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College Visits During COVID

Spring break has traditionally been a time for high school students to visit colleges, walking around campuses, participating in student-led tours, and even sitting in on classes. In the midst of the pandemic, however, most of these options are no longer viable. Without the opportunity to explore campuses, how can students figure out which colleges are the best fit for them? Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best opportunities for students looking to tour colleges from a (social) distance.


Virtual Tours: Most colleges are now offering virtual tours for students who are no longer able to visit in person. Students, for example, can tour classrooms and libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, attend a virtual information session at Middlebury, or engage with an interactive map of NYU. YouVisit offers students the opportunity to explore over 600 campuses, making it a great starting point for students considering a variety of schools. CampusTours also offers tours of more than 1,800 U.S. colleges, as well as schools in Canada, the UK, China, and France.

Webinars: In addition to virtual tours, many colleges are now offering live webinars so that students can learn more about the school and ask questions of admissions officers, financial aid officers, and current students. Pomona, for example, hosts a series of monthly webinars for prospective students, while Notre Dame offers a library of past webcasts, in addition to opportunities for live engagement. The best way to stay apprised to upcoming webinars is to register for the mailing lists at colleges that interest you. Most schools will send out announcements about upcoming webinars a week or two in advance.


College Websites: While virtual tours and webinars can give you a good overview of a school, it’s also important to do some independent research on schools that intrigue you. Take some time to review the pages of departments of interest to see which classes are being offered and what topics professors are researching. Check out the clubs, research opportunities, and fellowship programs available to undergraduate students. If you hope to study abroad, look at the opportunities for travel that the college offers and the locations you might visit. If there are certain facets of the college experience that you know will be important to you, take some time to study the ways you might explore them at particular schools!

Reach Out to Faculty: If there’s a professor whose work especially intrigues you, don’t be afraid to reach out to him or her. Not every professor will be able to respond to prospective students, but some will share information on upcoming courses, research opportunities, ways to learn more about the department, etc. Conversing with a professor at a school that interests you will not only give you a chance to learn more about that institution, but it will also give you a connection in your preferred department, should you enroll there.

Read Reviews: Websites like Niche offer people an opportunity to share reviews of and feedback on schools, which can be helpful to students looking for insights into a particular college. Personal reviews from friends or family are often even more helpful, as these people will understand your particular goals and interests. If a friend attends a school that intrigues you, reach out to ask if you can discuss his or her college experience!

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Top Tips for Virtual College Admission Interviews

This year’s admissions process certainly looks different. Schools have gone test-optional, campus tours have moved online, and college admissions interviews — traditionally held in-person with alumni or admissions officers — have shifted to a virtual format. For many students, this last change feels particularly challenging. Interviews are stressful at the best of times; connecting with your interviewer and making a strong first impression over Zoom can seem impossible.

The good news: you can absolutely have a strong interview over Zoom! To help you through the process, we’ve listed below some of our top tips for virtual college admission interviews.


1. Prepare for the interview: The format of your interview might have changed, but your interviewer will still be looking for the same thing: a smart, engaged student who is seriously interested in attending their institution. Knowing this, you’ll want to take some time before your interview to think about your own interests and experiences. What have you done that shows your love of learning? What experiences can you talk about that present you as a thoughtful, active community member? Also make sure to do some research on the school itself so that you can clearly explain why you are interested in attending. What field would you like to pursue there? What research opportunities and clubs would you explore? Do you have any questions for your interviewer about the school’s offerings?

2. Pay attention to your setting: Your brilliant conversation should be the focus of your interview, but don’t discount the importance of setting. Make sure you take your Zoom call in front of a neutral background that’s as professional as possible. (If you’ll be in your bedroom, make sure to clean it up before the call!) Also check your lighting and your computer angle. Can your interviewer see you clearly, or are you backlit like an anonymized witness in a documentary? Will your interviewer be able to look you in the eye? Feel free to bring in lamps or to prop your computer up on books, if necessary!

3. Dress for success: Sweatpants may be de rigueur for virtual learning, but your interview is an opportunity to put some of your more formal clothes back into rotation. Dressing nicely shows your interviewer that you care about this meeting — that’s important! At the very least, you will want to wear a nice top (a button-up, a blouse) to the interview, since your interviewer will be able to see it during the call. It’s also wise to wear a nice pair of pants, just in case you have to stand up during the interview. The last thing you want is for your interviewer to see your pajama pants as you chase your dog out of the room!

4. Make sure you’re not interrupted: This can be challenging, especially for those with large families, but do try to avoid interruptions during your Zoom call. Ask your family to stay out of your room during your interview, as movement in the background of your call can be distracting. It’s especially important that your parents don’t speak to the interviewer on your behalf, as this can suggest that you aren’t mature enough to handle the interview (and, by extension, college) on your own.

5. Take advantage of the virtual format: Zoom interviews can feel less natural than in-person interviews, but they do offer you some advantages. You can, for example, keep a few notes or your resume on-hand to refer to if you need reminders about important points. You can also make sure you have an arsenal of items (water, tissues, etc.) nearby, just in case you need them. Make sure you take advantage of these opportunities to make yourself more comfortable during the interview. That will make the whole thing feel less stressful!

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5 Tips for a Compelling Common Application Essay

For many high school seniors, the Common Application’s personal essay is the most intimidating part of the admissions process. What are admissions officers looking for? Are there particular topics you should avoid? How can you possibly summarize your interests and goals in 650 words? What do they mean when they call it a “personal essay?”

If the very idea of tackling this essay leaves you feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry! We’re here to help. Below, we’ve listed some of the most important things to keep in mind when putting together your personal essay. If you can follow these guidelines as you plan, draft, and polish your applications, you’ll be in great shape! And bonus tip, it’s not really personal, meaning they don’t care about your personality or your deep, dark secrets. Read on.


1. What Makes You Stand Out

Every year, admissions officers receive thousands of essays that sound similar. Some of these address cliché topics (e.g., winning the big game, being transformed by a volunteer opportunity); others simply don’t make clear how the applicant differs from other students.

Before you begin writing your essay, take some time to think about what makes you a compelling applicant. Are you an amazing writer or an incredible biologist? Are you a budding political activist? Have you developed great resources to support the homeless population in your area? Whatever it is that makes you stand out, that is what you should be discussing in your college essay! Not what you want to “do” in life, but what you’ve done to elevate yourself to present as a compelling candidate. Give the reader a zoomed in snap shot of what it is you will bring to college.

2. Turn Your Essay Into A Story

The Common App asks for a “personal essay,” but you’d do better to think of your writing as a personal narrative. Use this as an opportunity to tell a story about yourself, one that — like all the great stories you’ve read in English class — includes a compelling opening, some narrative tension to keep the reader invested, and a satisfying conclusion. If, for example, you want to write about your background as a programmer, don’t just tell us that you can code and list your achievements. Instead, tell us a story about how you were confronted with a seemingly impossible programming challenge, how you spent months studying a particular programming language to debug your code, how you finally succeeded after multiple failures, and how this has shaped your current approach to computer science. Giving your story a narrative arc will make it both more enjoyable and more memorable. The one caveat: make sure your narrative presents you in a positive light. No one wants to admit the story’s villain.

3. Show, Don’t Tell

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: rather than telling us that something is true, show us evidence that makes us believe it. That is, rather than simply asserting things about yourself in your college essay (“I’m a compassionate person,” “I love history,” etc.), give us information that proves your point. Maybe you’ve shown your compassion by working at a food bank during the pandemic and tutoring underprivileged kids. Perhaps you have illustrated your love of history through independent historical research projects and summer programs on American history. Providing this information in your essay will support your statements about yourself and make them convincing to your reader.

4. Proofread Your Work

After all of the hard work you’ve put into planning and drafting your essay, you don’t want an admissions officer to dismiss it because of sloppy writing. Typographical errors suggest to admissions officers that you are a careless student or (even worse!) that you aren’t particularly interested in their college. To avoid giving these impressions, make sure to spend some time carefully reviewing your writing. (Don’t just rely on the computer’s spellcheck feature — it won’t catch everything!) If you can, ask a few other people to review the piece for you to look out for any spelling or grammatical errors or any moments where your writing is unclear.

5. Get Help

If you keep these suggestions in mind when putting together your personal essay, you should finish with a strong piece of writing. Still feeling a little unsure? We’re here to help!  Just as you might get standardized test tutoring to help your scores go up, it’s helpful to have an expert make sure you are on the right path with your college essay. Like a good theater director is able to get a magnificent performance from an actor, so too does a skilled essay coach help an applicant find and present his/her authentic voice.

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Prestigious, Tuition-Free Summer Programs

As we’ve mentioned before, summer offers an opportunity not just for rest and relaxation, but also for intellectual exploration. College admissions officers want to admit active, enthusiastic learners, so they look carefully at how students spend their time away from school. For students, this means that it’s important to use the summer to explore an area of academic interest. Advancing their research background or tackling college-level coursework not only allows students to develop a strong background in fields that intrigue them, but also helps them to stand out in an increasingly competitive admissions process.

One particularly easy way to stand out from other prospective college applicants: attend a selective summer program known for its rigorous academic offerings. While the application deadlines for some elite summer programs have already passed, there are still quite a few that are accepting submissions. Below, we’ve listed some of our favorite options — and, as a bonus, all of them are tuition-free!


  • Anson L. Clark Scholars Program: Based at Texas Tech, this summer research program allows qualified juniors and seniors to carry out research in almost any academic area, including the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. In addition to working one-on-one with faculty on collaborative research experiences, admitted students spend seven weeks attending seminars, discussions, and field trips. Scholars receive a $750 stipend for attending the program, as well as free room and board. Applications due February 10th.
  • Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program: This free, online, highly selective program pairs experienced writers with high school students hoping to learn about the creative writing process. The program itself is flexible and often takes place through informal correspondence, but admitted students have a chance to share their work with mentors and peers on a weekly or biweekly basis. Application not yet open.
  • MITES: MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Sciences (MITES) program offers six weeks of academic enrichment programming for rising high-school seniors with an interest in science and engineering. Admitted students take free courses in math, life sciences, physics, and humanities. The program especially encourages applications from Hispanic, African American, and Native American students, underserved students and students from rural or predominantly minority high schools. Applications due February 1st.
  • Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy: Advanced high school students can apply to participate in City of Hope’s summer research program, which allows students to spend ten weeks working as part of a biomedical research team. Summer Academy students design and work on their own research projects, assisted by physicians, scientists, and post-doctoral students. In addition, students attend weekly seminars and workshops to share their research findings and discuss topics ranging from poster presentations to biomedical ethics. Most students are paid a $4,000 stipend for their work during this internship. Applications due March 9th.
  • Wistar High School Fellowship in Biomedical Research: The Wistar Institute, which focuses on early-stage discovery science in cancer, immunology, and infectious disease, offers Philadelphia-area students an opportunity to carry out biomedical research. During this seven-week program, students are integrated into a research lab and work on unique projects under the guidance of a team of mentors. They also attend weekly seminars and take part in an introduction to library research skills. Applications due March 27th.

Struggling to figure out what you should do this summer? Worried that you’ve missed the boat on applications? Consider enrolling in our Application Boot Camp program, which offers a personalized Admissions Report to guide you in selecting courses, preparing for standardized tests, identifying important extracurricular opportunities, and, yes, crafting a high-impact plan for the summer months. Let us help you as you navigate this process!

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Writing Guidance for Winter Break

Most students think of winter break as a time to relax — sleeping in, visiting with family, enjoying eggnog, watching movies, and enjoying a stress-free holiday season. As we tell our students, however, winter break is also the perfect time to review their academic progress throughout the past semester. How are they doing in their courses? Are there particular skills that they need to develop or subjects in which they need some help?

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen that writing is a consistent weak area for students. Each year offers more rigorous writing challenges in the form of English essays, history papers, and science lab reports. Students frequently find they do not have the skills to face these new tasks comfortably. Discomfort oftentimes leads to that nasty ‘p’ word — procrastination — which we hope to avoid.


A few years ago, having fielded numerous requests from parents and students for writing help, we launched our Writing Guidance Program. The aim of the program: to help students master the writing process during middle and high school, improving their work in their current courses and setting them up for success in future years.

Since we launched the program, we’ve worked with students on many types of writing. We’ve offered guidance on school assignments and independent projects, teaching students how to outline five-paragraph essays and working with them to map out long-term research plans. We’ve developed personalized lessons for students on topics like identifying strong evidence and improving the fluidity of their prose. We’ve even helped students to improve the analytical skills that underlie strong writing, showing them how to close read poetry, how to investigate historical data, and how to interpret camera angles and set designs in film.


As a result of our work, many of our students have seen improvements not just in their grades at school, but also in their comfort with writing projects. Students have celebrated with us when they do well on an in-class essay or a research project, and they’ve also reached out to let us know that — even months after our work together — they are still successfully using the techniques we taught them.

H’s grades just came back, and I wanted to share the great news: A for English! Thank you so much for your amazing help.” – P.W., Writing Guidance Program parent

Working on their writing now also gives students the chance to become more concise, fluent writers before college. As their comfort with writing increases, their ideas become more engaging, their arguments improve, and they feel more confident in their creative powers.


There are many ways to improve your writing. One of the best ways is to READ, READ, READ, as strong reading and writing habits almost always go hand-in-hand. (We’ve listed some other suggestions here.)

As for students who are struggling with writing and want some more targeted guidance: consider reaching out to us to see if we can help. Who knows? Maybe your stress-free winter break can become a stress-free second semester, too.