Making the Most of the Holidays with your College Student

Embrace some changes to really enjoy your time together.

 By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Snowy neighborhood

We all have our expectations about how we’d like the holidays to go with our college student home again. Unfortunately, our kids often have different ideas. Read my post on Grok Nation for tips on how to ensure everyone gets what they want.

Share your thoughts and experiences on holidays with a college student in the comments section below.

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Fine-Tuning the Activity Sheet

Formatting activities for the application.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

I’ve written about putting together an activity sheet or high school resume in an earlier post. Once that’s done, your student should use this master sheet to create a new list of their top 10 extra-curriculars, ready to copy and paste into their college applications.

The activities section rounds out your student’s story. Along with the essay, this is a place for your teen to highlight what makes them more interesting than students with similar GPAs and test scores.

Marching Band2

Determine what goes on this list Anything a student has done outside of the classroom goes here: extra-curriculars such as sports and the arts, as well as volunteering and working. The list should include the activities that are most important to your teen, and the most impressive. Any activities mentioned in the essay/personal statement must be on the list.

Understand the parameters The Common App allows for 10 activities, the Coalition, 8. The Common App restricts the name of the activity/organization and the applicant’s role to a combined 50 characters, with the description of the activity maxing out at 150 characters. The Coalition doesn’t provide maximum or minimum character/word counts; I suggest using the Common App guidelines.

Colleges understand the limitations here, and don’t expect students to write in complete sentences. But avoid bullet points. Edit them from the high school resume into comprehensive statements. Using an “&” for “and” is acceptable, as are abbreviations and little to no descriptions for well-known organizations, i.e. Girls Scouts. Focusing on what the student did with or in the group, rather than the role of the group itself works best.

Prioritize the activities The activity most important to the applicant goes first. It helps if it’s the most impressive and one your student participated in all four years (although a volunteer project might be a one-time event). If they’ve achieved or accomplished something most other applicants haven’t, it belongs here, at or near the top.

Mix up the types of activities. A three-sport varsity athlete will want to show that their work on a community service project or student government mattered to them by listing it in-between the various sports.

For each activity, an applicant will be asked if they plan to continue it in college. The answer should be YES for at least one, preferably in the top three. This in no way commits your student to participating once they’re on campus, but shows the activity was meaningful to them and their desire to get involved in college. Answering YES to more than one is fine, too, but no reason to go overboard. Colleges want students who will find and explore new interests, too.

Construct sentences carefully Use active verbs. Vary the first words for each activity. Include a personal achievement when possible, like MVP of the track team. Otherwise focus on the success of the group involved, such as being a member of the marching band that won the state championship.

Show leadership where possible. Students who weren’t officers of the group or captain of the team but participated by doing more than showing up for meetings, can highlight that. Running an annual fundraiser might qualify them as fundraising chair, or finding or welcoming new members can qualify as membership coordinator. The team’s coach or group’s advisor can help with this. A promotion of any type at their job belongs here, too.

Your student wants to keep in mind how this is going to read as part of the overall package they’re creating to tell a college about themselves.

Know what to keep off or to the bottom of the list Volunteer trips or summer programs that Mom and Dad paid for instead of ones that were free or fundraised for are less impressive because they imply your student was only able to participate because they could afford to. Volunteer or community service projects required for graduation matter more if your student took an active role and can offer a personal or insightful reason for choosing this particular assignment.

Your student should review their master high school resume or activity sheet and then determine which extra-curriculars belong on their application. The list can be customized for colleges that don’t use the Common App or Coalition application. Having the details and descriptions in one file, ready to transfer to the application, will make the activities section a quick and easy one to complete.

Share your tips on finalizing the activity sheet in the comments section below.

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Move-in Day Etiquette and Tips

Politeness + planning = a positive experience for all.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

The day you bring your freshman to college is an emotional one. There’s no hiding from that fact. Some parents will say it’s tumultuous and stressful, too. But by showing some basic courtesy and using common sense, you can make this a good day for everyone.

Remember your manners. Keep in mind that parents all over campus are in the same boat—wanting to make their freshman as comfortable as possible in this ridiculously small space that’ll be shared with a stranger, while trying to wrap their head around the fact that yes, this is really happening.

Move in Day2I’ve heard stories of parents who show up intent on ensuring their teen gets more than enough storage and closet space (is their such a thing in a college dorm room?), the best bed, the perfect spot for their mini fridge and, you get the idea. The reality is this isn’t just about your kid, or even for you to decide how this works.

“Remember this is your student’s temporary home,” explains Andrea Winchester, who went through the experience with her son and daughter. “Let them call the shots. They need to figure it out and learn to work cooperatively to share space and compromise with their roommates.”

Encourage your teen to be welcoming. It’s tough being the “new kid” when your roommates are already friends. One mom told me that when she and her freshman daughter arrived at the dorm room, the two roommates and their moms told them not to unpack because they had requested a room together and didn’t want a third roommate. Make sure you and your teen arrive with a cooperative mindset and, as I said above, some manners. College creates a perfect opportunity to learn that life doesn’t always go your way, or as planned.

Anne Verrastro, a mom who survived two freshmen move-in days, reminds parents to avoid setting the bar too high on the roommate-friendship experience. “Kids and parents have heard (or remember) such good stories about college roommates being friends for life, but that’s not always the case. It’s hard enough for kids who haven’t really had to make friends to go out of their comfort zone and work at making friends. It’s not a failure on their part.”

Do arrive at your designated time. Many colleges assign freshmen specific times to move in to prevent congestion. Do your part and show up when expected. Also keep in mind “it takes longer than you think to get moved in and in most cases, you likely need a full day,” says Catherine Ostheimer, a mom of twins who went to different colleges.

Remember, you will need time to go buy forgotten items or things you decided to purchase once you arrived.

Pack smartly. You can’t fit as much as you think in the dorm room, or your car/minivan/SUV.  So pack accordingly.

Move in Day1“Take things out of boxes before you go,” advises Verrastro. “It seems tempting to keep the fan and the fridge and the lamp in their boxes for easy packing, but when you’re unpacking, it’s time consuming to take so many things out of boxes. And the amount of cardboard and plastic. Plus it makes more room in the car!”

Also “have scissors and/or box cutters on hand. You will need them to open packages/boxes,” points out Ostheimer. She had shipped some items to her kids’ colleges in advance, which she doesn’t recommend. “We could have saved a lot of money in shipping if we would have just bought dorm items on the ground there. Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target had everything that was needed. They were crowded on the day before and the day of move-in, but they seemed ready for the crowds.”

I learned after my first move-in day with my daughter to order items like the comforter, sheets, towels, mirror, etc. from our local Bed, Bath & Beyond and then pick them up at the store near campus with my son his freshman year.

Verrastro recommends bringing cleaning supplies because the room may not be in move-in condition. “It wasn’t dirty, just dusty and needed a cleaning.” She doesn’t recommend buying a year’s worth of health and beauty supplies since her daughter brought home half of the Costco toothpaste package at the end of the year. “There’s almost always a CVS or Walmart or whatever near the school [if they run out].”

Stay calm. “Bring a ton of patience with you that day,” advises Winchester. “Emotions are running high and it is easy to snap at the frustrations you will undoubtedly encounter. Just go with it and remember this is hard for your student, too.”

Follow your teen’s lead. You can’t predict your teen’s mood, reactions and motivations that first day. All three moms advise keeping your emotions in check as your freshman decides how to navigate this new experience.

“Try to gauge the timing of when you should make your exit,” advises Winchester. “Don’t expect them to center all of their time on you and plan to have every meal with you. They may want and need to branch off with their roommate(s) and begin their journey.”


Photo credit: Lisa C. DeLuca

Each child is different. Some will need you to stay awhile and others will be ready for you to leave as soon as the bed is made and boxes unpacked.

Ostheimer recommends having that “last meal” the night before they move in to allow them to settle in with the other kids that first night in the dorm.

Exit gracefully. “Try not to have a preconceived notion of how your goodbye is going to be wise, insightful and full of emotion,” advises Winchester. “It might end up being a quick hug and they are gone.”

Do you have move-in day tips? Please share, especially if you’re fresh off the experience.

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Why Your Soon-to-be College Student is “Soiling the Nest”

And how to survive the experience.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

IMG_3538Maybe this is the scenario in your house this summer: Your child heads to college in the fall. Your relationship was never perfect, what parent-teenager one is, but somehow your kid’s turned into someone you hardly recognize. Everything you say is wrong, the sight of you makes him turn in the opposite direction and/or he spends so little time at home you’ve started wondering if he left for college without telling you.

This behavior has been coined “soiling the nest.” And it’s perfectly normal. “A teenager’s job is to become independent,” explains Lisa C. Deluca, LCSW, a therapist in private practice who sends her second child off to college this fall and is experiencing the phenomenon again. “When it’s time to go, there can be very mixed feelings. They want to go, they don’t want to go, they love you, they hate you, they’ll miss you, they hate themselves for missing you, they hate themselves for being scared to go. It’s all very confusing.”

Knowing it’s normal doesn’t always help.“I did understand it was a natural thing,” Elizabeth Larsen acknowledged, discussing the summer before her oldest headed to college, in England from their home in Minnesota. “But I expected him to be nervous in a way that would’ve looked more like a kid who was anxious and nervous.”

Like many soon to be college kids, Larsen’s son didn’t want help from either of his parents about anything, including planning for his first semester, and even started pushing back on simple things like being reminded to walk the dog. “It was hard because I wanted to get along with him and I wanted to spend a lot of time with him and that was really going at cross-purposes with what he needed to do to take on this big challenge,” she said. “So it was an uncomfortable summer. There was a lot more tension in the air. We bickered more than we had.”

Parents need to address their own feelings. Sure, we all know our role is to raise our children so they can launch, but it doesn’t make this point in life any easier. The reality is that our role as a parent is often tied to our sense of value.

“Parents who are afraid of their child growing away from them or whose self-esteem is dependent on their childrearing role might feel crushed, wounded and unappreciated,” says DeLuca. “But it’s not about you. Manage this on your own time so you don’t feel flustered when they are being difficult.”

The other aspect is facing what this moment means for your family. “I was very aware that this was it for him living for a really serious period of time in our house,” said Larsen. “So that’s why I think it was painful for me. I had wanted to be able to get along a little bit better.” With her son going to college abroad, Larsen also knew that she wouldn’t see her son again until the end of his first semester.

There are ways to make this transition work better. You really do have to put your own feelings aside to make this time bearable. “The worst thing you could do is either run after and try to control the child more as they distance, or reactively distance from them, i.e. punish them with silent treatment or withdrawal from them,” says DeLuca.

For some families, the best tactic is facing the issue head on. Instead of getting caught up in what you appear to be fighting about, DeLuca suggests parents “call attention to the communication: ‘It seems we’re not getting along lately. I wonder if it has anything to do with you leaving soon.’ This way you make the unconscious conscious and invite conversation about the real issues.”

Larsen said that approach wouldn’t have worked with her son. “If I sat him down and said, ‘Hey, you know, it seems like you’re really nervous,’ that wouldn’t have gone well.”

DeLuca’s solution in this case is to joke about it. “If the child insults you, say, ‘Wow, thank God you are leaving so you won’t have to put up with my obnoxious behavior anymore.’ Or ‘Thanks honey, I will really miss you, too.’ Or ‘It sounds like you are really ready to go.’”

Larsen and DeLuca agree that the key is reminding yourself it’s not personal. As DeLuca points out, “It’s developmentally appropriate.” But you will need a thick skin. “Do not allow them to be abusive or disrespectful, but stand still and let them emote.”

Parents have to remember to be respectful, too. DeLuca suggests avoiding arguing in the first place. “If they are complaining, ask, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ Or ‘What do you want us to do?’ It’s a lesson in their upcoming decision-making. Consider what they are saying and let them have it, if it’s fair. Stop thinking you all have to do things the way you always have. Things are changing.”

Avoid paying attention to parents who somehow aren’t experiencing this phenomenon. Though DeLuca says there isn’t a difference between how boys and girls get ready to launch, Larsen disagreed. “Some moms of daughters were like, ‘We’re just spending every last little moment together.’ Moms of sons, we were sort of over in a corner.” But she was able to laugh with her husband and her friends about their shared experience. “I didn’t handle it as well with my son directly,” she admitted.

“Smooth transitions are helped along by letting them know it’s good to go, you believe in them, you love them, you will be right here if they need you. That’s really the key message,” DeLuca adds.

Remember there’s an end in sight. Generally, this surliness doesn’t last once your child is on their way. “The moment they leave, if you already enjoyed a nice relationship with them, it will be back,” Larsen said. “They just need to get over that hurdle.”

Share your advice on dealing with a teen “soiling the nest” in the comments section below.

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What I Wish College Admissions Officers Understood

Teens are overwhelmed by a process that’s more complicated than it needs to be.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

I’ve been a private college admissions coach for over three years, and an essay coach for even longer. Year after year, working with my clients—all high school seniors—I see the challenges and fears they face going through the college admissions process. Anyone living with a college applicant knows what I’m talking about. But applying to college doesn’t have to be so anxiety-inducing. Here is what I wish everyone on the other end realized.

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They’re just kids. Really. The majority of them are only 17 when they apply, not old enough to vote, drive after 9 or join the military without parental consent. Yet they’re expected to make life-changing decisions right now—big decisions, like picking a career path and figuring out whether to take on some serious debt. All of this scares them. Their fear is too often disguised as procrastination, fooling even their parents. The possibilities college offers—independence, new friends, the opportunity to study what you’re most interested in—are the same things that make most teens afraid to move on from high school. On top of that, they’re worried about impressing you, the college admissions team. Cut them some slack. They’re not as pampered as they’re portrayed.

Your supplemental essays are harder than they need to be. I understand you’re trying to get to know your applicants beyond their test scores and activities, but their personal statement and additional info essay tell you a lot. It’s fair for you to ask, “Why our college?” to find out if they know why they’re applying or are actually interested in your school. What I don’t understand is why you need three or more supplements, too many with word counts beyond 150, that sometimes leave the student, their parents and even me struggling to figure out what you’re asking.

More applications need to allow students to share insight into who they are via alternative forms of communication. You’ve seen their social media. You know they express themselves in ways other than words. Consider giving applicants the option of responding to one or two of those supplemental essay prompts using a video platform.

You tease the unqualified when you encourage them to apply. I know you’re trying to boost your application numbers in order to make your college look more selective, but the average teenager doesn’t. Too many think you’re telling them they have a good chance of getting in when you know they have slim to none. Rejection hurts, especially after you’ve raised their hopes. Please, just go after the students who meet your admissions standards. There are plenty of them out there.

There’s actually a cost to your application fee waiver. Some of you who play the game of enticing the unqualified go a step further and waive the application fee. Sure, the student saves money on your fee, but what about the additional ones required to have test scores sent to your college? The SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Test, AP and IB all have a fee for this service. In addition to the financial cost, there’s the time it takes for the student to fill out yet another application if you don’t use the CommonApp, or your supplement if you do. They’re already over applying. Please don’t encourage them.

They don’t have a lot of time. How can they when they’re spending their days taking a rigorous course load that’s bogging them down with homework, participating in extra-curricular activities, volunteering and maybe working a part-time job because you tell them they need all these things to gain an acceptance letter to your college? They’re looking for leadership opportunities, another of your criteria, when we all know not every kid is or can be a leader. They’re staying up late, heading to the media center instead of the cafeteria and using their study hall to complete your applications, including the essays. And because of all the hype about selectivity, they’re applying to more and more schools, repeating the application process over and over again. There are only so many hours in their already-overloaded days.

Be more upfront. Many of you are encouraging, reassuring and supportive. As one admissions director I used to work with said to me, “We’re in the business of accepting students, not denying them.” Share that message with today’s high school seniors. Also clarify whether you want to know about their struggles with ADHD, anxiety, depression or a learning disability. They’re not sure, and are actually afraid you’ll use it against them, no matter how hard they’ve worked to succeed. Just as important, more clearly post your admissions guidelines on your websites, including the ranges for GPA and SAT/ACT scores, and how many students have been accepted outside of those ranges. You’ll help them know whether it makes sense to apply.

Their world is already stressful enough, please find a way to make applying to college less so. You’ll make the whole admissions process easier—for everyone.

To learn more about how I can help you and your teenager navigate the college admissions process, check out my Services page

Share your thoughts on the admissions process in the comments section below.

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Changes to your College Student’s Major

Whether it’s a discontinued program or course, or alterations to graduation requirements.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Maybe you’ve heard the complaint from your college student that a couple of the required courses for their major they’d planned on taking next semester aren’t being offered, which impacts their future semesters. Or your sophomore just learned that their major is being discontinued and they don’t know what that means for them. Or the one course they need to graduate isn’t a class anymore.

Though all this sounds bad, there are ways your student can still fulfill all their major requirements and graduate on time. Read on to learn more.

Colleges don’t make dramatic changes to curricula or majors randomly. Their goal remains a timely graduation for all their students.

CANCELLEDLarge cuts in state funding to public universities has caused many colleges to adjust how often they offer certain courses and evaluate the popularity and viability of specific majors in order to save money on resources, primarily faculty and classroom space. Despite these changes and adjustments, colleges focus on working with their students to meet the promise they made to each one of them upon admission.

Discontinued courses When removing a course from a major or a general education requirement, the department usually replaces it with an existing class or introduces a new one. If either of these options isn’t provided to your student, they can, with the assistance of their advisor, petition to substitute another course or have the requirement waived.

Infrequently offered courses A student can pursue the same options as with a discontinued course. The point is, if the college doesn’t offer a solution, it’s up to your student to request one.

Changes to graduation requirements Generally, a student’s graduation requirements coincide with the ones published in the course catalog their first semester. Curriculum changes only apply to future students using future catalogs. An upperclassman can choose to switch to the new requirements if they like the changes.

Discontinued majors Removing a program isn’t taken lightly by any college, but if it happens, the students already enrolled in the program are almost always allowed to continue and graduate within a reasonable amount of time, say five years. New students can’t enroll in the program and current ones might need to move to a different department.

Though it’s rare, occasionally a freshman shows up to campus to find out the program they signed up for is being discontinued. There are various reasons, such as retiring faculty or low enrollment in the major. In any case, your freshman will likely be allowed to complete the program, with intro courses available for only a limited time. If not, they’ll be diverted to a related major and possibly directed to a minor (or allowed to create their own), which, in combination, can practically recreate the original program they signed up for.

If your student can’t find a program they like at this college, they can transfer to another one for the spring semester or the following year.

Taking a proactive approach Colleges typically don’t make changes to programs without informing their students in a reasonable amount of time. So it becomes a student’s responsibility to stay informed. Here are the best ways for yours to do that:

  • Meet regularly with your adviser (at least once a semester).
  • Ask for a new adviser if yours isn’t helpful.
  • Read all your college emails, especially those from your adviser and department.
  • Declare a major (and minor) sooner rather than later to stay informed of changes.
  • Develop relationships with your professors who can work as allies when you face these unexpected issues.
  • Learn about the various support centers on campus, like the advising center and student services center, where you can get answers to your questions.
  • Get to know your academic department staff, especially those working in the office.
  • Do a degree audit no later than spring semester of junior year to check where you stand in terms of graduation requirements.

Share your thoughts and experiences with changes to programs and curricula with your college student in the comments section below.

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The 2017-2018 Common App Essay Prompts

The changes are small, but benefit your college applicant.

 By Anne Vaccaro Brady

The Common Application recently released its 2017-2018 essay prompts for high school students applying to college in the fall of 2017. As a college essay coach, I welcome the minor adjustments to last year’s prompts and the addition of two more. The Common App has made it easier for applicants to find a way to tell their story, which is the goal of the college admissions essay, after all.

If this is your first time through the college admissions process, here’s a very short primer about “the essay.” All colleges, whether or not they use the Common Application (700 do), require a student to write an essay as part of the application, creating an opportunity for your teen to share more about herself than her grades, class rank, SAT/ACT scores, and a list of extra curricular activities, information she’s already included elsewhere on her application. You can read more about the essay in my previous posts, The 411 on the College Essay, How to Help Your Child Tackle the College Essay and Lessons from a College Essay Coach.


IMG_0012.JPGWith the latest set of Common App essay topics, three of the five original prompts received slight makeovers, allowing for a broader interpretation and enabling more students to take advantage of them.

The sixth prompt seeks to find out what engages applicants, what they want to spend their time learning about—an interesting opportunity for thinkers and dreamers and those who like to ponder the possibilities.

Number seven marks the return of the “topic of your choice” and I cannot be more grateful. I’ve worked with many seniors who’ve written their essay but can’t figure out where it fits among the prompts. Part of my job is to help them determine that and edit accordingly, but this addition offers them the freedom to think outside the box and really shine.

The free topic also works for a student who’s written an essay for a class and believes it expresses who he is better than anything he could compose responding to a specific prompt. It will help teens given an assignment to write a draft of their admissions essay by their junior year English teacher without the prompts (in my experience, this happens often). In the case of seniors applying to colleges that don’t use the Common App and have a specific prompt for their essay, that piece can then be used for prompt seven.

In a post for the Huffington Post, Scott Anderson, Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application, writes about the essay prompt changes, explaining why they were made and how they will impact your student.


As he points out, this isn’t the time for juniors to write their essays, but to begin thinking about what they might like to write about. I suggest you encourage your teen to make notes of experiences, become more aware of what grabs her interest, consider what she cares about and maybe even do a little self-reflection.


The 2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts are below, with notations from the Common App on which prompts were revised, added or remained the same. To see the changes, check out the Common Application 2016-2017 Essay Prompts.

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]
  1. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
  1. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]
  1. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

Share your thoughts on the new Common App essay prompts in the comments section below.


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