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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.

Early Decision Insider Tips

Class of 2025: Early Decision and Early Action Notification Dates

Even with the many changes COVID-19 has brought to the college admissions landscape, there is one constant that remains for our seniors. ‘The early bird catches the worm.’ The odds go up in the early round and hopefully you have strategically utilized early action and early decision this year.   

Amid the chaos, let us be your one-stop shop for important notification information. We’ve compiled the most up-to-date listing of early decision and early action notification dates for you. Sit back, relax and let the admissions letters (acceptances we hope) roll in!

Notice a school of interest not listed? Simply let us know in the comments and we’ll gather the information for you and post.


Amherst CollegeDecember 15th
Babson CollegeEDI/EA: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February
Barnard CollegeDecember 14th
Bates CollegeEDI: by December 20th; EDII: by February 15th
Boston CollegeEDI: December 15th; EDII: February 15th
Bowdoin CollegeEDI: December 11th; EDII: Mid-February
Boston UniversityEDI: December 15th; EDII: February 15th
Brown UniversityMid-December
California Institute of Technology (Caltech)EA: Mid-December
Carnegie Mellon UniversityED: December 15th
Claremont McKenna CollegeEDI: December 15th; EDII: February 15th
Colby CollegeEDI: on or before Dec. 15th; EDII: on or before Feb. 15th
Colgate UniversityEDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February to Mid-March
Columbia UniversityDecember 16th
Connecticut CollegeEDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February
Cornell UniversityDecember 17th, 7pm ET
Dartmouth CollegeDecember 16th
Duke UniversityMid-December
Emerson CollegeEDI/EA: Mid-December; EDII/EAII: by February 1st
Emory UniversityEDI: December 9th, 6pm ET; EDII: by February 15th
Georgetown UniversityDecember 15th
Harvard UniversityDecember 17th
Harvey Mudd CollegeEDI: mailed December 15th; EDII: mailed February 15th
Haverford CollegeEDI: December 15th; EDII: February 15th
Johns Hopkins UniversityEDI: December 11th; EDII: February 15th
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyMid-December
Middlebury CollegeEDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February
New York University
EDI: December 15th; EDII: February 15th
Northwestern UniversityMid-December
Pomona CollegeEDI: by December 15th; EDII: by February 15th
Rice Universityby mid-December
Stanford UniversityDecember 15th
Swarthmore CollegeOnline Mid-December 
Tufts UniversityEDI: December 15th, 7pm EST; EDII: mid-February
Tulane UniversityED: by December 15th; EA: January 15th
University of ChicagoEA/EDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February
University of MichiganEA: late January
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillby end of January
University of PennsylvaniaED: December 16th
University of South CarolinaEA: Mid-December
University of VirginiaED: Mid-December; EA: aim to release by Mid-February
Vanderbilt UniversityEDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February
Villanova UniversityEA: evening of January 29th; EDI: by December 15th; EDII: by March 1st
Wake Forest UniversityEDI: Rolling; EDII: approximately February 15th
Washington University in St. LouisEDI: December 15th; EDII: February 14th
Wellesley CollegeEDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February 
Wesleyan UniversityEDI: Mid-December; EDII: Mid-February
Williams Collegeevening of December 11th ET
Worcester Polytechnic InstituteEAI: January 15th; EAII: March 1st; EDI: December 15th; EDII: February 15th
Yale UniversitySCEA: December 16th
Insider Tips

How to Pick and Pursue Grad School Psychology Programs

Post by: Dr. Kristen Willmott

Psychology is one of the most popular majors on the planet and in the chaos of 2020, we suspect even more students will be headed into healthcare-oriented fields. The mind body connection is real; we are all, in some way, conditioned to help and want to learn more about the human psyche. Psychology can be a great way to study society while also learning more about yourself. We often hear from students who are looking into Clinical Psychology graduate degrees, or even just Psychology in general.

When I completed my doctoral studies a long way back, a saint of a professor agreed to sit on my dissertation committee and he headed up a PhD program in Marriage and Family Studies. I remember thinking that I didn’t even know that was a field not to mention a PhD!  Now there are tons of options for graduate degrees in the field of psychology. You have options in:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Clinical neuropsychology
  • School psychology
  • Child psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • Marriage and family psychology
  • Behavioral psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Health psychology
  • School psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Psychiatry, and more…

You could obtain a Master of Arts, a Master of Science, a Master’s in Social Work (MSW), a PhD or a PsyD. We tend to hear from students seeking a PhD (more research focused) or a PsyD (a bit more practice focused with some clinical work woven in), and we have some tips and tricks for those looking into graduate school psychology programs.


  • The American Psychology Association (APA) has pushed out a fair amount of articles on the benefits and the rise of teletherapy in the midst of Covid-19. Considering applying for a graduate degree in psychology? A great way to make sure you like the field is to start in therapy. You can do it from home or even from an app on your phone with about 5 minutes advanced notice. Take advantage of the modern advances in your targeted field.
  • Speaking of APA, that’s the main professional association for Psychology –check out some of their videos in your field where top scholars and PhDs present on key topics. Note two videos here on “Reopening Schools in a Pandemic,” and “The Challenge of Telework During Covid-19.”
  • You could attend APA’s annual 2020 conference which was flipped to an on-demand setup online. (That becomes a CV entry.)
  • How about getting a transcript to submit with your applications where you could show your A grades in psychology coursework? Oregon State University’s fall term runs Sept. 23 to mid Dec, and because they’re on the quarter system they have a winter term too. Possible courses you could consider might be: General Psychology, Brain and Behavior, or Personality Psychology.
  • Not quite ready to add 3-4 credits to your fall or winter 2020? Consider these EdX noncredit online course options (We like the UC Berkeley options in particular.)
  • Stanford runs one of the top Psychology graduate programs in the country and they host their own workshops and conferences.
    • Their conference on Triangulating Intelligence: “Melding Neuroscience, Psychology and AI” is Oct. 7th, 9am-3:30pm PT –note the top scholars presenting, and it’s completely virtual (another great CV entry!)


Let’s say you do ALL of the above and you’re ready to move on your PhD program applications in Psychology. Here’s what you’ll prep to submit (for most programs) this fall to submit (around late November) for December deadlines:

  • Transcripts
  • Statement of purpose where you’ll state the 2-3 faculty you’ve already reached out to and conferred with and whom you want to work under.
  • Online application, which could include added supplemental text box prompts
  • Optional diversity essay (for some programs)
  • CV
  • 3 letters of recommendation
  • Test scores, depending on the program: GRE, TOEFL


We’d love to help you navigate your path to top graduate programs in Psychology! I’m here to help with everything from essay guidance to mock interview prep to reaching out to faculty to secure their support at the admissions read table (very needed!) and, of course, refining your final application strategy. As APA confirms, there are over 24 pages of stellar graduate level psychology programs you can pick from in their latest summary  –we can help you whittle that down to programs that match your scholarly, research and professional practice goals.

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Why Early Decision Still Makes Sense for Many Students

Post by: Dr. Michele Hernandez

We’ve had vigorous debates on this blog and with students and parents about the merits of early decision. As a brief primer, both early action and early decision have early November deadlines, but early action is NON binding (you do not have to say “yes”) while early decision is binding (you have to say “yes” and withdraw any other applications). The confusing thing is that HarvardYale, and Stanford have a “single choice/restrictive” early action policy (non-binding but you can only apply to state schools or international schools as back up) while the other five Ivies all have normal early decision. Princeton for this cycle is not doing any early round at all which throws a wrench into the scene.


As you can see from the tables below, early decision acceptance rates are 3 to 4 times higher than regular only acceptance rates while early action acceptance rates are higher, but not by as big a margin with the exception of MIT. The one thing that is indisputable is that regular only admittance rates are super low from 2-3% at Stanford (which didn’t give out exact numbers from this cycle so we are guesstimating) and Harvard to a “high” of 6-7%. Looking at just the numbers, there is a clear advantage to applying early action/early decision at every school. But as many perceptive readers of past posts pointed out, the difference is not quite as sharp because legacies and recruited athletes tend to get accepted in the early decision round so while it may look like Dartmouth takes 26% of ALL early applicants, it is going to be less than that for “non-hooked” applicants. As I will illustrate below, even so, it is worth it to apply early decision to increase your odds. Some argue that early decision can lock you into a financial bind as you cannot compare financial aid packages so is “only for the wealthy.” That is not true because the Ivies bend over backwards to give generous aid packages once they commit to a student and in the worst case scenario, you can be released from the early decision agreement if after you appeal your financial aid award, you still cannot afford it.


  1. Even taking into account legacies and recruited athletes, the acceptance rate is still higher than regular round.
  2. There are MANY fewer applicants in the early round (look at the table below – sometimes 8-10 times fewer in early!) which means your application, essays, teacher recs and materials are read much more carefully and typically by admissions officers rather than outside readers.
  3. Not only are there fewer applicants in early, but with legacies and athletes who tend to be in the lower side academically, truly strong applicants who are academic superstars shine brighter in the early decision round than in the regular round. To say it another way, the regular round is much more competitive with many of the nation’s top students waiting until regular round. The early round overall is weaker because of the recruited athletes and legacies and “reach” applicants.
  4. Applying early decision tells the college that you picked them first – and you love their school and are willing to commit. That means for a student who might be “on the border,” often admissions officers will take that student in early but not in regular. This is demonstrated interest on steroids.
  5. What about getting deferred? Think of it this way, if you were deferred in the early round, you would have been rejected in the regular round, so nothing lost there. Plus, deferred students have a chance to send an update with new grades, awards, scores, etc… and roughly 5-15% of deferred kids (depending on the school) will be accepted during the regular round. The advantage is that the college knows it is your top choice, signaled by the original ED choice.
  6. Finally, with COVID still in the picture, many schools (especially small liberal arts schools) have lost a ton of tuition dollars from last year plus have many added expenses to develop a Coronavirus plan (paying for HEPA filters, more ventilation, etc…). That means that students who don’t need financial aid AND who apply ED will have higher admissions odds this year.
  7. Related to the above, we predict that many liberal arts colleges along with top universities will admit a higher percentage of the class in the ED round to lock in tuition paying students.


As I’ve argued before, if I could wave my magic wand, I would force all the top colleges to have two rounds of early decision (I and II) but 1- limit the number to perhaps only 30-35% of the total class rather than 50% as U Penn takes now for example) and 2- provide super generous financial aid/grants to students. That way colleges could still reserve 60-70% of the spots for regular round but still give students two rounds to indicate a true first choice. I would eliminate single choice early action so HYPS don’t artificially elevate themselves over the other schools simply based on policy. In a typical year, 20,000 to 25,000 students are deferred or rejected from HYPS, freak out, and then apply to 20-30 schools in regular round. That is why the system is flooded with a ridiculous number of applicants in regular round. Changing the system would reduce that number dramatically. But no school wants to act in a vacuum – they need to join hands and take the plunge all at once to insert some measure of sanity into the process.



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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part Two

PART 2:  Qualitative over Quantitative

Part two in a three-part series that looks at how the admissions process will need to adapt this year due to COVID-19.

Part one of our ‘Admissions in the Time of COVID-19’ series looked at how COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional markers of achievement that admissions officers have historically relied upon to make admissions decisions: testing and transcripts. Now more than ever, the qualitative aspects of a student’s application—curiosity, character, impact, resilience—things that can’t necessarily be quantified in a test score or grade—will take center stage. Does that mean that every bright, kind, high impact applicant has a chance at Harvard this application season? Not quite.

Part two of our series focuses on curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Read on to learn where these intangible qualities are highlighted in an application and how admissions officers use them in their assessments.


Schools that practice holistic admissions want to get to know you and look for clues into who you are: your hopes and dreams, interests, activities, accomplishments, quirks, experiences, perspectives, contributions, and impact. Each of the more qualitative aspects of the admissions application is designed to get at WHO YOU ARE BEYOND JUST YOUR SCORES AND GRADES. Typically, those more qualitative aspects include personal essays (and school-specific supplements), descriptions of your principal activities, letters of recommendation (college counselor and at least one classroom teacher), and, in some cases an admissions interview.

Today, more than ever, factors like curiosity and intellectual engagement, character and personal experiences, contribution and impact, and resilience will factor more prominently in the selective college admissions process. Admissions officers reading your file will likely “rank” or “rate” your essays, recommendations, and interviews on these key qualities and offer short summaries of highlights in their file notes.


A quick perusal of the Common Application essay prompts and a college’s supplemental essay questions makes it easy to see what they value and what matters to their selection process. Just for fun, we assigned a theme to each supplemental essay prompt from 30 top private and public colleges and universities and put all that into a word cloud generator.

common app essay prompts & your voice

The results are clear! Colleges want to know about your academic interests and what sparks your intellectual curiosity. Admissions officers care deeply about creating a diverse community of bright and talented students from across the globe (even if you’re learning via Zoom right now) and want to know what you’ll add to the mix. They look for students who have positively impacted their schools and communities through their activities, leadership, and contributions.

When it comes right down to it, admissions officers read your main college essay (650 words) and the school-specific supplements (typically, 100 to 400 words) to figure out what kind of scholar and community member you are now and would be on their campus. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

As you tackle your supplemental essays, share your stories. Reflect on community (however you choose to define it) and how it has informed who you are today. Do your research and answer the “why” question with responses that connect you to the college or university, making it clear that you are the perfect fit.

Colleges understand that COVID-19 has deeply impacted many students and their families. Using a new short response option on the Common Application, students can share the effects of the pandemic and its related disruption to their families’ health and finances, as well as obstacles (think access to the internet, a laptop, a quiet study space) to students’ ability to pursue their education. Think twice about what you put in this space. There will be students who have suffered significantly during this time. Missing the spring track season, junior prom, or a long-awaited summer trip isn’t what they’re looking for here.


For many, the pandemic and ensuing shutdowns have also meant the cancelation of significant aspects of their extracurricular lives—especially those activities that have been more difficult to replicate in the virtual world. Admissions officers will understand that students may not have seamless extracurricular records as a result of the pandemic, but they will clearly favor those students who sprang into action to help their families, schools, or communities.

Despite the challenges of stay-at-home orders, enterprising students launched Zoom tutoring programs and PE classes. They taught senior citizens in their communities the ins and outs of Zoom and created pen pal programs to help those isolated from families. Enterprising students raised funds, bought their own supplies and crafted PPE for local first responders and hospital workers. They taught and cared for younger siblings while parents worked. Youth activism soared, as students responded to pressing health, social justice, and environmental issues by using their voices across all their platforms to push for needed change. Others worked or volunteered—in person or virtually—supporting their families, learning valuable skills. Student musicians, dancers, and actors created virtual Zoom performances featuring friends and classmates, often as a benefit for a community non-profit. Many students took their learning into their own hands and pursued research opportunities and college courses this summer—whether for credit or on platforms like EdX—deepening their academic interests.

Today more than ever, being a participant in a typical set of school activities just won’t cut it. Those students who spent the last five months binge-watching Netflix have missed an important opportunity to show admissions officers their values in action. It’s this evidence of impact, contribution, resilience, selflessness, and empathy that admissions officers will look for as they assess how students have spent their time outside the classroom.


Just as it has with each facet of our lives, COVID-19 has also disrupted students’ relationships with their counselors and teachers and their extracurricular lives. For rising seniors, this disruption, beginning last March, has fundamentally altered their relationships with teachers and college counselors—just at the time that these relationships were most important.

College counselor and teacher recommendations have always been a critical piece of the application review process at top schools. Remember that the majority of students applying to top colleges will typically have strong grades and scores, generally being “in range” based on a school’s published test score and GPA averages. Through careful reading of these letters of recommendation, admissions officers seek qualitative information to help differentiate the truly exceptional students from the typical well-credentialed ones.

The sudden and unprecedented closing of all our nation’s schools in March forced teachers and students into a new teaching and learning paradigm—and one whose success depended on access to resources in both the school and the family. Ninth grade science teacher Liz Russillo, as quoted in Education Week, noted:

The shift to remote learning has [required] me to use innovation and creativity for the most critical assessments while highlighting the importance of the teacher-student relationship. I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day. These relationships are the foundation of the classroom and just so challenging in the remote world. 

Just as in our pre-pandemic world, admissions officers read recommendations looking for tangible evidence of intellectual engagement, curiosity, contribution and impact. Today, admissions officers will first seek to understand just how much access students have had to teachers and counselors. There will be the lucky ones whose teachers and counselors made the shift to online learning and worked to stay connected with their students. Even in our Zoom world, teachers and counselors will know which students were the most engaged and made the classroom interesting and dynamic, even online, and will emphasize that in their letters. Seniors, as you head back to school—even virtually—connect with your teachers!

College counselors play a key role in helping students stand out in the admissions process. Where individual teachers focus on a student’s work in one class, the college counselor uses a wide-angle lens to help admissions officers discern the truly exceptional students from a pool of very high-achieving ones. Strong letters show, through specific anecdotes, a student’s impact and achievement, and are genuinely warm and enthusiastic.


Although interviews are not widely used, those colleges that offer interviews provide applicants with another opportunity to show they’ve done their homework on the college and bring their essays and activities to life. This year, you can expect those interviews to be conducted over Zoom (or similar platform).

Whether students interview with an admissions officer, alumni volunteer, or student working for admissions, impressions from the interview will be noted in the applicant’s eventual admissions file. For schools that care about demonstrated interest (that’s just about all of them these days), the interview provides perhaps one of the most direct ways for students to show admissions officers why they are the perfect fit.


Essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews provide opportunities for students to bring their candidacies to life. In this upcoming admissions cycle, you can be sure that these parts of the application will be closely read as admissions officers seek evidence of students whose curiosity, engagement, contribution, impact, and resilience are truly notable.

Having looked at each component of the admissions application, part three of our special series will look at the macro forces that shape the selection process. What new factors will admissions deans need to consider this year as they assemble the entire class?

Share your experiences with COVID-19 related school and testing challenges in the Comments. We’d like to hear what you’re experiencing and how you are adapting. We will continue to post about these issues and look forward to hearing your experiences.