Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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Junior Year Checklist: 10-Step Action Plan to Prepare for College

Copy of Junior Year Checklist 10-Step Action Plan to Prepare for CollegeThe other day I was at lunch with two of my favorite college counselors, Betsy Bell (in Wilton, Connecticut) and Jennifer Soodek, owner of Head 4 Success in Westport, Connecticut, when we started talking about what high school juniors can be doing now to start planning for college.

The answer is plenty.

Junior Year Checklist: An Action Plan to Prepare for College


1.  Create a Common Application account. When you create your account, you have a choice of checking “applicant planning to enroll in the next 12 months” or “other.” Check “other.” (Although, Betsy and Jennifer assured me that if you check “applicant planning to enroll in the next 12 months” you’ll be fine—this is only for Common App record keeping, so it’s not a problem if you don’t click “other.”)

2. Fill Out Your Application. After you create a Common Application account, you can fill out most of the application. You can’t enter your GPA or your senior classes yet, but you can fill out the rest.

Tip: When you’re filling out your activities, remember to pretend that it’s September and that you’re filling them out as a senior, not as a junior.

3. Brainstorm Topics for Your Common Application Essay. If you have time, you can start writing your Common App essay now. Otherwise, start writing when school ends and aim to finish before senior year starts. You can find all the Common Application essay prompts here.

4. Get to Know Your Essay Supplements. In the Dashboard section of the Common App, enter the colleges you’re interested in and look at last year’s supplemental essay questions. (Most colleges haven’t published their new supplemental questions yet, but many keep the same questions.) If you visit, ask about the current questions. If you’re not visiting and want to know, call the admissions office.

5. Visit Colleges. Schedule a tour and an on-campus interview. (Even if it’s just informational, you want to make contact with a college rep and start to let them get to know you.) Walk around (take time by yourself if you can manage it) and imagine yourself as a freshman on campus. Say hi to students on campus and ask them what they like about the school and what surprised them when they arrived on campus. Get a feel for the atmosphere, the culture and the students. Take notes about what you like and don’t like and collect the business cards of all the people you talk to on your trips—you may want to contact them later if you have more questions.

6. Email Your Schools. Begin to contact all the colleges you’re interested in. Contact them through Naviance or email them from each college’s web site. If you work with Naviance, it makes it very easy to do.

When you send your email, introduce yourself and ask questions that will require an admissions person to answer, so you don’t get an auto reply response. You can ask questions such as: Will you be the reader of my application? If I submit my application early, will it be read early and will I receive a decision notification early? I want to get a head start on my supplements, so could you tell me if your supplemental questions will be the same for my class as they were for the previous year? Will you be visiting my high school in the fall? If you will be visiting could you please email me your visiting date?

Tip: Include your email, cell number, phone number and address in the body of the email so the school has all your contact information and they know how to reach you.

7. Get Your Testing Done by the End of Junior Year. Leave the fall for any additional testing you want to do. Plan to take each test twice.

8. Arrange for Recommendations. Decide which teachers you want to ask for recommendations and ask if they’d be willing. Your recommendations should come from teachers in your sophomore or junior year academic classes—these will be the teachers who know you. 

Ask your teachers now, in the spring. Set up an appointment to talk to each teacher; it’s not only polite, but it will also give you the chance to tell the teacher what you’re like outside of class.

Do you need your recommendations early? If that’s the case, ask your teachers about their time frame and if they would be willing to write a recommendation over the summer. You’ll need them early if colleges have rolling admissions or if you’re applying certain places early decision. For instance, Wake Forest is rolling ED, so if you send in an application July 1 you’ll learn by August if you’re admitted.

9. Know if You Have Extra Application Requirements. If you’re an athlete or an artist, be aware that there are additional levels of preparation necessary to apply to college. Actors and musicians may need to schedule auditions, athletes may need to meet with coaches, and artists may need to submit portfolios. Know how that will affect your time frame for preparation. Also make sure to know exactly what’s required—for instance, if you need to submit a portfolio, ask what that portfolio should contain.

10. Finish Junior Year Strong. Colleges will be looking at your success (or lack of success) junior year. Don’t give them anything to dock you for, especially a poor marking period. Finish strong.

Related post:
4 College Admissions Myths Debunked
Why It’s Important to Know Your College Rep


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. We work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


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Questions to Ask About College Services for Learning Differences

Guest blogger: Joanna NovinsQuestions to Ask About Colleges' Disability Services

I’m a professional writer and analyst by training, but the challenges facing students with learning differences is a topic that is near and dear to my heart; I teach writing to students with learning differences and I am the proud parent of a smart, successful, and highly independent college student with a learning difference.

The information contained in this article is derived from interviews with administrators and disabilities professionals from a range of colleges including Union College, Williams College, Adelphi University, University of Connecticut, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI); and with LD students.

Students with Learning Differences – What You Should Know (Or Ask) When Applying to Colleges

Applying to colleges involves a lot of research, and questions like the kinds of programs a school offers, its academic philosophy or mission, its academic and social reputation, and the size and location, culture and feel, to name but a few. But if you’re a student with learning differences, or the parent of a student with learning differences, there are even more questions you should be asking.

First, Know Your Rights.

Students with learning differences are protected against discrimination in colleges and universities by the Americans with Disabilities Act and its subsequent amendments. The law requires that an LD student’s accommodation’s file be reviewed and that professors be informed that they have a student requiring accommodations in their class. When applying to college, it’s important to understand how different schools handle this process.

Whom Should You Talk To?

While the admissions officers I spoke to were eager to help, I found the majority weren’t particularly well-informed about disability services and often immediately routed me to a college disabilities office or center. (In one instance I was routed to an administrator who no longer worked at the school.)

Your best bet is to check the campus website for an office providing disability or student support services and start your research there. For the best response, I’d advise against calling during lunch time…

Be sure and ask about the background of the person you’re speaking with; just because a school has an office or center for disability support services, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s staffed by professionals (you may be talking to a student) or by people with a background in special education.

Who Should Call (Or, When is it Okay to be a Helicopter Parent)?

In general, when applying to colleges, admissions officers prefer that students make the call because they want to know it’s the student who is interested in their school, not the parent, and because they want to know that they’re dealing with a student who is able to operate independently.

In the case of disability programs, however, I found that while college disability professionals were delighted to speak with students, they preferred to speak with the parents. As one noted, “I’m impressed when students call, but they don’t always know what information to ask for.” Parents are usually better informed about their student’s learning differences and current accommodations and know what support services to ask about.

When It’s Not Okay to Be a Helicopter Parent.

Bear in mind, that after a student is admitted to a college or university and is registered as having a disability that requires accommodations, it’s up to the student to self-identify and ensure that appropriate accommodations are in place. (If a student doesn’t come in to the disabilities office and ask for the accommodations, nothing happens.) This is a point administrators repeated and that I’ll repeat throughout this blog. Most colleges cannot, or will not, speak to parents about academic issues or problems with accommodations; indeed, the University of Connecticut requires students create a list of people the school is permitted to disclose information to—it’s up to the students to put one, or both parents on the list. [1]

What Should You Ask? (Or, What I Asked)

I started by asking administrators how many LD students they had registered. I found that not every school had that information easily at hand, but when they, did roughly 10% of the student body was registered. Shelly Shinebarger, a disabilities professional and Director of the Accommodative Services Office at Union College, estimated that 200 of the college’s 2000+ students are registered as learning disabled. A staff member at UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities estimated that 3000 of their over 30,000 students are registered, noting that the number is “increasing dramatically every year.” A staff member at Adelphi University estimated that about 400 of their 5000+ member student body were registered. Williams College’s Director of Accessible Education, G.L.M. Wallace, had no solid numbers, but also estimated that 10% of the college’s 2000 students have learning differences.

However, when I asked how many of their registered students were self-identified, the numbers dropped precipitously. Shelly Shinebarger said, “This year I have about 35 students, of them about 20 or 25 have contacted me.” UConn’s representative said, “We have some students who are registered but who’ve never used the accommodations, others who register and seek regular support.”

Both administrators stressed that the level of support a school provides depends on how actively the student seeks it out.  

I’d add, however, that the level of support a school provides also depends on the school’s willingness and ability to commit resources. As Shelly Shinebarger pointed out, “It does make a difference what school you apply to—private schools are smaller and more personal, but have fewer resources. Larger schools have more resources, but you may be just a number to them.”

Ask About Numbers and Do the Math:

Shinebarger said that she has one part-time social worker and a part-time resident director (a young professional who works about 10 hours a week), as well as one or two seniors who typically have learning disabilities. Shinebarger matches the seniors with the students and then encourages them to meet weekly (basically executive function coaching). (Remember, that’s for roughly 200 registered students, 25-35 self-identified.) Williams College, which is in the process of revamping its program, employs a director, an assistant, and two students.

In contrast, a student employee who described UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities said that the center has six case managers, professional staff members, a project manager, office manager, exams coordinator (all students requiring extended time on exams take them at the Center, unless they negotiate different accommodations with their professors), a technology manager, interpreter coordinator, as well as strategy instructors tailored to each student’s needs. (Basically, that’s 6 case managers for 3000 students; assuming 300 self-identify, that’s 6 for 300.) She encouraged me to check out the Center’s website, which is impressive. UConn is less expensive than a private school like Union, but if you look at the Center’s website, some of the services, such as strategy instructors, require additional fees.

Every LD student is different, so be sure to ask about specific services, including:

  • What mechanisms the college uses to determine appropriate accommodations
  • What means they have of providing these accommodations
  • What mechanisms they provide the student to keep professors informed of his/her accommodations
  • Whether the accommodation letter system is online or manual, and if is there a “reminder system” for students

Helpful Links for Services for Students with Learning Disabilities:

Rensselaer Disability Services for Students (DSS)
Union College Accommodative Services Office
Adelphi University Disability Support Services
Williams College Disability Support Services
UConn Center for Students with Disabilities

[1] For more information about student and parental rights, look into The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). FERPA is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

Joanna NovinsJoanna Novins holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She is an independent writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting, teaching college essay writing to students of all abilities.




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Applying to College: Why It’s Important to Know Your College Rep

Why Its Important to Know Your College RepThe parents of a student just called me. Their son was accepted to most of the colleges he applied to, even one of his reach schools. The problem? He was wait listed at a college they thought would be an easy acceptance and now it’s THE place he wants to go.

I was asked to read his letter of continued interest. (A letter of continued interest tells the school you still want to attend and why.) The letter was addressed “Dear Admissions Committee.”

I asked them to address the letter to their local admissions counselor. They didn’t know who that was.

So I asked if the student had interviewed when he visited.

“The school said the interview was only informational,” said his dad. “So we just took the tour and went home.”

By never contacting his admissions representative, the student missed a big opportunity.

Imagine if, in his letter, the student could have mentioned how he had enjoyed his interview or reminded the rep about something interesting they’d talked about. Instead, he hadn’t made a connection at all.

Your local college admissions counselor is the person who will read your application and recommend whether or not to accept you. This is the person who will fight for you (or not fight for you) when the admissions committee discusses your future.

Developing a relationship with your local college admissions representative is one of the easiest things you can do when you’re applying to college.


1. Attend College Fairs. If a college fair is held in your area or at your school, make plans to go.

Tips for making a good impression at a college fair:

  • Dress nicely.
  • Arrive early to avoid long lines.
  • Be mature. Go up to the admissions counselor and introduce yourself. Make eye contact and be the first to offer a handshake. Let him or her know that you’re interested in their school.
  • Be prepared with a few questions. (Do they offer the courses you’re interested in, what majors are most popular at their school, student life, athletics, etc.)
  • Ask for the representative’s business card or contact information. Go home and write a brief thank you note. You will be noticed and remembered.

2. Call or Email Your Local Rep. If you have specific questions during your application process, he or she will be glad to answer. Even if you don’t have questions, send your rep a short email saying hello and that you’re excited about the idea of attending. College reps don’t bite – they’re there to help you through all the stages of your application. Talk to them.

Tip: You can find the name of your local admissions representative on the school’s website or by calling or emailing the admissions office.

3. Schedule an On-Campus Interview. There are several different kinds of on-campus interviews:

  • Required.
  • Evaluative: These interviews aren’t required, but the thoughts and impressions of the person who interviews you will be included as part of the admissions process.
  • Non-evaluative/informational: These interviews aren’t considered in the decision-making process. They provide the school an opportunity to get to know you and answer your questions. (Occasionally, these interviews are conducted by students.)

Tip: If your local rep is busy or interviewing another student, you’ll meet with a different admissions counselor for your interview. Don’t worry — your interviewer will share his or her notes so that your local rep has all the information.


1. You Demonstrate Interest.  Sacred Heart University is a perfect example of how demonstrating interest is valuable. Christina Hamilton, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, says that while Sacred Heart doesn’t offer evaluative interviews, they strongly encourage students to interview.  She says, “We really value the demonstrated interest at Sacred Heart. We’re always encouraging students to be in touch with our staff and admission counselors. We are out in our area doing interviews or on campus hoping to be able to meet with them. The student-counselor relationship is something we definitely like to emphasize. “

2. You Put a Face to Your College Application (hopefully a smiling one).  When you can meet someone face-to-face, or send an email or a thank you note, you add a dimension to your application that isn’t already there.

3. You Give your College Rep Another Reason to Advocate for You. It takes maturity and initiative to say hello at a college fair, to pick up the phone, or to ask intelligent questions. Your rep will appreciate that when it comes time to advocate for you at the admissions table.

4. You Create a Relationship. Valuable from start to end.

So, if you’re applying to college, say hello to your college rep. Develop a relationship (don’t stalk), schedule an interview if you can, and send a thank you note. Even if you do ONE of these things you will give yourself an advantage. And if you are wait listed, you will have that relationship to draw on.

It’s good information to know.


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.




Organize Your College Search: Try Evernote

Imagine This Scenario:

libe slope Cornell University

You’re visiting a college. You love the architecture. You snap a picture.
You see students playing Frisbee on the arts quad. You grab a video.
You use Dad’s iPad to get more info about that cool looking dorm you saw. You bookmark the page.
You’re home. Where’s your stuff?

Everywhere. Except on your own computer.

Try Evernote. It’s an app that lets you save to different computers, phones, mobile devices and tablets, and then access it anywhere. And it’s free.

I first heard about Evernote when it was mentioned as one of the best free apps around. So I tried it. It was good, but it really proved its usefulness after last August’s hurricane when we lost our power for six days. When my husband needed my laptop, I took my iPod to the nearest library and started writing a new blog. Later, I was able to access those notes on my laptop and keep right on writing.

Here’s how you can use Evernote to help organize your college search:

Create an account on Evernote (with parents’ permission if necessary).
Take pictures, videos, notes.
Create a “notebook” for each college. Drop each piece of information into the notebook.
You’re done.

The best part? Months later, when you begin applying to college and have to write that college application essay on “Why I want to go to _________ University, ” you won’t get stuck writing “It’s so pretty,” or “I love the atmosphere,” or “I just know it’s the school for me.” You’ll know the name of that dorm you loved, and what kind of architecture caught your eye.

You’ll be able to write a great college application essay because you can be specific about what you saw, learned, and heard.
Because you saved it all in one place.


Try Evernote.

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website  for more info.

Leave a comment — let me know what you think.

related posts:
College Essay Writing: Make it Easy! Keep a Journal


College Essay Writing: Make it Easy! Keep a Journal

Have you thought about writing your college essay yet? Is that the sound of laughter I hear?

I know, it’s April. It’s way too early to think about writing a college application essay. There’s school and classes and tests — enough stress in your life. But here’s something you can do to have less stress later:

Keep a journal.

  • It’s quick
  • It’s easy
  • You can use it to get to know yourself
  • Later it can help you come up with ideas for your college application essay


Colleges want to know who they’re accepting — not just from grades and test scores — but what kind of people they’re choosing. That’s what your essay will show — what makes you unique, why you’re interesting, what you can offer your school and community. Why they should choose you.

It’s a tall order. Most students have never written this kind of essay. That’s why a journal can help. It’s just like a diary if you’ve kept one. You can put anything in it. It doesn’t matter what. Even what you ate for dinner.

Make it fun. No stress. Just open a page or flip open your computer and away you go.

Put in your journal:

  • Ideas
  • Observations
  • Plans you’d like to make
  • Descriptions of people, places, activities
  • Questions
  • Funny things
  • Small things
  • Big things
  • Surprising things
  • Things that make you proud, sad, cautious, laugh…
  • Anything

Write on a notepad, on your computer, whatever’s easiest. Get to know yourself. Then, when you’re finally ready to begin, you won’t have to stare at a blank page wondering where to start. You’ll have a notebook full of inspiration.