College Essays Common Application Common Application Essay COVID-19

Common App Makes Changes for the 2021-2022 Essays

The Common Application released their essay prompts early this year. Usually, the prompts are an exact repeat from the previous year (as has been the case for four years) but this year they’re changing it up —just what you need this year, more change.  Thankfully, it’s not too much!


The following question, which they’ve had for years, is now gone:

  • “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 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.”

This is a bummer because we (and admissions officers) liked this one! For our students who are STEM researchers, this prompt was a terrific way to showcase their research experience noting what they’ve done outside of school assignments.

In its place, there is a new prompt 4 and it keeps with the pandemic’s theme of striving for kindness, being thankful for (and cognizant of) what you have, and showing you truly care about and respect others. It is:

  • “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”

To us, it sounds like the Common Application has been reading the Coalition Application’s prompts, as they decided to keep theirs the same for 2021-2022.  Note prompt # 2, which is: “Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus.  Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”


These two prompts align with the times. Colleges are urging students to consider their civic leadership, community activism, and how they care for others, remaining mindful of the greater good.

Also, the Common App is keeping the optional COVID-19 essay prompt from last year. It is:

  • Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces (250 word limit)
    • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
    • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you. (Students may wish to discuss shifting family obligations, education disruptions, ways they have helped others, or how they have used their time at home to pursue new interests. This question will not replace the preexisting Additional Information essay, which has a 650 word limit.)

While everyone on the planet has been impacted by the global pandemic, the Common App’s COVID-19 optional essay is not something that all students should complete. It’s for unique circumstances only –and we can walk you through it, just let us know!

Common App 911

Having a difficult time with your application? Let us help.


All college applicants submitting a Common App WILL need to complete the main essay for the Common Application, and below is the full set of essay prompts for 2021-2022:

  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.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Essay Guidance Program

Need assistance with your essay? Try our personalized essay solution.


How do you keep it scholarly and memorable, pick the prompt that best works for you, and still relay who you are and what you’ll uniquely bring to a university? Let us assist! We’ve helped students who have written their Common App main essays on topics such as:

  • A research internship studying asylum in the United States
  • 3D visualization techniques used to recreate a grandfather’s antique clock collection
  • Experiencing how Black feminism impacts high school sports
  • Why studying the water we drink should be a priority for all (hint –there’s other stuff in there, you know)
  • How a violin’s bow speed links to wave studies and physics
  • Creating a robot that can teach coding to kids
  • How gender equity threads to juvenile justice

When we work with students, a main essay discussion starts with a dialogue on what you love, what intrigues you, what excites you, why you do it, and who it’s for. Check out our Common App 911 and Essay Guidance Program, work with us in our Application Boot Camp 2021, or consider TTA’s Private Counseling Program. We’re certain we can help you narrow down these 7 prompts to one that puts you, your work, and your accomplishments in the best possible light.  The prompts are out early, so start brainstorming early – we’re at the ready to help!

COVID-19 Transfer Admissions

College Transfer in the COVID Era

The COVID-19 virus has completely disrupted the world of college admissions, with policy changes in standardized testing, dramatic shifts in opportunities during the school year and summer, and fluctuating statistics in college admissions.

The college experience has also been quite transformed through what experts are wryly calling “forced innovations,” although students and professors look forward to in-person learning in the not-too-distant future. Yet there is one aspect of college admissions that may not return to the status quo once things go back to normal: transfer admissions.


This fall, 25 organizations in higher education published a call to action advocating for an overhaul of the transfer application process. Citing issues of unequal access, these organizations want to use the turbulence and uncertainty in higher education caused by the pandemic to completely rethink how colleges handle transfer admissions. The main thrust of their call urges for an improvement in credit retention: transfer students are often hindered by incoming schools not accepting course credits. This is good news for later-stage transfer students, who often find themselves in summer classes or taking an extra semester to complete a new set of divisional requirements. The call to action also predicts that transfer applications will be affected by the economic recession, with college closures, mergers, and realignments leading to greater mobility in students moving between institutions – an indication that the transfer numbers may change again.

At first glance, transfer admissions in the COVID era indicate good news for the student planning to transfer. According to a recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, fall transfer student enrollment fell 8.1% last year, and student mobility across transfer pathways decreased across the board: transfer from 4-year college to 2-year college dropped 19.4%, lateral transfers (4-year to 4-year) fell 6.7%, and upward transfers (2-year to 4-year) dropped .7%. Odds are that if you transferred this fall, you found yourself in a statistically attractive situation.


Entrepreneurial students will see these numbers as illustrative of a rare golden age in transfer admissions, but this is not exactly the case, particularly for students interested in ‘leveling up’ in the transfer round. While acceptance percentages will rise at small, cash-strapped schools and public universities experiencing low class retention, they are less likely to budge at elite institutions, where attrition rates will be minimal. It’s also worth noting that last fall’s numbers may swing in a wildly different direction this next spring transfer season.

Additionally, because the circumstances are so unstable, it’s not unlikely that acceptance percentages will shrink at desirable schools due to the increased student mobility that the Clearinghouse Center reports. Made to take virtual classes and unable to invest in campus life, more students may cast a wandering eye towards their dream schools, and decide it’s not that hard to uproot an already-disrupted education. According to the Washington Post, an online source that allows students to check to see if their credits are transferrable has seen a 15% increase in searches. Additionally, other online transcript-sharing services have reported increased traffic. We have definitely seen discontent in students who are frustrated that their freshman year of college doesn’t look the way they hoped it would, with limited access to professors and school resources. Yes, this is in large part a result of COVID 19, but for the student with only 3 years remaining, they are considering transferring. We have also had students whose sports were discontinued and their identity as college athletes crushed. They too are in search of a home for their athletic talents. 


So, as transfer deadlines fast approach this February and March, you, like plenty of students, may be considering the transfer option, and deciding whether or not it’s worth the age-old question: what if?

We are here to help and have a few remaining spots in our transfer programs. It’s vital that you stand out as there are obviously fewer seats than when you applied as a freshman. Get on it!

5_College Tours college admissions College Visits COVID-19 Virtual

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!

college gifts COVID-19

COVID (Self) Care Package: 15 Holiday Gift Ideas

2020 has been a tough year for everyone. Students, especially, are struggling with the isolation and new restrictions that have fundamentally changed their high school and college experience. To bridge the social distance and help them get through the dark days of winter, here are our Top Tier staff favorites to inspire a thoughtful care package, holiday pick-me-up, or gift to keep for yourself.


pilates stability ball

Pilates Stability Ball

Strengthen your core during remote learning. Simple changes like switching out your desk chair for a stability ball can make a big impact on your health and strength. Don’t let your posture suffer as you hunch over your laptop or work from bed.

Aromatherapy Essential Oil Blend

Aromatherapy Essential Oil Blend

Take a deep breath and re-center with this essential oil blend. This is the perfect size for on-the-go relaxation. Keep it in your purse, or have your student keep it on their desk during exam week.

Barefoot Dreams CozyChic Heathered Adult Robe

Barefoot Dreams CozyChic Heathered Adult Robe

As the temperature starts to drop, you may as well watch that recorded lecture in a cozy robe. This one is a fan favorite, for good reason. Even after a few washes, it keeps its extra fluffy texture.

Kindle Paperwhite

Kindle Paperwhite

The Kindle has revolutionized our reading habits, and the newest model does not disappoint (it’s waterproof!) This is a great gift for students who need fictional escapism or a way to read their AP English Lit texts on the go. Need inspiration? Check out these 10 Books to Make You Smarter During Quarantine.

First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

by Thomas E. Rick

This one’s for you, history buffs. Cozy up by the fire and read this new book about the founding fathers by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author, Thomas E. Rick. This book focuses on the influence of ancient culture on American ideals.

The Vanishing Half: A Novel

The Vanishing Half: A Novel 

by Brit Bennett

Is fiction more your speed? Use your winter break to catch up on the latest New York Times bestsellers. We recommend The Vanishing Half, a new novel by Brit Bennett about twin sisters from a small, southern black community. Longlisted for the National Book Award, this novel follows the sisters as they navigate their families, communities, and racial identities.

Vifa Helsinki Hi-Resolution Bluetooth 4.0 Wireless Portable Speaker

Vifa Helsinki Hi-Resolution Bluetooth 4.0 Wireless Portable Speaker

These are easily the most aesthetically pleasing wireless speakers on the market. With Scandinavian design and powerful audio, these would be the perfect addition to a dorm room or bedroom.

Snack Box Club

Snack Box Club

Students are feeling all kinds of stress right now and, if they’re learning from home, you might be tired of insatiable teens raiding your pantry. Treat your kids to these healthy snacks so they can fuel up during late-night study sessions.

Moleskine 18 Month 2020-2021 Weekly Planner

Moleskine 18 Month 2020-2021 Weekly Planner

Help your student stay organized in 2021 with a classic weekly planner. While they’re color coding their upcoming assignments, they might also want to read our Top Tips for Organization and Time Management.

MZOO Sleep Eye Mask

MZOO Sleep Eye Mask

Whether it’s exam stress, the news cycle, or the pandemic map keeping you up at night, the MZOO Sleep Eye Mask could be the key to more rest. But don’t lose sleep over your college essay! Read about our College Application Essay Guidance program and reserve a spot with one of our senior counselors today.

Indoor Herb Garden Starter Kit

Indoor Herb Garden Starter Kit

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s the power of getting back to basics. Channel your inner gardener and test out your green thumb with this indoor gardening kit. You’ll be surprised how gratifying it feels when your first seeds begin to sprout.

Yogi Tea: Get Well Variety Pack Sampler

Yogi Tea: Get Well Variety Pack Sampler

Even during a global pandemic, the regular old cold and flu season strikes again. Build up your immunity and fight off lingering symptoms with these warming, comforting herbal teas.

Natural Rose Hibiscus Hydrating Face Mist

Natural Rose Hibiscus Hydrating Face Mist

As we turn on the heat and confront harsh winds, your skin needs an extra layer of defense. This refreshing rose hibiscus face mist uses a base of organic coconut water infused with hibiscus flower petals and Bulgarian rose. It’s perfect for your purse, desk, or cup holder, but we’ll warn you now: one spritz is never enough.

Snake Sansevieria Floor Plant

Snake Sansevieria Floor Plant

Add some new life to your study space with this live indoor snake plant (about 2-feet tall). Place it near a sunny window and set a reminder to water it every so often when the soil feels dry. We promise it’s low maintenance.

Bean Box: Gourmet Coffee Sampler

Bean Box: Gourmet Coffee Sampler

Do you have any coffee snobs in your life? This selection of four gourmet coffees allows you to sample Seattle’s top small-batch roasters. In addition to the beans themselves, this sampler includes tasting notes, roaster profiles, and brewing tips.

Private College Counseling

Private College Counseling

Last but not least, give the gift that will transform your student’s academic career and place him/her on a scholarly path in our Private Counseling program! If you don’t require unlimited time guidance, consider our world-renowned Application Boot Camp, and watch the magic unfold.

Admissions Admissions Trends college admissions Common Application COVID-19 Ivy Admissions Ivy League Admissions

Do College Rankings Really Matter?

In September, U.S. News & World Report, the leading authority in college rankings, announced the 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges list. For the 10th straight year, Princeton University has earned the #1 spot, followed by Harvard University and Columbia University. Likewise, on the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, Williams College has maintained its #1 position, with Amherst College and Swarthmore College coming in at #2 and #3, respectively. Now that prospective students are unable to attend traditional on-campus info sessions and campus tours, rankings carry extra weight as students turn to “expert data” to create their college lists.


This year more than ever, we have been asked how much college rankings really matter. And if, in the past, these rankings have been directly correlated with standardized test scores of accepted students, what are the new metrics that have been used to determine this year’s list as colleges go test-optional? How reliable are these methodologies?

In response to the pandemic’s ongoing disruptions and ripple effect on college admissions, this year’s US News rankings include three new topics: student debt, social mobility, and test-blind admissions policies. For the first time, they have also ranked schools that don’t use the SAT or ACT for the purpose of admissions.

U.S. News has published the updated breakdown of key data used to determine overall rank. The six factors are weighted as follows:

Outcomes (40%, previously 35%)

Its success at retaining and graduating students within 150% of normal time (six years). We approach outcomes from angles of graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%), social mobility (5%) and, new this year, graduate indebtedness (5%).

Faculty Resources (20%)

U.S. News uses five factors from the 2019-2020 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction: class size (8%), faculty salary (7%), faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3%), student-faculty ratio (1%) and proportion of faculty who are full time (1%).

Expert Opinion (20%)

Each year, top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). We take a two-year weighted average of the ratings. The 2021 Best Colleges ranking factors in scores from both 2020 and 2019.

Financial resources (10%)

This is determined based on average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Student Excellence (7%, previously 10%)

The ACT/SAT scores and high school class rank of accepted students.

Alumni giving (3%, previously 5%)

The average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

While this updated breakdown has reduced the weight given to SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni donations in response to the shifting admissions landscape, these factors still matter and are a significant part of the raw material that informs the final list. Furthermore, as noted on their website, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means that the “current” policies and procedures collected in spring 2020 may have changed since the rankings were determined.


H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, former provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has publicly called for the suspension of college rankings during this time of crisis. In his article, published in May, he makes his case clear:

“A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.”

– H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science

Other college rankings, such as the Washington Monthly’s 2020 rankings, have responded to this social pressure. Although they still published their rankings in August, they have made an effort to emphasize diversity and social consciousness in their calculations and approach. As they explain, “It’s our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.” To calculate a college’s commitment to diversity, for example, they use IPEDS data “to measure the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants, and College Scorecard data to measure the percentage of first-generation students at each school.” For the first time, they have also listed the schools that make sure majors popular with Black students (social work, criminal justice, and sociology) lead to well-paying jobs. See that list here.

Money’s annual Best Colleges for Your Money ranking, published in August, used a methodology based on 27 factors in three categories: Quality of education (30% of weighting), Affordability (40% of weighting), and Outcomes (30% of weighting). In response to the economic outlook this year, they increased the emphasis on affordability. They also added two new net price figures to “capture affordability for students from middle-income backgrounds alongside our existing measure of net price for low-income students.”

Finally, this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education 2021 rankings consider similar metrics to assess colleges in four areas: Outcomes (salary graduates earn, debt burden they accrue), Resources (the spending schools put into instruction and student services), Engagement (student survey), and Environment (diversity of the community). It is critical to note, however, that, due to the pandemic and shutdown of college campuses, the student survey (20% of the ranking) was canceled for this year. As such, the WSJ/THE rankings use the scores obtained by institutions last year.


In many ways, these rankings will only continue to exasperate the inequities in higher education, made more acute by the ongoing pandemic. While the ranking organizations have made some efforts to add transparency to their process, the data is simply not consistent or dependable at this stage, and a considerable amount of data this year was re-used from the 2019 lists, which did not take into account new admissions procedures or the reality of campus life during COVID-19. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the rankings are largely the same as years past. While some of the metrics offered by these publications can be useful, they should be consulted with care and some degree of skepticism. For personalized guidance and a winning application strategy that takes into account the ever-shifting landscape in real time, contact us today about our Private Counseling Program or Application Boot Camp.