Over the past 10+ years, my interest in college essays has led me through courses for counselors, teachers, and writers as I work to hone my skills and insight to help students one-on-one and in workshops. But frankly, I hadn’t planned or thought about workshops a while.

The idea of writing workshops takes me back to teaching writing to college students as well as running college essay workshops years ago. Then, this past week, a fellow consultant contacted me to run spring essay workshops for her after having seen my conference presentation, “Quantifying Value of the College Essay.” That prompted me to revisit, and perhaps finetune, the materials I give my students to get their ideas and reflections flowing.

My “Defining Qualities” page offers over 100 adjectives for students to ponder. I ask them, “What sounds like you?” “Think of a time when you…,” “What stories does your family tell about you” among many other questions. This page has been revised many times to make it less overwhelming (Do we need “smart” instead of “intelligent,” or “sharp” if we have “alert?”). Although every word on the sheet shows a deep value that a student may possess, there are roughly ten personality traits I chose to bold because I believe they will uniquely enhance a college community and relationships in general. These grab admission officers’ attention.

Our culture emphasizes the obvious ones I’ve bolded: “resilience” aka “grit,” “responsibility,” “resourcefulness,” and other task-related strengths. However, “humility,” “compassion,” and “empathy” are up there with other people-centric gifts as well. Some people consider these soft skills, but I don’t.

When I completed the Character Collective course a few weeks ago, it struck me how colleges seek students who take on the hard personal stuff--like being generous when there’s nothing in it for you--as well as the academic challenges like calculus. There’s nothing soft here. Spend twelve minutes and listen to Syracuse professor and award-winning author George Saunders’s 2013 Syracuse commencement speech on kindness. (I’m attaching two videos: one of the actual speech, which has some distractions, and one with a reading of the speech.)



As Saunders emphasizes, even for otherwise successful individuals, kindness is hard. That’s why it can stand out in an essay and support an application that boasts high rigor, GPA, and test scores. Essay writing and teaching isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it, and that’s a point I’ll drive in my one-on-one student meetings and essay workshops this spring.


Test-optional admissions have created a huge influx of applications at many colleges. Admissions counselors confirm that making decisions is more complicated than ever. That’s why counselor and teacher letters of recommendation are getting extra attention, whether students apply test-optionally or not.

These surveys are the primary source that high school guidance counselors use to write letters of recommendation. While they would welcome the opportunity to know every student well, the system doesn’t allow this. It’s up to parents and students to fill in all the blanks.

Counselors are busy with seniors now and won’t address these letters until later in 2021, but there are real benefits to thinking about them now. That’s because writing an effective parent/student survey, aka “brag sheet,” can inform the other elements of the application that you complete and create, including the college list, activity list, Common App and supplemental essays, and perhaps the “additional information.” If you apply for scholarships, what you write in your surveys can make that easier too.

Once these letters are opened in the admissions office, they are reviewed and balanced with other elements in the application. Do they support the story the student tells, and how well? Well-written letters allow admissions officers to craft their classes with institutional goals in mind.

Start by opening the surveys and cutting and pasting the questions into a Google Doc. Don’t answer the questions quickly, but really think about them in relation to your child (or yourself). Every person is more than a string of adjectives, and each of those adjectives wouldn’t make your point unless you can support it with an example.

De-stress the college process by finishing this step early, before the application process picks up steam later in the spring. I’ll be giving tips on how to write surveys that will create stronger counselor letters during the first week of March (date t/b/d). Let me know if you’d like an invitation or would prefer to make an appointment for you and/or your student.


While there is never a guarantee that any student will be admitted to any school, the class of 2021 is experiencing even less predictability. The situation begs insight beyond what we already know about yield protection, test-optional admissions, and college’s financial fears.

That’s why I was excited to share stories with 30+ colleagues on Friday afternoon.

Here’s what I discovered: Several consultants’ students applied to many more colleges because of test-optional admissions. (My line is that too many schools add too much stress.) Few of my students chose not to test, but those who did not reached for colleges that would have been sure denials had test scores been required. Two were successful, but only after switching to ED after colleges recommended that. Some colleges have asked us to call if we have deferred students who will commit.

The scoop on highly-selective colleges: However, others had students without scores who were admitted to highly-selective colleges like Tufts (Tufts admitted 50% test-optional ED applicants) on the basis of high rigor, GPA’s, strong recommendations, and essays. The consensus was that standardized testing is still a valuable part of an application at the most competitive colleges, but it disturbed us that scores of 1550+ on the SAT and 35+ on the ACT seemed to be better predictors of success. That represents only the top 1% of test-takers, and there’s no guarantee (there never is) that students who earn these scores will be admitted.

An honest conversation: Admissions offices at UT Austin, UVA, and UNC Chapel Hill confirmed that their out-of-state admissions rates are generally below 10%. Students and families need to understand that denials from these colleges have no reflection on the quality of their applications. My California colleagues, who work with many Texas applicants, underscored that. My twelve years as a consultant bears this out, even as more students choose to add these schools to their lists each year.

Good news for many: All of our students who applied to colleges below the top tiers, with or without scores, were accepted nearly everywhere they applied. More selective colleges that received large numbers of applications and deferred many students, including Northeastern, UMiami, and Tulane, were eager to admit students who switched from EA to ED II, and we all had stories about students admitted to the University of Michigan with lower profiles than those who had been deferred. One deferred student was admitted to Stanford, another to Georgetown. All this attests to yield protection. Remember that deferrals are not denials!

Next steps: We will be calling admissions offices for accurate data to help us build our juniors’ first lists, then reconvening in May when all the acceptances are in. We will also pool all our personal data anonymously.

Testing: I participated in a webinar with Compass Test Prep and have a call in to them regarding how to best advise 2022 and 2023 grads as they navigate another year or two of test-optional admissions. Yes, they should definitely test! College Board is planning on an electronic option for the SAT by 2022 and ACT will finally offer the section testing originally planned for fall 2021. Will keep you posted with updates.

Let’s think spring: It’s the usual time for college notifications! Congratulations to my students who have committed to colleges and will be heading off to CU Boulder, Hamilton College, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Richmond, Sacred Heart University (merit and athletic scholarships), University of Tennessee, Tulane University, UVA, and University of Wisconsin. Most are still waiting, but all have excellent options.

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