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Topic of Your Choice as a College Essay. Just Because You Can...

  |   February 8, 2017    9:08 AM ET

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Part 2: College Admissions Focus - Harvard University

Ishan Puri   |   June 29, 2016    6:15 PM ET

Harvard University has long stood on a pedestal as one of the nation's oldest and most revered colleges. It has become exponentially difficult to get accepted at the undergraduate level, which contributes to the aura around the school. Over the past month, we have conducted detailed analysis on the school to understand statistical trends over time. These trends help us predict the future or at least guide students and parents in the college admissions process. In this article, we will take a deep dive into Harvard University.

Application Requirements

First we will start with the basics. It costs $75 to apply to Harvard and there are two rounds: restricted early action and regular decision. Restricted early action means you can apply early and get accepted early without any obligation to attend. But it also means you cannot apply to other early programs. Regular decision is the same but due later. Transfer applications are for students at 2-year colleges or other 4-year institutions looking to go to Harvard.

Below is a table for reference:


Acceptance Rate and Yield

The acceptance rate at Harvard has gone down exponentially in the past 5 years. Due to the reintroduction of the restricted early action program in 2011, we see that Harvard has dipped below 6.0%. Conversely, the yield has increased significantly at the same time. Yield is the ratio of offers of admission to those that accept the offer. This trend is precisely what universities want - more applications and a better matching system where the university selects students who are 80% likely to accept the offer.



Student Life

Harvard is actually reducing class size on average over time. The graph below shows that classes, on average across the university, have about 6.5 students. This is down from around 7.0 students in 2010. This might not seem like a big drop, but when you consider the percentage drop of nearly 10% in 5 years, it looks like a concerted effort from Harvard. Looking at trends like this across universities can yield insights for students looking for smaller class environments. Harvard is definitely among that cohort.


There are obvious exceptions like introductory science and math courses, and there are also probably outliers like higher-level liberal arts classes with 1 or 2 students. The average, however, is telling.


We are also including a quick distribution of the class size in a histogram-like analysis. From these pie graphs, we can actually see that class distribution is really focused in the less than 19 students per class sections.


Harvard is becoming slightly more diverse over time. We can see that the number of students who do not declare a race has significantly decreased over time, and the number of Asian students has risen, but not dramatically. It seems like the number of international students has also risen over time, as well as Hispanic/Latino.


Financial Aid

The big takeaways from financial aid for Harvard are that the average package is increasing of need-based aid, but the number of students who receive merit-based scholarship has dramatically reduced since the 1990's. Harvard, in an effort to match similar universities like Stanford, is covering 100% of need-based aid, but need is subjective. Stanford recently defined it as $100,000 income per year.


This second graph shows a telling trend - the number of students borrowing has dramatically decreased by 10% since 2012. This means that students in the middle - those that are not fully covered by need-based aid and those that cannot pay over $250,000 for a college education, are getting squeeze. The rise in international applications, who normally pay full fees, also helps to explain this trend.


In this article, we review many of the key features of Harvard University's data - application data, acceptance data, student life, demographics, and financial aid. This is the very first part of our analysis on college admissions and we look forward to diving deeper into this data by looking at derivative statistics and ratios that we are inventing like the Squeeze Ratio - the ratio of applicants who applied/applications that enrolled.

For more information about this statistical analysis or to learn more, join one of our webinars at Synocate here:

How to Answer the Common Application Essay for College Admissions

Ishan Puri   |   June 25, 2016   10:00 AM ET

By Chris Hunt and Ishan Puri

The Common Application has long been the hub for applications to U.S. colleges. Every year, more than half-a-million students seeking a place in the Ivy League and 600-plus other private and public colleges, log on to a portal that collects and distributes much of a student's application materials. The site is ground zero for the "Common App Essay," a 650-word essay personal statement that can make or break a college application.

The high stakes are not lost on college-bound students. Anxious to write an essay that will lead admissions committees to say "Admit," students struggle as they consider the five choices of prompts for their Common App essay. In this article, we propose a strategy for picking a prompt, a method that should relieve stress and lead to better essays.

The Problem

Anxiety about which prompt to choose is as old as the Common Application, which was conceived in 1975. Since then, students have spent countless hours wondering which prompt is the "right" prompt. Should I write about lessons from a failure or the transition from childhood? A challenge to a belief or a problem solved? An intellectual challenge? A cultural issue? Or maybe something that reveals the formation of my identity? What if I answer the wrong question?

The worrying is easy to understand. The odyssey of the college-bound student has already included navigating the rigors of high school, the pressure standardized tests, and the tyranny of personal and family expectations. The context makes it hard to blame a student for looking at the next step, the college essay, as more of a foe than a friend, or for fearing that the wrong choice might mean that years of work go down the drain.

The Solution

The quandary has a simple solution. Choose Prompt #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." Put simply, the question offers students the opportunity to tell admissions committees absolutely anything that might enhance or complete the portrait painted by the rest of their application. This prompt gives students the room to tell the personal story of their choosing. The freedom to choose any story with personal meaning tends to inspire students to write essays in which they reflect on themselves.

Think of Prompt #1 as an umbrella. Phrased to allow students to write anything that could complete an application, the question encompasses any of the other four prompts. In other words, if an application would be incomplete without the questions posed in the other prompts -- failures, transition to adulthood, challenged beliefs, and problems solved -- the student can use the specific prompt or the one that covers them all.

Sidestep Pitalls

Students who choose Prompt #1 also sidestep pitfalls. The other four prompts can get tricky, quickly, if a student does not have actually have a specific answer.

Take Prompt #5: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family." If the student does not have a life experience that "fits" the question, or is not able to convey a clear transition, the essay is likely to feel forced.

Another pitfall can be seen in the context of Prompt #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?" Here, students might go down the path of simply explaining a failure and not reflecting on the personal impact of the importance of the story.

The Solution Also Fits the Coalition Essays

The first prompt on the Common Application also it fits the essay requirements of the Coalition Application. That application includes the essay prompt: "Submit an essay on a topic of your choice." Like Prompt #1 on the Common Application, this question is open-ended. Students may choose any topic.

Nor word limit an issue. The Coalition Application notes that "most application readers find college essays are rarely improved when they are longer than 500 to 550 words." And while the Coalition strongly recommends staying within that limit, there is no mandated maximum number of words. Admissions committees accustomed to reading 650-word Common App essays will likely be unfazed by a Coalition essay of the same length.

Final Advice

Student should try not to see college essays as a test. There is no right or wrong answer. The better view, one that aligns with the intentions of admissions committees, is to view the essay as an opportunity to go beyond test scores and GPAs, and paint a portrait of a living, breathing student. Choosing Prompt #1 will reduce the waste of time and energy a question. That energy can then be channeled to the task that matters, writing a college essay that shows admissions officers who you are and why you deserve a spot on their campus.

Have more questions on college admissions? Join us for a free webinar here.

A Dozen Do's and Dont's for the 2016 Common Application College Essay Prompts

Elizabeth Benedict   |   June 21, 2016   10:51 PM ET

Alongside my college counseling work, I've written six novels and taught creative writing to college students and adults for decades. You don't need to write a novel to get into college, but you do need to adopt some of the essentials of writing creatively to make your application essays sing. Since most of the supplements are not yet on line, I'll focus on the Common Application essay for now.


1. Get personal. Find a topic that makes your heart beat a little faster than usual - a topic with some energy and even tension in it: A piece of your personal story that's essential to who you are and not reflected in your activities list, a talent, a hardship, a moment you took a risk and spoke out to defend a position, or a problem you solved, even if it was putting together a trampoline in your backyard. These are personal essays, not academic paper or speeches.

2. Before you start writing, do some free writing on your topic. Scribble down what comes to you without thinking about organization, voice or structure. This is a great way to find your voice and your material. Put your notes aside for a day or two, and when you come back to them, see which passages stand out.

Time - and time away from what you're writing - is a great editor. Every writer I know has the experience that we write something we think is terrific and look at it in the morning and want to cry. The writing that holds up a week later is the good stuff.

3. Speaking of time: Don't save this essay or any of the others for the last minute. Think of the essay as a work-in-progress, and set aside time to do it over a period of weeks.

4. Write informally and write long. Don't stick to the 650-word limit as you begin. Again, you're looking for material, energy, what matters. Once you have that down, you can edit out everything that isn't essential.

5. College admissions officers often report that they want to be entertained and engaged by your essay. I'd say it's more important to go for "engaged" than "entertained," but the message is clear. The first sentence needs to be a grabber. You may end up writing the first terrific sentence once you're done with the third draft. It doesn't need to be acrobatic or pyrotechnic, and it doesn't need to be one for the ages ("Call me Ishmael" - opening of Moby Dick), but a little pizazz goes a long way, at the beginning and throughout.

6. This is essential for every writer I know: Read. Read. Read. Writing is a discipline, and the more you read good writing, the better your own writing will become. Start with a few pieces from The New York Times every day. Notice clarity, detail, and precision, whether it's a news story or an opinion piece about a lost father. I strongly suggest students read The New Yorker magazine. The writing is superlative, sophisticated, and often funny in interesting ways, and the subjects are as vast as those in The Times.


1. Don't write about sex, drugs, or other vices. Don't write about books that hundreds of millions of others have read: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Twilight. If you mention a book in your essay, avoid To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, standard fare for high school students.

2. If you have a strong academic record, I'd suggest not choosing Prompt Two - "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure" - unless your failure has an unusual angle. Perhaps you failed to make a soufflé that rose, which led to all kinds of insights, or failed to revive a wounded animal, leading to your interest in becoming a vet. Though I don't generally proscribe topics, I'd say to avoid "I didn't get into X Club or Y orchestra or Z team, and the lesson I learned is to try harder next time." An important lesson, yes, but not uniquely yours.

3. If your topic is built around an experience you had at a college or university, avoid naming the school if possible, as it will suggest to admissions officers that you are interested in that institution, which may diminish your chances at other schools.

4. Don't feel you need to write about a major accomplishment to produce a good essay. Parents often say to me, "My son hasn't found a cure for cancer, so I'm sure he can't get into an Ivy League university." Your academic record - grades, scores, recommendations, etc. - will convey your potential for performing well in college.

The essay is a personal chat about a subject that thrills you or that you feel is essential to conveying who you are. This past spring, a young woman who wrote about a lifetime of shopping at Costco made news. The headlines - "This Essay Got a High-school Senior into Five Ivies and Stanford" - made it sound as though the essay itself did all the work. No, the entirety of her academic record got her in, and the essay was one piece of it. The five Ivies and Stanford have their own rigorous essays that were part of her applications, which never makes it into these news stories. The newsworthy essay was quirky, colorful, and unusual - and it solidified the rest of her impressive record.

5. Don't assume that a good essay - even a really good essay - will compensate for a poor record at a highly competitive college or university. Admissions officers insist that high school grades are the best predictor of success in college. But admission to the very top colleges and universities now depends on a strong overall record along with an essay that confirms the record. A strong essay can really help a student with a mixed record at school that's outside the highly competitive zone.

6. The essays matter, but making good choices about where to apply is just as important. I sometimes work with students whose list consists of ten reach schools and one safety. My favorite resource, written from the student's eye view, is The Best 380 Colleges, published every summer by Princeton Review. It's got a wealth of useful statistics and relevant descriptions.

Do remember that this is a process that will come to an end. Have some fun along the way.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling author, former Ivy League writing professor, and founder and owner of Don't Sweat The Essay.

Changing College Admissions Into A Double-Blind Matching Process

Ishan Puri   |   June 21, 2016    6:08 PM ET

College admissions has become increasingly competitive -- and stressful. Colleges love the current system -- they earn millions each year in application fees (each application costs $50-$100 to submit, and many students submit 7-8 college applications). Some colleges have recently banded together to try to make the process less stressful by spreading out the workload over the years instead of concentrating it. The Harvard Graduate School of Education's new report on kinder college admissions, Frank Bruni's best-seller book, and our efforts at Synocate are just the start to reforming college admissions.

In reality, the institutional forces behind admissions need to collaborate in a grassroots way with high schools to become more transparent in the process. Practically this means making the admissions process a blind matching process to help reveal student and college preferences. In this article, we will outline how exactly this matching process could work, and is one such idea on the actual matching process.

Economics of College Admissions

Colleges are paid an application fee for each application they receive, although many give fee waivers. With hundreds of thousands of applications, these fees can add up. Moreover, the increased perceived difficulty usually adds to the school's prestige, which in turn results in more applications. More applications also means schools can choose more selectively who to accept, and tailor the class to their exact requirements.

Colleges like the current situation for all of the economic and social reasons described above. Efforts coming directly from Harvard to change the criteria to measure students is a step in the right direction, but a step on a long path. After changing criteria, schools either should become more transparent in the admissions process or allow students to have a more significant voice in the admissions process. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is a group of 80 colleges that decided to take this exact action by creating a workspace where students can upload their progress over time. This might backfire and result in students trying to tailor themselves more and more at an earlier age, but the attempt is genuine.

Another step is to aggregate useful content on a series of properties. College Confidential has created a great resource, although sometimes with incorrect information, on the process. We have started to do this with our YouTube clips and blog resources.

The next step is to change the institutional process of applying. Here is one new idea that helps to reveal student and college preference.

The Double-Blind Matching Process

Colleges would use their own internal algorithms to rank students (much like students are ranked internationally at much larger systems). Many colleges already do this to a certain extent -- quickly grading students across a series of 5-10 variables like academics, extracurricular activities, and maturity. At many colleges, there is a formalized process for this and a more qualitative roundtable for discussion for the more competitive applicants. If colleges could take this a step further and rank students in their order of preference that would allow this matching process.

Students would also rate colleges concretely based on their preferences. Students already do this in their minds and often by declaring early action or early decision in an application. They could mark their preferences in the Common Application itself. We would probably need an application system that allows all universities, including state school systems, to participate so every institution could be ranked by the student in their list.

In this model, the length of the list does not matter but rather the mutual ranking. Both parties, students and colleges, would not know about the others' ranking. This way, they could feel safe about their ranking.

A matching process would start with college preferences and go down the list of applicants. Let's say an institution ranked Applicant A as #1. The system would search for Applicant A and see what they ranked the college. If they ranked the college #1 as well, the application would deserve a read and evaluation. Let's say they did not rank it as #1. The system would then go to the college's #2 preference and see where the student marked the college. If the student marked the college as #1 or #2, it would deserve a read. If they marked it as lower than #2, it would be read later.

In this way, colleges could quickly filter the growing number of applicants based on mutual interest but not discard the millions of students that probably rank colleges higher than colleges rank them. Demonstrated interest is one metric that many universities closely track and that could also factor into the institution's rank. Students would be empowered to know that their ranking directly impacts the way their applications were read. This system probably favors colleges over applicants, but is another step in the right direction focused on the process instead of a specific side.

The Future of College Admissions

Colleges have become asymptotically more difficult to get accepted to given the exponential increase in applicants (due to the Internet, international growth, and fee waiver growth). Institutional support of a new process is one way to make it less stressful, but universities have no economic incentive to do this. Focusing on the student experience of applying might actually incentivize students to prepare their applications and their high school even more. Focusing on the actual matching process and not the evaluation might be another option. We have suggested a double-blind system that may work well, but more ideas are needed.

Visit for more news on the college admissions and college application process.

Sometimes A Common Application Essay Is Hard (Very Hard!) To Find

Robert S. Schwartz   |   June 20, 2016    4:55 PM ET

Rebecca came to me after a long phone call from her parents. They told me that they had started working with another college application essay consultant but it wasn't the right fit. Rebecca never sparked to her, several meetings had failed to produce a strong Common Application Essay topic, and they were worried. Before they could hire me I told them I'd have to speak with Rebecca to see if she wanted to work with me. Two minutes into my phone call with her it was clear she liked me and wanted to find a great topic.

We did an initial one-hour phone chat, I got to know her, who she is, what drives her. Rebecca was fun, open, and very expressive about her life. But as we neared the hour mark, we weren't finding a topic we both loved. I could hear the panic in her voice, so I did what I always do: I set up a time for us to speak the following day. Her voice brightened, and she agreed.

The next day we had another one-hour conversation. In it I dug deeper, trying to figure out what was fascinating about her. And like the phone call the day before, we weren't finding anything. Also like the day before, Rebecca started to panic. I assured her that there was nothing to worry about and we should just relax and have a good time. Nearing then end of the call just as I was ready to schedule another consultation for the following day, I asked Rebecca what I thought was a fairly innocuous question: "what's the worst thing that ever happened to you?" I could hear Rebecca getting excited as she told me about a recent babysitting experience. "I babysit this 7-year-old girl. And every time I do her parents put out the board games for us to play - but we'd always end up watching television instead." On one recent night the little girl suggested they play chess. Rebecca is a very good player, the captain of her chess team. She was excited to teach the little girl how to play - until she was the one who got taught. "That little girl beat me!" After the game, the 7-year-old started to tease and taunt a now humiliated Rebecca. Then she got silent on me. Clearly this was tough for her. But I sensed something else was going on. "What was happening in your life around that time?" I asked her. Rebecca explained to me that she had just changed schools, had made no friends, and wasn't doing very well in class. This beating had a profound effect on her. Over the next few days she was haunted by this loss. "How?" "Well, she was just so confident. She'd never played chess before and she beat me. And I envied that confidence. I wish I had that for myself." I asked Rebecca how she grew from this loss. "I took so much inspiration from her. I realized that the reason I was so depressed and unhappy in school was because I had such low self-esteem." Rebecca realized that life is all attitude. In the days and weeks after this loss, Rebecca turned it all around. She started making friends, she joined some groups, and found her inner self. "I learned a huge lesson from that loss."

This was Rebecca's Common Application Essay!

Strong Common Application Essay stories are hard - very hard! They don't fall out of the sky. They take great effort, long conversations, and commitment. You need to love your story. It needs to be so honest and true (as Prompt #1 states) "their application would be incomplete without it." Rebecca's parents called and told me that they had forgotten this story had even happened to their daughter. They wondered if admissions officers would like it - to which I laughed. "Trust me," I assured them, "they're not going to read another story like this one. They're going to love it!"

Rebecca is at Yale, Class of 2020.

Five Things You Must Do Before Even Attempting To Write Your Common Application Essay

Robert S. Schwartz   |   June 17, 2016    3:37 PM ET

"The scariest moment is always just before you start." Stephen King on writing.

If there is one thing I hear from every parent or applicant I speak with from now until December it's this: "How do you even start to write the Common Application Essay?" It's a perfectly reasonable question to ask when staring at a blank computer screen trying to come up with a story which will help that applicant get admitted to the school of their choice. Inherent to the question is a certain amount of panic. This is an important essay to write - there's a lot riding on it. I felt the exact same way when I sat down to write my college application essays. My job as a college application essay consultant is to calm nerves and be a voice of reason. I see myself as an editor, tutor, shrink, and cheerleader. My role is to tell students in no uncertain terms, "You have nothing to worry about, everybody has a good story to tell. You are no exception."

To help navigate the treacherous waters of the college application process stress-free, I've come up with five steps every applicant should take before working on their personal essay. Starting with these five steps will ensure their essay will be a memorable one - one which will make admissions officers say, "Wow! We need to admit this applicant!"

1) Read the prompts! Don't rush through them. Take your time. Read them carefully. Read one prompt per day. Let each one sink in. Talk it through with someone you know. Try to understand what the prompts are asking for. The number one complaint admissions officers have is: "They didn't really answer the prompt." Answer the prompt!

2) Think about some seminal moments in your recent past. Did you have an experience which resonated with you? Was there something that happened in which you were challenged, transformed as a person? It doesn't have to be big and showy moment, it just needs to be meaningful to you. Can the telling of that story be conveyed in 650 words? Write it down! Take good notes. Where were you? Who were you with? Details are vital to making a story interesting and memorable.

3) Read as many Common Application Essays as you can find! Ask your friends from the year ahead of you if you can read their essays. There have been numerous books published about application essays and you'll find many examples there. The New York Times solicits application essays every spring and publishes what they feel are the best. These essays worked! The authors of them were accepted to the best schools in America. You'll see what works.. Be inspired by them. Learn from them.

4) Talk to your friends and family! Because often times friends and family have insight into who you are and what makes you special - focus group your life. An inquisitive outsider has a perspective you don't have. You'll hear, "remember the time..." They'll jar your memory bringing to the forefront experiences you had which you had forgotten. A little brainstorming goes a long, long way.

5) After you have done 1-4, DO NOT start writing! You heard me right. Do not start writing! Let all of the research marinate in your brain for a while. Think it all over. Ask friends and family what they think of your ideas. Let them advise you on which one they feel would make for a memorable personal essay. Unless you look at the calendar and see November 1st bearing down on you, there's plenty of time. No reason to choose a prompt and a story if you're not committed.

That old adage that it's all in the preparation is apropos here. Your Common Application Essay is likely going to go to every school to which you are applying. Don't rush it. It's not as daunting a process as you think. The more time you spend thinking about the story, the greater likelihood you will have an original and unforgettable essay.

A Word of Advice to School Counselors and College Counselors. Relax.

  |   June 8, 2016    9:52 AM ET

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College Counseling: Public vs. Private School - Which One Is Right For Me?

Ishan Puri   |   June 2, 2016   10:11 AM ET

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Many distressed 7th/8th grade parents and high school parents come to us at Synocate asking us if they should send their child to private school. The main objective is to give their child more resources and a better opportunity to attend great universities. Some parents believe that going to private school has a direct correlation to the type of college their child will be accepted to. In this article, we want to dispel the myths of private vs. public school, the challenges at each, and the benefits of going to each. In the end, the decision is a personal one, but by illuminating our experiences and those of thousands of students, we can shed some light on this important decision.

1. Private schools increase my chances of admission

Private schools offer many good courses, extracurricular engagements with research programs, and most importantly, other students that have a similar mindset. In our experience, the seriousness of other students and the quality of teachers is generally high at private schools. Parents sending their children to these private schools value education and want the best for their child. They are also able to afford the tuition.

Although there is likely a significant correlation between private schools and admission to top universities, the causation is unclear. We believe it is a combination of conscientious parents, good teachers, fellow students that are driven, and strong opportunities inside and outside of school to build a story.
Yet these factors do not necessarily need a private school. Students and parents themselves can find opportunities, build a story, and find tutoring help if needed. The benefit of a private school is all of these resources are in one place, and students get to consistently engage in conversation with teachers and students who are like-minded.

2. Colleges do not know the difference between local high schools

Many universities have regional admissions officers that learn about the schools in the area, down to the number of AP or IB courses each high school offers. These university officials also are in contact with your high school guidance counselor and sometimes with teachers directly. The differences in number of AP or IB offered, course difficulty, and activities offered are standardized because these regional admissions officers learn about these differences and communicate them to the broader admissions committee when reviewing applications.

3. School clubs are not very good at my high school, will I be at a disadvantage?

This is partially true, but think about the broader landscape - millions of school clubs exist throughout the country and students create thousands of new clubs each year in order to stand out in college admissions. At private schools, it is often easier to start new clubs. Some students and parents believe this key fact will be how they get into their top choice schools. The reality is school clubs is one of four types of activities that students must do. The other types of activities - out-of-school, social work, and competitions, are equally important for admission to university.

4. Public schools are overloaded with students and I will not be able to stand out

This is sadly often true - and the statistics around college guidance counselors to student ratios are dizzying. We did an analysis from the NACAC data on these ratios and found that across California, the average guidance counselor has 950 students.

Parents can combat this trend by hiring external tutoring and counseling, being proactive and finding opportunities for students through their network and online, and generally watching deadlines and stepping back to make a plan before the school year stars. This does sound stressful, but it is worth it. Creating a framework for high school is important, but overloading a student with deadlines and timelines can be overwhelming as well. It is about identifying your values first, then your goals, and finally how you will achieve these goals in discrete steps.

Private schools often have lower ratios, but that means that all private school students have more access to guidance counselors. The sheer number of applicants to the Top 70 universities in the United States points to the fact that the extracurricular standard is higher for private school students. Regional admissions officers know all of these nuances and account for them when reviewing applications.
In the end, the choice between public and private high school is a personal one. You must look at your value system and how much you value the convenience of having resources in one place. In terms of admission, the Ivy League schools and others are able to standardize the admissions process through regional admissions officers, unweighted GPA, and other measures. In our opinion, and those of many universities, going to private school does not automatically increase a student's chances of admissions - the challenges become different instead. Instead of focusing on joining a few school clubs, students must stand out in out-of-school activities from their peers who are also focused.

In either scenario, students and parents should find analogous activities that complement their extracurricular story. At Synocate, we are building a searchable database of past summer activities and school year activities that is crowdsourced by our past students and those willing to help the next generation of high school students. Other ways to find activities include looking in the local newspaper, asking friends or fellow parents, and asking your school counselor or teachers for more resources.

In the end, the story and the strength of an application is about the individual. It is about the student. And it is not a test, just a measure of where they are at that point in time. Students change, so colleges are instead looking for dynamic individuals that are open-minded, capable of learning, and able to contribute back to their community. These traits can be show at either a private or public school.

College App News You Can Use: Essays, Applications, SATs

Elizabeth Benedict   |   May 25, 2016   12:44 PM ET

This spring brings an abundance of big news into the relatively staid world of college applications and admissions for the upcoming season - for those applying to be part of the class of 2021. Students and parents will need to navigate quite a few new organizations, essays, and even tests.

The New SAT. The new version of the SAT is somewhat old news, but it's here to stay. In the competition between the SAT and the ACT, the ACT is now the more popular choice for college applicants. Some say that in order to better compete with the ACT, the SAT modified its test to bring it more into line with the ACT. Many rising seniors have already taken the new test, and many more are signed up. One voice: A prominent tutor, Anthony-James Green, recommended that students not take the new SAT this year, and wait instead until there have been more responses to it.

My test prep partner, Arborbridge, has another perspective on it for those who've already taken in and might want to continue with it, or those who are more interested in it because of the new content. Take a look at their perspective here.

No tests required. While many colleges and universities require SAT subject tests, about 850 institutions do not require either the standard SAT or ACT, as they have found that high school grades and records are as good a predictor of success in college as these tests. You can see a list of these institutions here, provided by FairTest. They include Bennington College, Brandeis University and Clark University.

Common App vs Coalition vs Universal.

The Common Application Organization, founded 40 years ago, is the granddaddy of application platforms, with more than 600 college and university members to date. This past year, they had one million applicants who submitted 3.5 million applications from around the world.

The Common App application consists of basic information (name, school, family), a list of activities, a list of honors, and the infamous "essay" - known at the "Common App essay," which is often the centerpiece of a student's essays, as many colleges also require additional personal statements or "supplementary essays." The Common App essay prompts (choose one of five) can change from year to year, but they remain the same this coming year as they were last year. (For more on that, check out my recent Huffington Post.) This coming year's application goes on-line Aug. 1, but you can sign up now.

This coming season brings a new player into the mix - the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which presumably intends to compete with the Common App for customers, though it will no doubt take time for applicants to become fully acquainted with this new program.

The Coalition currently has about 90 member colleges and universities, half of which will be using this new platform this coming year, while the other half have postponed until next year. I first heard about this idea more than a year ago, interviewing the admissions director of an Ivy. He spoke about his interest in having a program that engages students early - starting in 9th grade - and gives them a "locker" into which they can put artwork, videos, music, articles they've written, anything that they want to save for possible submission with their college applications. The organization's mission, it seems, is to broaden access to college for under-served students and get students involved earlier in the process.

The Coalition has its own centerpiece essay - which does not have a firm upper limit but they recommend no more than 550 words, compared to the Common App's 650 words, and these are this year's prompts. Please note the "topic of your choice" for the last:

-- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
-- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
-- 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?
-- 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)?
-- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

For more on this essay, please check the Coalition's essay webpage.

Some institutions will only allow students to apply through the Coalition while others will continue to accept applications through the Common App and, in some cases, the Universal Application, which currently has 44 members.

Bottom line: As with the new SAT, students might want to give the Coalition a year to get off the ground, since half its members are also waiting a year, before signing up. It's definitely worth a visit to go to the site, poke around, see whether you want to open an account, and go through your creative work and maybe even put a few items in your locker!

California News. After many years with the same two essay prompts, University of California - with its nine separate institutions - has introduced a whole new slew of essays. Choose four of eight short takes - up to 350 words. Take a look here for a preview.

It's going to be a busy year.

Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and owner of Don't Sweat the Essay. She is a bestselling author, editor, and university writing professor.

How to Approach College Admissions Essays

Ishan Puri   |   April 28, 2016    7:57 PM ET

The college admissions process is getting more and more competitive each year. In order to apply to US colleges, students usually submit an application through the Common Application or a stand-alone system that some schools have like the UCs. For the Common Application, students submit a central essay and a supplemental application with additional essays. In this article, we will review the basics for submitting applications and the three most common pitfalls students make when writing essays.
Basics for submitting applications

At Synocate , we have helped thousands of students through the admissions process and found similarities in the questions students have when writing applications. Choosing the college list, developing a plan for writing essays, and finding inspiration in essay writing are the three key areas that students struggle with.

We recommend most students to apply to between 10 - 15 colleges. 77% of high school students applied to 3 or more colleges and this number is exponentially increasing each year. With no downside to applying to more colleges expect the application fee (which can be waived in financial need) and more work, students are choosing to put in more effort for the possibility of gaining acceptance to more target and reach colleges. We wrote this Huffington Post article on how to exactly select the number of schools and the type of schools to apply to.

Each college usually has 3-6 short answer questions specific to that school. We recommend that students start writing essays in senior year for two major reasons: prompts can change each year (although they rarely do) and students themselves mature over time. Some parents approach us in 10th and 11th grade and think that writing essays then is a good idea. In order to prepare in those grades, guide your child to find their specific interest and do activities in that field. That approach will result in the most genuine essays in senior year as their writing and thought processes mature. One useful tool in developing a plan is what we call the Prompt Tracker. Basically, students will create a visual plan of all of their essays and write due dates for each. By doing this, students have a roadmap for exactly when they will write each essay and usually include some notes on their approach.

Tips for different essay prompts

Schools vary widely in the types of essay prompts they ask. The biggest area most students miss is answering the prompt in each sentence of every response. Most students actually tend to ignore the prompt as they write the essays. Given the tendency of AP and IB tests to award longer, convoluted essays higher grades, students get conditioned to writing in that style. For college admissions, officers usually do not spend more than 1 hour reading through an application, and often typically less if the student's numbers are far off from the average. The best way to improve essays is to re-read the essays and make sure each paragraph supports a central thesis that in turn answers the prompt.

The second biggest area students should focus on is writing genuine, thoughtful essays. Many students try to impress admissions officers by either listing their activities or using vocabulary that distances the reader from the writer. Generally, most short responses (~300 characters) are actually asking for a short response - not an essay response. Long essay response should usually have shorter paragraphs making them faster and easier to read. An admissions officer reads thousands of essays per day in a short time frame and wants to truly understand who you are. As a writer, you can help them by being honest and genuine and supporting your claims with what you have done in high school or experiences you have had.

The third largest area students should focus on is supporting claims. Any student can claim they are interested in science, but the student who proves that interest with evidence of their life (experiences, internships, summer programs, school clubs, volunteer work) will be more convincing. Imaging most essays as persuasive essays where you are reading your essay to a panel of 10 judges. Use ethos, pathos, and logos methods to convince readers that your passion is true. More so, this will come naturally if you actually think deeply about who you are, why you have pursued certain activities, and how you hope to become. The beauty of the college admissions process is that most students (~80%) change their major in college, so admissions officers are not filtering for an exact major but an ability to find and articulate a passion.

At Synocate, we have helped students apply to all types of colleges and have seen the same three pitfalls for many years. Students should focus on actually answering the prompt in each paragraph, being concise and thoughtful instead of trying to show off, and supporting claims with evidence from their life. In most cases, if students think of these three areas when writing essays they will write much more thoughtful essays. Over the past three years, we have created a free resource for actual student essays and more analysis on each type of essay.

Please reach out to us ( if you have any more questions on the college admissions process!

BS/MD Programs: How to Prepare

Ishan Puri   |   April 26, 2016    2:17 PM ET

Many students and parents are interested in 7 and 8 year direct medical or dental programs. These programs allow students to go through undergraduate and graduate education without having to re-apply for admission to the graduate school. They tend to be very competitive and attract candidates away from Ivy League schools. In this article, we will first outline specific programs, determining if BS/MD programs are right for you, strategies, and then tips on applying.

Specific Programs

There are ~50 BS/MD programs in the nation and some website have attempted to compile them (, The academic competitiveness of schools offering these programs ranges significantly, but a common feature is that BS/MD programs are always more difficult to get into. Having seen thousands of student apply through Synocate (, we will offer a framework for deciding if these programs are right for you.

Are BS/MD Programs Right For You?

Many high school students are still discovering their academic passions and it comes through great teachers, AP/IB courses that they love, or friends and family. Reflecting back to our time at Stanford, many college students are still discovering their passions well beyond college. And that is okay!

Students who are successful in gaining admissions to BS/MD programs are those who have experience that points them in this direction. Initial introduction to the medical or dental fields are useful but not enough for students to be truly successful and have conviction that this is what they want to do with their lives. Summer programs, school clubs, and sustained volunteer work are good way to gain exposure. We have a list of over 600 activities that you can filter by type here:

BS/MD programs will often require a letter of recommendation from a science teacher and will heavily favor SAT II subject tests in the sciences. They will look closely at AP/IB scores in respective subjects and often have more rigorous interviews than normal programs. The average SAT/ACT and GPA is typically several standard deviations above the mean for the overall school. Finally, BS/MD programs do not exactly guarantee admission to MD programs - student still have to perform and score a minimum benchmark on the MCAT and maintain a GPA to be matriculated. Usually this benchmark is much lower than the requirement for outside admission, but it is worth noting.

So when thinking about whether BS/MD programs are right for you look within - can you see yourself dedicating your life to this? More importantly, if all of the external forces around you disappeared, what would you do with your life? What do you find yourself thinking about in your free time? Would you be a doctor if you did not get paid to do it? These are the types of questions that can help you get to the answer within your heart.


Having worked with thousands of students at Synocate (, we see a few trends in programs and types of students who apply to BS/MD programs. There are two major strategies for BS/MD programs: all-in and diversified.

All-In Strategy

The all-in strategy is much less popular and means that the student is completely focused on BS/MD programs. This strategy involves students applying to 10 or more programs with some safety schools included. In the BS/MD category, students will often include the top programs like Boston University, Brown, and others, as well as some target and safety options.

Normally, this strategy works for students with very high scores because we have to be sure that we will be accepted to at least one target or "safety" BS/MD program. There really is no safety BS/MD program so usually students who take this approach have a ~4.0 unweighted GPA and 95% percentile+ SAT/ACT.

Although it shows conviction to apply to mostly BS/MD programs, it does not prove anything more than a strong essay and a great story would. We recommend this strategy very rarely to students who express innate conviction, have excellent experiences to prove that over 4 years, and very solid grades.


The diversified approach fits most students who are serious about medicine but do not want to lay out their career path. In other countries like the UK, it is normal to set out a career path in 10th grade or by 12th grade, but the US education system allows for flexibility. In fact, some universities boast that ~70% of their students change their major at least once (

Whether or not you agree with career flexibility, the diversified approach allows students to apply to some BS/MD programs and other target schools as a general major in Humanities & Sciences or Engineering and still have the option down the line. In essence, it delays the decision until acceptances, if there is a decision to be made at all.

Within a few minutes of talking with a student, it becomes clear how strong their conviction in the sciences is and it even more clear when reading their essays. The most important thing a BS/MD applicant can do is prove their interest with at least 3 activities or experiences in high school that show that this is what they really want to do with their life.

The diversified approach suggests students to apply to ~5 BS/MD programs (usually the top programs) and then a remaining 5-10 schools more generally, the latter of which should include safety, target, and reach schools.

Normally, we find that if a student is admitted to one BS/MD program and several reach schools more generally, they will be able to decide on their interest genuinely instead of on the perceived program strength. It does get tricky if a student is accepted to target schools and a BS/MD program that was not their first choice.


Beyond proving conviction with activities and experiences, students can increase their chances by writing essays that show true introspection. We can see directly through "engineered" students by reading essays that look more like resumes than a thoughtful response to "why medicine" essay questions. Taking some time to deeply think about yourself, your strengths, and why exactly you like medicine can be helpful. Third, students should take some time to understand the average class dynamics and if they are an academic fit. Most BS/MD programs are very rigorous and a strong undergraduate GPA and MCAT might be more beneficial for a student with average grades.

BS/MD programs are a semblance of the international perspective on education - a gateway directly to a career. They have their pros and cons. Students should first qualify themselves for these programs by looking at their academics and the strength of evidence that medicine is a lifelong commitment. Once that is qualified, determining an admissions strategy as outlined above and the exact approach is helpful. Finally, admission to a BS/MD program does not guarantee anything in life and students can always learn and grow through a strong undergraduate program and apply for medical school.

College and Common Application Essays: A Coach Looks Forward and Back

Elizabeth Benedict   |   April 8, 2016    2:22 PM ET

One frenzied application season is just over and another - take a deep breath - is about to begin.

By March 31st, college applicants around the world had heard from the colleges of their dreams, their so-so's and their safeties, including First Daughter, Malia Obama, who is said to be choosing from between Barnard (yay, my alma mater!) and NYU (another great NYC school). Most students have until May 1st to make up their minds, and then there's the Slow Dance of the Waiting List that goes on through the summer.

For high school juniors, the process is just beginning.

In this sea of uncertainty, there's one thing we know for sure now: the Common Application essay prompts from last year were so successful, they will be used this coming year. I couldn't be happier, as I've seen these prompts elicit fascinating personal reflections that enable admissions officers to learn a great deal about the applicants and give students a chance to "explain" themselves the way they might in a leisurely interview.

I was also delighted to see how popular the individual prompts are compared to one another. For the most part, the Common Application's numbers jive with my experience. And please keep in mind: you choose only one of these prompts, with a word limit of 650.

According to the Common Application website, among 800,000 unique applicants, as of January 2016, the prompt choices broke down as follows:

Prompt 1: Background, identity, interest or talent: 47 percent of the applicants selected this
Prompt 2: A lesson from failure: 17 percent selected
Prompt 3: Challenging an idea: 4 percent selected
Prompt 4: Solving a problem: 10 percent selected
Prompt 5: An accomplishment that marks adulthood: 22 percent selected

Take a look at the prompts in full, followed by my observations and an example or two:

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.

It's not surprising that this is so popular. It invites every kind of life story: growing up as a triplet, growing up with a particular hardship or passion (reading, wilderness, music, juggling), or even a special responsibility you have in your household. As always, the essay should strike a balance between describing the experience or activity and revealing its value. Head for a 50/50 split - or at least 65/35, story vs. its meaning to you.

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?

I generally don't direct students to one prompt or another. I prefer to let their story determine the best prompt, but if a student has a strong record, intense interests, or a special experience, I usually steer them away from this prompt. Yes, we all fail, and most of us learn from failure, but unless this is the predominant story a student has, I encourage them - in the words of a famous 1940s song - to "accentuate the positive."

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This is the least popular prompt of all for the Common App in general and in my work, too. Nearly everyone takes a quick pass on this. The two students who chose it both challenged religious beliefs while in religious settings. They were both terrific essays!

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.

While only ten percent of Common App applicants did this prompt, among my students, the figure was higher. I think it can be a great way to reveal a student's interests, creativity, critical thinking skills, and initiative. One student who lived in a drought area wrote about his efforts to build a water desalination machine, another about wanting to solve the crumbling infrastructure problem in the U.S., and a third about how volunteering in a local school helped her resolve a difficult relationship with her father.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Another popular prompt! Quite often the story a student tells in this prompt is the same he or she tells in Prompt No. 1, with a different emphasis. This can be more challenging to write because you have to lay out "before and after" the big moment, which is tough to do in 650 words. But if that's the story that reveals what you want colleges to know, it can be done, and often is.

In my view, it's a bit early to begin writing the essay. When students try to get too much of a head start, three or four months later, they often have another essay that feels more appropriate. But it can helpful - and maybe even reduce stress - to see the questions, think about how you might answer them, and begin to think about what it is you want colleges to know about you as you look ahead.

Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and owner of Don't Sweat the Essay and author of its popular blog.

Why Is College Admissions Such a Mess?

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz   |   March 29, 2016    3:47 PM ET

In my twenty-five years of working as an independent college admissions counselor, I have never been so bombarded with requests for information and help. Students are having difficulty with many aspects of colleges admissions, including unclear college application directions; diverse, confusing admissions policies; and the lack of accessibility and customer service on the part of many admissions professionals in colleges and organizations such as College Board and ACT. Add to this their feeling of being pushed to do more and more and perform better and better. The result: many are reaching a point of physical and emotional exhaustion. Here are examples:

Are you aware of how college applications are filled with difficult-to-follow directions and sometimes no instructions at all? How much time do you think it takes to figure out how many words and/or "characters with spaces" a particular essay will allow if the number is not specified in the question? It's ridiculous. And if an applicant has a question or problem with the Common Application, they are forced to go through an online process involving a) finding a category that fits their question, b) searching through pre-prepared answers and c) if none is found (which students say is the norm), writing a query to a "technical specialist," often waiting hours and hours before receiving an answer. Surely life as a high school senior would be less of a hassle if college applications contained all the information needed in specific sections in which questions appear. Also, wouldn't it be more effective if applicants could pick up a phone and call a real person to get an answer for their questions? That's not possible right now.

Virtually every college has its own, individual application policies, but often it is difficult to find out what they are. Take Subject Tests. For some colleges none are required; for others one or two are required or "recommended;" and Georgetown University strongly recommends three. The difficulty comes when different departments within colleges have exceptions to their Subject Test rules. For example, the University of California's policy is NOT to require Subject Tests; but if a student wants to maximize his or her chances of admission to a hard-science major, they better know about and follow departmental Subject Test recommendations. E.g., if you want to get into UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry or College of Engineering, take Math Level 2 and a science Subject Test. UC Irvine, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and UCLA have similar science Subject Test recommendations, while UC Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz have none at all. How do students find out about other colleges' policies? For the most part, it is buried somewhere in respective college websites. Right now, there is no single source where students can go to get general and major-specific Subject Test information.

How about this? During campus Information Sessions, students report that some of the more competitive colleges (with acceptance rates of 5, 6, 7 and 8 percent) tell them not to worry about having sky-high grades and test scores. "Our college takes an holistic approach to admissions," they say. What this means is that many good--but not outstanding--students then think there's a chance of being admitted to these schools and they apply, even though their less-than-spectacular grades, test scores and activities will probably get them cut early? Colleges know this advice is misleading. Could they be egging on barely or unqualified students to apply so they can increase their admissions numbers and, therefore, yield rates? On behalf of already overwhelmed seniors, I hope not.

I'm not done. Why have the testing agencies, College Board and ACT, become so difficult to deal with, sometimes downright ornery? Recently, a first generation student parent told me that his son had been "locked out of his account, just when he needed to print out his ticket for a Saturday test." They tried everything to find out how to get that ticket, but nothing worked; so the student didn't take the test and forfeited the fee. Another student complained that she never received her fall test scores and no one would tell her why or when they would come. The last I heard, she's still waiting. I also hear about mistakes on test transcripts, AND how impossible it is to get information and problems solved. Where did the customer service orientation of a few years back go? Just because clients are "kids" doesn't excuse testing companies from not being responsive or helpful to their clients.

If all of this is bad news for middle and upper class students, imagine the problems low income, first generation, minority students have with college admissions. These students rarely have anyone to help them go through the admissions process. Did you know that the counselor to student ratio in California public schools (especially in urban and rural areas) is 1 to 1000? There are similar outrageous rates in states throughout the US. Even more, most underserved students don't own computers, the very thing they need to apply to colleges online. For so many underserved students, school and/or community library computer access is very, very limited. And if a-low income student is lucky enough to have a computer, few of them have Wi-Fi access at home through which they can get to college applications. What do they do and where can they go? We all need to work together to make changes for these students.

This is all to say that so much of what is going on in college admissions today is a challenge, if not downright unhealthy for students and their families. As a mental health professional, I frequently observe signs of stress and anxiety. Even in my small, private practice, I see students who are sleep deprived, overworked and overwhelmed, some of which comes out as physical symptoms, eating disorders, cutting (purposely making scratches or cut on your body) and an overall lack of joy and fun. And the rat race is starting earlier and earlier. This year I have more panicked 8th grade parents calling me for help than I have had in all the other years combined.

Before I began working in college admissions, I counseled women, lectured and wrote books on topics such as The Superwoman Syndrome. I did everything I could to talk women out of being superwomen; you know, "trying to have it all by doing it all." Today our country is filled with "supergirls" and "superboys," who suffer many of the same health and mental health consequences of superwomen; in their case, trying to do it all in order to get into the highest-ranking, most prestigious colleges they can. "Super-dom" wasn't good for women and it's clearly not good for students.

Like so many other things in life, it's useless to just complain about college admissions. Small or big, we've got to do something about it. A few years ago I helped put together Admit One, a college admissions program for underserved students sponsored by the San Diego Public Library system. Similar programs are beginning to emerge throughout the country. Bringing the college admissions mess to the attention of a wider audience is my next step. What's yours?