Frequently Asked Questions
When should I start planning for the college admissions process?
It’s smart to start thinking about college early, but we don’t want you to burn out before senior year. College search and application planning will naturally speed up as you near the end of high school. But if you’ll feel calmer following a college prep guideline, here’s a brief one for you:
- 9th and 10th grades:
- Push—but don’t overwhelm—yourself with challenging classes
- Take the PSAT for National Merit eligibility
- Involve yourself in personally meaningful extracurriculars
- Explore different career fields based on your interests
- Take SAT Subject tests if you think you’ll be interested in selective colleges
- 11th grade:
- Research and visit colleges
- Create a college list of schools you plan to apply to
- Take the SAT or ACT tests in the spring
- Plan purposeful summer activities
- 12th grade:
- Write college application essays
- Take the SAT or ACT one last time (optional)
- Submit college applications that accurately reflect YOU
- Apply for scholarships and grants
- Make an enrollment decision and commit to the right college for you
I haven’t cured cancer—yet. Will I be able to get into college?
Good news! Regardless of what you’ve heard…you do not need to have cured cancer by the time you are 18 to get accepted to college. Even the most highly selective ones.
I’ve heard that colleges are looking for well-rounded kids. How many extracurricular activities should I be involved in? Exactly how round do I need to be?
My philosophy is that students should be involved in the extracurriculars that excite them and interest them. There is no magic formula for extracurricular activities. Some students will have a wide range of activities that pique their interest. Others will find only two to three and delve further into them. Regardless, this is a time of self-exploration for students and they should never be involved in an activity because they think it’s what colleges are looking for. Don’t get too bogged down in checking off activities just because you (or your parents) think it will look good on a résumé. Colleges aren’t on the lookout for specific activities. They just use them to get part of the “picture” of the student as they try to find their best matches.
But wait—I’ve heard colleges are looking for “pointy kids.” What does that even mean? How pointy do I need to be?
Colleges are looking for kids who don’t seem to have contrived résumés that check every extracurricular box. They want kids who have interests and who have pursued those interests. For some students, that will be just one or two interests that they have dug into, making them into “pointy kids” and for others, it will be a more well-rounded pursuit of a variety of interests—think “star-shaped kids.” Most importantly, both “pointy kids” and “star-shaped kids” should pursue those activities that interest them most. Remember, these interests should be organic and student-driven. Your parents may not see the value in some of your choices, but our world is changing quickly, and most activities will have some sort of future benefit.
My school doesn’t have clubs. What should I do? How do I get leadership experience?
Your activities and leadership don’t have to come from your high school experiences. Did you know the following count as an activity/EC?
- Responsibilities at home like babysitting, elderly care, meal cooking, and cleaning
- Hobbies like cooking, gardening, dance, blogging, and weightlifting
- A job like making smoothies, walking dogs, babysitting, flipping burgers, or lifeguarding
What summer activities look good on college applications?
Again, don’t do anything purely for the sake of impressing colleges. If you would love to attend a challenging robotic summer program, by all means, do so. But don’t feel pressured to start a summer activity that’ll make you miserable.
Colleges are looking for students with real-world experience. There’s no better way to earn that than by getting a summer job. And this summer activity comes with bonuses—a chance to demonstrate your leadership skills in the workplace and, of course, the all-important paycheck.
Don’t just listen to me. Here’s what William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Harvard Admissions, says about summer: “Bring summer back. Summer need not be totally consumed by highly structured programs, such as summer schools, travel programs, or athletic camps… An old-fashioned summer job that provides a contrast to the school year or allows students to meet others of differing backgrounds, ages, and life experiences is often invaluable in providing psychological downtime and a window on future possibilities.”
I've waited too long! I'm already a senior and I'm lost! Will I even be able to find a college that is a good fit for me?
Absolutely! Some of the best college choice outcomes have come from students who didn’t start the college search and application process until October of senior year. Yes, this approach makes for a stressful few months, but in some cases that might be better than several stressful years.
And you’d be surprised to know many excellent colleges accept applications into the spring—and even early summer! Just because you missed the Early Decision application deadlines doesn’t mean you won’t have a phenomenal, life-changing college experience
How do I make a college list? Where should I begin my college search?
The college search can feel overwhelming when there are so many excellent options available. It might feel easier just going with what you know—what’s local, where your family or friends went, the big names you hear in the news. But if you take this route, you could miss out on amazing schools that are perfect for you.
So here are a few resources you can use in your college search:
- College consultants who’ve spent years researching and visiting colleges
- Online communities of students sharing their college admissions experience, like the subreddit r/ApplyingToCollege
- College search engines, like CollegeBoard, The Princeton Review, or Niche.com
- Books like Colleges That Change Lives or Fiske Guide to Colleges
As your list grows, you’ll want to visit the colleges you’re considering. But sometimes, due to time, resources, or distance — or a global pandemic!, you can’t complete all the college visits you’d like. I have good news!
I’ve created an app that allows other students to mindfully share their college visit experiences with students who couldn’t visit campus themselves. You’ll receive a more authentic “feel” for the college atmosphere from another high school student than from the admissions website. So download College Vizzy and start exploring your college list.
When should I really start thinking about and begin the application process ?
Look at your own level of interest. We don’t want you to burn out by senior year, but in general, junior year is a good starting point. Of course, if you need to get started sooner to calm anxiety levels, then you should, but make it more like a check-in-once-a-month kind thing.
Keep in mind that you need to be aware of subject tests, PSAT for National Merit, and taking a comfortable but challenging course load. Also get in involved in personally meaningful activities, beginning your freshman year.
How many colleges should I apply to?
I recommend applying to 8-12 colleges, but this number can vary by student. With a college list highly focused on fit, you might get away with applying to fewer colleges because they’ll all be strong matches.
If you’re not as far along in developing and understanding yourself during the college search process, you might cast a wider net at first—then discern better matches as the year continues.
Here’s an example of what a balanced college list could include:
- 3-4 Less Likely or “Lottery” schools—where you have a chance of being admitted, but it may be difficult. Even with shiny and sparkly stats, schools with an acceptance rate of 25% or less are reaches for everyone. With so many amazing applicants, no one can be sure they’ll get accepted at these selective colleges.
- 4-5 Likely or “Match” schools—where you are likely to be admitted. Your stats fall in the top half of the class and the school isn’t highly selective (over 25-30% acceptance rate).
- 1-2 “Sure-Fire Safety” schools—where you are guaranteed admission because either you’re a direct admit or your stats will get you automatically accepted. Please note: these are not throw-away schools—make sure you like these colleges and can see yourself there. And ensure they’re financially comfortable for your family.
I’m so stressed out by the whole thing. How do I cope without going nuts?
It sounds like the Admissions Stress Monster has its claws in you. Mindfully dealing with your stress during the rest of the college admissions process is key.
- Be involved and present—with your health (mental and physical), with your family, with your friends, with your schoolwork, and with your extracurriculars.
- Practice gratitude. Make a daily list of things you’re thankful for. In the midst of all your stress, what is good? Are you grateful for ice cream? For your inspiring teacher? For your dad’s silly jokes? Focusing on positive things reduces your anxiety and stress.
- Lean into your fear, frustration, and stress. It’s normal to be stressed. Don’t try to run away or suppress it—face it and embrace it. Sometimes fear is a sign you’re doing the right thing! Remember, the college admission journey is more important than the outcome. I know that drives some of you up-the-wall, bat-shit crazy, but it’s true. You’ll learn more about yourself from your perceived “failures” than you will from getting accepted to a certain school.
- Meditate. Take three minutes a day to focus on your breathing and just embrace the stillness. Be mindful of what’s happening to you. Is your mind wandering? Cool! That means you’ve been successful in your mindful practice—you noticed your mind had wandered away from your breathing. No biggie. Just come back to your breath. This is such a simple practice—you don’t have to clear your brain or relax. There are no rules. Just focus on your breathing. It’s that simple.