choosing a college. There are some incredible podcasts out there that can help you learn more about this process. I have put links and descriptions below to three of my favorites. Enjoy!

This podcast is hosted by Andrew Palumbo, the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He provides deep insights into how college admissions works by interviewing experts in the field.


Ethan Sawyer is “The College Essay Guy”. He has books, online courses and this podcast. His resources are incredible and usually free or available on a sliding scale. He shares his materials and knowledge far and wide. On his podcast he speaks with people with a wide array of experiences in the college admission world.


Future U is hosted by Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn. They are both authors that write about higher education in the United States. They talk a wide range of topics that pertain to college in America.


What is Holistic Admission?

If you have a teenager in your life applying to college, at some point you will hear the word “holistic admissions”. The definition of the word holistic is clear but families often wonder exactly what that means for their student. Johns Hopkins University published a video that provides a clear explanation of what holistic admissions is and how they use it to evaluate an applicant and bring in their class. Enjoy!

May 1st!*

“Communities are built like Legos, one brick at a time. There is no hack.”

~Jenny Anderson, Beyond Mindfulness

*This is a repeat post marks the third anniversary since I opened my sweet little office. The offer still stands for the whole month of May…anyone can come talk to me about college…with no charge. If you know a family that could benefit from this, please have them get in touch with me.

A friend posted the most beautiful piece on community in March. It was written by Jenny Anderson and it resonated with me. I have been the recipient of support from my community in ways that are too numerous to mention. I have benefited from the small things, like a class mom organizing a holiday event at school and I have literally been picked up and carried by my community when the unthinkable has happened. When I reflect on community, my first thought goes to the town where I live, but really, I have had the fortune to be a member of many communities. I have my SLU community from college, a professional community that I work with every day, a community of moms that I raised my kids alongside, that love my kids like their own, as I do theirs and I have my ADK/ski community, a group like no other. The essence of the article that touched me spoke about how we have to give to really be part of a community. And it made me question if I have given enough. I know I have received, in ways large and small, but have I really given?

I worked hard this past month to open my new office on May 1st, which is a significant date in the college planning world. May 1st is National Decision Day when seniors must decide where they are going to college. I thought it would be a meaningful day to open my doors. And the beautiful article about community gave me an idea for how I can give to my own community.

The whole month of May, I am available to meet with anyone who would like to talk about the college admissions process, free of charge. I am dead serious. Come talk to me for an hour and bring your questions, no strings attached. My real hope is that after an hour, you have enough information that you don’t need any more help. If this sounds unlikely, keep reading.

Several years ago, when I was in the middle of my certificate program at the University of California, Irvine, I heard a local mom lamenting about college admissions. I offered to come over and speak with her children. I met them on a Sunday morning and spent an hour walking them through the steps of finding a good fit for college. Last month, when I posted the news about my office, this parent reached out to me to thank me and update me on where all of their children ended up. Each one of these kids chose a great school, all quite different from each other, but the right fit for the individual student. An hour can go a long way.

So if you are stressed or confused, or overwhelmed, or maybe you know someone who is, come talk to me. You can send your child, you can come with your child, or maybe you would like to come alone. Or just come see my office and have a Perrier. My seniors are all settled on their schools and my juniors aren’t in application mode yet, so I have time. Consider it a thank you for all of the times that my community has taken care of and supported me and my family. The article about community is here. I look forward to hearing from you!

Twenty Days to Deposit for the Class of 2022

“College is one of the most complex and expensive purchases one makes”

Breaking Ranks: How the Ranking Industry Rules Higher Education & What to Do About It By Colin Diver

If you are the parent of a senior (as I am), there is a good chance you are spending the month of April visiting colleges, attending accepted student days, weighing financial aid offers and talking to your student about their choices. This is not an easy business. You are weighing a large decision on not only the nuts and bolts of an education and the cost involved, but a choice that rings deep in your heart. There are so many facets that factor into this decision and I think that the deepest one under them all is this-will my kid be ok? That is really all we want as parents at the end of the day. Here are some tips as you walk through this jungle on your way to a May 1 deposit:

  1. $$$-Take paper to pencil and write down the room/board/tuition. Do not include books, travel or personal expenses. Once you have that princely sum, subtract any scholarships or grants. Do not include loans in this number. If travel to and from the school requires airfare, add in what you think the annual costs will be. Take this number and multiply it by four. This is the four-year cost for your child before any tuition increases. Do this for each college your child is considering. When your family sees the four-year costs at each institution, it will provide important data that could influence the final choice.

2. Distance-Revisit the idea of distance. It is easy for a 10th or 11th grader to believe that they want to go to college on the other side of the country. It is an entirely different thing to actually do it. They will be making this move in about four months. As this becomes reality they might have a change of heart. Evaluate this aspect and make sure that your child (and you!) are comfortable traveling a significant distance, especially in light of the pandemic over the last two years.

3. Major-If your child thinks they know what they want to study, take a deep look at the program that each school offers. This may impact the final decision.

4. Mum is the word-When your child returns from a visit, or you are traveling home from an accepted students day, say nothing. I have no doubt that you will have opinions, possibly strong opinions, you might even feel panicked at the prospect of your child attending a specific school. But I beg you, to say nothing and be aware of your body language too; just remain neutral. If your child wants to talk, you should listen, otherwise, say nothing. Allow 24-48 hours for the dust to settle and then talk about it.

5. Boundaries-If your child is still deciding in late April, it might be all you think about. You might be mulling the choices over in your head 24/7 and have pros and cons lists lying all over your house. Do not bombard them with your thoughts, which might be going around your head like a ticker tape. I suggest you only discuss this at designated times. Take your senior out to dinner and limit the conversation to when you are out.

As you child thinks about their options, remember this quote from Colin Diver’s new book, Breaking Ranks: How the Ranking Industry Rules Higher Education & What to Do About It:

 “Unlike apples and oranges, or refrigerators and cars, college is not simply a short-term consumption activity. It is a long-term investment in human capacity—the ability to do financially, socially, emotionally, and even spiritually rewarding work; to teach oneself and others how to learn, adjust and adapt; to analyze, reason, evaluate and create; to appreciate beauty, ingenuity, order, complexity and subtlety.”

These words define why your child is going to college and can help guide your family to a good decision. Good luck!