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Common Application: Does “Optional” Truly Mean Optional?

You’ve finished the core components of your Common Application – your main essay, your activities, and any required supplements for the schools on your list – and are ready to submit. Then you pause.

Should I self-report my scores? Do I need to respond to the COVID question? Will colleges read the four extra letters from my other recommenders?

Need some last-minute advice? Read on!


Standardized testing these last few months has been an exercise in frustration for seniors. You’ve registered and prepared, only to see test centers shuttered and exams canceled – sometimes with no warning. Maybe you were able to sit for the SAT or ACT once but ended up with a lower score than you had hoped.

For students applying to colleges that are newly test optional, including the majority of the most selective colleges in the country, a good rule of thumb is that if your SAT or ACT scores are well within the middle 50th percentile range, then go ahead and submit these scores. Remember that for many top colleges, the switch to test-optional this year leaves admissions officers without some of the customary guideposts they used to help decisions. If everything else about your application is strong— your GPA, rigor of course load, and rank (if your school calculates one)—then including scores confirms to admissions officers that you are the kind of student they seek to admit.

What if your SAT or ACT scores are below the school’s typical admit ranges? If you are from a high school that typically sends lots of high-scoring applicants their way, admissions officers will likely assume that you are unhappy with your scores and chose not to send them. Remember that they have data from prior years’ applicant pools so they have some sense of what to expect from your school. Students from low-income schools and communities, those in historically underrepresented groups, will likely be given more benefit of the doubt than students from well-resourced families and schools.

We also anticipate that newly test-optional colleges this year will be flooded with applicants from around the country and around the world who, in previous years, may have been discouraged from applying because of lower scores. If applicant pools balloon, guess how admissions officers will sort through applications? They’ll use data – scores and GPA – especially in the first read, to figure out who seem to be the strongest students in their pool. A word about AP scores. If you’ve got a bunch of AP courses on your transcript from junior year, admissions officers will check to see if you self-reported your results. If not, they’ll assume the results were poor. So, if you have scores of 3 or higher, report them! In the absence of an SAT or ACT or subject tests, strong AP scores will also help show your strength.

Common Application COVID Question


The Common App’s new, optional question opens the door for students to share more about the impact of COVID on their “health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable and quiet study spaces.” Should you respond?

First, ask yourself a question. We’ve all had our lives turned upside down these last 9-10 months. Virtual schooling, zoom fatigue, quarantine blues, canceled testing, disrupted activities – these are common to all high school students. If the story you tell pretty much recounts what every high school student has had to contend with, then you are better off not responding to this optional prompt. You risk coming off as tone-deaf or privileged, two things that will form a bad impression in the minds of your application readers. 

Do answer this question if you and your family experienced significant hardship because of COVID – serious illness or death of a loved one, parent’s loss of employment, additional home responsibilities caring and teaching for your siblings, lack of access to technology and other online resources. In addition to sharing your struggles, be sure to show admissions officers how you overcame these unexpected challenges.


Back in the day when students applied to college using pen and paper (seniors, ask your parents about those days), admissions officers had a saying: “the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.” Essentially, students who loaded up their application with tons of extra letters of recommendation were essentially compensating for weaker credentials and basically throwing the kitchen sink at the admissions office.

So, once you’ve assigned the one or two required teachers, be judicious in using any of the optional or “other” recommenders. If you truly believe that a potential recommender can offer a perspective on your candidacy that no other recommender can, then go ahead and tap that person to be your “other” recommender. But, loading up on extra recommendations – even if the college allows – can overload your application with extraneous materials, making admissions officers a little grumpy as they wade through these extra letters. Good luck with your applications and we are here to help if you want last minute essay help or an entire application review before hitting SEND.

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College Application SOS

With early admissions deadlines now in the rearview mirror, all high school seniors can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Actually, based on data newly released from, 47 percent of all high school seniors have yet to start applying to colleges. The Common Application this week reported an 8 percent decrease in number of applications submitted to date.

What’s behind the delay? Not surprisingly, anxiety is the single biggest reason why students haven’t submitted applications.’s data shows that an overwhelming majority (92 percent) of students are feeling fear or anxiety right now with concerns about being able to afford college topping the list.

We also posit that lack of opportunities to visit campuses in person have led many students to feel uncomfortable applying for early admission, especially when binding commitments were required. Also, the Class of 2021 lost important mentoring and support from teachers and counselors in the crucial junior spring when schools went to virtual learning and for most, that has continued throughout the senior fall. 

Is it any wonder we are swamped with requests from students from around the world with questions on how to handle college admissions during the pandemic?

Are you behind on your college applications? Don’t panic — we are here to help with top tips for completing your applications NOW.  Take a deep breath and let’s do this!


Your first step should be to create a realistic list of colleges. Start with an honest self-assessment of your academic record. In real time, admissions officers cite a student’s grades and level of rigor of coursework as core to their assessment of applicants for admission. Even though many schools don’t officially report rank-in-class, there are plenty of hints that admissions officers find in counselor letters, school profiles, Naviance type software, and transcripts. So, where do you think you fall relative to peers? Near the top or more towards the middle?

Next, how would you rate the level of rigor of your curriculum? Have you stretched yourself to take the most challenging courses? How have you sought academic challenge beyond what your school offers? Again, this is what admissions officers are looking for as they read your application and just one of the myriad ways we guide our students in our Application Boot Camp and Private Counseling programs.

Although just about every college has moved to test-optional admissions policies for this current cycle, you can use your test scores to gauge where you fall relative to students who typically enroll at the colleges on your list. Do your SAT or ACT scores lie at or above the 75th percentile for enrolling students? Do your scores fall below the 25th percentile? Are you somewhere in the middle? Match your scores to the data colleges report on their incoming classes to give you a realistic sense of where you would fall if you submitted them.

Do a similar honest self-assessment of your extracurricular impact. How do you think your teachers and counselor would describe you? Leader, high impact, participant, just like everyone else? The more competitive the school, the more you will need to show impact and distinction—both in and out of the classroom.

Finally, as you build your list, recognize that rates of admission at top colleges in the regular round can be excruciatingly low. Create a balanced list with schools where your likelihood of admission is good, along with a handful of realistic “stretch” picks.


Immediately, connect with your teachers and college counselors to ask them to be your recommenders. Most top schools require letters from your counselor and at least one teacher, typically two, so choose teachers from junior year who know you well and talk with them about the schools on your list. Remember, they will be your advocates in the process, so the more you can share about your college aspirations, as well as all you’ve done both in and out of the classroom, will help them write stand-out letters on your behalf.

Also, many college counseling offices will require your finalized list in early December so that they can prepare and submit your transcript and counselor letter by college’s specific deadlines.


The Thanksgiving holiday is the perfect time to write the Common Application and supplemental college essays, especially since most of us will likely be hunkering down at home during the break.

When it comes right down to it, your main college essay is a 650-word introduction to you as a scholar, a community member, and a potential alumnus/a. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as an academic, someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

There are likely plenty of stories in your background that are personally meaningful to you, but that don’t represent you in this particular light. A story about watching reality television with your sister, for example, might capture a family tradition, but it won’t tell us much about your scholarly interests or goals. A narrative about your mother’s immigration to the U.S., too, might show us her ability to overcome difficulties, but it won’t highlight yours.

Rather than focusing on stories that are personally important to you, we recommend that you tell us about moments in your life that highlight your passions, goals, and interests. Tell us about how watching reality TV with your sister inspired your award-winning research project on modern celebrity culture. Tell us about how your mother’s experience coming to the U.S. informed your own passion for immigration reform, which has led you to spend your time campaigning and volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The stories don’t just give us a window into your life. They give us insights into how you’ve developed and explored your interests in high school — and how you might continue to pursue them at college.

Want more essay tips? Check out our Top Tips for Winning College Essays! Or work with us directly in our College Essay Guidance Program.


Today, most colleges have two to four supplemental questions (long essays, short responses, lists) in addition to what’s being asked on the Common Application. So, applying to colleges is far from streamlined.

As you approach your supplements, we suggest creating a supplement ‘map’ and categorizing the prompts based on theme. You will quickly notice some patterns emerge! For example, many schools will ask a version of the “Why Essay.” In other words, be prepared to explain what it is you like about their specific scholarly community and how you would contribute to campus life, both in the classroom and elsewhere. Other common supplemental questions include a meaningful extracurricular activity, your potential academic major, your role in a community of your choice, and personal perspectives showing how you would contribute to a diverse college community.


Whether you need step-by-step guidance with the ever-tricky Common App or guidance on organizing and crafting your essays, we’re here to help! Our expert editors and writers are at the ready to assist you in putting your best foot forward during the college application process.

For students who have finished their application and want our “review” we have a few more spots available before 12/20/20 in our Application Review Program! Good luck and get writing!

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Teacher Recommendation Letters: How They Impact College Admissions

At various points throughout your high school tenure, you will be asking teachers for letters of recommendation. Academic summer programs, internship opportunities, part-time jobs, scholarship applications, and your eventual college applications will typically ask for letters of support from those that can speak to your work in the classroom and in the broader school community.

Especially with teachers, it’s never too early in high school to build these relationships in ways that are meaningful for you and your teachers.


Juniors applying to college this fall have a special challenge. In light of school closures and virtual learning, how do you stay engaged and connected to teachers who will write your college recommendations? This is not the time to check out for the rest of the school year. We are all stressed and anxious about the uncertainty in the world around us, but you can control the time and energy you devote to your virtual classrooms. Staying connected helps you lay the groundwork for strong and enthusiastic letters of recommendation.


Before diving into how to build connections with your teachers, it’s helpful to understand the role their recommendations play in the selection process, particularly at the highly selective colleges and universities that practice holistic review.

The vast majority of students applying to top colleges will have strong records of academic success in their schools’ most challenging programs. Rigor of courseload combined with class rank is the number one factor in the admissions process cited by admissions officers. Because of their academic success in the classroom – whether through innate ability, a strong work ethic, or both – their transcripts will look remarkably similar, especially after an admissions reader boils down their work in a handful of short phrases: “straight As in school’s top load,” “more As than Bs as program get harder,” “slight downward trend as program gets tougher,” “BC Calc is Achilles heel; rest of grades are tops.”

That’s it. Your three plus years of high school boiled down by an admissions reader to its essence.


Thankfully, admissions readers know that to make the nuanced and complex decisions, they need to look further, to understand who you are as a student in a classroom and the broader school community. That’s where your letters of recommendation come into the picture. Narratives from teachers (most top colleges require two letters from two different teachers) give admissions readers greater insight into you the student and school citizen than your grades ever could. Are you the person in class who sparks class discussion with provocative questions? Do you write papers that your teachers hold up as models of creative flair or critical analysis? Are you the lab or project partner who always goes the extra mile to ensure your team’s success? Do you read beyond the class syllabus in search of greater understanding and context for the class assignment? Do you make the classroom, and by extension, the school community, a better place? These are the kinds of things admissions officers are looking for as they read your letters of recommendation.

Juniors, you can be certain that teachers will include reflections on how you stayed academically engaged as your school moved all its learning online. In spite of the challenges we all faced in adapting to our new reality, they will likely share anecdotes about how you found ways through Zoom, Google Classroom, email, texts, etc., to show how you connected with them and continued to grow as a scholar.  They’ll likely talk about your resilience, tenacity, and creativity—how you went above and beyond in your assignments and independent work. What can you do now to show your teachers these very qualities?


In a survey conducted by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, a group comprised of both admissions officers and high school counselors, here’s a snapshot of the importance of teacher recommendations relative to other parts of an application:


54 percent of admissions offices surveyed responded that teacher recommendations are considerably or moderately important. In terms of considerable importance, recommendations rank above class rank, extracurricular activities, and AP, IB, and subject test scores. Your teacher recommendations are right up there with your own essays.

Keep in mind that the survey reflects a broad range of colleges—from the most selective to those with more generous admissions policies. From our experience in admissions, you can be certain the relative importance of recommendations would undoubtedly be higher.

It’s very likely that letters of recommendation will play an even bigger role in the next admissions cycle, especially when grades are pass/fail and test scores have been waived. The specific anecdotes teachers share about your love of learning, resilience, willingness to stretch yourself, and your role in making the classroom a shared learning environment will set you apart.


So, knowing how recommendations are used in the selection process, how do you build relationships with teachers so that they can write letters replete with meaningful, personal, and distinctive praise for your work and contributions? It’s actually easier than you think.

  1. It’s a good idea to get to know your teachers and build relationships with them before you need to ask them for letters of recommendation. Even as a high school freshman, you should be an active student in the classroom. This doesn’t mean you have to be the most talkative. Instead, you should always work to excel in class, seek help and guidance when you have questions, be a regular participant in discussion, and stretch your learning beyond the end of the class period. You want to show your teacher that you truly care about learning – not just as a means to an end (a grade or college).
  2. Now that you’re home and school will likely not reopen this academic year doesn’t mean you can’t continue to build these relationships. If your teachers use Zoom or Google meetups, be an active participant in the virtual class discussions. Do your teachers hold virtual office hours? Sign up for a slot, whether you have a question or not. Talk about something interesting you’ve read related to the class assignment, share an anecdote from life at home, and ask teachers how they are doing at this challenging time.
  3. You should also find ways to cultivate relationships with teachers outside of class. Many of your teachers will lead extracurricular activities, coach teams, direct plays and musicals, and mentor students in all kinds of ways.

Remember that teachers have busy lives outside of school as well—families of their own, stacks of homework to grade—and often put in long hours. An engaged student, who’s eager and prepared to participate in class, and makes a point of thanking teachers and asking how they are doing, will always brighten their day. Most of them probably became teachers because they remember that one teacher who instilled in them a passion for learning—and they want to share that passion with you.


Juniors, listen up! The time to approach teachers for college recommendation letters is essentially now. This spring, you will want to have identified two teachers of academic subjects (ideally from junior year) to showcase your wonderful qualities as a student and school citizen.

Teachers will be asked to write 5-50 recommendations each year. This is not an easy task, especially for those teachers who invest significant time and energy into mentoring students and want their letters to reflect more than just your grades in their classes.

Andrew Simmons, a teacher in California, writing in an article titled “The Art of the College Recommendation Letter” for The Atlantic in 2014, nails it:

“Writing a meaningful letter of recommendation takes time, a luxury that teachers don’t have . . . My job is not to draw big neon circles around a student’s achievements so that an admissions officer will pay more attention to them. Instead of bragging on behalf of the student, I want to render human the person admissions officers may view as a collection of letters and numbers, to say what those grades and scores cannot. A recommendation letter can discuss the academic and, when relevant, personal challenges a student has faced. It can clarify a student’s learning style and distill what he or she brings to a conversation about an academic topic. After all, colleges are trying to build classes of students, not simply usher in as many high-scoring kids as fate will permit. A recommendation, when it is done right, highlights, instead of purely the triumphs, the intangibles in a student’s application.”

You can help your teacher write their very best letter on your behalf. Even if they know you well, it’s a good idea to take time to speak with them. Find a moment after class to ask if you could set up a time to meet with them to talk about your college aspirations. Come prepared to that meeting with a list of colleges you’re considering (even if its preliminary), some thoughts on what appeals to you about those schools, and share what you think you’d like to study. By the way, this is a good time to ask them for their perspectives on different fields of study!

Since your teachers may not have a full sense of all you do outside of their classrooms, put together a condensed activity sheet or resume (no more than two pages) that highlights your involvements, awards, and accomplishments. Don’t forget that your lives include things you do beyond the school campus, so include hobbies, service, part time jobs, and family responsibilities, too.


Remember: the best recommendations are engaging because of the personal anecdotes included in them. That’s what admissions officers will be looking for as they read these letters.

After (virtually) meeting with your teachers, send them a thank you note (email is fine). Most colleges these days will have you list the teachers’ names and email addresses in the Common Application or counseling portals like Naviance. Once the college application season begins in earnest (timed with the Common Application’s August 1 opening day), teachers will get emails from the online systems with instructions on how to submit their letters for you. But, since many teachers will use time in the summer to write recommendations, be sure to talk with your teachers before the end of the school year.

By the way, did you catch that your teachers will likely use their summer to write your recommendation letters? If that’s not indicative of how much they care about your future, we don’t know what is.

Graduate Admissions letters of recommendation

Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

As we dive into the new year, many graduate school applicants are putting the finishing touches on their Master’s, MBA, PhD and law school applications.  In recent years, more and more applicants we’ve worked with have noted that the faculty members and supervisors they’ve asked letters of recommendation for have said yes to the request, but asked for “a pre-written letter” that they’d sign the bottom of.

In some cases, it has been a faculty member who skims the printed letter in the department hallway, and just signs the bottom and says “You’re all set!” In other cases, it’s been a manager who states that the letter of recommendation would be ‘an honor’ to write, only to a few weeks later ask for a letter to be emailed to him that he will then paste onto company letterhead and sign and submit. Neither situation is ideal for a busy graduate school applicant. The goal with the required 2-3 letters of recommendation in any terrific application is to not even see it (not to mention write it) AND have a letter of recommendation submitted that highlights key skills, leadership traits, projects and research opportunities led, and unique qualifications held, ideally in the words of the writer, not the one the letter is about. That said, it’s not something we really urge pushing back on if you ARE told you’ll need to write your own.


So –how do you ensure your request for a letter of recommendation for grad school is not only successful but amounts to a personalized letter that is a true standout from the pack?

You prepare a Recommendation Letter Request Packet.


Your packet can be sent over email or via hard copy in a one-on-one meeting, but ensuring your packet includes some key materials can make the difference between a letter with strong impact in admissions vs. a rushed, run of the mill letter, or even a prompt rejection of your request. Plan to include:

  1. A summary of why you are asking this person for a letter. Highlight their qualifications, your connection, and relay how and why you value their academic/professional expertise. (Can be done in a face to face or phone conversation OR over email, as the case may be.)
  2. A mini summary of why you are applying to graduate school. Why is now the time? Why THAT degree/school list specifically? How do you feel it will boost your professional career? (Can be done in a face to face or phone conversation OR over email, OR even with a finalized version of your Statement of Purpose, which should cover these items anyway.)
  3. Your updated CV or resume. Ensure it relays an accurate, current job description, and is proofed carefully.
  4. A one-page list of bullet points on what you hope will be expanded upon in the letter. This accomplishes two things. 1–It (hopefully) dissuades the writer from kicking the task back to you and asking you to write the letter, and 2–It helps ensure your letter will be more personalized, will relay details on your success in a class, on a massive work project, in a leadership situation, on a presentation to the board, etc.
  5. A file that describes each graduate program to which you are applying AND specific recommendation forms or questionnaires/link (if they are provided by the program) for the recommender to complete (note that the letters need to be specific to each graduate program, if possible). Include the date the app is due, the date you need the letter by, the date you intend to submit, and ideally the date you’ll find out if you’re in.
  6. Optional extra materials: A recent “A” paper from a relevant course if the recommender is your professor or advisor or a summary of a recent work project/publication and feedback you obtained.
  7. Give “an easy out.” Once you provide the above and make it clear that your intention is to make this process as painless as possible for your busy writer, then it’s time to hand over the reins and offer an easy way for the person to flat out say no. It’s to your benefit to give “an easy out” where the person can decline your request for any or no reason. If a writer is on the fence, or feels strapped for time and might not meet the deadlines you have, or feels he or she does not know you or your work well enough, it’s not going to amount to the stellar letter of recommendation you’ll need to be an asset to your application. WAY better to know that at the time of the “ask” as opposed to six weeks down the road or, even worse, at the time of rejection when your application was marked incomplete.

With the above 7 items in your Recommendation Letter Request Packet, you are MUCH more likely to secure a letter in which your professor or supervisor notes you are the best student he has worked with in decades, that he enthusiastically supports your M.S. application to MIT, that you will be a true asset to the degree program in X, Y and Z concrete ways, etc. Need help prepping your Recommendation Letter Request Packet? We offer that!


And lastly, close the circle: Follow up with an old-school handwritten and mailed or hand-delivered thank you note to all of your recommenders! Writing a letter of recommendation is a lot of work and it’s a personal favor to you, so send a thank you note. Also, when you hear back from graduate programs, send an email to your recommenders to let them know where you will be attending (and when/if you’re moving), when you start, and thank them for their much-appreciated help in your gaining acceptance to the program. They will appreciate knowing the end result of their letters and hearing about your success in graduate admissions, and in your program once you start.