3 Ways to Use the Summer to Get a Head Start on College Applications

Most colleges open their new application cycle on August 1.  Senior year will start just a few weeks later, with many class assignments, events, and activities competing for scarce time.  Early deadlines might feel like they are far in the future, but they will loom up faster than you anticipate. Take a few steps in the summer to get ahead on your applications. 

Make an Activities Master List

Most applications ask students about how they spent their time outside the classroom.  Activities don’t have to be an official school club or team.  They could include jobs, family responsibilities, volunteer efforts, participation in faith-based groups, and important hobbies.  This isn’t just to pad your resume. Colleges are giving increasing attention to the fact that some students spend many hours a week working or caring for siblings or that a student may not be in a school club but devote their free time to beach cleanups or creating film productions.

Create a list of that includes what you did, what your responsibilities and impact were, how much time you spent each week, and what years you were involved. Go into details about projects, what you did and how you felt about completing them. If there is a teacher, coach, or adult mentor who might write a letter of recommendation, make a note of their name and contact info. Your list should lead with the activities that are most important to you, rather than strict chronological order. 

Be expansive when writing this master list. The purpose isn’t to create something that is ready to attach to an application, but to create a detailed document that you can draw from when working on your applications. It’s ok to include bullet points, paragraphs describing an event or a responsibility, or a list of awards or performance pieces.

Pro Tip: It can be a good idea to ask your parents or a close friend if they remember any activities you’ve forgotten. Short term activities like a cyber camp or film conference might slip your mind, but might be combined with other activities in your application to demonstrate a thread of a deep and enduring interest area. When my own kids applied to college, looking back at old calendars brought up several items that we had forgotten about.

Create a Common Application Account

The Common Application is a portal used by hundreds of different colleges (from Aberystwyth University (Wales) to York College of Pennsylvania) to process student applications.  Students enter their personal information, school info, and activities on one main page, that is then sent to any participating college.  The advantage for students is that they don’t have to enter basic information on a multitude of different applications. (The advantage for colleges is that students are more likely to apply to their school if it’s a relatively easy add on rather than a totally separate application portal.)

The Common App does an annual rollover to the new application cycle.  The good news is that much of a student’s data is preserved in the rollover, so a rising senior can input this data during the summer and be a step ahead when the new application cycle starts.  Student accounts are frozen for about a week during the system refresh, usually around the last week of July. 

Data entered in the Common App tab will rollover.  This includes the subsections for Profile, Family, Education, Testing, and Activities.  Sections that do not roll over include answers in the My Colleges tab (which includes college-specific questions) and invitations to recommenders (or recommendations that might have been uploaded). So you should wait to enter responses to these sections until after the rollover has occurred.  This Application Guide for First Time Students can help you create your account and start filling out the application.

Pro Tip: If you are primarily applying to colleges in California or Texas, you might not use the Common App portal for your applications. In that case, take the time to research the applications you will be using so you have a better understanding of what you will need to submit.

Start Working on Your Essays

A strong essay should be primarily about you. It’s your opportunity to tell the admissions readers the rest of the story that they don’t get from reading your transcript, activities list, and test scores. Don’t procrastinate work on pre-writing exercises that helps you define and share what values, experiences, and goals make up your story.

Many colleges use similar essay prompts from year to year.  The Common Application has announced the Personal Statement prompts for 2021-22, which includes one new prompt to replace one that wasn’t used often. This means that you don’t have to wait until applications officially open in late summer to start thinking and writing about who you are and what strengths and attributes you will bring to the college community. If this is an area you want help on, maybe an Admissions Decrypted Essay Coaching Package is something to consider.

Pro Tip: You should always write essays and other supplemental writing responses in a document and paste them into applications. This allows you to use spell check and word count tools and protects you from losing hours of work if there is a system glitch in the application.

Each of these tasks takes time, usually more time than expected.  Getting a head start on completing college applications can relieve pressure from looming fall deadlines and allow headspace for putting together a high-quality application.  Don’t panic when you can’t access your Common App account during the system refresh.  Use this time to work on other tasks (like essays) so you are ready to go when rollover is complete. If you’d like help with your college applications or college planning, get in touch; I’d love to be part of your team.

Advanced Placement for Homeschoolers

Last week, I dropped my youngest kid at his last Advanced Placement exam. For me as a homeschool parent, this is the eighth year of navigating AP as a homeschooler. My kids have studied a bunch of AP courses, some with amazing online providers, one in a coop class I taught and some at home with me. I even learned to navigate the Course Audit process

We had a couple mid-year moves, which made exam registration fun, “Hi, I’d like to register my kids to take AP tests at your school. No, I don’t know what district we are going to live in.” One exam coincided with the outbreak of California wildfire season. I could smell one fire while waiting at a coffee shop during the first exam, and the second exam was rescheduled when the high school holding the exam became an emergency shelter.

We were also the beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers. Public and private school counselors and AP coordinators helped us find test spots (even when our closest local school barred the door). Other homeschoolers shared their insights about the Course Audit, creating a syllabus, and finding test spots (though I won’t miss the annual “AP Exam Commiseration” thread on my favorite homeschool boards). I wrote most of this post in the car after dropping the youngest off for his Calculus test. I hope it offers some help to those who are following behind us.

What is Advanced Placement?

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college level courses available to high school students. Students take an exam at the end of the course and can receive college credit based on their score. So Advanced Placement is a specific brand of college level courses, not just shorthand for high level or advanced work. College Board (the same organization that does the SAT and PSAT) controls the course content, exam content, and scoring. A course cannot be listed as AP on a transcript unless the teacher has submitted their syllabus for approval through the CB Course Audit (more on that later). However, students can register to sit for an AP exam without taking an approved AP course. They might have taken another high-level course that covers similar content, or they might have self-studied for the exam. Since college credit is based on the exam score, this is a way for students to get credit for work they did during high school.

Can Homeschoolers Do Advanced Placement?

There are currently 37 different AP courses in seven categories, including art, English, history and social science, math and computer science, world languages, and science. Homeschoolers can sit for these AP exams (with two exceptions) This means there are lots of options for homeschool students to use Advanced Placement to dig into a subject area they are interested in.

The exceptions are the two courses in the AP Capstone Diploma program, AP Research and AP Seminar. Schools must apply for and be approved for the AP Capstone Diploma program. Students can only enroll in AP Research and AP Seminar (and complete the end of course tasks and exam) if they attend an approved school.  Homeschool students and online providers are specifically not eligible for these courses, by College Board policy for the program.

How Do Homeschoolers Register for an AP Exam?

There is no centralized, online registration for the exams. Instead registration is done by the high school offering the exams. Not all schools offer all exams, and some schools do not welcome outside students to their test administrations. This might mean as a homeschooler you will need to contact many schools to find one that is willing to register your student. It helps to first find schools you know are offering the course. Sometimes this is listed on the high school or school district website. You can also check the AP Course Ledger to find schools in your area that are authorized by College Board to offer each AP course this year. The Course Ledger is a good search starting point, but in my experience wasn’t always current on course offerings and was no guarantee that a specific high school would welcome a homeschooler for the exam.

Once you’ve located area schools that are offering a specific AP course, you will need to contact each school to ask about exam registration for homeschoolers. It is best to contact the school’s AP Coordinator. If this position isn’t listed on the school website, call the Counseling Center or Main Office and ask for the AP Coordinator. Once you get ahold of them, ask if they will be allowing homeschooled students to test there that year and what the registration process is. My experience was that the first person to answer the phone might not be well informed about registration for outside students, so it was better to hold off on a detailed explanation until I was talking to the AP Coordinator.

Some states’ homeschool laws require public schools to accommodate homeschoolers for testing (ex. Virginia), but this is the exception rather than the rule. It’s very possible that your local public school will not allow homeschoolers to test on campus. If this is the case, you will need to continue contacting schools until you find one that is willing to register homeschoolers. In some cases, private schools were more willing to offer a seat than local public schools were.

College Board has a fee for AP exams ($95 in 2021) that homeschoolers should expect to pay at registration, even if the district does not charge its own students to take the test. College Board also allows schools to charge administrative fees when registering outside students. The schools we used did not have additional charges, but I’ve heard this is common in other areas. If you are looking for an exam that the school doesn’t normally offer, some schools will coordinate proctoring if you pay for the cost of the proctor in addition to the test fee. This can get expensive, but might be less than the cost of traveling to a more distant site that doesn’t charge. If you do end up in the position of paying for a proctor, it may be worth putting the word out on boards and email lists for homeschoolers; you may find other interested students who would be willing to split the cost.

A couple years ago, College Board changed the exam registration deadline for schools to the fall. There is some leeway to allow homeschoolers to register later, but high schools might be reluctant to open registration a second time in the spring. My suggestion is to be in touch with high schools early in the fall, so you have time to call around.

Keep in mind that College Board has specific requirements for how far apart students sit during the exam, how seating is arranged, and even the shape of the tables. The closest high school might not have space available for many outside students, especially in commonly taken exams. Know your state law (to know if you should have access). If they say they aren’t offering that exam or are out of space, ask if they can suggest another school that might be able to accommodate your student. One year, we moved to a new state and I was scrambling to find seats for AP European History, which no public school in the area was offering. I ended up on the phone with the AP Coordinator for the state Department of Education, who was trying to help me find a test location. In the end, she gave me contact info for a local private school I would never have called on my own, with a personal referral to their Dean of Students. In this case, it paid off to stay calm and polite while asking for assistance.

In 2020, College Board was forced to turn to digital exams administered at home. In 2021, there was a mix of traditional paper-based exams and digital exams, depending on the choice of individual schools. It’s possible that future years will make it easier for homeschoolers to register for and take AP exams.

How to Take Advanced Placement Courses as a Homeschooler

There are lots of ways for homeschoolers to prepare for an AP exam. The most direct is to take a course that has gone through a Course Audit and been authorized as an official AP course. Many online homeschool curriculum providers offer authorized courses. There are also providers who create curriculum for students who attend schools without official AP courses or who might not be able to fit an AP course into their schedule. Remember that the online course will not be in a position to coordinate exam registration. You will need to do that yourself.

It is also possible for a homeschool coop instructor or an individual homeschool parent to create a syllabus the follows official course guidelines and submit it for approval. This is a process I went through for AP English Literature and Composition, AP US Government and Politics, AP Comparative Politics, and AP European History. These were content areas I knew well and felt comfortable teaching. I created the AP US Government and Politics syllabus for a coop I was teaching; the others were just for my own kids.

Some students sit for an AP exam without taking an official course. This lets them demonstrate mastery that comes from other courses or self-study. This might be a good option for students who use classical education styles or a chronological study of history, or who have a subject area of deep personal interest. Remember that the exams are designed to test understanding at the end of a course with specific guidelines and learning objectives. It’s wise to spend some time with a course study guide and understand how free response sections are scored.

It is also common for native and heritage language speakers who are well prepared in a world language to take an AP exam for that language early in high school (or even in middle school). This gives them a way of demonstrating high level ability with the language, while opening up their high school schedule for other courses. (The official policy of College Board is that courses should only be labeled AP on a transcript if they are offered in grades 9-12. World languages are the exception to this policy.)

Labeling Advanced Placement Courses on Homeschool Transcripts

Because Advanced Placement is a brand label and not just a description of rigorous classes, you should only call a course AP if it has been approved through the College Board Course Audit process. So what do you do if you didn’t know about Course Audit, or missed the submission deadlines, or had a vision for a course that didn’t line up with the AP course guidelines. A common work around is to label the course as Honors or Advanced and indicate that it included taking the AP exam.

For example,
Advanced German with AP Exam
Latin IV with AP Exam
Honors Calculus with AP Exam

You can also explain the course in detail in the course descriptions you prepare to submit with college applications. This is another place to explain that the class included preparation for an Advanced Placement exam.

Advanced Placement isn’t the only way for homeschoolers to demonstrate academic rigor, but it can be one tool in your toolbox. I have fond memories of doing AP Comparative Government when we spent a month on the road during a cross country move. I also really enjoyed the time discussing poetry and literature as part of AP English Lit (though my son ended up writing on The Odyssey, a book he’d read for fun as the topic of his long essay). If AP classes meet your goals, don’t be afraid of them, but do stay on top of the exam registration timeline.

What Will College Cost?

person holding black ceramic teapot

For many families, financial fit is a key part of the college list building process. These families realize that being able to afford the cost of attending a college is at least as important as being admitted. They arm themselves with information about their family budget, financial aid practices, and where their student is likely to receive substantial financial aid. Read on and you can join the ranks of informed and prepared families.

Total Cost of Attendance = Direct Costs + Indirect Costs

When weighing the cost of attending a college, it’s important to consider both the direct costs, what you pay directly to the college, and indirect costs, other expenses that come from being a college student. Tuition, fees, housing, food, and books are examples of direct costs. Transportation, bedding and other dorm supplies, entertainment, clothing, toiletries, computers, laundry, club & activity costs, and fraternity/sorority expenses are examples of indirect costs. Some colleges make a reasonable effort to estimate the overall cost of attendance, but it pays to look at the assumptions. James Madison University, for example, includes transportation, personal costs, and even loan fees in their cost of attendance estimate. But students who live far from Virginia might find the estimated travel costs too low, and students with more expensive entertainment and recreation interests may find they have to boost their personal expenses costs at most of their colleges.

In State vs Out of State Tuition

You might have noticed a difference in the tuition costs depending on if the student is “In State” or “Out of State.” This a practice that recognizes the fact that public colleges receive some financial support from state governments. In essence, residents of the state are already supporting the college through their tax dollars. Sometimes this is listed as two separate tuition rates. Sometimes, non-residents are charged a non-resident supplement or surcharge in addition to the regular tuition rate.

States set their own policies about what qualifies a student as a resident for the purpose of tuition. Requirements vary, but typical considerations include where the student lives and graduated from high school, what state of residence the parents claim, and administrative evidence of residency such as paying income tax or registering to vote. Military families, expat families, and students who split their time between divorced parents may need to provide additional information in support of state residency claims. It may be difficult to establish residency after starting as a student at the college (in other words, most states don’t count time living in the state as a student as a compelling reason to adjust residency for the purpose of tuition). I highly recommend finding the college or state guidelines for demonstrating residency and reading them carefully. What worked for your neighbor a decade ago or your cousin in another state might not prove insightful in your family’s situation. Don’t be afraid of asking questions of the college (the registrar often handles this type of question) or of asking for an appeal based on additional information. As an example, these are the In State Residency guidelines for Virginia.

Types of Financial Aid

There are two main categories of financial aid and several ways that aid can be provided. How a college determines eligibility for financial aid and how they package it depends on a combination of the college’s resources and priorities and the student’s family resources and perceived value to the college.

Assistance can be in the form of grants (money that does not have to be paid back), work study (money earned through specific campus jobs), and loans (money that will have to be paid back). This aid might come from the Federal government (ex, Pell Grants, Federal Work Study, or Federal Student Loans) or from the college itself.

Need-Based Aid is financial aid that is offered because the college has determined the student and their family have fewer financial resources that could be used to pay for college costs. This determination is made through a review of financial aid applications, specifically the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and/or the CSS Profile (a separate financial aid application used by about 300 colleges).

The FAFSA is required if students wish to use Federal Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Work Study, or Pell Grants. There is no cost to submit the FAFSA, which opens the October before the school year in which financial aid would be used and considers income from the “prior-prior” tax year. In other words, students who are seeking federal aid for the 2022-23 school year would submit the FAFSA that is available starting October 2021 and would use income data from 2020.

The CSS Profile is used by a smaller number of colleges, that are usually private or highly selective, and that often give large amounts of need based aid to help pay for heftier costs of attendance. The CSS Profile is administered by College Board, and there is a charge to submit each application (fee waivers are available to low-income families). The CSS Profile asks far more questions in order to create a picture of family financial resources that goes beyond income and savings. The colleges that are most generous with need-based aid, tend to require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. [List of CSS Profile colleges and programs.]

Non-Need Based Aid, sometimes called Merit Aid is financial aid that is not awarded because of the student’s family financial status. This aid might be labeled as scholarships and might be automatic, based on grades and test scores, or be competitive, with additional application requirements. Sometimes colleges will discount tuition for students in order to encourage them to enroll. Their experience is that a family may lean more favorably towards a college that offers a $20,000 discount labeled a “scholarship” than towards another college that simply prices its tuition $20,000 lower. The process of deciding how much discount each family might need to encourage their commitment is part of Enrollment Management, a growing industry used by colleges around the country.

Both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile produce a number that represents how much those formulas think a family should contribute EACH YEAR towards the cost of attendance. This is labeled the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), a figure that may feel out of reach to many families, especially those who live in high cost of living areas. [The EFC is being renamed the Student Aid Index (SAI) starting in 2023. There are also some changes to the FAFSA coming at the same time, that will increase aid eligibility for low-income students. More about these changes will be coming out in 2022, but for now, Jeff Levy has a good overview of the changes.] Unfortunately, very few colleges meet 100% of demonstrated need. Instead, students find that after federal and institutional aid is subtracted from the cost of attendance, there remains both the EFC and additional unmet need. This is often called gapping.

So how do you come up with an estimate of how much your family would have to pay?

Net Price Calculators (NPC) are available on most college websites*. They ask for some of the same information required by the FAFSA or CSS Profile and will usually produce an estimate that includes Federal aid (including Federal Student Loans!), applicable state grants, and typical grants offered by the college. The more detail an NPC asks, the more accurate its results are likely to be. However, they are only an estimate and are not binding on future offers from the financial aid office. For example, here is a Net Price Calculator for University of Virginia. NPCs are usually updated shortly before the new application cycle begins in August. The easiest way to find them is to do an internet search for the name of the college and Net Price Calculator. *Federal law requires colleges that accept Federal aid to have a Net Price Calculator. Some colleges that do not accept Federal aid will not have this tool on their website. If that is the case with a school you are considering, contact the college financial aid office for more information about expected costs and institutional aid.

The Common Data Set (CDS) is a set of questions and responses that use a common format across all participating colleges. This provides information about admissions, costs, class size, number of degrees in each major, and financial aid. Section H is the section that includes Financial Aid results. You will be able to see how many students requested need-based aid; how many were determined to have need; how many received need-based grants, self-help (work study), or other grants; and what percentage of need was met. You can continue to the next set of responses to see how much non-need based aid was awarded the same year. Pay attention to both the percentage of students awarded aid and the size of the award. Question H5 addresses how many students took out loans and the average size of the loans. Be aware that this may not include all loans taken out by parents, such as home equity loans used to pay for college costs. This is the 2020-21 Common Data Set for University of Virginia. These are most easily found by searching for the college name and Common Data Set, then selecting the most recent year.

Another valuable resource is an annual Need Based and Merit Aid spreadsheet compiled by Jeff Levy and Jenny Kent of Big J Consulting. They pull data on need-based aid and non-need based aid from several hundred colleges and put it into a spreadsheet that can be sorted by field. If your family has high need, look for colleges that has a high number in “Average Percent of Need Met.” If your family has a high EFC but wants to control college costs, look for colleges that have a high number in “Percentage of Non-Need Undergraduates Receiving Merit Aid.” But keep a close eye on the amount of “Average Merit Aid Award” and remember that it may be subtracted from a higher cost of attendance figure, leaving a higher overall cost of attendance.

I know this may feel both confusing and overwhelming. It may seem like a lot of alphabet soup and really high numbers. Awareness is an important first step. Too often, families neglect these steps and apply to colleges without considering how much they will be expected to pay – each year of attendance. Spring of senior year rolls around and a student with hard-earned admissions decisions finds that few if any of her choices are actually affordable. It’s better to have this awareness of cost and affordability earlier in the process. When I am supporting client families through this process, I always ask them to make an honest assessment of their college budget and estimated need, so that when we create their student’s college list, at least some of the schools are affordable and likely to admit their student.

Update for April 2021


Colleges Still Accepting Applications: While some colleges received more applications than usual, resulting in lower than usual admissions rates, this was mostly limited to a small number of colleges that turn down the majority of applicants. Other colleges are still accepting applications, and many of these even have financial aid available. NACAC publishes this list each year and will continue to update it through the summer.

More Colleges Announce Covid Vaccine Requirement: A growing list of colleges have announced that they will require students to have covid vaccines in order to attend in person classes in Fall 2022 (with some exceptions for medical and religious reasons). These decisions are affected by experience of student outbreaks in previous semesters as well as requirements and restrictions from state governments. Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping a list of colleges with vaccination requirements for students and/or employees.

Over 1,400 Colleges Will Not Require Tests for Fall 2020 Admissions: Last spring there was a rolling shift to test optional admissions at most colleges as a response to a lack of access to SAT and ACT tests. A big question for Class of 2022 students has been if this would hold for them as well. A significant number of colleges have announced that they will in fact stick with their test optional policy for the Fall 2022 admissions cycle. Fair Test keeps the most up to date list of test optional and test blind colleges.

Best long read: What happens when colleges use AI to run help chat bots, grade assignments, and even weigh in on admissions decisions? Is it effective? Is it fair? From Admissions to Teaching to Grading, AI Is Infiltrating Higher Education The Hechinger Report. [By the way, The Hechinger Report is definitely a site to watch if you like long form reporting on education topics.]

Meanwhile, back at the office: There were a few big happenings for Admissions Decrypted this month.

First, I was invited to be part of two great podcasts. Fellow Naval Academy alum asked me to join him on  The Goohay Podcast. He’s a great interviewer and I had a lot of fun talking about how parents should approach college admissions. Fun fact, my fast combat stores ship was the assigned replenishment ship for his aircraft carrier. Our podcast reminded me of those underway replenishment days at sea, when the ships would be full of activity as fuel, food, and mail were passed from one to the other. The Goohay Podcast is similarly fast-paced and full of good stuff.  [Goohay is another word for gouge, the helpful information one shipmate passes to another.]

The second podcast was a session with Amanda Huffman, a recognized military podcaster who does both the Women of the Military podcast and the newer Girls Guide to the Military. Amanda’s goal is to be a straight-talking resource for women who are considering the military. We talked specifically about the different types of service academy nominations, where to get them, and how to request them.  Girl’s Guide to the Military: Service Academy Nomination Tips.

The last big change here has been moving my office set up from a corner of a bedroom back into my office. Last spring, our sons came home from college spring break and then stayed for several months. That resulted in a quick scramble to create spaces that could accommodate college students on drastically different remote schedules. Now that one has graduated and the other is back at school, it was time to shift back. A few people have already commented on the new setting. I hope you’ll be able to see my new digs in an upcoming meeting soon.  

Tips for Finding College Fit

Building a college list shouldn’t just be picking names off a rankings list or applying where your best friend wants to go. Your time at college is likely to be an important period of personal and professional development as well as one of the most significant financial decisions your family makes. It’s worth your time to investigate if the colleges you are considering are places that will allow you to grow as an individual.

I wrote these tips to help you start thinking about what you are hoping to do in college and what factors might make a college a good fit for you.

Decide what you want from college

  • A broad curriculum that allows for exploration
  • Support for a focused academic goal
  • Mentoring and training related to a future career
  • An interdisciplinary program that draws from many departments
  • Advising for professional programs (like medical or law school)?
  • Maximum transfer credit for work you’ve already done

If you know why, figuring out where will be easier

Decide what factors are important to you

Colleges can be categorized by many qualities such as:

  • Location: state, urban/suburban/rural, distance from family
  • Size: small <3k, medium 3-10k, large 10-20k, very large >20k
  • Academic programs: Majors, minors, interdisciplinary programs
  • Student body makeup: Diversity, student veterans, older students, students with families
  • Available housing: Campus housing, local apartments, living with family
  • Campus atmosphere: Competitive/collaborative, politically active, ties to community
  • Other personal factors: Disability support, sports, internships & coops

As you make lists of factors that matter to you, try to categorize them by which are essential vs those that would be nice to have.

What are dealbreakers and where are you flexible?

Clarify your budget

Tuition varies by college. Fees, books, housing, food and transportation add to the Cost of Attendance. Use tools like Net Price Calculators (on each college website) to estimate what you are likely to pay at different schools. Understand the difference between scholarships, grants, and loans. Some colleges offer the majority of students some tuition grants; others reserve financial aid to students with demonstrated financial need. You can get an idea of their past actions by looking at the Net Price Calculator or Section H of the college’s Common Data Set.

If you are eligible for special education benefits, such as the WUE tuition discounts, GI Bill and other veterans’ benefits, or state scholarship programs like the Hope Scholarship (Georgia) or Bright Futures Scholarship (Florida), take the time to read and understand the requirements and limitations of the program. There is nothing worse than being on the edge of enrolling at a favorite school then realizing you’d missed a deadline or some other requirement and would not receive that financial support.

Know what you can afford and what aid colleges are likely to offer; don’t rely on consecutive miracles.

Look beyond labels

Read descriptions of majors in both the college catalog and departmental websites. Look at degree requirements and sample course plans. Some degrees have options for concentrations within a major.

You may find significant differences in programs at different colleges. The sample course plans can help you see the difference in experience between a Mechanical Engineering degree with an Aerospace Engineering concentration and a stand-alone Aerospace Engineering degree. You may also find similar programs with different names like Film Production, Film Studies, or Cinematic Arts.

[Check out this post for more detailed tips about Researching College Majors.]

Investigate the minors available at each college. You may find these offer another opportunity to specialize or to broaden your academic experience. Often within a minor, you would take classes with students from a variety of different majors, which can give you exposure to how other academic disciplines approach similar topics. A few minors that have caught my eye recently include: University of Colorado – Boulder Minor in Energy Engineering, James Madison University Minor in Chronic Illness, and University of Cincinnati Materials Engineering Minor.

Honors Colleges and Honors Programs at some colleges create a smaller cohort of students working at an advanced level. Benefits can include priority registration, smaller honors sections of required courses, faculty mentoring, and perhaps even a research budget. Honors programs can be a way to get a more individualized experience at a larger college.

Do the research, so you have a better basis for comparison.

Keep an open mind

There are over 3,000 colleges in the US that offer 4-year degrees. There’s a good chance that excellent programs that meet your goals and needs exist at colleges you aren’t familiar with. Consider the possibilities at Small Liberal Arts Colleges, large public universities, and schools with honors programs, not just a list of famous colleges. Don’t rely on rankings, which are based on what is easily measured, not what is meaningful. The information used as a basis for rankings may not align with your personal goals.

College is an investment of time and resources; do the work to find several strong options.

Your goal should be a list of 4-8 colleges that meet your needs and that have a range of admissions likelihood. I usually suggest that at least half the list should be high chance of admission or medium chance of admissions schools. Don’t overload you list with low chance of admission or “highly rejective” colleges. That’s a recipe for disappointment.

You may find that your best friend looks at your list and asks about some of your schools. If you’ve done your thinking and research, you’ll be able to explain what is exciting about each of them.

US Service Academy Nominations

What Are Nominations?
Where Do I Get a Nomination?
Congressional Nominations
Vice President
Additional Categories

What Are Nominations?

Nominations are required for appointment to the three Department of Defense Service Academies: the US Military Academy, the US Naval Academy, the US Air Force Academy. A Congressional Nomination is required for appointment to the US Merchant Marine Academy. The US Coast Guard Academy does not require nominations. The nomination requirement is set by law and acts to ensure that service academy appointees come from across the US and reflect many family backgrounds.

The process of requesting a nomination is separate from the academy application itself, with different requirements and deadlines for candidates to adhere to. A nomination is not a guarantee of admission to an academy. Many more students will receive a nomination than will gain an offer of appointment.

Where Do I Get a Nomination?

There are several sources of nominations and candidates should apply for each nomination they are eligible for. For most candidates this will be their Members of Congress (two Senators and one Representative) and the Vice President.

Some candidates applying to a Department of Defense service academy may also be eligible for additional nominations based on military affiliation.

Deadlines for requesting nominations are strict; late requests are usually rejected without consideration.

Congressional Nominations

Students can request a nomination from each of their Members of Congress. Congressional nominations may also be made by the Delegate for the District of Columbia, the Delegate from the US Virgin Islands, the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, the Delegate from Guam, the Delegate from American Samoa, and the Delegate from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Each Congressional Nominator may set their own application process and deadline. Most Members of Congress list the application requirements and timeline on their official website under a heading such as Services. If you are unsure of who your Members of Congress are, use the Look Up tool for the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Congressional nomination requests might require documents such as transcripts, letters of recommendation, resume, or an essay. Some Members will ask students to rank which academies they want a nomination for or may only allow students to request a nomination for a single academy. Many Representatives and some Senators hold in person interviews to select final nominees. These interviews are usually conducted by local constituents with military experience and/or staffers for the Member of Congress. Students do not have to know the Member of Congress personally in order to request or receive a nomination.

Each Member of Congress may have five students at each Department of Defense academy “charged” to their office at a time. They may nominate up to ten students for each vacancy. The nominations slates are submitted to each academy by the end of January.

The US Merchant Marine Academy requires candidates to have a Congressional nomination from one of the Members of Congress for their state. Members of the House of Representatives may nominate candidates from anywhere in their state, not just their own congressional district. Because of the Merchant Marine Academy’s small size, midshipmen appointments are allocated to the states according to population. For example, Virginia is allocated 5 seats per year, while California is allocated 19 seats. The Merchant Marine Academy does not use Vice Presidential nominations or military connected nominations.

Vice President

The Vice President may have five students at each Department of Defense academy “charged” to his or her office at a time. Any US citizen applicant is eligible to apply for a Vice Presidential nomination. The Vice President nominates without respect to geographic restriction, so students who are US citizens living overseas are particularly encouraged to apply for this nomination.

To apply, candidates complete an online application that is available March 1 – January 31 preceding the date they would enroll at the academy. Candidates may indicate interest in any or all of the three Department of Defense academies (hold the CTRL button to select multiple academies). Each academy will screen and rank candidates using information provided to the academy via their application process.  Notification to those selected is usually made in February or March of the year the class enters the academy.

Vice Presidential Nomination Application

Military Connected Nominations


Children of career officer and enlisted members of the armed forces (active or reserve), including the Coast Guard, are eligible for a presidential nomination. A request for a presidential nomination is made through each Department of Defense service academy and requires documentation of the parent’s qualifying military service. Students who are interested in applying to multiple DOD service academies must request separate presidential nominations through each academy they are applying to.

Students must have an active duty, reserve, or retired military parent to be eligible for this nomination.

A request for a presidential nomination may be made after July 1 of the year before entering the academy and before January 31 of the year of entering the academy.  

There is an unlimited number of presidential nominations, but a cap on the number of students who may be appointed under a presidential nomination. Therefore, it’s important to apply for a presidential nomination in addition to and not instead of congressional and vice-presidential nominations.

Additional Categories

Nominations are also available in the following categories

Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Units

Students who are actively participating in college ROTC units or Junior ROTC may be able to obtain a nomination from their unit. The number of nominations depends on the type of unit. Contact your ROTC unit Commanding Officer or JROTC unit Senior Military Instructor for application information and deadlines.

Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard Enlisted Members of the Associated Service

Enlisted members of the branch of service(s) associated with each academy may be nominated through their Service Secretary. Contact your service Career Counselor or service academy admissions office for information.

Children of Deceased, 100% Disabled, or Missing/Captured Armed Forces veterans or Missing/Captured Federal Civilian Personnel, or Children of Medal of Honor Recipients

Request process for these categories varies by service academy. Consult the Nominations pages of the Admissions website for each academy or contact Admissions directly for current procedures.

Update for March 2021


Common Application Adds More Colleges: The Common Application (or Common App) is an application portal that allows students to apply to multiple colleges via one login system. It simplifies the application for the student by eliminating the need for separate applications for every single college. Common App announced that over 30 new colleges were joining the platform, including University of Alabama, James Madison University, Colorado School of Mines, Portland State University, and all of the public colleges in Illinois. Over 900 colleges use Common App for undergraduate admissions. Significant colleges that do NOT use Common App include the University of California and California State University systems, Texas public colleges using Apply Texas, University of Washington, and all US service academies. Those colleges use an independent proprietary application or are part of the Coalition Application (University of Washington).

Note: In February Common App announced Personal Statement Essay Prompts for the 2021-22 application cycle.

Florida Bright Futures: Late in February, state legislation in Florida proposed significant changes to the Florida Bright Futures scholarship. The changes would have reduced the degrees eligible for scholarships by creating a list of degrees that lead to direct employment. It would also have reduced the number of college credits funded under the scholarship if the student had earned college credit in high school (such as through Advanced Placement or dual enrollment/dual credit courses). It also would have allowed the legislature to set an annual award amount for National Merit Scholars through the state budget process, rather than tying it to tuition costs. There was significant pushback from Florida residents and legislators and there have been major changes to the bill (including removing the section that would penalize students for early college credits), but it signals efforts by state governments to control over state grants for higher education through the annual budget process. (Article on original proposal.)

College May Require Covid Vaccines: Rutgers University announced they would require students in Fall 2021 to have a Covid-19 vaccine (with exceptions for medical and religious reasons and for students in fully remote or online-only programs). Rutgers is located in New Jersey, a state that experienced a heavy death toll in the early months of the pandemic.

Featured Long Article Episode

This month I suggest listening to This American Life Episode 734: The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled. This episode looks at the ways that test optional admissions policies have opened the door for more applications to some highly sought colleges, at the same time that other student groups have seen applications drop precipitously. The second part of the episode looks specifically at The University of Texas, which admits the majority of its students based on class rank at Texas high schools.  In the absence of test scores, class rank may rise in importance for other colleges.

Meanwhile, Back at the Office

As Co-Chair of the Homeschool Affinity Group of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), I was excited to help launch a college admissions panel series focused on admissions for homeschool students. Our first panel included admissions representatives from Stetson University, Vanderbilt University, Whittier College, and University of California.

The conversation was encouraging. Each was excited about having homeschoolers apply to and enroll at their school, and none of the colleges on the panel had extra requirements for homeschoolers. Homeschoolers are admitted at rates that reflect their proportion in the respective applicant pools. Most of the schools read homeschool applications alongside other applications, while one school had an admissions rep who read all homeschool applications.

Each of the representatives mentioned that outside academic experiences, such as dual enrollment/dual credit courses or Advanced Placement coursework, are useful in determining student ability. Whittier, Stetson, and Vanderbilt all found detailed course descriptions and a school profile document helpful to put the student transcript into context.

On the other hand, University of California relies on the student-generated course and grade information that is internal to their application. They don’t review transcripts at all until after admissions offers have been made, so students need to clearly self-advocate in other parts of the application, such as Additional Comments and Other Academic History sections.

The rep from Stetson noted that the majority of their homeschool applications were from in-state students. This isn’t surprising, given that Florida has a large homeschool community and Stetson University is a small college (3,000 students) that is better known regionally.

Homeschool applicants need to understand their audience. The application expectations for a very large university that has to review 100,000 applications will be different than the expectations at a small college that hand reviews every application. It also underscores the need for patience when communicating with admissions reps, who may not be familiar with what homeschooling looks like outside their typical recruiting areas.

I’m looking forward to the next Homeschool Affinity Group college admissions panel in May. It will be interesting to see if there are new insights as we go into the 2021-22 application cycle.

Military Leaders Are Readers – Books for Future Officers

Most high school students only have a vague concept of what life as a commissioned military officer would be like. Even students from military families experience military life at one degree of separation. What’s more, they are usually watching a parent who has spent a dozen or more years gaining both experience and rank — two qualities they will lack if they enter the service themselves.

I am a big reader, which leaves me prone to thinking that a book might just be the solution to most problems. While I’m ready to admit that might not be true for every situation, I do think books offer an opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s boots, to experience some of the thoughts and feelings they had as a young leader. They may offer discussion topics for ROTC scholarship or academy interviews.

In 1989, USMC Commandant General Al Gray issued the first Commandant’s Reading List. He viewed reading as a means of honing professional skills. Since then, military professional reading lists have proliferated. Most services have a robust list, sometimes several (service chief, senior enlisted, combatant commanders). I’ve gone through the current lists, older lists, recommendations from shipmates, and my personal favorites. I picked titles that might appeal to and inform someone who is young and new to the military and to the responsibilities of leadership.

The list is heavy on memoirs, fiction, and engaging unit histories; it is intentionally light on strategy and lengthy biographies (with apologies to the classmate who suggested Corbett’s Principles of Maritime Strategy). My hope is that reading some of these will help high school students consider if military service is a path they want to pursue. They may also help future midshipmen, cadets, and junior officers to know that they are not alone when they are faced with the need to make decisions with inadequate information under stressful situations.

I am also including some podcasts and video offerings, because one of my favorite midshipmen reminded me that spare time is a luxury for midshipmen, cadets, and high school students. These may stand in the gap if getting through lots of the books doesn’t seem possible.  Some of the books are also available as audio books, which might make them easier to fit into a busy schedule.

Note: These suggestions lean towards the Navy and Marine Corps team, because that is where more of my personal reading has been concentrated. I’d love to hear other suggestions if you have a favorite read you think captures part of the experience of junior officer experience.

Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest – The story of Easy Company from training through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and combat through Germany. Based on extensive interviews and research, the book shows the combat experience of soldiers who are determined, but not career Army. This book was the basis of the 10-episode Band of Brothers miniseries directed by Tom Hanks. It would be hard to pick an episode of the series that is most impactful, but future officers would be well served to watch at least the first two episodes, Currahee and Day of Days.

The US Naval Academy Class of 2002, In the Shadow of Greatness: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service from America’s Longest War – This is a compilation of essays written by members of the Naval Academy Class of 2002 that was published around the ten-year anniversary of their commissioning. They were first class midshipmen (seniors) when the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred. Chapters include stories of combat as well as life outside the Navy, each from the viewpoint of fairly recent graduates. The strengths of this book are the variety of voices and the fact that time had not yet softened their experiences when they sat down to write.

Sharon H. Disher, First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy – Disher is a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1980, the first class to include women. This is a fictional account of experiences of this first group of women, but it holds lessons for any student on what it can be like to transition from inexperienced high student to young officer.

Nathaniel Fick, One Bullet Away – Fick became a Marine Infantry Officer in after graduating from Dartmouth University. The book describes his experience at Marine Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 1998 and deployments as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the War on Terror. The audiobook is read by the author.

C. S. Forrester, The Good Shepherd – You may be more familiar with the 2020 Tom Hanks movie Greyhound that was based on C. S. Forrester’s book. Both the movie and book are superb. As a former Surface Warfare Officer, I would say each is the best depiction of underway watch standing that I’ve seen/read.  The book naturally goes into far more detail. One cool aspect of the book is that each chapter covers a one watch rotation, and the entire book occurs over just three days. I also appreciate the fact that the main character is not a superstar officer. Devotion to duty is also the preserve of those who don’t have Early Promote fitness reports.

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers – Heinlein was a 1929 Naval Academy graduate who served in the Navy before World War Two.  Published in 1959, Starship Troopers was one the works of military science fiction and shows up on many military reading lists. The story describes Juan “Johnny” Rico’s service in the Mobile Infantry in an interstellar war against aliens. [I do not recommend the movie of the same name, which is widely regarded as a satire and has little resemblance to the book.] While obviously not a first-hand account of space infantry tactics, it has been on many military reading lists and led the pack when I asked friends and shipmates for recommendations. Perhaps the reason for it’s longevity is that Heinlein had a good sense for what motivated many to commit themselves to military service. Even if you aren’t borrowing his tactics for powered armor, it may help you see inside the heads of those you serve with.

There are several high quality military podcasts, with more cropping up as time passes. Give a listen to a few and find what appeals to your interests.

Center for International Military Security (CIMSEC)

Service Academy Sorority

US Naval Institute Proceedings Podcast

War on the Rocks

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t yet mentioned The Caine Mutiny; All the Ships at Sea; The Return of Philo T. McGiffen; Brave Ship, Brave Men; Love My Rifle More Than You; or The Things They Carried. Nor have I dug deep into the suggestions at DOD Reads or any of the service reading lists. And I haven’t even mentioned the leadership lessons in Admiral James Stavridis’ annotated reading list The Leader’s Bookshelf. That’s ok. Pick something that sounds interesting and start reading or listening. Take note of what you learn and maybe even of what you would have done differently in a similar situation.

If you have a favorite you think I should include in a future list, let me know. I’d love to add it to my To Be Read stack.

Update for February 2021


Increase in Applications for Some; Declines for Others:  As colleges release early admission decisions, it becomes apparent that the surge in applications reported by high profile colleges was not an across the board phenomenon. Not only did many smaller and regional colleges experience a drop in applications, but also applications from first generation and low-income students dropped. The Full Story on Admissions from Inside Higher Ed discusses these patterns.

Fall 2022 Test Optional Policies:  Fair Test keeps a running list of colleges with test optional admissions policies and announced that more than half of US four year colleges would be test optional for Fall 2022 admissions. Be aware of the specific details at colleges you’re interested in. Test Optional doesn’t mean Test Blind, and some colleges are using Test Flexible, but still really prefer to see scores.

A New Prompt for Common App Essays:  The Common Application announced their personal statement essay prompts for the 2021-22 application. Most of the prompts remain the same, but one new prompt on gratitude has replaced another seldom chosen prompt. However, I still advise students to start the writing process by considering what they want the admissions office to know about them rather than fixating on a specific prompt.

Featured Long Article

‘Act Now!’ Say Hello to the New Enrollment Playbook (The Chronicle of Higher Education) Seniors may have noticed that as admissions decisions have been announced, emails from colleges have shifted to frequent entreaties to make deposits and complete enrollment. Sometimes these requests are sweetened with benefits for early commitment, like first choice dorm rooms, small scholarships, or parking passes. These policies put pressure on students to commit to colleges before they have received all of their admissions decisions and without comparing financial aid offers.

In the past, many colleges agreed to an admissions cycle in which no application deadline was earlier than October 15, Early Decision applications were binding but did not have extra perks, and students applying under Early Action, Regular Decision, and Rolling Admission options had until May 1 to make their enrollment decisions. Changes to the agreed upon ethical standards has created a situation in which a number of schools are exploring ways to get students to commit earlier or switch their enrollment choice after May 1. This article goes into detail on the how and why of these efforts.

Meanwhile, Back at the Office

February was a busy month at Admissions Decrypted. I had several opportunities to discuss college admissions, including a Service to School workshop on Writing College Essays, a presentation on service academy applications to a group of IEC colleagues, and a fun talk about the myths of college admissions to a group of local area service academy alumni. I have a few more presentations currently in the works, including my first ever appearance on a podcast.  

Meanwhile, I’ve been having a lot of fun with the sophomores of Class of 2023. We have been doing interest surveys and career explorations. They bring a lot of enthusiasm to the process, and it’s cool to watch them weighing options and considering who they are and what they want to become. I still have room in both the Class of 2022 and Class of 2023 cohorts. If you know someone who would like help in the college admissions process, I’d be delighted if you referred them to me.

Common App Essay Prompts 2021-22

The Common Application released the essay prompts for the 2021-22 application cycle. This application will open in summer 2021 for students applying to enter college in Fall 2022. Considering the prompts now allows time for thinking about what you might include to best convey to an admissions reader why you are a strong applicant and an essential member of an incoming class.

Most of the essay prompts will remain the same, but Common App did replace a prompt about dealing with a problem that had not been widely used. The new prompt centers around gratitude and kindness.

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

I like this new option, because I sometimes see students who feel pressured to come up with a story of overcoming challenge. In some cases, this feels artificial, because they don’t feel that they have really faced significant life challenges yet. In other cases, writing about challenges becomes just that, a recounting of events and stumbling blocks rather than a clear presentation of the student’s characteristics and strengths.

There is no guideline in the new prompt for how big an event should be to be worthy of writing about. It might have been a small favor that had a big effect. Or it might be something that changed the direction of your life. The focus of the essay should be on your attributes and what you will bring as a college student rather than on a detailed account of what you are grateful for.

This is really advice for using any of the prompts. Keep the emphasis on you rather than on describing events or circumstances around you. What makes you interesting or unique? How have you changed or grown as a result of your life experience so far? What direction are you pointed towards now? Why will admitting you add to the campus community?

This is the complete list of Common Application prompts for 2021-22:

  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.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Don’t obsess over the prompts as anything more than just that – questions designed to help prompt you towards deeper thinking and writing in a way that gives admissions readers a better understanding of who you are as a person than they would get from just looking at grades and test scores. Your essays are your opportunity to control content and delivery. It is one of the few parts of the application you exert this much control over.

If the first six prompts don’t generate ideas, remember that Prompt 7 gives you the freedom to choose your own adventure. This is one reason I start my clients with pre-writing exercises that help them identify what they are trying to communicate – what their story is and what examples help convey it.

Essay coaching is included in each of my comprehensive packages. I am also working on a set of workshops on applications and essays that can be paired with a four-hour block of individual essay coaching as an a la carte option. Follow the Admissions Decrypted Facebook page to get announcements about this project and other college admissions updates.

If this is something you are interested in, let me know lisa@admissionsdecrypted.com