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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College Major: Anthropology

A degree in anthropology opens graduates to a variety of career paths.

 A few months ago I read an article in Fortune magazine that featured this caption: “Hormel developed Rev, a new line of on-the-go-meals with input from its house anthropologist, who noticed that today’s students don’t put down their phones during meals.” The phrase “house anthropologist” jumped out at me.

This wasn’t the first time I’d read about anthropologists working for major corporations. Several years back, while on a beach vacation, I shared an article from the New York Times Magazine with my two teenagers about how cell phone companies were using anthropologists to help them design accessible devices for people in Third World countries. Ever since, I’ve found this college major fascinating for the knowledge it imparts, the skills it develops and the possibilities it avails in terms of career options.

marketWhat is anthropology? From the American Anthropological Association: “Anthropology is the study of what makes us human. Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience….”

Through its four main subfields, anthropology looks at our past, our biology, our social interactions, and the different ways we meet our human needs, communicate and even dress. Anthropology explores cultures and societies past and present.

What skill sets and interests do you need to major in anthropology and work as an anthropologist? It helps if a student enjoys research, writing and observing, core requirements in anthropology coursework, and is open-minded and shows a curiosity about people, places and cultures other than their own.

What should you study in high school to prepare for a major in anthropology? Classes in world history, geography, sociology, foreign language and biology will prove the most useful.

What are the main subfields of anthropology? There are four: archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology and biological anthropology.

stonehengeBy uncovering the objects of past societies and their cultures, archaeologists act as detectives, examining such objects as pottery and tools as well as human bones to understand the daily lives of people, figuring out how and what they ate, the diseases they contracted and use this research as a key to connect how humans lived and have changed over our long history.

Focusing on the cultural aspects of various human societies, learning how people around the globe live and react to the world around them, cultural anthropologists explore the differences and similarities between various societies. Anthropologists often travel to and live among different societies to conduct their research.

The key focus of linguistic anthropologists is human communication, studying how language influences the way people function and view the world, which explains how humans interact with and react to each other. They also investigate nonverbal communication, the evolution of language and the differences among languages.

In examining how humans and other primates have evolved and adapted to different environments in our history and throughout the world, biological anthropologists can provide answers to how we fight disease, human diversity and how we got here. This subfield is also known as physical anthropology.

What other subfields are there in anthropology? Forensic anthropology uses archaeological and biological anthropology skills to identify victims and find the cause of death in criminal cases and disasters. Medical anthropology focuses on the health and well being of people by studying the causes of illness and perceptions about acceptable forms of treatment in different cultures. museum2Business anthropology uses anthropological theories to solve business problems. Visual anthropology studies various forms of imagery to understand human behavior. Environmental anthropology looks at human interaction with the environment. Museum anthropology studies the role of museums in society, their history and how that role has evolved.

What career options are open to anthropologists? Research and academia are the traditional career paths for anthropologists, usually requiring an advanced degree. But outside of those areas, there are plenty of jobs in what is referred to applied anthropology. Graduates in anthropology possess the skills to work in journalism and communications, user experience, marketing, sales, business, child services, human resources, social work, government, public health, market research and more. To find out about all the career options in anthropology, visit job sites like careerbuilder.com and monster.com then search “anthropology” and see what comes up. You may be surprised.

Where to learn more about studying anthropology Go to the College Board’s Big Future site and click on the Explore Careers tab for information on colleges that offer anthropology degrees as well as some of the career options in this field. The American Anthropological Association lists colleges that award degrees in anthropology. Check out the anthropology pages on college websites to find more about the major, career options and review the course list.

Visit the sites below for more information on anthropology.
American Anthropological Society: this site covers everything you want to know about anthropology, including where to study it, the jobs available, information on fieldwork and research, and more.

Occupational Outlook Handbook: this government site provides info on median salary, job prospects, career requirements and more.

Share your thoughts and experiences about anthropology as a major and/or career in the comments section below.


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Take Advantage of FAFSA Changes

An earlier filing date, easier access to your tax info and more. 

By Anne Vaccaro Brady


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, is required by almost all colleges to qualify for need-based financial aid including scholarships, grants, loans and work-study. Federal financial aid is funded by the government but distributed through the college.

Note that merit-based aid, awarded for academic and other achievements, does not require FAFSA.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, there are some important changes to the FAFSA, including an application release three months earlier.

What the changes mean:

High school seniors can know the real cost of college before they apply The original opening date for FAFSA was January 1. With the new October 1 release date, high school seniors will have their expected family contribution (EFC) information as they begin to apply to college. This is the amount the student and their family are responsible for in terms of paying for college. Check each college’s website to learn if it commits to meeting a student’s full financial need.

Current college students can figure out next year’s aid sooner Now, almost a year in advance, college kids and their families will know what portion of next year’s bill they’re responsible for. This information will help students figure out how much they need to earn from a summer job or internship, and whether to get a part-time job during the academic year. Parents can begin looking more closely at their finances now to determine what, if anything, they can afford to chip in next year.

You use an earlier tax year With the new FAFSA, families no longer have to rush to complete their tax returns so that they can meet a college’s financial aid application deadline. The new FAFSA uses the prior, prior year’s return. For instance, the 2017-2018 academic year FAFSA, which can be filed in the fall of 2016, takes information from the student’s and the family’s 2015 tax returns. There’s even an online tool that downloads tax information directly from the IRS to the FAFSA application. Note that you and your student will still need copies of your tax returns on hand to confirm your adjusted gross incomes.

More time to file Every college has its own FAFSA deadline. With some deadlines as early as February or March, future and current students now have several months in which to complete their application in order to receive the maximum amount of aid.

A better chance of meeting state financial aid deadlines Many students are eligible for aid directly from their state, but that requires completing the FAFSA by a specific date. The earlier release makes it easier to meet state deadlines. Visit the FAFSA site to find your state’s deadline.

Changes in your financial situation in the past year won’t be included There is no place on the FAFSA application to explain that a parent lost a job, had to stop working due to illness, etc. In that case, students should contact a college’s financial aid office directly and explain that what’s on the 2015 tax return does not represent the family’s current financial situation. This seems to be the one downside of the new application.

Easier to file early By filing sooner rather than later, your student has the best chance of receiving the largest amount of aid, before a college has committed all of its funds to other students.

Share your thoughts on the FAFSA changes in the comments section below.


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Summer Wrap-Up for High School and College Students

Transferring summer college credits, converting SAT scores and more.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

This week’s post covers some of those loose ends parents and students face before high school and college begin again.


For college students
Transfer summer credits A student who took a course(s) over the summer at another college will need an official transcript sent to his home school to get those credits transferred. If the information on how to do this isn’t readily available on the visiting college’s website, your student can contact that school’s registrar’s office. While your student will receive credit for those summer courses, the grades will not count toward his GPA, though they will become a permanent part of his official transcript.

Accept financial aid To find out the portion of the college tuition bill your student (or you) is responsible for, she’ll need to review and accept her financial aid on her student account. If that aid includes a federal loan which she plans to use, she must complete the online entrance counseling and provide references before the loan can be credited to her account. The processing of the loan takes a few business days once the online paperwork is completed, so to ensure the college bill can be paid on time, your student should accept and complete the requirements for all financial aid at least two weeks ahead of the payment deadline.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConfirm graduation Your college senior is heading back to campus expecting to graduate next spring. Unfortunately, I’ve heard of college students who found out too late that they were short the credits or required courses they needed to earn their diploma as planned. Before your senior returns to college, review the requirements for his major and his transcript with him to see where he stands. He should also schedule an appointment with his adviser or the college’s graduation office (or both) for when he’s back on campus to make sure he’ll be wearing his cap and gown next spring.

A requirements and transcript review with your underclassmen is helpful, too. We did this with our son late in his freshman year, which he said helped him better manage his future class schedules. Understanding his prerequisites and seeing where he had flexibility made it easier for him to work with his adviser and stay on track to graduate in four years.

For high school students
Compare new and old SAT scores In March, the new SAT was launched and students who had taken both versions quickly learned that the scoring had changed, too. The old test was based on a 2400-point system, while the new one is out of 1600 points. The College Board, which issues the SAT, provides a score converter on its website. Colleges will continue to accept the old scores for a couple of years and convert them to determine a student’s best outcomes.

Request teacher recommendations Your senior’s guidance counselor must provide a recommendation for your teen for college, but your student will also need one from a teacher. Now is the time for her to reach out to one or two teachers via email or in-person requesting that recommendation. The most popular teachers receive the most requests, so your teen will want to get on those teachers’ lists now. If school isn’t in session, your student can try emailing her teacher(s), otherwise once school starts, she should ask in-person during the first week of classes. Once a teacher has agreed to write the letter, your student can put him on her recommender list on her Common App account and have the online form sent directly to the teacher.

IMG_0948Prepare for application season Hopefully your high school senior has finished the list of colleges where he plans to apply. Check out my post on finalizing the list for tips on how to do this if he’s still working on it.

Once the list is complete, he should check each college’s application deadline and which use the Common App, then gather the materials necessary to fill out the applications. His essay should be ready to go, too. He doesn’t have to start his applications right now, but keep in mind how much busier he’ll be once he’s back in school.

I find it helps to set a completion deadline for all applications, whether it’s really early, like Halloween, or a little later like Thanksgiving, or even New Year’s Day. Most students, and their parents, do best with a goal.

What did your high school or college student need to finish up before heading back to classes? Please share in the comments section below.


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Preparing Your Freshman for Life with a Roommate

The challenges of living with a stranger.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

A friend emailed me the other day worried about the fact that her soon-to-be college freshman appears to have nothing in common with the girl who will be her roommate. My friend is not alone. A normal concern among parents of resident college freshmen is whether their teen will get along with their roommate.

For some of us, we relive our own bad freshman roommate experience or recall the complaints we’ve heard from friends and family about their teens’ roommate conflicts. Sure, there’s always the risk of the roommate from hell, but it’s more likely that the two or four or six kids will find a way to live together, eventually. And that’s all they need to do.

Here’s how to help your student transition to life with a college roommate.

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Lower expectations A college roommate doesn’t have to be your teen’s best friend, and probably won’t be. That said, your freshman wants someone they can share space with, who they can talk to, feel comfortable around and not want to leave the room as soon as they walk in.

No matter what the arrangement, college dorm rooms are small spaces and living with a complete stranger in such cramped conditions means everyone will need to learn to compromise, including your teen. This is not home and unfortunately, no one on campus really knows how they function yet, like whether they need to talk about their day or keep that between them and their journal.

Hopefully all parties involved were honest when they filled out their roommate questionnaires. I remember a friend complaining when her daughter, normally a slob, checked the box for “neat.” Her reasoning: she didn’t want to end up with a messy roommate.

Understanding how colleges pair roommates Some colleges allow freshmen to pick their roommates, even setting up Facebook groups or directing students to apps where they can “meet.” Teens also find roommates at orientation, where they get to know each other, although briefly, in-person.

Colleges that pair freshmen use the roommate questionnaire and the experience of the residence life staff, or a computer program, to put teens together. At some of these schools, freshmen may not have the option to choose whom they live with.

Roommate contract Customized by each college, this contract helps prevent misunderstandings between roommates, covering important issues like study styles, noise tolerance, sharing of personal property, cleaning, visitors, overnight guests, privacy and more.

Resident Advisers (RAs) usually review the contract with all the students on the floor in advance, presenting sample scenarios for freshmen to consider. Roommates usually have only a week or two before they must complete, sign and turn in the contract. Addressing the important issues up front and early on can avert problems down the road. Remind your student honesty matters on this form, too.

The advantages of not picking your best friend If your teen and a good friend are heading to the same college in the fall, they may want to room together. Besides preventing both teens from moving out of their comfort zone and meeting new people, it can hurt their friendship as they learn that living with someone 24/7 is a lot different than just hanging out together. By living separately, they have another dorm room to go to when they need space or want to see a familiar face, plus they get to know each other’s roommates and make more friends.

Dealing with the bumpy moments Your freshman shouldn’t anticipate that they and their roommate won’t get along, because it’s more likely they will. Sure, they’ll have moments when they get on each other’s nerves, but that happens normally to people who live together. It helps when both roommates are willing to be introduced to new things like going to a concert for a band one of them has never heard of or trying a different topping on their pizza.

If your freshman starts running into issues with their roommate, remind them of these opportunities:

  • Campus is filled with students, so go out and meet them: in their dorm, in their classes, by joining clubs or checking in with the teens they met at orientation.
  • Their RA was a freshman once and has received training in conflict resolution to help roommates work through problems as they arise. The RA is a resource.

Also reinforce the idea of picking your battles. Because no two people do everything exactly alike, they must decide what’s worth addressing—the wet towel regularly left on the floor or the smelly food in the roommate’s garbage pail that doesn’t get emptied for days.

The bottom line Your teenager is about to embark on a new experience, living with a complete stranger for a long period of time—almost a year. No doubt it’s scary, but it can also be exciting. Remind them that their roommate is in the same boat. Getting to know each other and surviving their first year of college may ultimately bond them together.

Share your thoughts and advice on freshman year roommates in the comments section below.

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