Top Tips

Choosing a College

Creating a School List


Most high school students have no idea where to begin when it comes to outlining the list of universities they want to apply to. Often a student may get stuck on a school simply because they’ve  heard the name once or twice, or because of some socially constucted idea of the college’s prestige. Going into this process, it’s important to step away from any preconceived notions and give yourself the space to really consider the aspects that matter – the ones that will seriously affect the next four years of your life. These include, but are not limited to: geography, school size, and areas of study.


Every campus is different, and every campus is in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding environment. Consider where each school is located. Think about what you need not just from the school but from the external community. Does it feel important to be able to hop on a subway and zip downtown for a bite? Or would you prefer to be further away from a bustling city life? Do you prefer a campus that feels more spread out or one more contained? You may be excited by the idea of having access to all the trappings of a big city, or you might prefer a close-knit vibe where most events happen on campus. There’s not right or wrong answers, it’s truly a question of what feels the most exciting and comfortable to you.

School Size

This also ties to school size. The truth is, wherever you choose to settle, you’re going to make some great friends. Again, there’s no wrong answer here. But it is important to be thoughtful about the size of school that feels right for you. Colleges range widely in size – smaller schools may have just 5,000 students, while the larger ones, like UCLA, can have more than 30,000.  That’s a huge difference, and one that should be taken into consideration. Think about what kind of student body you want to be a part of.  Do you like the idea of recognizing most, if not all, faces when you walk through the quad or into the dining hall? Or would your prefer to find your community within a larger student body? There are pros and cons to any situation so much of this will be to your personal taste. And if you’re still unsure, a campus visit will really help!

Areas of Study

Even if you’re not 100% certain, it’s important to drive your college applications with a choice of major, or area of interest. Let me be clear – this can change down the line. You are not signing away your rights to choose your future. Nevertheless, it’s important to show the school through your application that you have done your homework in terms of WHY you want to study and grow at their institution. Much of this will come down to areas of study. Do you think you want to major in history? Go to the History department websites for the schools you are considering. Learn about their approach and core values. Go further – look at the course catalogue. Are there classes that inspire and excite you? Research the professors. Is there someone you are dying to learn from? Read beyond what the school offers – find articles or YouTube videos that students or professors are featured in. This is not only helpful for you as a prospective student, but also is information you can reference in your essays. If your area of interest is specialized, for example Special Education, make sure you are applying to colleges that can really support you and your future. Is there a specialized track of study you can follow? What kind of access will there be to internships or off-campus real world experiences? All of this information is readily available – all you have to do is look for it!

There are many aspects to consider when making your college list, but remember that colleges are not just vetting you; you are also vetting them. This is the beginning of a match making exercise, and you have agency in that. Be open-minded so that your list isn’t too small, but be true to yourself. Don’t just apply to every school you’ve heard is “good.” Your college list is a living thing – a working document. You can add or subtract as you need. Just make sure you are making informed choices.



College Application Essays

Common Application Essay – Brainstorming & Drafting

Think about you.

During the college process, its very easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to your peers. When it comes to writing your Common App Essay, focusing on others is exactly what you don’t want to do. Your Essay is your unique—and sometimes only—opportunity to show the Admissions Committee who you are through your own voice. Your grades, activities, and recommendations will be painting a picture of you already from the lens’ of others. While your teachers or coaches might know you well and be able to speak to your strengths, nobody knows you like you do. Take advantage of this incredible chance to give colleges your story the way you think it should be heard.


Before you start writing, you need to take time to think through the ideas that resonate with you. Having a strong concept in mind of what you want to write about is soimportant. It will save you from spending hours or days writing a piece, only to realize halfway through that the topic doesn’t really showcase who you are.

Some helpful questions to think about:

  • Close your eyes – ask yourself, “Who am I?” You share a lot in common with your peers. But you know that deep down, there is something about you that makes you different. Spend time with this idea by yourself, and try to let it come to the surface.
  • What do you wish they would know about you, that they can’t already see from your list of grades and activities?
  • If you do different activities that you feel “don’t go together,” or don’t fit neatly into a clear puzzle (e.g. soccer and painting and orchestra) – don’t worry. No matter how unrelated your activities may seem, there is something that ties them all together. And that something is you.
    • Think about why you were drawn to those activities. How do you feel when you are doing them – or before, or after? What have you learned from them? How have they shaped you or your understanding of others and the world around you?
    • The answer to the question of how to fit these all together is usually something abstract.

Don’t be afraid of the abstract.

When you first sit down, you may feel tempted to write about something concrete (e.g. to devote your whole Common App essay to describing one activity, hobby, or interest and how it has affected you). There is nothing wrong with this per se, but you will be missing an opportunity to delve deep and write a truly powerful (and successful!) essay if you approach it this way.

The strongest essays often grapple with a more complex idea, rather than just sharing a story or talking about one thing in an interesting way. An example of an abstract idea is writing about power and what it means to you, or writing about your fascination with language as a tool for communication.

Its all about tying in your various activities and life experiences to this central theme.  This will show the Admissions Committee that you are thoughtful and mature—that you are taking a step back and thinking about the decisions and commitments you’ve made so far in life. It is important to show them you can reflect, and most importantly, that you care about this exercise and are putting your best foot forward.


Once you have your theme and some ideas of how to tie in your experiences, you’re ready to start drafting. Don’t be scared of this step! Once you start writing, you will be so surprised at how fast it flows.

For your first draft, just start getting something down on paper, and let the ideas flow out of you onto the page. Don’t worry about every sentence or thought being perfect – the idea here is to get it all down on paper, and then you can go back and evaluate which parts you like best and want to keep.

One important part of writing a strong essay is knowing how to switch it up. You want your essay to contain detailed imagery and careful language that shows off your writingstyle. But you also want it to have some punchy, powerful, short sentences, too. You want your essay to be specific, but you also want to make sure you are tying the specifics back to a strong, central idea. Variety is a helpful tool when writing to keep your readers interested and engaged with your ideas.


This might be the hardest part, but its also the most important. Once you’ve written what you feel is a solid, stand-alone draft of your essay, the next step will involve several rounds of careful editing. When editing, don’t just look for word choice, spelling mistakes, or other more superficial problems. Re-read your essay at different times of the day, read it to different people in your life who know you well, and try to step away and read it with fresh eyes. How does it sound? Do you feel like this is the best possible representation of you? If not, what is missing? What feels like it could be moved around? What is too much – what can you take away? Think about the piece as a whole, and if you need to rearrange the anecdotes or ideas within it to make it flow more beautifully.


Writing the University of California Essays


The UC essays can be some of the most fun to write – especially if you are willing to think beyond the wording of the prompt. Part of what will make you stand out as a candidate is how uniquely you answer the given question while simultaneously showing off a specific skill, experience, or personality trait. This begins with choosing the right prompts to work with, and making sure that each feels specific and distinct, while adding up together into a body of work that is representative of the diverse and well-rounded human that you are!

There are generally eight provided prompts, from which you will select four to write about. Let’s start by looking at those prompts and discussing brainstorming techniques.

As of 2019/2020 the UC prompts included:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time. 
  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? 
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement? 
  6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?


The first place to look for inspiration is your ACTIVITY GRID. Are you the captain of an athletic or academic team? Is there a social issue that you’re passionate about that you’ve dedicated time to? Your time is your most valuable asset – so where you’ve chosen to focus your extracurriculurs tells an admissions committee a great deal about you. These essays are a chance to dig deeper, and show them why you love what you do, why it’s important to you, and how you might continue to explore these interests in the future.  

You will notice that some of these prompts have overlaps. For example, if you are captain of the varisty rowing team, you could write about leadership in that regards, OR you might realize that to succeed in that role, you have to be creative and practice the innovative thinking that is discussed in prompt 2. Before you begin writing the first of these essays, create a basic plan for all four, so that you don’t paint yourself into a corner!

With that in mind, it’s really fun to be creative when approaching these questions. Leadership can mean an actual captain-type role OR it could mean how you often become the emotional leader in your friend group, or contribute to family dynamics. Just because you may not identify as an “artist,” doesn’t mean that prompt 2, about expressing creativity, isn’t for you. In fact, it might be even MORE for you. As beautiful as an essay about painting or music might be, your essay about how ping pong or fantasy football or your morning makeup routine brings out your creative side will certainly stand out from the crowd.

The key elements to keep in mind are:

  1. Showing off accomplishments, skills, extracurriculars, etc in an exciting and visceral way
  2. Digging deep into the facets of your life, personality, heart and soul that make you YOU


Once you’ve outlined a basic plan for the four UC prompts you want to use, it’s time to start writing!

One fun way to kick off these essays is with an in media res anecdote that clearly, quickly, and viscerally addresses the core themes you’re going to talk about. If you’re writing about your love of painting, make this distinct by drawing readers in with an opening paragraph that makes them feel what you feel while painting, as if you are describing this moment, right now. Your paintbrush in your hand – what does it feel like? Think about the sensory details – smell, sounds, tastes – and then the emotional resonance within you.

From there, transition into your thesis. Not just THAT this activity allows you to express your creative side, but WHY and HOW. Not just that you are the captain of the rowing team, but what that role requires from you and perhaps what you’ve learned from. Use specific examples and details, name names, show off your deep relationship to and understanding of this subject or part of your life.

Of note: vary up the way you layout these essays. Not all four should begin with an anecdote. Maybe two can, and then the other two can be more straightforward. It is just as strong to start with a powerful, straight to the point, opening sentence like, “I was diagnosed with ADD at age four, so I’ve never really known life without a label.” The important thing is to hook the reader in with honesty, clarity, and specificity.

Finally, look for opportunities within these prompts to turn the ending of the essay to the future. How are you taking what you’ve learned, or the skills you’ve develop, into the next steps of your life? How will this activity, experience, personality trait, etc. influence the rest of your life or how will you pursue it or grow it once at college? Many of the UC prompts are excellent chances to exhibit personal growth and reflection – the arc of each should answer the specific question, while also driving towards a larger thematic resolution.

“Why (XYZ) School” Essay


Most students make the mistake of starting this essay by restating facts about the school they are applying to. In reality, the best approach to answering a “Why School” question is to being by writing about yourself. Before you do this, though, spend some time thinking about the school you are applying to – not just about the academic and extracurricular offerings, the reputation, and all of that – but also about the ethos (or spirit) of the school.

What kind of place is it? What do they value most, what kind of students are they looking to attract, and what kind of alumni are they looking to produce? Think about the essence of the school that underlies the tangibles. The school will really appreciate if you can grasp this. They want to feel understood by their applicants. This applies to schools at all points on the spectrum in terms of rigor. For example, an admissions committee does not want to think that their school is just a “safety” for you, and that you haven’t made the effort to understand what they’re about. Similarly, an Ivy League admissions committee does not want to feel that you are only applying there because of their high ranking. Being thoughtful about this aspect is extremely important.

Once you feel that you’ve identified the identity and particular strengths of the school, think about yourself and how you fit into their framework. What is it about you that makes you the right type of student for them? What are your interests that align with theirs? How and why are you suited for that environment? Think abut this and how you can highlight those aspects of yourself in a strong introduction.

Share who you are, and what you want.

Think about the best way to start this essay. You’ve already chosen the substance of what you’re starting with – something about yourself that showcases your personality or interests. But in what form? There is no right answer to this – it is up to you. Many students start with an anecdote, others start with powerful language about their personality or how they see the world, others start with thoughts about where they hope to end up one day and what excites them about the future.

Make it specific.

Once you transition to writing about the school and the specific programs you feel you are best suited for, make sure to be detailed in your analysis. Most students will do quick internet searches and be able to name the major facts about the school’s offerings. Try to dig deeper and identify things that require more curiosity or research to find. The school will appreciate that you took the time to do this, and it conveys a deeper level of interest that will take you far in the application process. After all, no matter how excited a school is about you, the admissions committee wants to know that you are excited about them as well, and that there is a good chance you will accept their offer of admission.


Standardized Tests

Test Prep on a Budget

How to Prepare for the ACT or the SAT without Breaking the Bank

Preparing for either the SAT or the ACT is expensive–many companies charge hundreds of dollars ​per hour​ for private lessons. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on private tutoring to dramatically increase your score; you can improve on your own! Here are a few tips to maximize your score by working independently:

  1. Find practice tests:​ First, you’ll need to determine which test to target. Because both the SAT and the ACT are open tests (previous versions of them are available for free online), you can easily find and print an official, previously administered ACT and SAT from the internet.  
  2. Take practice tests:​ Now it’s time to clear your schedule. Each test is almost four hours long, so pick a weekend (or weekends) and get to work. As you complete your diagnostic tests, do your best to simulate test conditions. Be sure to work in a quiet space free from distraction, and carefully follow the timing guidelines indicated on each section. 
  3. Choose your target: ​Colleges don’t care whether you take the SAT or the ACT. Your job is to pick the test that best showcases your standardized testing talents. After scoring each practice test, reference an ACT/SAT concordance table to see which score is comparatively better. The higher score probably indicates the test you should target! Here’s an example concordance table: 
  4. Order good materials: ​Order a book that contains official material. Both the College Board and ACT, Inc. sell prep books full of official tests–this is what you should order. Lots of prep companies offer their own knock-off versions of either the SAT or the ACT, and these are ok for practice. It’s better, though, to stick to the real stuff.
  5. Create a program:​ Whether working on your own or with an instructor, it will take discipline to improve your score. Create a plan and stick to it. Though different students have different needs, a typical program should begin three to four months before your first official exam. During that time, you should plan to work about an hour a day, five days per week to reap maximum benefit.
  6. Practice:​ The best way to increase your score is to do lots of practice. Because these tests don’t resemble your other academic activities, you need to expose yourself to as many SAT or ACT problems as possible. The style and structure of these tests are unique, so take the plunge, immerse yourself in the language of standardized testing, and you’ll improve your score in no time!



Advanced Placement Coursework & Exams

Coming soon.


Writing and Studying Tips

Coming soon.


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