The 2016-2017 Coalition and Common App Essay Prompts

Both application platforms have released their five essay topic options.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

IMG_0915You’re likely familiar with the Common Application (Common App), the online application used by more than 600 colleges. This year, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success (the Coalition) comprised of 90 colleges so far, has created another application, with 58 of its institutions accepting it for 2016-2017. Both applications require an essay. [More about the Coalition in a later post when the application goes live.]

A basic comparison The essay prompts for these two applications are different but aim to illicit similar responses. All admissions essays provide an opportunity for students to share a part of themselves not found anywhere else on the application. Essentially, it’s the place for your teen to show a college who he is beyond his grades, honors, awards and extra-curricular activities.

The Coalition strongly recommends applicants keep essays to less than 550 words. The Common App continues its 650 maximum word count and the prompts remain the same as last year because topics are reviewed every other year. Unlike the Coalition, each Common App prompt addresses a specific topic, meaning there is no “create your own” option.

A quick assessment As someone who works with high school seniors on their admissions essays, I can assure you that your teen can find a suitable prompt on both applications. Though the Coalition suggests that a student can complete a solid essay in only 300 words, in my experience, that’s rarely the case. Applicants should take advantage of the maximum word count.

Encourage your teen to review the prompts for both applications carefully before starting to type. Generally, it’s easier to write the essay working from a specific topic than trying to figure it out after the fact. Keep in mind that with Coalition prompt #5 being an open topic, a student can use her Common App essay for this prompt.

typingAnd the prompts are...

Coalition Essay

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  3. Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  4. What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Common App

  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.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. 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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.

To learn more about my work as a college essay coach, check out my Services page. 

Share your thoughts on the admissions essay prompts in the comments section below.

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Comparing Dual Majors, Dual Degrees and Concurrent Degrees

The factors your student must consider before choosing one of these options.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

On the many college tours I took with my kids, it seemed like every student guide was dual majoring or in a dual or concurrent degree program. Plenty of kids still study one major and others add a minor, but with all the talk about multiple majors and degrees, you may wonder, like I did, what they are and should your student go this route.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADual/Double Major A student picks two areas to study, which may or may not be related, like computer science/mathematics or English/business. The diploma will list both majors under one degree. Entering college with AP or IB credits can help a student manage the extra course load and graduate in a timely manner.


  • Some courses count toward both majors.
  • The combination can better prepare a student for a specific job/career path, for e.g.: studying biology/education to teach science upon graduation.
  • Strengthens time management skills.
  • Helps a student reach a specific goal after college.
  • Creates career options.
  • Allows a student to pursue his passion in one area and study another related to a chosen career path.


  • Some colleges/programs don’t allow courses to overlap, doubling a student’s course load.
  • The extra classes can require an additional semester or two in order to complete both majors.
  • An employer might view the graduate as unfocused or someone who couldn’t make up his mind.
  • Additional semesters raise the cost of a degree and scholarships are often limited to four years.
  • The return on investment may not add up.
  • Often requires summer classes to graduate on time.
  • The heavier class- and workload can limit a student’s opportunity to intern, participate in extra-curriculars and/or socialize.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADual Degree A student looks to earn two bachelor’s or two master’s degrees simultaneously. The degrees are in different areas, departments and/or schools of a college. A student receives a diploma for each degree.


  • Better prepares a student entering a new field or trying to create a unique career path.
  • Employers might be impressed by the work ethic and the extensive knowledge base.
  • Both degree programs can require the same general education/core courses.
  • Enables a student to avoid paying full price for each degree.
  • Plus the other advantages of a dual major mentioned above.


  • Usually unable to overlap courses.
  • Can be more expensive than earning one degree, especially if the college limits how many credits a student can take each semester.
  • Must work with two different departments or schools within the university whose credit requirements may not align.
  • Scheduling the right courses in the correct sequence is more challenging with two programs, especially unrelated ones.
  • Limited opportunity to take electives outside areas of study.
  • Almost impossible to graduate in four years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConsecutive/Combined/Accelerated Degree I explained this degree program in a previous post, in which a student works toward a bachelor’s and master’s degree or a bachelor’s and doctorate degree in less time than if she pursued them separately. Essentially, the senior year of the bachelor’s program is comprised of the first year of graduate or doctorate courses, which count toward both degrees. A student receives an undergraduate degree after four years, then the advanced degree a year or two later depending upon whether it’s a master’s or a doctorate.


  • Cuts a year off the time it takes to earn an undergrad and advanced degree.
  • Saves money.
  • Leads a student to start on a career path sooner.
  • Increases a grad’s marketability as she enters the job market with an advanced degree in hand.
  • Don’t have to commit to the program until junior year.
  • Eliminates the need to take graduate school entrance exams.


  • Once committed, a student must complete the advanced degree at the same college.
  • Includes a heavier course load.
  • Limits the opportunity to change career paths, especially if degrees are geared toward a specific profession.
  • Leaves little room to fit in courses outside the major.
  • Same professors likely teaching courses for both degrees, reducing exposure to other perspectives.

I’ve known students who’ve chosen these major and degree options, and generally, those who’ve had the most career success focused on making themselves more marketable and understood their post-graduate options. They found ways to intern for credit, took advantage of opportunities to overlap courses and balanced their course loads with a life outside the classroom.

If your student is considering a multiple major or degree program, he should visit the career services office early on to determine the real advantages of taking this path.

Share your advice and experiences with pursuing more than one major or degree in the comments section below.

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College Admissions News Roundup

The latest on searching for colleges, taking a gap year, paying for college and navigating academic probation. 

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinding and applying to colleges On her My Kid’s College Choice blog, Wendy Nelson shares the lessons she learned about the college admissions process going through it the second time. Like most of us, she found it less scary, but as different as the two children she experienced it with.

A big issue for parents of college applicants concerns whether their teenager will find a job with a living wage after graduation. Lynn O’Shaughnessy discusses how to measure college grad salaries in her post on her College Solution blog.

The National Association of College Admissions Counselors provides a free college prep checklist for juniors and seniors that parents and teens can review together.

Considering a gap year With Malia Obama announcing she’ll take a gap year (a year off between high school and college) before heading to Harvard in the fall of 2018, families with high school students across the country have begun discussing this option. A couple of recent articles provide helpful info:

For the New York Times Well column, KJ Dell’Antonia writes about the long-term benefits of a gap year.

On the U.S. News & World Report Education blog, Varsity Tutors offers application strategies for students who plan to apply to colleges during their gap year.

FAFSAPaying for college The magic number is eight. For those of you just starting the college planning process, check out Michelle Kretzschmar’s list of eight things parents must know about paying for college on her DIY College Rankings blog.

Debbie Schwartz explains the eight financial aid mistakes to avoid when figuring out the real cost of college and how to pay the bill on Road2College.

Also on Road2College, review this chart that illustrates the FAFSA Expected Family Contribution (EFC) based on family income.

Reviewing the 2016-2017 essay prompts Both the Common App and the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success have released their essay prompts for this year’s college applications. Learn more about the Coalition, a new player in the college application game, on their website and in this article on Inside Higher Ed by Scott Jaschik.

deskManaging academic probation Vicki Nelson of College Parent Central explains what it means when a college places your student on academic probation and how parents can help their child get back on track.

Share articles you’ve found helpful in the comments section below.

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Taking a Summer College Course

The who, what, where, why and how on summer college courses.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter finishing up freshman year, you may think the last thing your college student wants to or should do is hit the books again. But taking a college course over the summer comes with many benefits. Read on to get more details.

Why take a summer class Students choose studying over the summer for a variety of reasons:

  • To complete a tough course when they have time to focus on it exclusively.
  • To accelerate the road to a degree, hopefully saving time and money by graduating a semester or year early.
  • To open up room in a homework heavy fall schedule.
  • To make it easier to work toward a dual major or add a minor.
  • To earn a better grade in a class already taken.
  • To stay on track to graduate on-time when transferring colleges.

What to take General Education courses transfer easiest between institutions, so students should focus on these classes when deciding what to sign up for.

Summer sessions run anywhere from 3 to 10 weeks. Intensives require students to attend class every day for a set period of time, usually three or four weeks. This option is ideal for kids who don’t want to spend their whole summer working on a course, have a job or internship starting later in the summer, or can fit in a daily class around their work schedule.

Teens who can’t make it to the classroom should consider online courses. Some classes include a weekly online meeting time, but others allow students to progress at their own pace as long as they complete the coursework by the end of the session.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere to take a summer course Students who have a reason to stay on campus—they have a job lined up there for the summer and/or have to pay rent for an apartment—should seriously consider taking a class at their own college. But it’s important to do the math before picking this option.

Most college summer courses are open to students from other institutions. Generally, community colleges offer the cheapest price per credit, followed by public universities, then private colleges.

When researching colleges near home, students must first check which ones have the course(s) they want to take during the summer session in order to compare and pick the campus that best suits their needs in terms of cost, schedule and location.

How to take a summer class If possible, students should check with their college adviser to find out which courses will transfer from another school. also provides this information.

Then they should search “visiting,” “transient” or “guest student” on the websites of nearby colleges for information. The results will lead to directions on how to apply and register for a class (expect a fee to complete both steps) and provide a link to the summer course catalog.

An application acceptance can take a few hours or a couple of days. (Follow up if it’s taking longer.) Once accepted, students receive instructions on how to log in to register for classes, pay for credits and access their campus email.

To prove that a prerequisite class, such as English Composition 1, was completed, guest students can usually share an unofficial copy of their current transcript, which they can download from their home college student account page.

As long as the prereqs are met, students can register on their own online or in-person, no adviser required.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWho to see for help For problems registering online, the summer session office or admissions department should be able to help.

Issues with payments can be resolved at the bursar’s office. Note that financial aid is rarely available for guest students.

Before buying course materials on campus, students should compare prices with online retailers for textbooks.

Besides the professor, coursework help is available via the college’s tutoring services, even for visiting students.

Transferring summer credits When their class wraps up, students can fill out a transcript request form, usually available online, to have their summer grades and credits sent to their home school.

Share your advice and experiences with summer college courses in the comments section below.

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Putting Together a Parent Brag Sheet

Your chance to share what others don’t know about your teen, but should.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Every spring high school guidance departments send parents of juniors a questionnaire called the Parent Brag Sheet, explaining that the student’s counselor will use the responses to write a recommendation for college. If you received one and, after reviewing it, thought your teen’s counselor should know all this information, you’d be wrong.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the national average of student-to-school-counselor ratio is 491:1. With numbers like that, it becomes apparent why your teen’s counselor cannot know him as well as you do.

This means your answers to these questions matter. As one parent of a high school junior recently told me, the counselors at her son’s school are known to use the words on this form verbatim.

How to answer Whether the Parent Brag Sheet says it or not, the school counselor is looking for anecdotes to sprinkle throughout the recommendation, so make sure to provide some.

Remember, this is not an activity sheet or high school resume, but information that can be inserted into a recommendation letter. Write in full sentences instead of bullet points; one or two short paragraphs per question. Your responses should also include details about your student that can’t be found elsewhere, and/or expand upon the details provided on your teen’s activity sheet/high school resume.

Be positive. Instead of writing “John may not be the smartest kid in his class,” say “John works harder than most students to maintain his B average.”

How to answer these commonly asked questions:
volleyballWhat do you consider to be your child’s outstanding accomplishments during the past three or four years? Why did you select these as important? This is often the first question on the brag sheet. You can use items from your student’s high school resume and enhance what you choose to highlight. For example, your daughter was named captain of the volleyball team in junior year. Great. But was it based on her athletic abilities or leadership skills, or both? Was she picked by the coach or voted in by her teammates? Maybe your teen is on the student council that worked to change a school policy. Also consider accomplishments outside of school, whether in the community or your own family.

In answering the second question, emphasize how these accomplishments represent who your child really is and why she’d be an asset to a college.

In what areas has your child shown the most development and growth during the past three or four years? This is a good place to include your teen’s increased commitment to his academics, especially if his grades have improved steadily since he was a freshman or sophomore, and/or he began adding honors/AP/IB classes in the last year or two. But there are other areas to highlight as well.

Use examples of your teen showing maturity whether at home, school or in the community. Did your student start helping his younger siblings with their homework when Mom or Dad works late? Has he developed stronger relationships with his teachers or taken the initiative to ask for help, which is reflected in his improved grades and self-confidence? Maybe he finally overcame his shyness and signed up for a club or sport he’s been interested in and puts all his effort into it because he enjoys it so much.

Are there any unusual or personal circumstances that have affected your child’s education or personal experiences? Use this question to address the impact of a parent’s job loss, family crisis (like a divorce, serious illness), move to a new town and school, etc. The counselor and colleges need to understand the challenges your child has dealt with during her high school years. If not asked anywhere else on the brag sheet, take advantage of this space to address learning or other disabilities your student faces. Do not feel you must answer this question if your family has been lucky enough to avoid serious challenges.

What five adjectives best describe your child? Take some time to really think about this. Your first reaction might be words like smart, respectful and athletic, but what about motivated, independent, kind, humble, mature, courageous, self-disciplined, independent thinker, humorous, resourceful, etc? Some brag sheets ask you to explain your answers, so choose words you can support with specific examples.

DSC05415.JPGIs there any other information you would like to share that was not covered above? Here you can provide examples that illustrate the side of your teen you feel most people miss, like his sense of responsibility or the fact that he’s a good friend or his commitment to the pee-wee soccer team he helps coach.

The bottom line on the brag sheet As parents, we know our children better than anyone and here’s the chance to let everyone else in on what makes our kids special.

Share your advice and experiences on the parent brag sheet in the comments section below.

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The Other Factors to Consider When Exploring Colleges

Beyond prestige and ranking are the practical issues.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

In previous posts, I’ve covered what makes a good college for your student, and how to pick a college. But there are some overlooked elements about a school that can greatly impact a student’s experience. Take these into account as your teen begins to research colleges.


The program Learn about whether the major your student plans to study is established or brand new at a college. New programs sometimes take awhile to get fully staffed with course offerings limited the first year or two. Also find out if there’s any chance the program will be eliminated in the near future or if there have been any recent cutbacks. Read about the faculty and review the course list for the program at each school to compare them.

Also check out if a school offers an accelerated degree program in which a student earns his bachelor’s and graduate degrees in tandem, saving at least a year’s tuition and cutting off a couple of semesters of classroom time, while not diminishing his education.

Grad school Besides learning whether a college has an accelerated degree program, find out how many students go on to graduate school and where. If your student anticipates taking this path, she’ll want a college that can help her get there.

Certification issues For students interested in careers that require certification, such as teaching, it makes the most sense to look at colleges in the state where you plan to work because the exams are specific to that state. Colleges generally don’t prepare their students for another state’s requirements. I know several graduates who found themselves delayed in finding a full-time job because of this issue.

Merit/academic scholarships The most competitive colleges provide need-based aid and usually nothing more because they attract large numbers of high-achieving applicants. On her Road2College website, Debbie Schwarz explains how to find colleges that offer merit scholarships. Always check out if scholarships are for one year or guaranteed for four.

Academic calendar The majority of American colleges are on a semester system (two 15-week sessions), but some follow a trimester (three 10-week sessions) or quarter system (same as the trimester, but with an optional 10-week summer session). Though there are positives and negatives to each system, be aware that students not on the semester system tend to leave later for campus in the fall and return home later in the spring, putting their schedule out of sync with most of their friends. Finishing up in June instead of May can also put them at a disadvantage in gaining summer employment or an internship, or getting that first job after graduation.

Internship opportunities We all know that experience plays a key role in finding a job these days. Internships provide experience and help students decide if they’ve chosen the right career field. Your teen might want to look for colleges that require internships or emphasize that they assist students in securing one. Also explore the quality of a college’s alumni network.

college dorm1Housing It’s not just about the aesthetics and the age of the dorms, but about whether they’re co-ed (most are these days), and if that’s by room or floor. How comfortable is your student with communal bathrooms and does he want one roommate or several? Most colleges offer living-learning communities, residences where students share similar majors or a focus, and activities are designed around their interests. Some students prefer living with like-minded teens, but others want to create their own social experience. Also note if a college guarantees housing after freshman year.

The college town Colleges don’t all have to be in the heart of a major city or close to one, but there should be a community nearby where your student can find a store to buy her favorite snacks, pick up a tube of toothpaste, purchase an iTunes card or go bowling. My nephew attends a college where he and his friends ride their bikes into town to shop, eat or just get a change of scenery. It also helps when there’s cheap or free transportation to bring students on and off campus.

Aesthetics Some kids look for a school where all the buildings are shiny and new while others like the old stone covered in ivy. Some want the pastoral campus that includes a quad with lush green grass and trees lining intertwining walkways, and others prefer a college that’s clearly part of a city. Understand how these differences can shape your student’s experience.

The weekend Certain residential colleges can be considered commuter campuses because so many kids go home on weekends, making it a ghost town for the ones who stick around on Friday and Saturday. Make sure your teen understands the personality of a campus—this might mean talking with current or former students to learn the real deal.

amtrakTransportation Depending upon how far away your student wants to go to college, access to buses, trains and/or airplanes can be very important. If you don’t have the flexibility or ability to bring your kid to and from college during breaks, your student will need one of these transportation options, or at least a decent ride-sharing program.

Houses of worship If practicing her faith is important to your teen, she’ll want to find a college that gives her easy access to services either on or near campus. Even religious affiliated colleges, like Georgetown, have services and student organizations for many faiths. This information should be readily available on a college’s website.

Please share your thoughts on overlooked factors to consider when exploring colleges.

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Paying for College After Freshman Year

Where to find money for year two and beyond.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

Yes, your family found a way to pay your freshman’s college tuition bill, which might have  included using one-and-done local scholarships, Grandma’s contribution to the 529 account and/or cashing in your kid’s savings bonds. Now your family is wondering where you’ll find the money for sophomore year. Read on for suggestions on ways you and your student can save on college costs and where to make extra money to help pay the bill. None of it involves raiding your retirement account; a definite no-no.


Your student
Apply to be an RA: Resident assistants (RA) for campus housing receive free room and board at most colleges. Yes, the position comes with a lot of responsibility, and your student will be one of the first back to campus and the last to leave, but that’s worth the $8,000-$13,000 in savings.

Become a TA or research assistant: Students who do very well in a class may be asked to serve as a teaching assistant (TA) in that class next semester. Sometimes there’s a stipend, but more often undergraduate TAs receive credits. If your student can handle the time commitment, she’ll earn “free” credit toward graduation as well as develop a strong relationship with her professor whom she’ll need for a grad school recommendation.

Undergraduate research assistants usually receive a stipend because professors obtain funding for their research. In addition to making money and establishing a stronger relationship with a professor, your student will hopefully be working in her program of study, gaining valuable experience.

Eat, sleep and park cheaper: Off-campus living almost always costs less than college housing. With my own kids, we saved a few thousand dollars each year. Let your student make the move sophomore year.

If your undergrad plans to (or must) stay on campus, he should choose a dorm with a lower price tag than where he lived freshman year, even if it means moving a little further away from his academic buildings. Along with saving money, he’ll build in a daily cardio workout.

Picking a cheaper meal plan makes sense for kids who didn’t use up all their points/blocks/meals freshman year. Make sure your student checks his fall semester schedule to determine if he’s really going to make the effort to hit the dining hall three times a day.

Students who commute to campus or have a car at college should look into a less expensive parking spot, probably in an outer lot. Make sure the lot is well lit and in a safe area. Off-campus housing can come with free parking at the complex or free or permit-based on-street parking.

Reconsider sending your student back to college with a car. The savings on insurance, gas, servicing, parking, etc. can all be applied toward tuition payments.

Work for a semester Some colleges offer their students Co-operative Education (Co-op) experiences. These paid, semester-long internships allow students to work full-time in their field of study while earning money to help pay for their next semester.

Take advantage of student discounts That student ID card can be the ticket to cheap or free tickets to movies, concerts, sporting events, museums, etc. on and off-campus. Students can also save at national retailers like J. Crew and Banana Republic, among others. Encourage your student to check her college’s website for a complete list of discounts.

Spend less on textbooks Next year, forget buying textbooks via the campus bookstore. Get smart and go the rent-a-book route or purchase from an online retailer to save some serious money.

College graduation stock photoGraduate early Obtaining an undergraduate degree in three years instead of four can add up to big savings. Taking advantage of AP/IB credits earned in high school, signing up for summer classes at your local community college and/or fitting in an extra course online can all help a kid with limited funds save a year’s tuition. Students should also consider an accelerated degree program that allows them to earn their bachelor’s and master’s/doctorate degrees in a shorter timeframe.

Convert to a student bank account These types of  bank accounts have lower minimum balance requirements and often no fees unless you go over the maximum number of ATM withdrawals or other transactions.

Look for scholarships/grants for upperclassmen Colleges often offer specific financial awards for upperclassmen based on grades, program of study, accomplishments in their major, etc. Check the college’s financial aid page as well as your student’s academic department page to find these awards.

Find a job on or off-campus My kids didn’t qualify for work-study, but in her junior year my daughter found a non work-study job on campus by searching her college’s job board, which your student should, too.

When there’s nothing available on campus, look to businesses around a college, which hire students during the school year. It helps if your kid can be around during breaks. 

Inform your car insurance company that your student is away at college You will receive a discount during those months your undergrad is on campus. Also, share your student’s GPA with the insurance company because some give discounts for honors students.

Pencil and calculatorContact the financial aid office This is especially important if your family’s been hit by a job loss or medical setback that will prevent you from providing the same support as you did freshman year. You’ll report your status change  on your FAFSA, but it’s helpful to talk to a live person with whom you can explain your unique circumstances.

Fill out FAFSA in October Take advantage of the earlier FAFSA filing date to learn what your EFC will be for the next school year. Knowing your expected contribution so soon will help your family better plan how to pay for college next year.

Put savings into a 529 account Place any money realized from the above suggestions into a 529 college savings account, which can reduce your state income taxes depending upon where you live. And, of course, use the refund you receive on your taxes to help pay next year’s tuition.

Share your advice and experience on helping your student pay for college after freshman year in the comments section below.

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