November 2021, The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

During the college admissions process, students may have the opportunity to interview with an admissions representative, an alum, or a current college student. These conversations help students present themselves through their genuine stories, revealing their motivations and why they are interested in a particular college.

This month, I spoke with El Segundo resident Sheila Miller-Nelson, communications expert and founder of Midian Consulting, about how students can best prepare for these interviews, including strategies for increasing confidence and engaging authentically, all while answering those tough questions in a virtual space.

Amber (AT): Let’s begin with one basic, yet tricky question students are often asked- “Tell me about yourself.” How can students prepare for this very broad question?

Sheila (SMN): First, it's important to make sure you have an answer prepared and that it’s natural and comfortable to deliver. There are two ways you can go. You can answer it as broadly as it was asked, such as talking about where you're coming from, your background, or your family. You get to decide what's most important to you, what you honestly want them to know. Or you go the other route and answer it very specifically. For a college interview, you could answer the question about yourself in terms of your educational background and discuss your proudest moments in school.

Remember, this is not a 10 minute speech but probably a 30 to 45 second answer because if the interviewer wants to know more, they can ask more. The challenge is when we haven't created the answer beforehand, it just becomes a winding road and we won't know where to stop. They'll likely have to cut us off and that's really not a powerful way to start...

AT: Preparing your answer ahead of time ensures that you are telling the stories that are important to you. My biggest tip for students is to make sure they know the three topics they want to cover no matter how the interview proceeds. Then they can strive to incorporate those stories and values into their answers. Do you have any advice for helping students accomplish this, especially on Zoom?

SMN: I suggest taping your list of topics next to your camera. If you put the list on your desk, and you look down, it is less natural and the interviewer is seeing the top of your head. When your list is up next to your camera, you can just look away for a second, and that’s less distracting. Also, I would have as few words as possible on your list, and write them large and clear, and also in different colors.

AT: That’s a great idea! One of the biggest benefits of a Zoom interview is being able to have your cheat sheet with you. So if a student wants to make sure they share stories about how they are loyal, hard-working and a nature enthusiast, they can write each word in a unique color on a Post-It note and stick that right up by their camera. Do you have any other suggestions for making the most of this virtual space?

SMN: One of the biggest impacts you can make is to look into the camera when you are speaking. People tend to forget that looking in the camera is the equivalent of looking the interviewer in the eye. When you’re introducing yourself and speaking, ensure that you’re looking into the camera. When the other person is speaking it makes sense to go ahead and look at their picture so you can absorb their facial expressions.

AT: In today’s virtual world, would you say that looking directly into the camera when you’re speaking is the equivalent of a firm handshake?

SMN: Yes, it definitely helps bridge the gap and create a personal connection with the audience. When I coach people on the handshake, it's also about being confident in your posture, not just the hand gesture. So I also recommend that if the student can, and it is comfortable, to stand during the interview because that boosts your energy. By standing, you are less likely to slip into a relaxed posture. If standing isn’t an option, then be sure to sit up tall to express your confidence.

AT: One of the questions that students find most challenging to answer confidently is, “Tell me about one of your weaknesses.” How do you recommend students answer this vulnerable question?

SMN: As humans, we're often not comfortable saying, “I'm not good at this.” But the person interviewing you knows that they’re not perfect and they don’t expect you to be perfect. Be realistic with yourself. Pick a challenge you have, think about why you have it and state it in a way that does not sound devastating.

For example, if time management is a challenge, a student might say, “I’m really social and participate in many activities, and sometimes that tends to not go well with time management and I have to start cramming. Although I have great grades and get my work done on time, I know it will be beneficial for me to continue to improve my planning and scheduling and stick to it.”

AT: I like how you encourage students to be both honest and self-aware. They shouldn’t sweep their weakness under the rug, but instead explain how it genuinely impacts their life, in both positive and negative ways. The weakness question also gives students the opportunity to talk about what they are doing to address their weakness as that shows growth and maturity.

Given the complexity of many of these interview questions, it’s vital for students to practice their delivery. However, practicing with parents can be challenging as they might want their student to sound hyper-intellectual, or may even let bad habits slide because they are so accustomed to seeing them. Practicing with a close friend, however, is also not representative of a real-life interview scenario. With whom do you recommend students practice?

SMN: I encourage students to find a teacher who is willing to spend time with them, a neighbor who can be encouraging, or perhaps someone from their church, scouts or NCL. Ask your partner to ensure that everything you say is backed up with some proof. Your character traits and goals are most impactful with a powerful personal example to support them. Lastly, the student needs to be receptive to hearing feedback and consider incorporating it into their interview.

AT: Prepping answers for an interview can certainly take work, but I always remind students they are also allowed to ask questions along the way! What suggestions do you have to help students make the most of this opportunity?

SMN: Don’t ask questions you can easily find the answer to on Google. Create questions less about statistical things, like average class size, and more about the school’s environment and culture. This is your chance to dig deeper. Students should have a basis for why they are asking each question. This shows the interviewer you are an inquisitive person, and they learn more about your character and what kind of student you are. Also, I recommend students ask the interviewer a question that is personal to them. For example, “What is the thing you find most engaging about this school?”

AT: It’s important for students to keep in mind that this interview should be conversational and that they can ask the person to share their direct experiences. After all, the interviewer knows the college well and is invested in helping the prospective student understand how their campus is unique from others.

Lastly, I want to go back to that all-important Post-It note where students list the top three topics they want to cover. What happens if the interview is about to conclude and the student hasn’t been able to work in one of their key stories? Is there a way to pivot the conversation, and say “There’s one more thing I want you to know about me.”?

SMN: Absolutely. It shows confidence and that you advocate for yourself. Find a phrase that suits the situation and have a strategy for how to bring up each topic that hasn’t worked itself into the interview. For example, a student could say, “Before we go, there’s one differentiator about me that I didn't get to express.” State the differentiator, and always have some proof to back it up. You can even write a transition word underneath each of your three topics on your Post-It note as a reminder of how you’ve practiced inserting it into the story. Whether you have this last bit to add or not, maintain your energy, good posture, eye connection and a smile to leave the interviewer with a strong, confident impression.

October 2021, The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

In the 2021 Princeton Review survey of College Hopes and Worries, 82% of parents said that financial aid, including educational loans, scholarships, and grants, would be “extremely” or “very” necessary to pay for their child’s college education.

Paying for college consistently ranks as one of the top concerns for families, so let’s review the basics and explore resources to help families navigate the financial-aid process with increased confidence.

Financial aid comes from three primary sources: the federal government, state grant programs, and the colleges and universities themselves. These institutions determine a student’s eligibility to receive financial aid based primarily on the answers provided on the annual FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Always free to submit, the FAFSA opens on October 1st for students seeking financial aid the following school year. Therefore, students applying to college, or continuing their education, for the 2022-2023 school year are now eligible to fill out the FAFSA...

The FAFSA is a student-document, as all funding received—including grants, loans, or work study—is the student’s responsibility to manage. However, dependent students need to provide financial information for their legal parent(s) and themselves. It is crucial to know there are separate sections on the FAFSA to input student and parental assets and income information, and that accuracy is vital to the FAFSA formula.

Each year, the FAFSA asks for students’ and parents’ prior-prior year tax information, which means students applying for aid for 2022-2023 will provide their 2020 tax returns. For convenience, families are encouraged to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), built directly into the FAFSA, to auto-populate the required fields from their linked tax documents.

The website provides a wealth of resources, including a list of required financial documents and step-by-step instructions to fill out the FAFSA. It includes an interactive chat feature and links to contact a representative with questions.

Families are responsible for checking each college’s financial-aid website to determine specific deadlines and requirements, as they vary by institution, and parents or students can call the college with questions at any time during the process. Many colleges have additional financial-aid applications, and more than 170 highly selective and public flagship colleges ask students to submit the CSS Profile—a longer, more comprehensive financial-aid form used to determine institutional aid.

One of the biggest mistakes families make is not submitting the FAFSA because they think they will not qualify for financial aid. This can be a missed funding opportunity for many students. Few families can afford to pay the full sticker price of college, especially when many institutions cost upwards of $80K. Some of the largest funding comes directly from the colleges themselves to bridge the gap between the cost of attendance and what a family can afford. If a family does not submit its financial-aid documentation, then the school will lack the information it needs to assess affordability and grant monetary aid to the student.

Not submitting the FAFSA can also be risky in some scenarios. In the unfortunate event that a student’s family suffers a tragedy—for example, the death of a parent or a loss of income—a college can re-assess financial-aid needs, even in the middle of a school year. This can be simple if the family has its financial-aid paperwork on file. However, the process becomes much more complicated and stressful when the school does not have the initial financial-aid documentation.

Additionally, some colleges do not allow students to file for financial aid in subsequent years if they do not submit the FAFSA for their freshman year. This situation can put families at a serious disadvantage if they encounter any changes to their income and assets. So I always encourage families to take the time to fill out the FAFSA, and any other required financial-aid documentation, right from the start. It’s a potential safety net that can be well worth the effort.

August 2021, The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

Students heading off to college this fall have a summer filled with to-dos, from the fun to the challenging to the mundane. They get to pick out twin XL bed sheets and discuss who’s bringing the mini-fridge for the dorm. They register for classes, sign student loan documents and figure out which treasured possessions are making the move.

Here are eight lesser-known tips and to-dos (mini-lessons in adulting), and a bonus suggestion for parents, that promote a can-do spirit and a successful transition to college.

1. Get in the habit of checking college email daily

Once a student commits, they start receiving vital communications from various campus departments, often from folks with unfamiliar titles, such as the Bursar, the Registrar, and Dean of Students. Because college business isn’t conducted on TikTok or Instagram, students must check their college email regularly and complete all action items promptly.

While managing these tasks and deadlines are the students' responsibilities, parents can help their children figure out how to complete the forms and tasks, but should not expect to receive their own emails about the specific action items. Therefore, students need to ask questions and get help if they don’t know how to resolve pending items...

2. Explore the college website for clubs and activities

There’s no need to wait until the fall student activities fair to learn about campus clubs. Over the summer, students can explore the college website to check out club opportunities, activities and campus traditions.

The “Campus Life” tab on a college’s website is a good starting place, and students can check out social media sites to learn more. By checking out a club’s posts, incoming students can see how active the organization is, and get a sense of the club’s culture, all before stepping onto campus.

3. Research student services and accommodations

Every campus I’ve toured has proudly announced they promote student success by offering free academic resources, including a writing center, quantitative tutoring, academic and career advising and a study abroad office. When students are aware of the resources and how to use them, they can feel confident knowing where to go on campus when they need help.

For students who used accommodations in high school, it’s crucial to make a summer appointment with the college’s support and disability services department to ensure necessary accommodations are in place before the term begins. Too often, students wait until they are struggling to reach out for help; with accommodations, it’s always best to have them in place before they are needed.

4. Get to know your new hometown

Students can familiarize themselves with the campus map and surrounding town to increase their comfort level those first few weeks when everything is new. They can program key addresses into their phone and use a map to orient where their dorm is in relation to the dining hall, their classes, the student center, health services, athletic facilities and more.

If students want to make a Target run, see a movie, or get boba, they need to be able to figure out how to get to their destination from campus. So, it’s also a good idea to figure out what type of public transportation is available and ask if the school offers any free or subsidized passes.

5. Schedule Doctors’ Appointments and Understand Health Insurance and Care Options

During the summer, students should visit their regular health professionals to get a check-up, update prescriptions and schedule required vaccinations. When students visit their doctors before leaving for college, it can be easier to schedule future tele-health appointments and get prescription refills.

This year, many colleges are asking for proof of the Covid-19 vaccination, and it’s best to have all of your paperwork submitted before you arrive. “You don’t want to create an emotional brewhaha on move-in day,” advises Catherine McDonald Davenport, VP for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions at Dickinson College where students can’t get the keys to their room until all vaccination paperwork is submitted.

Continuity of care is vital for students who see mental health professionals. So it’s important to discuss how mental health services can be continued or transferred to another professional in the student’s new town. I encourage students to understand the mental health resources available on campus, assess how they align with their needs, and program the phone number for mental health services into their phone. Even if they don’t need it, they might encounter a friend who needs the number to reach out for help.

Health insurance is another college must-have and requirements vary from campus to campus. Some colleges enroll all students in their own health care plan, while others let students opt out of the school insurance when they provide proof of their own insurance by a specified deadline.

If a student decides to use their personal health insurance, they need to understand how they will access regular and urgent medical care in their new hometown. Families can call their insurance provider to see if they offer “Away From Home Care,” a service that allows students to establish a guest membership in another state to increase coverage for routine and preventative care.

6. Get savvy about your student budget

Heading off to college can be costly, with many expenses outside of the fixed costs of tuition, room and board. To encourage healthy spending habits, families should discuss an appropriate personal budget for their student’s dining out, activities, books, supplies, transportation and other miscellaneous costs.

Many students set up a college checking account and have access to both a debit and credit card for use. It’s important for students to understand the differences between a debit card and a credit card, and the scenarios in which to use them. If your family bank doesn’t have a branch in your student’s college town, they may want to consider establishing an account with a local bank closer to campus for the ease of deposits and withdrawals.

7. Understand and discuss FERPA as a family

The Family Educational Rights and Protection Act, also known as FERPA, protects the privacy of student records. Under this federal law, parents and legal guardians are not allowed to have detailed conversations about their student’s billing, grades and physical and mental health, unless students have provided consent by signing an official Authorization to Release Information form. This form can usually be found on a college’s website and may be discussed during orientation.

It’s important for families to have a conversation about FERPA ahead of time so students understand the impact of authorizing the release of their information. Davenport says parents can use these words to explain the significance to their student: “We want to be able to support you, so it’s helpful for you to sign this waiver so we can have a conversation on your behalf.”

The risk of not signing the FERPA release form is that nobody can have a conversation about the student unless it is a dire circumstance (such as hospitalization or unconsciousness) where the student is incapable of providing consent.

Other legal documents families should discuss include a healthcare proxy (medical power of attorney), HIPAA authorization (to access information from health care institutions) and durable power of attorney to make financial decisions on the student’s behalf.

8. Be patient and know that transition is tough for everyone

Harlan Cohen, author of the best-selling book The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, reports that over 66% of first-year students admit to feeling homesick or lonely at some point, and long for the comfort and familiarity of home; they miss their high school friends, old routines and mom’s mac and cheese.

Cohen suggests students should “Rename the first year THE GETTING COMFORTABLE YEAR,” and encourages students to be patient because “It takes time for it all to feel right.”

While Cohen’s book is a treasure-trove of suggestions on how to transition to college successfully, I like his advice to find “your three places on campus,” and the “five people in your corner.” Students who have different campus places (groups, activities, organizations and locations) where they can go and feel comfortable and can identify multiple people on campus (from resident assistants to professors to coaches, and many more) who can help, are more confident problem-solvers who are able to transition to college more smoothly.

Bonus Tip for Parents:

“Don’t be the problem solver,” Davenport advises parents. When your new college student has a problem, listen, offer suggestions and make recommendations of who the student can ask for help. This way, “Rather than the parent picking up the phone or sending off the email, the student is taking ownership of being a member of their new community and trying to find their way around”

Letting your student problem-solve nudges them in the direction of finding their support network, their three places and their five people at school who can help them transform their new campus into their home away from home.

July 2021, The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

For many high school seniors, writing the college essay is one of the biggest hurdles on their journey to college. Writer’s block can strike early and often, threatening to bring the whole college application process to a halt—or at least push the boundaries of those midnight submission deadlines.

The instruction to write about yourself in 650 words or fewer is a distinctly different type of assignment from the tasks usually given to students. After all, the college essay prompt is neither asking them to analyze the latest book from English class nor to write a research paper about a topic of interest.

Instead, the college essay asks students to be self-reflective and present themselves three dimensionally, providing deeper insight into who they are and who they hope to become. Alan Gelb, author of Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, says the college application essay is “the one part of the packet that you can make totally your own, unique and memorable. In a sense, it’s your thumbprint.”

Macy Lenox, associate dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia, similarly stresses the goal of presenting a unique student voice. “We say this all the time: If [the essay] dropped out of your backpack and fell on the cafeteria floor, your friend could pick it up and, even if your name wasn’t on it, know it was yours.”

To encourage students to start writing this summer, here are five tips to help them move past the blank page, work through their drafts, and ultimately be proud of their final product...

1. Worry less about picking the “right” topic.

Lenox asserts, “There’s no such thing as a golden-ticket topic. What makes the essay is not the topic; it’s how you approach your topic and what it reveals about you.”

When students stop trying to write the essay they think colleges want to read and instead start brainstorming about the essay they want to write, they create more authentic pieces that better reflect who they are. If a student is passionate about a topic, their natural enthusiasm shines through in the writing, giving admissions officers a glimpse into the type of student, roommate, and community member this person will be on campus.

And Phillips, director of enrollment management at University of Wisconsin Madison, explains that through each essay, “The voice of applicants becomes elevated as we imagine how they’ll be on campus.” The essay is really a key component that brings the student application to life, letting a college see a student beyond their transcript.

Students also need to worry less about trying to write about a topic an admissions officer has never read before. Most admissions staff read thousands of essays every year and admit to having read about every topic, from underwater basket weaving to winning the state championship, many times over.

However, students can be reassured that an admissions officer has never read their unique perspective on the subject. So while the topic may not be completely original, what will be inspired is the nuanced way the student tells the story and highlights their personal life experiences and values, putting a spin on the essay that only they can.

2. Use the essay to communicate what is not yet in your application file.

In The Truth About Colleges Admissions: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, Rick Clark and Brennan Barnard declare, “A wasted essay is one that only reiterates what they already know.” By the time the admissions officers get to the essay, they’ve already reviewed the transcript, read descriptions of extra-curricular activities, and noted any special accolades; they are now ready to glean deeper insight from the essay.

Therefore, the essay is not the place for a laundry list of activities and awards. Instead, it’s an opportunity to look back on personal experiences and ask, “What do I wish they knew about me?”

For Leonard Satterwhite of Washington and Lee University, “The essay is personalization,” and the last part of the application he reads. He tells students that he likes to see how the essay fits into the bigger picture and pulls the application together: “It’s the way I can learn and appreciate distinctive parts of you.”

3. Brainstorm to generate ideas.

Reflecting on past experiences can be daunting, so I encourage students to turn to multiple brainstorming activities to get those creative juices flowing.

Search “College Essay Guy Values Exercise” to find a short 5-minute exercise that asks students to read through a list of 100 values and identify which ones are most important. Some students identify family, collaboration, and meaningful work. While other students highlight inclusion, self-expression, and patience.

When a student knows what’s important to them, they can think of stories, pivotal moments, personal objects, and past conversations that can highlight those meaningful values, serving as anchors or hooks to the essay. As Gelb instructs, students need to be able to answer, “Why do I want to write about this topic? Why does it touch me?”

Admissions officers always encourage students to ask their personal “why” questions. Clark writes, “That’s fundamentally the point of the essay—it’s important for the applicant to examine and articulate what matters to them.”

Another helpful brainstorming exercise is for students to list 20 things a college should know about them. Students who prefer to visualize can create a personal timeline instead to highlight meaningful events, people, and places. Through this exercise, students often find great “slice of life” or “aha” moments that help them paint a larger picture.

For students who are stuck getting words on paper, hitting the record button on a voice memo can be a good strategy to access their authentic voice. Vanderbilt University’s Admissions blog even articulates how an impactful essay can be conversational: “The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.”

4. Parents can be helpful, but they can’t write the essay.

In an October 2020 Washington Post article, Adrienne Wichard-Edds interviewed multiple admissions officers who articulated why “kids need to own their college essays.”

When parents step in and write their child’s essay, Lenox cautions that students suffer a huge loss of confidence: “By doing things for them, you’re saying, I can do this better than you. Part of our job is empowering them to be advocates for themselves; to be successful in college, you’ve got to be able to use your own voice.”

Not to mention, seasoned admissions officers can spot when the language, tone, or insight in an essay shifts from that of a 17-year-old teen to a 50-year-old adult. The student voice is so powerful, that Clark argues, “When parents become a second author, they rob the essay of the very thing we’re looking for, which is the student’s voice.”

However, there are ways parents can help, from brainstorming to editing. Whitney Soule, the incoming dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, advises: “Parents can be a sounding board for an idea, asking questions that help the student develop that idea further or let them know if a description is confusing.”

Lenox supplements with direct questions: “Parents can ask, What did you mean by that? Is it clear to the audience?”

And of course, parents can proofread their student’s essay, checking for spelling and grammatical errors.

5. Lastly, writing is a process. Embrace the fundamentals and leave plenty of time.

Any writing coach will assert that effective essays are not written overnight, especially self-reflective ones. Students need to allow time for edits and even the possibility of scrapping an idea when it’s just not working out.

Because time is precious to both the writer and the reader, students should anticipate that admissions officers will read their essays very rapidly due to the volume of their caseloads. Given this reality, students need to make sure their introductions, conclusions, and topic sentences are very strong and indicative of their essays.

Another editing tip is for students to read their essays aloud. This task gives the writer a better sense of the flow and pacing of their essay, making it easier to hear when something is missing or out of place.

Before a student finishes their final draft, it’s important to check for spelling and grammatical errors. Claire Carter, editor at, declares, “Nothing’s perfect, of course, but the grammar, spelling, and punctuation in your admission essay should be as close to perfect as possible. After you’re done writing, read your essay, re-read it a little later, and have someone else read it too, like a teacher or friend—they may find typos that your eyes were just too tired to see.”

When students take the time to brainstorm, write, and edit their essays, they show colleges that they’re conscientious about their work, and ready to think critically, articulate clearly, and ultimately tackle college-level assignments. These are exactly the type of stand-out students colleges around the world are seeking to invite to their campuses.

May 2021, The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

“If you had an entire week free to yourself, what would you choose to do?”

As summer is fast-approaching, this get-to-know-you question for teens is particularly relevant.

For teens, summer can be liberating. For ten weeks, they have more freedom to choose how they spend their time than they do during the school year. While I always recommend a healthy dose of downtime, beach trips, and relaxing with friends and family, summer can provide unique opportunities for students to develop new skills, explore potential career interests, dive deeper into subjects they love, and strengthen community engagement.

When I talk to students about their high-school activities, I always ask what they chose to do during summertime. Often, students forget to include these pursuits on their college applications when creating their all-important activity lists. This can be a missed opportunity, however, as colleges definitely want to know how students spend their free time.

A summer experience can showcase a student’s passion, intellectual curiosity, and personal drive, demonstrating responsibility, involvement, and commitment. Additionally, a meaningful experience can convey what a student values most, which is the nuanced perspective colleges are seeking to understand when they read each potential student’s application...

To help your teen plan a productive yet still-relaxing summer, I’ve compiled a list of questions, opportunities, and resources to explore together as a family. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t to fill every waking moment of your teen’s day, and your first question should not be “Will this look good to the colleges?”

Instead, the more important consideration is how an activity will enable personal growth. Start by exploring your student’s natural interests and aptitudes, and let them drive the conversation about summer. Your teen will be more personally invested if they are involved in the planning. It’s also important to be mindful of your student’s overall schedule, as you don’t want them to return to school in the fall exhausted and burnt-out.

If you can encourage your teen to embrace one or two opportunities to enhance a skill, explore an interest, or engage with their community, their summer will foster growth and contain a healthy balance of fun and enrichment.

Many students use the summer to explore academic areas outside of the typical realm of high school coursework. Perhaps your student has a budding interest in archaeology, linguistics, or chemical engineering. Maybe they’ve always wanted to write a screenplay, practice speaking French, or learn 3-D modeling.

There are a multitude of colleges and programs that offer courses specifically designed for high-school students. Some of these pre-college courses will be shorter, project-based experiences and others will be longer classes available for credit. As examples, UCLA offers an international studies summer institute, while USC invites students to learn about storytelling in the digital age and the science of food, nutrition, and the biological world.

This year, many programs will be delivered online, which can significantly reduce the cost as there are no fees for room and board. Several schools, however, have committed to providing in-person opportunities and may still be taking applications. Note that some competitive programs require an application, including essays, résumés and letters of recommendation, and have deadlines as early as December and January, requiring advanced planning.

While many of these university summer programs offer opportunities with a steep price tag, high-school students can also explore new subjects through community-college coursework. Dual enrollment allows high-school students to register for classes at a local community college, often for free or minimal cost, including books and supplies. Coursework options abound, and taking a college class can demonstrate a student’s intellectual curiosity and foster time-management skills, all while providing college credit.

Many high-school students opt to take community-college courses in history and languages over the summer to complete graduation requirements. This strategy frees up space in a student’s academic-year schedule, making more time for sports, activities, or other desired coursework, including pathways, Advanced Placement classes, and the arts.

Students should always talk to their high-school counselor to ensure they are choosing the correct community-college course, especially if the class is needed to fulfill a graduation requirement. Students can also take advantage of summer coursework provided by their high school or local education foundation to advance in certain subjects, try out an artistic discipline, or fulfill a graduation requirement.

Another way students can dive into academic interests is through “MOOCs,” which are Massive Open Online Courses that are free and available for anyone to enroll. On the edX platform, there are more than 2,900 courses developed by teachers and professors around the world, on subjects in the humanities, computer science, business, languages, data science, and engineering. Students who take these types of classes show initiative for learning, and drive for personal improvement.

Other online, global coursework platforms that provide high-school students with opportunities to learn varied subjects and skills include Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and LanguageBird. Some of these options may be fee-based, and all online coursework is geared towards students who are self-motivated and comfortable with asynchronous learning.

Many of these skills-based opportunities are very hands-on, helpful for students who prefer to engage actively with their learning. For example, a Udacity course can teach a student how to code in a variety of programming languages, and a Udemy class can guide a student in the art of digital drawing.

Perhaps your student wants to learn first-aid and wilderness survival skills this summer, or how to take black-and-white photography. Maybe they want to improve their skills on the lacrosse field, the dance floor, or the marching-band field. Whatever the interest, learning a new skill or improving upon an existing one demonstrates commitment, engagement, and a dedication to self-improvement.

Often, learning a new skill can be related to career and major exploration. For the student who wants to be a lawyer, spending the summer learning the art of debate can enhance a useful skill set. A student who wants to study medicine can learn how to suture and scribe. And the student who wants to be a lifeguard can improve their ocean swimming and leadership skills. Learning and strengthening skills empowers students, increasing both their confidence and resilience.

When a student dives deeper into a potential career, they get hands-on experience that can help them identify if they want to pursue a particular path. For these reasons, many students seek out internships over the summer to engage with mentors and gain real-world experience. Some students also seek out mentors to help with independent research projects over the summer. Companies such as Polygence and Pioneer Academics connect high-school students online with expert mentors who help guide a wide range of interest projects.

Many students learn about internship opportunities from their high school’s college and career center, while others connect through their family’s personal or professional networks. For example, your family’s veterinarian or physical therapist might be able to provide job-shadowing opportunities. And a science teacher might have contacts at a local university if your student wants to get involved with research. It can also be enlightening for students to conduct informational interviews with adults who have careers they may be considering.

Having a summer job is another beneficial experience that can provide students with innumerable opportunities to develop personal responsibility and enhance communication and job-specific skills, all while earning cash. Volunteering can provide students with an opportunity to give back while developing their problem-solving abilities. Through community service and jobs, students can respond to ongoing needs in their community, develop empathy by seeing the world through a different lens, and ultimately feel like they matter.

Students can also spend the summer learning about colleges. For rising juniors and seniors, summer can provide key opportunities to research and engage with colleges. As a result of the pandemic, colleges now offer robust virtual programming, with online information sessions and tours. Attending these sessions allows teens to meet current college students, learn what makes each school unique, and gain a better understanding if a school is a good academic, social, and financial fit.

Rising seniors can take advantage of downtime in the summer, getting a jump start on their college applications, especially the essay writing, freeing up more time to enjoy their fall senior-year activities.

When teens are considering how to spend their summer, it’s important to know that there’s not one ideal résumé that will get them into college. Colleges are not looking for a checklist of activities. Instead, they want to see that teens have explored their interests, developed their skills, cultivated their passions, and meaningfully engaged with their community.

As a parent, you can help your student craft a purposeful summer by asking them, “What are your summer goals?” and “What would be a worthwhile expenditure of your time?” If your teen takes the lead in answering these questions, their choices should represent what they value, how they hope to grow, and where they desire to make an impact.

March 2021, The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

Admissions offices of colleges throughout the country are making changes to adapt to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic. This flexibility can benefit applicants.

By Amber Thompson

What do the eight Ivy League schools, every University of California and Cal State campus, Stanford, Santa Clara, Cal Tech, Loyola Marymount, and University of Washington all have in common? Along with more than 1,330 other colleges across the country, they have each announced plans to remain either test-optional or test-blind for Fall 2022 admissions.

Test-optional was one of the buzziest phrases in higher education in 2020. Last fall, more than two-thirds of U.S. colleges adopted this flexible policy, giving 2021 applicants the option to submit or not submit their standardized scores for consideration. Some schools took it a step further, becoming test-blind, and consequently not looking at any student test scores in any part of the admissions process.

Now, as we continue into 2021, and many students are still unable to sit for an exam, test-optional is becoming the new norm. FairTest is a nonprofit organization that has tracked the standardized test movement since 1985 and maintains a list of all test-optional and test-blind colleges on its website,

While COVID-19 has upended some of the traditional aspects of the college admissions process, it’s important to understand that much remains unchanged. Though higher education typically evolves at a slow pace, the pandemic necessitated a few rapid pivots as institutions adjusted to new realities.

Let’s take a look at what has changed in the college landscape, both temporarily and long-term, and what remains fundamentally the same...

First, there’s a better understanding that test-optional truly means test-optional. While many students were excited to learn they no longer had to submit test scores, there was skepticism and uncertainty about how admissions officers would view student files without an SAT or ACT score.

However, Erica Johnson, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Westminster College, explains that when a student is missing a standardized test score, “There may be one less chapter, but it was never the whole book.”

The vast majority of colleges review students holistically, which means they look closely at what each student has accomplished over four years, not just a single test score earned during one morning of that student’s life. In the holistic admissions process, colleges focus on grades, rigor of coursework, extracurricular involvement, personal essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. All of these pieces of the application provide far more insight than an SAT score, and help colleges determine which students will fit well on their campuses.

In mid-December, Tufts, Northeastern, and Boston University shared data on their early-admissions decisions, and subsequently assured students that they were not disadvantaged by not submitting a test score. At Tufts, 57% of students who applied early did not submit test scores, and of the class admitted, 56% of them had not submitted scores.

In other headlines, the number of applications at several highly selective institutions skyrocketed for Fall 2021, one result of the widespread test-optional policies. UCLA announced it received more than 139,500 applications from hopeful Bruins, a 28% increase over the previous year. Harvard had already reported a 57% increase in its early-action round, while Yale was up 38%.

However, this trend is only reflective of a small subset of highly selective schools. While several of these nationally-recognized institutions are managing record-shattering increases in their application numbers that will result in even lower acceptance rates, many colleges are actually seeing a decrease in the number of applicants.

Inside Higher Ed reported in January 2021 that “the larger and more competitive colleges and universities are having a good year and getting lots of applications. But smaller and less competitive colleges are not. And first-generation students and those who lack the money to pay for an application are not applying at the same rates they used to.” Applications are down 5% for the California State University system, which extended deadlines this year to encourage more students to apply.

As many schools remain test optional for future admissions cycles, we can predict that application numbers will continue to soar at the highly selective institutions as more students hedge their bets on receiving admission to one of these “wild card” schools. However, it’s important for students and parents to understand that there are 4,000+ degree-granting institutions in the United States and that “now, more than ever, colleges need students,” according to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech.

To stay afloat during these economically challenging times, colleges need to admit students who will enroll and pay tuition and room and board. Clark argues that if a school has the ability to grow and increase enrollment, it will take advantage of the opportunity, perhaps offering additional admissions to transfer students or inviting a class of freshmen to join in the spring. As further reassurance, Clark anticipates we will actually see higher admission rates at most colleges.

In the coming years, it will be important for students and families to look beyond the usual suspects when building their college list. Thankfully, increased virtual programming has made it easier than ever for students to learn about colleges.

When the pandemic hit and students could no longer visit campuses in person, colleges started offering a platform of creative opportunities for online engagement, including student-led tours, information sessions with admissions officers and sample classes with professors.

Kelly Waggoner, Associate Director of Admissions at Indiana University Bloomington, confirms these online programs help students figure out which colleges are a good match. “What we all want is for them to find their new homes.”

Even when we are able to travel again and visit colleges in person, online admissions programming will remain robust because it is a win-win for the colleges and prospective students. Colleges are able to reach a more diverse range of students with their targeted programming. And students can check out colleges from coast to coast, without the burden of travel costs and time, and learn which colleges meet their academic, social, and financial needs.

Moving forward, flexibility is key. Colleges are aware that students’ applications, from their transcripts to activities to letters of recommendation, will look different for years to come as we deal with the longer term effects of the pandemic and physical school closures. There’s also an acute understanding that there will be vast regional differences between students as some areas of the country experienced more disruptions than others.

Khristina Gonzalez, Associate Dean of the College at Princeton University, encourages students to “give yourselves grace for balancing” during these challenging times, as she likens students’ struggles during COVID-19 to running two marathons simultaneously. Admissions officers, all of whom are also personally experiencing the pandemic, have a heightened sense of empathy and understanding for these students whose lives have been upended.

That’s why more than 370 college deans across the nation signed the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project’s joint statement in 2020 emphasizing that they want students to prioritize self-care, balance, meaningful learning, and care for others. They stressed that students would not be disadvantaged in the college application process for not having test scores, missing letter grades on their transcripts, or a loss of activities.

Today, there is an expanded understanding of how extracurricular activities are meaningful to students, and thus valued by colleges. Seth Allen, Vice President for Strategy and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Pomona College, explains that students are “accumulating non-traditional knowledge” during the pandemic and they have the creative license to tell the colleges how they have filled their time. Jobs, family responsibilities, caring for others, social justice commitments, and hobbies are all worth sharing with colleges as they will see value in the choices students have made.

For many students, the disruptions have given them time for self-reflection. “Life has paused and changed,” declared Clark, who asks students to question, “What are those things I’m bummed aren’t happening? What do I miss? That is a good indication of passion.” Admissions officers are encouraging students to embrace this opportunity to hit the Reset button and figure out what is truly meaningful to them.

Whether you have a student applying to college in the midst of this pandemic, or years later, it’s important to understand how the college admissions landscape evolves continuously, yet always welcomes the opportunity to hear and celebrate the nuances of each student’s individual story.

February 24, 2021

10 Ways to Increase your Confidence when Choosing a College When You Can’t Visit Campus

As college admissions decisions roll in this spring, high school seniors are faced with the significant task of choosing a college when they have had limited opportunities to step onto any of the campuses they are considering.

Last April, when the class of 2020 faced similar challenges, colleges quickly created new virtual programs to engage prospective students. This year, the opportunities are even more plentiful and allow prospective students to connect with each other, and talk to current students, professors and faculty to understand if this is a college community where they see themselves thriving.

If you are a student embarking on this final leg of the journey to college, it’s time to revisit your personal list of must-haves for your college experience. Ask if your priorities now are the same as when you submitted your applications. As Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech, advises: “Figure out what your questions are and then ask everywhere. Find your truth.”

Let’s explore ten different resources you can use to become an informed consumer and get a sense of a college’s academic and social culture. By using these tools, you can confidently find your truth, and your home for the next four years, even if you can’t visit in person...

College Resources:

One of the best sources of information is the college, so keep checking your email and your school portals and be sure to take advantage of virtual Admitted Student Day events. Most schools are ramping up their efforts to welcome students into their community, showcasing academic and extracurricular opportunities. A school may offer specialized info sessions highlighting specific majors and departments. They may send emails letting you know about featured programs, such as study abroad, housing communities or unique classes. You may also get the opportunity to try out sample classes with professors, and meet fellow prospective students there too. Additionally, some schools will offer educational workshops for families on understanding your financial aid and learning how to transition smoothly to college.

The college’s website is also a treasure trove of information about the college’s mission, academic culture and social opportunities. If you’re interested in a particular major, be sure to read the course descriptions of what you will be studying and learn about the progression of coursework. See if there are any intriguing minors, concentrations or specialized programs you didn’t notice when you first decided to apply. Always check out the professor’s bios and see what they are researching, or where they work, or what they are producing if they are artists. The college website can be a great landing page for learning about extracurricular clubs and other social opportunities on campus. See which ones pique your interest, and then head over to social media to see if they have a page on Instagram.

Social Media Resources:

The college might also provide direct access for students to join Admitted Students groups on social media to connect with other prospective students. This can be a great way to get a feel for the reasons others are considering a particular school, and even make friends before you get to campus. Admissions offices usually communicate about these types of opportunities via email or student portals and verify that the students joining have all been accepted to the college.

Another social media tool is ZeeMee, which is an app that allows prospective students to connect with other students and admissions staff through increased engagement and live events. To join a particular college’s admitted student group, you may need to upload a copy of your admissions letter.

It’s also a great idea to find the social media pages for campus groups and clubs you’re interested in joining. The beauty in these groups is that they are not marketing to you like the college admissions offices are! It’s ‘real, organic culture,’ as Rick Clark explains. Find some recent posts and see how the students interact with and support each other. Check out what they are doing for fun. Ask yourself if this is a group where you could feel comfortable being yourself and growing as a student/friend/scholar/researcher/athlete/artist.

Personal Resources:

It’s always important to use your own personal network, which can be a top resource when trying to connect with current students at each campus you are considering. If you personally know a student attending a school, or know a friend of a friend, then make it a priority to have a conversation with them.

Most college students love to talk about their campus and can often empathize with the decision you have to make because they were recently in your shoes. If you don’t know someone who goes to the college, you can reach out to the Admissions Office and ask to be connected to a student who shares similar interests, whether that’s a major or an extracurricular activity, or someone who identifies similarly to you, in any number of ways. You can also check out a cool resource called The College T where current students sign up to be ambassadors and are happy to chat and answer questions.

Internet Resources:

If you’d prefer to absorb your information through reading online, has curated hundreds of interviews from students at campuses across the country. Each interviewee shares their gender, major, and extracurricular interests so you can find a voice that might be similar to yours. In the interviews, students dive into their experiences with the academic and social environments, pros and cons of the city, advice for prospective freshmen, as well as summative reasons to attend and not to attend. This is my only suggested resource with an annual fee, which is $50 a year.

A popular, free resource is where you can view student reviews and polls on many aspects of campus life. Niche can be useful for learning about dorms, food and safety, reading what students say about professors and classes, and even discovering the political affiliations of the student body. Just a warning that it’s a good idea to take random, one-off comments with a grain of salt as any student can write a review on Niche. Instead, try and focus on the general consensus on campus. If you look for the larger trends, your time on Niche can be productive and insightful.

College students are also producing video content where they give prospective students campus tours and peeks inside dorm rooms and academic buildings. They also share insight into campus traditions and daily life. You can find these videos on sites such as CampusReel and of course, YouTube, where some content will be officially curated by the college and other videos will be independently made by students.

Book Recommendation:

If you want to read a book, my go-to is The Fiske Guide by Edward B. Fiske which combines student, professor and staff feedback and annual survey results to create a comprehensive view of the academic and social life on campus. In this guide, you’ll be able to read about campus life, classroom experiences, traditions and special qualities that set a college apart from its peers. Quotes from both students and faculty enhance the overall picture that The Fiske Guide paints of each college.

While learning about colleges from home is undoubtedly challenging, if you use the resources available, and ask questions important to you to find your truth, then hopefully you can feel confident when you make your final choice and pick a college to call home!

February 2021 , The El Segundo Scene, College Talk

In this first in a series of columns, local college consultant Amber Thompson urges parents and students to prepare for—not obsess on—the college admission process.

This February, at thousands of colleges across the country, admissions officers are busy reading stacks of applications from hopeful candidates. After hitting the Submit button on these applications, students often wait months before the admissions decision arrives in their email inbox. While waiting, students and parents inevitably wonder what criteria admissions officers prioritize when they read applications.

According to a 2020 ranking of “What Colleges Look for in High School Students” from the Independent Educational Consultants Association, three of the top criteria used to assess an applicant are: rigor and challenge of coursework, high GPA in major subjects, and passionate involvement in activities. If these are the top criteria, the natural question is, how can we, as parents, support our students in achieving these goals?...

Let’s start in middle school, which is a foundational time to encourage good study habits, organizational skills and personal responsibility. These skills take time to develop, and are the hallmarks of a successful student at any age. Middle school is also the time to encourage students to explore different extracurriculars. Let them try out that new sport, activity, or class and see which ones spark their interest and encourage personal growth.

You can also research the curriculum and opportunities ahead of your student in high school. Strive to learn about any pathways or defined sequences of coursework, often most relevant in math, that begin in middle school and continue into high school.

As your student moves into 9th grade, it’s still important to encourage exploration. Even if a student participated in an activity in elementary or middle school, if they are no longer feeling an authentic connection, it may be time to let it go and try something new.

During the underclassman years, continuously assess the level of challenge that’s right for your individual student. It’s important to focus on getting good grades, while also understanding that colleges are going to be more impressed by students who challenge themselves, even if that means sometimes getting a B instead of an easy A.

In 11th and 12th grade, the college conversation can begin in earnest. Your student will be older, wiser, and ready for the self-reflection that is key to the college search process. The level of rigor and grades in their coursework these last two years are going to be very important, and college admissions want to see an upward trajectory in both.

If your student had a rocky start in high school, but is learning better study habits, increasing organizational skills, and earning better grades, colleges will take note. That improved report card is a positive sign that your student is ready to handle the academic demands of college.

During the final two years of high school, encourage your student to show increased levels of commitment, involvement, and leadership in extracurriculars and summer activities. Hopefully those foundational years of exploring have allowed your student to discover a few passions they find meaning and purpose in pursuing.

Colleges are not looking for your student to present a huge list of unrelated activities. Instead, they want students to demonstrate passionate, sustained involvement in a few extracurriculars. These activities can be inside or outside of school, and can go beyond the traditional list, involving hobbies, work opportunities, and even family responsibilities.

Along the way, always encourage your student to achieve a sense of balance between schoolwork and activities. This is a crucial life skill for college students, and ultimately you want to prepare your student to thrive wherever they enroll.

Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech and co-author of The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, explains,

“Parents love their kids, but your job as a parent isn’t to get your kid into a certain school. Your job is to prepare them for wherever they go. Build the foundation—not just academically. Wherever they land, you want them to be successful.”

Another fundamental way to prepare your student for college is to make sure you don’t start the college conversation too soon. Many of our Gen Z kids, all digital natives, have been hearing about college since they were in kindergarten. The cultural tendency to talk about higher education so early has turned college into a decades-long conversation topic, increasing the anxiety and pressure students feel about the process. It can also minimize the importance of letting students explore activities and options, and understand that it’s ok to change their minds along the way.

In The College Conversation, a Practical Companion for Parents To Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education, authors Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg explain, “At thirteen or fourteen years old, [students] may have already defined themselves, whether as a STEM kid; or an arts buff; or a jock (or found that they’re starting to be labeled as such). We hope you’ll encourage them to be open to revising or even rewriting these assumptions… Give them the opportunity to settle in and learn more about themselves without having to know what their next step should be.”

Leaving room for change is critical in the college search process because understanding of self and needs grows over time. The college that seemed perfect when a student was in 9th grade, or even earlier, may not resemble what a 12th-grader identifies as a good fit. If your student is in the thick of the college application process right now, you may watch your child change their mind based on a heightened level of self-reflection and increased opportunities to learn more about colleges.

For many families, college is the culminating goal for their child after high school graduation. But often, that leads parents and students to ask, “How will this look on the college application?” in reference to every grade earned, class taken, award received, extra-curricular pursued, or sports team joined. That constant questioning increases stress and is counterproductive.

My best advice is not to make every decision and choice your student makes about whether or not it will look good on the college résumé. Instead, if you encourage your student to find their passions, get good grades, and seek out coursework that is challenging to them, they will better understand their strengths, authentic interests, and, ultimately, the reasons why they want to attend college.