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Thoughts From Mr. Fiske (Or Calm in the Heart of Application Season)

Earlier this month I had the great fortune to attend a professional webinar with Mr. Edward Fiske, the man behind Fiske Guide to Colleges. It was so interesting to hear his perspective on colleges in 2020. His career began in the 1960s as a journalist and he still works on the annual publication of the guide that bears his name. I enjoyed learning everything from how they decide which colleges to include in the guide to what makes them different from other college books and how things have changed over the years. I put a few quotes from the webinar with Mr. Fiske below with some comments from me. If you are a senior or the parent of a senior, things are ramping up as the October 15th deadlines just passed and the November deadlines are approaching. I hope his sage words offer calm and perspective. Here are a few takeaways:

Too much information is useless information.-I have heard that getting information about college admissions is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant. I am a firm believer that students need to start early and take time to sort out what they want from their college experiences and which schools offer the best fit. However, at some point, there are diminishing marginal returns on the information.

The colleges’ ability to manipulate the applicant pool is astonishing.”-The truth of the matter is that colleges hold many of the cards in the admissions world. They can leverage institutional funds to recruit students and they can put application plans in place to increase their yield. (I am looking at you Colgate, with ED1, ED2 AND ED3) It is important to be aware of this so that you can chart your own course and take the steps that are best for your student.

The US diversity of higher education options is phenomenal.”-This statement speaks for itself. There are thousands of choices and more than half of them except more than half of the applicant pool.

There are dozens of schools that would be a good match.”-And this statement is why my mantra is “Love Your List”. When a student is only excited about their reach schools, it is a recipe for disappointment and heartache. I wrote a piece about this, here. Do not fall in love with one school.

Find a place where the personality of the school will serve your needs.”-I wrote a piece that I publish every year in February for my seniors that has a beautiful quote that speaks to this, called, “A Valentine for my Seniors”. It speaks to this very point.

The American system of higher education is a real treasure.-And at the end of the day, this is the point that I want to drive home. There is no other country in the world with the array of options that we have. I work with students of all academic ranges and there are schools for everyone. So if you are in the heart of the application season and feeling some stress, I hope that Mr. Fiske’s comments offer a calm perspective.

The College Admissions Book You Need to Read

Tomorrow is the publication date for Jeff Selingo’s new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. I was able to get my hands on a copy a few days early, thanks to River Road Books in Fair Haven. I am halfway through it and I attended a private Zoom meeting with Jeff last night. If you are the parent of a college-bound high school student, this is a must read.

Jeff Selingo is a journalist who has reported for over two decades on higher education. He was the editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the bestselling author of two books about college, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow and College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students. He was well-positioned to write about college admissions.

Jeff embedded in the admissions department of three different colleges to research for this book. He takes an in-depth look at how decisions are made at University of Washington, Davidson College and Emory University. This is an interesting slice of schools: a large state flagship in the Pacific Northwest, a small liberal arts college in rural North Carolina and a medium-sized school in Atlanta. If your family is negotiating this passage, Jeff’s book will help uncover some of the mystery of who gets in and why. I highly recommend it!

I am posting quotes on my instagram story as I read the book. You can follow me at louiselarsen14.

Labor Day Thoughts

Greetings from the Jersey Shore as we wrap up another summer and students head back to school or at least log in to their classes. This application cycle I guided an awesome group of kids that worked hard all summer. The fruit of their labor is that every last one of them has their Common App completed and their supplemental essays finished or with a plan to finish them in a timely manner. Now they can start their senior year and focus on their last and arguably their most important academic leg of high school.

Here are a few thoughts on the 2021 admission cycle, in no particular order:

  1. Test-Optional is great! But, test-optional is not test-blind. Students that are able to test and do well with help their application profile. I am encouraging all of my students to try and test if they are able to secure a seat at a test site that manages to administer a test.
  2. Schools are dealing with uncertainty (we all are, I know). And this means that they are likely to lean heavily on the Early Decision round to stabilize their numbers and secure a certain amount of students in December. I wrote more about this in my last post, 5 Things to Know About Early Decision in a Pandemic.
  3. Some campuses are starting to open for tours but many are still only offering virtual tours. For now, the best bet for a rising senior is to continue to explore schools online and keep our fingers crossed that next spring seniors will be able to visit campuses for Accepted Student Days.
  4. Some old adages still hold true. Carolyn Pippen wrote a piece called “Lessons From a Departing Admissions Counselor” when she left Vanderbilt University several years ago. One of the points that she makes is, “The calmest and most organized students fare the best in this process”. If you have a senior that needs to apply to college, the time is now.
  5. There is chatter around the 2021 cohort-will it be easier to get in because of the pandemic? Or will it be harder to get in because of the pandemic? The answer is it probably depends and no one really knows yet. I think that the typical acceptance rates at each school might tick up a bit so that colleges will ensure that they can fill their class.
  6. Full-pay students will be in high demand and could have an advantage, especially in the ED round.
  7. And of course, the wait list might be a whole new frontier.
  8. If you are a senior, or the parent of a senior, fasten your seatbelt, this application cycle is going to be a wild ride!

I hope you had a great holiday weekend. Here’s a picture of how I started my day.

5 Things to Know About Early Decision in a Pandemic

The 2020 Pandemic continues to impact college admission models. As seniors weigh their application options, it is worthwhile to consider how the Early Decision (ED) might help them gain acceptance to the college of their choice.

If you are new to the college admission process, ED is a plan where you apply early to a college, typically by November 1st and you receive an answer from the school in early December. This is a binding application and if admitted, you are obligated to attend. You can only apply to one college under this plan, so students use it as an opportunity to show the love at their first choice school and hopefully increase the chance of receiving an acceptance letter.

One takeaway from the pandemic is that schools will be leaning on their ED plans to try and eliminate some of the uncertainty that they are facing in the COVID-19 era and stabilize their numbers for the class of 2024.

Here are a few things to think about*:

  1. The admit rate for ED is typically higher than the Regular Decision (RD) rate. For example, the RD rate at Colgate University for the class of 2023 was 20.1% but the ED acceptance rate was 46.4%.
  2. Many selective schools fill half of their class in the ED round, making the RD round more selective than it might seem.  The winner in this category last year was Bates College. They took 70.3% of their freshman class in the ED round. Their ED admit rate was 42.4% and their RD rate was 8.7%
  3. Some schools use ED to boost their statistics and lower their admit rate. The biggest discrepancy here is at Colby College. They fill 64.6% of their freshman class from the ED round, with an admit rate of 43.4% but in the RD round only lets in 7.6% of applicants. If you are applying RD it is quite selective.
  4. Many schools include their recruited athletes in the ED round, but that is not indicated in the statistics.
  5. If you are waiting to see where you might be eligible for a merit scholarship, a binding ED application plan might not be the best choice. There will not be an opportunity to compare offers from other schools. When you are accepted, you are required to withdraw all of your other applications.

*All data gratefully sourced from Jennie Kent & Jeff Levy at


August 1st!


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August 1st is a significant day in the college admission cycle. The Common Application opens and seniors can view the supplemental essays that they will need to write. At this time of year, I go from counseling to stalking. I have reached out to all my seniors and given them a heads up that we will get underway with the supplements this weekend. If they start now, they will have a solid month to complete all of the writing before senior year begins. If you are a senior, now is the perfect time to get started on your applications. Good luck!

Testing in a Pandemic

“Optional” is not a trick word. It is not a wink that signals a continued institutional preference for the upcoming admissions cycle. This is not a moment for euphemisms or gimmicks; there should be no parsing of intent with this amended testing policy. It is a clear response to an unprecedented moment that requires admission officers to reimagine some of the elements we have historically required as we reassure anxious students about their upcoming applications. Worries about oversubscribed test sites, anxiety regarding limited registration access and the incongruity of test prep during a quarantine can be set aside.”

~Lee Coffin

Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Dartmouth College

I love my work and I get great satisfaction in guiding families through the college admission journey. But I have always thought it was a shame that the entire system is so complicated: Common App/Coalition App, ED/EA, FAFSA/CSS-Profile, ACT/SAT/Test-Optional, Merit Scholarships/Need-Based Aid and the list goes on. It is no wonder that people need help. 

There is no layer of the college admissions world that is more fraught with tension than testing and what scores mean. There is substantial data that confirms that standardized tests reflect the socioeconomic background of a student, not their intelligence or aptitude. Many in this field would love to see the testing machine eliminated from consideration and some schools have gone as far as to label themselves test-blind-they will not even look at your test scores. But the reality is that good scores can enhance a profile and I have always encouraged my students (and my biological children) to put their best foot forward with testing. Strong scores will not necessarily get you in but weak scores can keep you out; they are a little bit like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. And they can definitely open doors to merit scholarships. As a result I always encourage my students not to be stressed, but to give the test their best possible effort and let the chips land where they land. I also show them the lengthy list of incredible test-optional schools just in case their numbers aren’t what they had hoped, just to assuage any anxiety they may have. 

This year has been no different and I have encouraged my seniors to test this fall, to either establish their first set of scores or improve on what they have already done. I have also pushed my rising juniors to test if they can get a seat in case next spring follows the course that testing took the first half of this year, with multiple cancellations due to COVID-19. 

But I am watching the news carefully and reconsidering my advice. Taking a standardized test indoors, in a mask, over a four hour period, with breaks for snacks is the definition of a congregate setting where the virus can spread. The testing environment plays a role in how students score (imagine testing in a classroom when the marching band is practicing right outside!) and the current environment is more stressful than normal.

I wanted to share a piece from the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, Jon Boeckenstedt. You have likely never heard of him, but in my field, he is a lion; well-regarded, deeply admired and his word carries great weight. His piece, Please Don’t Test is here. In it, he says that his school does not care if you test. He also cites Lee Coffin, from Dartmouth, who I quote at the beginning of this piece. Lee Coffin has an excellent podcast to demystify college admissions here

A few weeks ago securing a seat at a test site seemed like a good opportunity. But we are in a dynamic world and things change by the day. Now a standardized test might feel like a level of risk that isn’t prudent. Each family must carefully weigh their decision. 

What is a Public Ivy?


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Greetings from the rainy, cloudy Jersey Shore. I recently took an early morning walk at the beach on a cloudless day with blue skies and a sea breeze. I was repping a t-shirt from the Public Ivy where my favorite 2017 client is a student. The shirt (pictured above) just says Public Ivy and I wondered as I walked, if people passing me knew what school the graphics represented or what a Public Ivy is and voilà…I had the inspiration for a new post.

“Public Ivy” is a term from the book by Richard Moll, Public Ivies: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities in 1985. Moll traveled around the United States and named the eight schools listed below the “Public Ivies” due to the look and feel of their campuses and the academic excellence that they offer. Moll determined that these schools provide an education equivalent to an Ivy League school, at a more affordable price. The original Public Ivies are:

1. University of Vermont

2. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

3. Miami University of Ohio

4. College of William & Mary

5. University of Virginia

6. University of Texas-Austin

7. University of California

8. University of Michigan

If you want a school with a traditional college feel, a gorgeous campus, research opportunities, traditions and school spirit, all combined with a first-rate education, check out the Public Ivies!


Common App Countdown-8 Things to Know

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“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step” ~Lao Tzu

The Common Application opens in two weeks, on August 1st. If you area rising senior or the parent of a rising senior, here are a few thoughts on how to proceed:

  1. You can fill the actual application part now and it will roll over on August 1st. So if you are a senior, get started. Just opening your account and filling out the basic information will feel good. You will be able to say you started your Common App!
  2. The Common App will close down for a few days at the end of July, typically around the 28th. You will not be able to access your account until August 1st. If you are a parent of a senior and you insist that your student start working on their application at the end of July and they tell you that they cannot log in, they are not lying. All the more reason to start now!
  3. There is a tedious amount of information to input. I recommend that you do this in 30-45 minute increments. You will need information from each parent about their jobs and educational background. You also must put in an extensive amount of information from your own academic profile. This can feel like a lot of busy work but there is no choice but to keep going until you are done.
  4. There is space for ten activities. If you have more than ten, you can see if any of them might fit in the Honors and Awards section. The other option is to lump certain activities together, like volunteer work. If you follow these steps and still have more accomplishments to share, see #7.
  5. You must take the time to write your activities in a meaningful, descriptive way that shows what you have done in the most detail. This is an opportunity to put your best foot forward. The “College Essay Guy”,  Ethan Sawyer, author of the book College Essay Essentials has an excellent guide for letting your activities shine here.
  6. The 2021 offers a 250 word optional supplement to address any impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on your life. This is an excellent opportunity to share any significant experiences you have had since March and write the main essay about a different topic.
  7. The best kept secret on the Common App is the additional information essay. What is this? It is a section of the application where you can share anything else pertinent to your profile that you want, in 650 words or less. So if you have an activity that does not fit in any of the other areas, you can share this information in this section.
  8. The link to the Common App is here. Good Luck!

My First Client

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I was talking with one of my siblings a few weeks ago and a memory flashed in my mind that I had completely forgotten. In the fall of 1990, my brother was entering his senior year of high school. My mother had attempted to help him with his applications but it was not going well. At the time, I was a recent college graduate, living at home. She asked me to take over and help him complete the Common Application.

I stepped in and everything that I suggested, he had an answer for why it did not need to be completed in that exact way, or at that exact time. But for every excuse he had, I provided an answer for him and in the end, I prevailed and we pushed on with the writing. What I remember so vividly is the machine we were using. It was a state of the art typewriter that allowed you to type one line at a time, that appeared on a digital screen, and you could make corrections while it was on the screen. Once you hit enter, it appeared on the paper and you could not change anything. But I remember thinking that this thing was amazing, and a huge aid in trying to create an error-free (paper) application. I have no idea what he wrote about, I just remember the verbal parries that culminated in me getting him to complete and mail his applications as well as the machine. It looks like a relic now, but at the time, I felt so lucky that we had such a deluxe set up to write.

He got multiple acceptance letters, some great scholarships and graduated from college, with a job! It is ironic that years later I was drawn to this work professionally. Maybe my mother saw something back in 1990!


June 1st, The New May 1st


IMG_5323Welcome to the June 1st, which is the new May 1st. In the pre-COVID era, I always wrote a May 1st post because that was the National Deposit Day, the due date for seniors to place a deposit at the college they plan to attend. This year many colleges pushed the deadline back to give families time to sort through their choices, amid the pandemic. If you are a senior or the parent of a senior, I know the past three months have been surreal. Whether you made your deposit in April or are just pushing the submit button today, congratulations!

When seniors deposit on May 1, they usually have almost four months until they head off to school. This year, they have less than three months. The average university is starting in the middle of August, so if you are a senior, you are leaving in about 10 weeks. I wrote a post a few years ago about all the things that a senior needs to go to get ready to leave for college, “May 1st Commitment is Just the Beginning!”. I think in the pandemic era, there are a few more things to think about:

Your Health-Evaluate your health, along with your parents and your healthcare providers to determine the best way to stay safe. Do you need extra PPE, disinfectant or hand-sanitizer? Is there a risk factor that you need a single? Take stock now and get prepared so when you arrive on campus you have the support that you need in place.

Flu Shots-Colleges are taking steps to mitigate the spread of COVID on campuses and one requirement that I am hearing more and more is that flu shots will be required. My guess is that schools will facilitate this but talk to your healthcare provider to see how early they anticipate providing the vaccine in case your college expects you to be vaccinated before you arrive.

Campus Closure Plan-Talk about a plan in the event that your campus has to close. Determine how your family will manage this if colleges send their students home again, especially if you are traveling a significant distance to go to school. This past March, many students were on spring break when their colleges told them not to come back. All of their personal items were still on campus. If you need to leave your campus, make a list of what you need to bring with you for an extended stay at home.

Plan B-Have a conversation around what you will do if your school determines that they will not have courses face-to-face this fall. Do you want to forge ahead and take classes online? If not, what else might you be able to do to fill your time in a productive or meaningful way if you are not comfortable learning online?

These are a few of my thoughts. I am attending webinars weekly to stay informed. If I learn more or think of another issue, I will be sure to add it to the list!