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College Planning

CA guide coverThe Collegewise free Common App guide


Our Collegewise Guide to the 2018-19 Common Application is here, free to anyone who wants it. I have vivid memories of one full day in July 2011 when Arun and I went line by line through the Common App and considered all the advice we could give for every section. The result was a 64-page word document crafted on a desktop computer. I don’t think either of us ever imagined that Collegewise would still be producing updated annual versions of the guide seven years later or that so many of our colleagues would help us make it even better. And we certainly never imagined that we’d publish it one day with Michelle Obama’s education initiative, Reach Higher. But we’re so happy that our guide has proven to have staying power. You can get your copy here.

Borrowed from a past post, here are a few suggestions for how you might use our guide:



  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help. We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.
  • Struggling with just a particular section or two? Our guide can probably help.


If you are the official college application reviewer in the house, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application (kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them).

Is your college list realistic?

If you’re a junior, one of the best college planning steps you can take in the next few months is to schedule a meeting with your counselor and ask, “Are the colleges I’m considering realistic?”

Maybe you don’t have a well-researched list of schools you know you’ll apply to this fall—that’s fine. But almost every college-bound junior has ideas about where they might want to apply. Even if those ideas are loosely formed or based entirely on how lively the football stadium appears on television, take your list in whatever form it currently exists and get your counselor’s feedback on your chances of admission based on your current qualifications. Assumptions frequently work against families in this area. No matter what you’ve heard, witnessed, or gleaned from your research, this decision of what colleges to apply to is just too important to leave to chance.

When you have this meeting, there are three possible outcomes:


1. Your counselor gives her enthusiastic endorsement of these schools and believes you have a strong chance of being admitted to most or all of them. Fantastic! Yes, your list might evolve over time as you research and learn and refine what you’re looking for in a college. But you’re off to a strong, realistic, and encouraging start.


2. You get a mixed review. Some of your schools are likely to admit you, but a roughly equal number of choices are out of your reach and not likely to say yes. This can be discouraging, but now you have the opportunity to take steps to address it. Ask your counselor if there are things you could do to improve your candidacy. And get her recommendations for similar schools that are more likely to admit you. Better to find out now and make adjustments than to apply with your fingers crossed and find out later you overshot with the majority of schools on your list.


3. You get the news no college-bound student wants to hear—most or all of your schools are out of your reach. Ask your counselor if she believes you can still make yourself competitive enough to take a realistic shot. If not, it’s time to face facts and go back to the college selection drawing board.

If you find yourself in category three, it’s understandable why you’d be disappointed. Nobody likes to hear that their goals are unrealistic. But here are a few things you can do to stay engaged and to craft a list you can be excited about.

First, as difficult as it is to do, please accept the news. Don’t look for reasons your counselor must have been wrong (“So and so got in, and his grades and test scores aren’t that much better than mine!”). Don’t spend the next six months repeatedly taking standardized tests or frantically adding activities or learning an instrument because someone told you the marching band at your dream school is losing their bassoonist to graduation this year. If you still want to apply to one or two of those schools just to take your shot, that’s reasonable. But refusing to accept reality is the college search equivalent of finding 19 different ways to convince someone to go to the prom with you when they’ve already made it clear they’re just not interested. It’s fruitless, it’s demoralizing, and it cuts into your chances of finding another perfectly good match who’d happily accept the invitation.

Second, consider this question: Why were you interested in those schools?

Be honest with yourself. Did you really know much about them? Had you researched and thoughtfully decided that they were good matches based on what you were looking for in a college experience? If so, it’s unlikely that those characteristics are limited to just a short list of colleges. Tell your counselor what appealed to you about those schools, and ask for recommendations of others with similar offerings that are more likely to admit you.

But if the real answer is that you don’t know why you were interested, or that your interest was driven largely by the name and prestige, I understand that can still be disappointing. But it’s not reasonable to take it as crushing news either. The most selective schools are reaches for everybody (math dictates that). And with over 2,000 colleges to choose from, most of which admit the majority of their applicants, there’s a bountiful harvest of other options available to you no matter why your current list is deemed out of reach. The sooner you get to finding those matches, the sooner you’ll be having a very different—and more enjoyable—conversation with your counselor.

Tuesday, October 19
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