college admissions Dr. Michele Hernandez Middle School

Get An Early Start On College Admissions: Middle School Edition

We are often asked if middle school is too early to start thinking about college admissions. Though some would argue that thinking about college while in middle school could lead to additional stress for students, we would argue that the earlier students start thinking ahead, the less stressful the process will be. For example, forecasting out math and science tracks ahead of time means that you can still do something about level of course rigor early on. It is more stressful to find out in 11th grade that you have no chance of competing in the top college admissions pool because you didn’t accelerate in math back when you could have in 6th grade through an honors track.

On the extracurricular side, keep in mind that most talents kids develop in high school start in elementary or middle school. Few kids pick up the trombone in 9th grade and become gifted musicians out of the blue. Talents like art, singing, instrumental prowess tend to start in elementary or middle school. Same could be said about math competitions, science fairs or athletic prowess. 

Any athlete knows that starting early with skill building and fitting in your “10,000 hours” is what helps kids stand out later and develop expertise.


“How can my kids in 7th and 8th grade get a head start on high school?” is another question we are asked day in and day out.   

The most important track at most high schools is math and science, even if a student’s primary interests are in the humanities. Students should figure out how to jump ahead a year or two in math/science by taking courses like Pre-Algebra and Algebra online through places like Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth or Northwestern’s CTD. Likewise, for science – some high schools let students skip Earth Science and jump to Honors Biology in 9th grade. Many of our advanced students have been accelerating in math for years.

Let us break it down for you. Here are our top tips for leveraging your time in middle school to set yourself up for high school success


  1. Take extra math and science courses so that you can aim to reach a higher math level like Algebra II/Trig by 9th grade or even Pre-Calculus. For science, aim to jump over courses like Earth Science so you can reach Honors Biology if your school offers it.
  2. Read an hour a day from higher level books and magazines like The Atlantic, Time, Scientific American, National Geographic, and The Concord Review so you build up your reading skills. In the long run, reading is the best way to improve your academic performance. Work with us to get your personalized reading lists grade by grade and be a part of our unique vocabulary program. 
  3. Get involved in activities/sports/music/hobbies so that you can carry this leadership and skill set with you to high school.
  4. Be active in your classes, get to know your teachers as these teachers often communicate with high school teachers and recommend kids who stand out for honors track.
  5. Get organized – keep a whiteboard and map out assignments. Start an assignment notebook vs only using technology. Make early habits that will set you up for success.
  6. Take a “real” SAT before high school to get an idea of where you stand. Any standardized tests you take while in 7th or 8th grade do NOT go on your permanent record so you can get a good baseline score and address any weak areas.
  7. Get inspired and read about other kids doing extraordinary things. We love the documentary, I Am Greta, about Greta Thunberg as she launches a global movement on climate change. What do you care about?
  8. Learn to code. Even if you aren’t a computer science kid, coding is something even business school applicants are required to have. Take a coding class during the summer.  And, if you love to play video games, learn to create video games.
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Fixing College Admissions

By: Dr. Michele Hernandez

The fact that admissions practices at top schools are not fair is hardly new. Forty to fifty years ago, headmasters at top prep schools simply told the deans of admission which students they should accept: hence the moniker “feeder schools.” Things have improved since the days of all white, male Ivy League classes. Now, admissions offices are working harder than ever to recruit, admit, and enroll diverse classes of students.

But, efforts to broaden access to students from around the world and the ease of applying online have caused applicant pools to balloon, driving down acceptance rates. Increasing numbers of “hooked” applicants—principally legacies and recruited athletes—have seats set aside for them. With legacy students at most top schools representing 10-15% of the class, and another 15-20% of the class made up of recruited athletes, and a desire to admit more underrepresented students, close to 50% of the first year class at most top colleges is reserved for “hooked” students.


Recent articles have suggested that legacy admissions be abolished and athletic recruiting reexamined, but we know that kind of change won’t happen overnight.  We have a simpler idea to make the admissions process fairer that doesn’t require a complete upheaval. For starters, all colleges should adopt the same early admissions program. When Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford invented “single choice early action,” they artificially made themselves the most selective/desirable colleges.

These four colleges accept fewer than 14% of the students who apply in the SCEA round. If we add up all the denied/deferred students in a typical year, that’s 23,000+ students, most of whom are world class, who do NOT earn admission to each of these top four schools. Once denied or deferred, those 23,000 students panic and apply to 15-30 schools in the regular round. That means all top colleges are flooded by applications not only from those 23,000 students, but also from another 150,000 students thanks to the ease of the Common Application. It’s an inefficient process with the same cohort applying to dozens of schools in the regular round without a way to signal that a school is a true top choice.

One way to remedy this issue of duplicate applicants would be to do away with non-binding early action programs and replace them with the two rounds of binding early decision, ED I and ED II. ED is often criticized because it is seen as disadvantaging lower income students and first-generation college students. At most top colleges, underrepresented minority students don’t apply in large numbers in the early decision round. But colleges and universities, as well as community-based organizations are taking steps to help students from under-resourced schools apply early.

The key is LIMITING the percentage of slots filled in the ED round. Currently many colleges fill up 50% of the first year class in the ED round. What if all the colleges took closer to 30-35% of their freshman class in ED I (perhaps 5-10% in ED II) and left the majority of slots open for regular round? At the same time, push athletic recruiting into ED II or the regular decision pool. Why should athletes cut in line ahead of other students? What if the colleges used the early decision process to admit those students whose scholarly bent, community impact, and diversity of perspectives and backgrounds were truly notable.

Now, that top student who was in love with and qualified for Yale would be IN. He/she would not be able to apply to any schools in the regular round. In turn, colleges could take more of them and then those students would be, in effect, off the books. Instead of Harvard having 40,000+ applicants, it would have more like 10-15,000 and the overlap in students applying to the same cohort of schools would be diminished. With fewer applicants, admissions offices would gain more time for a true holistic read rather than an 8-minute skim.

This shift would make the process less stressful and saner, and if there’s anything needed right now, it’s bringing humanity and integrity to the admissions process. If not for the US News and World Report rankings, perhaps colleges would have done something like this earlier, but unfortunately for too long they have put their selfish interests in moving up in the rankings over being fairer and kinder to their applicant pool. Change is urgently needed to make selective college admissions more transparent and fair.

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TTA Comments on Recent College Admissions Scandal

The admissions process at the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities is a confusing, stressful, and opaque one. The news about the national bribery and cheating scheme run by an individual calling himself a “college counselor” in Newport Beach, California, William “Rick” Singer, is shocking. Rather than provide ethical advice and accurate guidance to students and parents, it appears he paid off coaches and standardized test proctors and parents paid him big bucks to do so. Mr. Singer allegedly cheated colleges, universities, sports teams, and thousands of students who deserved the seats he filled by unethical and unlawful means.

At Top Tier Admissions we have worked tirelessly to make the admissions process more transparent and guide students on how to become top scholars who earn their spots fairly and through their own original work. We hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards and expect that students and families will do likewise.

Top Tier Admissions Code of Ethics

We have conducted business over the last 15 years based on these principles:

  1. Accountability: TTA is a team of college advising professionals who hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards, period.
  2. Authenticity: TTA works directly with students to determine the best colleges/universities for them based on the right match and the students’ record of academic achievements, talents, and interests.
  3. Transparency: TTA’s clients know exactly what services they are paying for, and all communication is honest and clear.
  4. Confidentiality: A student’s application, test results, and identity are never shared.
  5. Responsibility: TTA believes in strategically working with students to advise and encourage them, but students are the ones who do the actual work. We do not take shortcuts.
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The New “X” Factor for Getting into Top Colleges

post by Dr. Michele Hernandez

Twenty years ago, admissions to top colleges was much more formulaic. Applicant pools were smaller, more homogeneous, and more self-selecting. Each college had its own application that students filled out by hand. Most high schools calculated and reported class rank. “Merit” was pretty much defined as high class rank and high test scores, with some traditional school leadership positions for good measure.


As I explained in my behind-the-scenes admissions book A is for Admission in 1997, despite their protestations, colleges indeed used a numerical scale to rank students on academic and extracurricular achievements and to guide the selection process. In addition to the “secret formula” (the “Academic Index” which combined SAT scores, SAT subject test scores and class rank/grades), colleges developed their own rating system using a 1-9, 1-6 or 1-4 scale as admissions shorthand. At Dartmouth, we used a 1-9 scale with 9 as the highest academic ranking. Students who achieved this top designation were class valedictorians (typically of large high schools) with SAT scores and three achievement tests (now called subject tests) in the 750-800 range. Twenty years back, academic 9s comprised two percent of applicants and nearly all (94 percent) were admitted. Students who were rated as academic 8s (just under three percent of the pool) had a rate of admission of 92 percent. Three-quarters of the academic 7s—students in the top ten percent of their class with scores in the 720-750 range—were admitted, yet they made less than 5% of the applicant pool. Admission to a top tier college or university was clearly much more predictable.


What has changed in the last 20 years? Lots. For starters, the adoption of the Common Application as the predominant application provider and its transition to an online platform led to explosive growth in applicant pools. Concurrently, the arms race amongst colleges (fueled by the likes of US News and World Report) led to increased student recruitment efforts to become more selective in order to climb up the rankings. Test preparation has become a global, multi-billion dollar business. Top private colleges and universities themselves, responding to critical national conversations about access to higher education, moved aggressively to encourage more low income and first-generation college students to apply. The metrics that once anchored the selection process are not applied as rigidly as they once were. Reams of national research showed clearly that test scores correlate with income; differences in scores by gender, race, and ethnicity are well-documented. Growing numbers of colleges and universities are test-optional; many of those that still require the SAT or ACT no longer require subject tests (though they still count them and expect them from students without financial hardships). High schools, for their part, have moved away from class ranks. “Hooked” applicants—athletic recruits, legacies, underrepresented minority students—have a leg up in the process, often admitted at much higher rates than the overall rate of admission.

No one can argue that broadening access to higher education is inherently a bad thing. As a consequence of all these factors, admissions rates at all the top 25-30 colleges have declined pretty much every year for 20 years. That’s a tough thing to wrap your head around. Applicant pools have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled since the parents of today’s high school students applied to college. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and Yale boast acceptance rates of 4 to 5 percent. Last year, 18 top colleges and universities posted acceptance rates below 10 percent (Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Caltech, MIT, Pomona, Chicago, Brown, Duke, U Penn, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Claremont McKenna, Vanderbilt, Swarthmore, and Johns Hopkins), a new record.

The bottom line is that it is much much harder for top students today to get accepted to top colleges than it was 20 years ago. Students today face much steeper competition. Without a hook, what differentiates bright and high-achieving students from amongst thousands and thousands of similarly high-achieving students?

top colleges core values


Increasingly, admissions officers are looking towards indicators of character, integrity and civic involvement. In admissions, character matters. Admissions officers at top colleges are not looking for students who rarely venture beyond the high school bubble and who lack awareness of the world around them. Need an example? David Hogg, the Parkland activist, was just admitted to Harvard despite a slightly lower academic profile than the norm. Why? Because he showed America that one student could ignite an important debate on gun control after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Sure, not everyone will reach that national level of impact, but Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and their classmates demonstrated how to make their voices heard.

What are ways students can show integrity and moral character? Through serving on honor councils and community boards, heading efforts to address local problems from water pollution to environmental disasters (one of our students worked for several years to pass a “no idling” law in his state) to working for politicians who are striving to address major policy issues, students can show that they are aware of the world beyond high school. Activism and impact take many forms—well beyond the somewhat old-fashioned menu of high school extracurricular options—and increasingly, make the difference in the selection process. Fancy internships or expensive global “service” programs don’t cut it. Instead, long-term dedication to causes and efforts you believe in, from your local humane society or homeless shelter to youth mentoring programs or community gardens, and more, the opportunities for students to make a difference are plentiful.


How do colleges measure this “X” factor? Character references from teachers, guidance counselors, and mentors help illuminate students’ impact. Students themselves need to think about how they tell their own story, from the essays they write and the activities they lay out in their application. I recently spoke to one of my sophomore students who had very little engagement in her school or community. I tried to jolt her into action by saying “from an admissions standpoint, it looks like you go right home at 3pm and do homework and nothing else.” That turned out to be true. Straight A, low-impact students are not going to have as many college options as high-impact ones, period.

Students who are solely chasing the 4.0 or 1600 and don’t show evidence of character, integrity, impact, and leadership will be passed over in favor of others. Think local or think global, but get involved and make a difference. You—and the world—will be better for it.

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2018 Holiday Gift Guide for Parents and the Students They Love

Our Top Tier Admissions’ team rounded up some of our favorite finds for parents of high school/soon to be college-aged kids and their ever so lucky children. Happy Holidays and enjoy perusing our gift ideas for the mind, body, and spirit.



Gift for Parents: I love the idea of this constellation print that shows what the night sky looked like on the day each of your children were born. A neat home-office gift!

Gift for Students: This book called The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) offers a neat intro on how to assess how best to become not only happier, but more innovative, productive, creative, and curious.


Gift for Parents and Students: The Muse2 headband, of course! Muse 1 headband was the first created by this company to help you go even deeper into meditation. It’s a super-cool product and uses brainwaves to help guide you to a meditative state.


Gift for Parents and Students: The Tracer360 from Noxgear is my favorite thing of the year — so you don’t get run over when you walk past 4pm in winter or go running when it’s on the darker side – it’s so groovy. There is also one you can buy for your dog called the Lighthound. How cool is that?

Gift for Students: Give a subscription to any of my favorite magazines:

Astronomy, Atlantic Monthly, and/or the New Yorker.


Gift for Parents: My favorite gift for parents wanting a little healthy boost during the day would be this Matcha Tea and steam some Oat Milk to go on top. I start every morning with this treat.

I’d also suggest this great box of conversation starters to use with your kids. My favorite book of the month is the novel Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.  Can’t put it down!

Gift for Students: I’d buy every student this water bottle.  It’s a great way to track how much water you drink. Drink water and improve your mood, have more energy, and be healthier.

And if you have a budding scientist definitely check out this fascinating guide to the elements, The Element in the Room: Investigating the Atomic Ingredients that Make Up Your Home.


Gift for Parents and Students: For parents but really for parents to give their college student or boarding school student! Various healthy gift baskets from It’s Only Natural Gifts. Check out the Organic Snack Attack Gift Basket. Yum!

Gift for Parents and Students:Read your way through 100 iconic books with this super neat 100 Books Scratch Off Poster. You can even frame it if you like!   


Gift for Students: I’d recommend a subscription to The Concord Review. Seeing what other students have produced is inspiring, and reviewing the journal’s style can help students prepare their own pieces for submission.

I’d also recommend a paper monthly planner (like this one), which I use in conjunction with a daily planner. Seeing the whole month at a glance makes it much easier to track recurring appointments.

Also, for any students preparing to leave for college, I highly recommend How to Cook Everything: The Basics. It’s a good primer for anyone who’s never really had to fend for him- or herself in the kitchen.

Gift for Parents: (Especially those preparing for their kids to head off to college), I’m a big fan of photo prints and displays from Artifact Uprising. I use the wood block and prints myself (I like begin able to rotate the photos every day!), but the company also makes books, calendars, etc.

Finally, in the wake of the recent climate reports, I’ll be making donations in my family members’ names to, an organization working to fight climate change. The best part? tracks grassroots environmental campaigns around the world, so interested gift recipients can find local organizations and continue fighting climate change throughout the new year.

Happy Shopping!