The University of Chicago has been know for some of the most creative, thought-provoking application essay prompts. If you will be a high school senior in the Class of 2015, you can sneak a peek at the questions that will be in your application.

2014-15 Essay Questions:

University of Chicago grants AP credit

Essay Option 1.What’s so odd about odd numbers?

Essay Option 2.In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot or should not be translated from its original language.

Essay Option 3. Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.

Essay Option 4. Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!

Essay Option 5. A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” There are many potential values of “here”, but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one.

Essay Option 6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

via Essay Questions | College Admissions | The University of Chicago.

For this year, students have three options for applying to University of Chicago – through the university’s website (opening soon); Universal Application (which opens July 1); and the Common Application (opening August 1). Either way you choose, you will have fun with these questions!

Please check our site for more tips on writing a winning essay!

I am particularly concerned about girls in STEM. Over the years, there’s been a significant drop in females graduates in computer science for example. According to the website, women represent only 12% of computer science graduates versus 37% in 1984. What happened??

Teens, especially girls, need more opportunities to learn about STEM during middle and high school

For me personally, I started out in the STEM area as a college freshman. The large, lecture-style STEM freshman year courses were clearly designed to weed out the ill-prepared students. My high school AP Physics course did not prepare me for the rigors of introductory physics at Stanford. Even with a “curve”, my test grades in this course discouraged me from continuing in the department.

In my consulting practice, I have had several female clients who are excited about the STEM areas earlier in high school. As senior year draws near, however, their interest wanes. One of the ways that I try to keep their interests  high or sometimes pique their interest is to introduce STEM summer camps.

Here is a list of camps that offers a great starting point for finding camps for all teens, especially girls: Summer Coding Camps for Kids – CodeHS Blog.

My hope is that the summer camps will stimulate their creativity and show them practical applications for STEM.

Another telling statistic today is that only .4% of female freshman plan to major in computer science, whereas 74% of middle-school girls are interested in STEM. What’s happening in middle and high school for these girls??

During a recent talk to high schools, Peter V. Johnson, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Columbia University stated elegantly:

“We do not admit statistics to an institution. We admit people to an educational community.”

His statement defines college fit which we have been hearing more and more about these days.

Columbia University, where I almost attended! Columbia University, where I almost attended!

Student perspective on College Fit

There are 2 sides to this “college fit” coin. Dean Johnson intimates the importance of fit from the college’s side. On the other side of this coin, the student can select colleges based on it. While I don’t have a pithy quote like Dean Johnson, I will share three aspects of college fit from the student’s side.

Three aspects o college it that students can consider when developing their list of colleges are

  • Academic fit
  • Social/cultural fit
  • Financial fit

Questions to ask about these components may include:

  • Academic – Does this college have my major interest?
    What are the required courses for graduation?
    How long will it take me to graduate based on the course offerings and schedule?
  • Social/cultural – Will I fit in?
    Can I get the type of support I need within this campus community?
    What will I do on the weekends?
  • Financial – What available scholarships will make this college affordable for my family?
    What financial sacrifices must I make to graduate from this college?
    Am I OK with those financial sacrifices?

Students have the best chance of graduating on time when these areas of fit are considered up-front.

In the same way, colleges have the best chance of admitting students who will contribute to the quality of their communities when they ask the right questions about students upfront. If you want to see the questions that matter to a college, check out their essay questions. Those questions say alot about the type of people they want to join their educational community!


By Bernadette Andrews of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio

Our daughter completed her first semester at NYU. Hallelujah! After breathing a sigh of relief for the way things have worked out, I’m reminded of Oprah’s famous line, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” The preparation began very early on– we stressed her capabilities and reinforced her self esteem as a means of establishing a firm foundation in an uncertain world. Some may say that we were radical in our approach, but we felt it necessary, if not critical, to plant the seed early. Our daughter knew without a doubt that school was to be taken very seriously, and we would not tolerate academic mediocrity. These values would define her academic performance and position her for college despite the challenges of being a military child who was forced to move three times during her four years in high school. Recognizing that each child is uniquely different, here are some suggestions that worked for us as we navigated the very complex task of preparing our daughter for college as a military family:

Focus early

NYU freshmen live in all-freshmen dorms

NYU has numerous campuses abroad

It is never too early to set expectations. Even kindergarteners are not too young to understand the importance of doing well in school. Furthermore, middle school is a major transition for most students, therefore, a child’s successful adjustment to growing expectations and demands during these pre-adolescent years prepares him/her for future success. We knew our work would be much harder in high school if we failed to maintain high standards from the very beginning.  Since change is constant for military families, a good head start is always wise so children do not fall through the cracks resulting from frequent transitions.

Different is good

Like most parents, we had read or heard about the factors that are focal points during the highly competitive college application process—AP courses, community involvement, leadership, sports, etc. Oftentimes, parents will stress academics but a balancing act is necessary so students can find their niche. Perhaps an unusual interest may serve as an advantage in highlighting differences in a process where so many are striving for homogeneity. For many years we viewed moving as a negative instead of recognizing that change provided unique opportunities that were unavailable in a single location. The two years spent in South Korea provided cultural learning opportunities and a variety of exposure that would not have been possible domestically. Unusual experiences such as representing Model United Nations as a delegate in Japan; playing in international basketball tournaments; and touring the Demilitarized Zone differentiated her from her peers. In an increasingly globally-focused society, military families should embrace the opportunity to travel, particularly abroad, knowing that colleges are looking for students who can bring uniqueness, creativity, and a different perspective to their campuses.

Aim High

Because our daughter had not targeted any particular college, we started the admission process with visits to several campuses in the fall of 2011. Initially, we concentrated on schools in Georgia thinking proximity to extended family was a key concern as we were unsure where the military would station us. Well, the good news is she was accepted by all three schools she applied to in Georgia, however, there was no financial incentives provided so we quickly decided to broaden our focus.

We encouraged her to submit more applications to the schools we had labeled as “long stretches”. The worse that would happen is a denial letter, but, at least, we would have given it our best shot. In the spring of 2012, we received acceptance letters from New York University,Notre Dame, University of Virginia and George Washington University. Each institution granted an academic scholarship, however, NYU’s offer of full tuition coverage, including international study aboard programs, was the most generous, by far.


Bernadette Andrews has traveled the world with her husband, an Officer of the US Air Force. She has lived in California, Virginia and Ohio. Bernadette and her husband are now enjoying life as empty-nesters and look forward to traveling the world.

As mentioned in the first post of this series, College Board develops the AP curriculum. Here are the 34 Advanced Placement courses available in high schools across the country:


 Art History Biology Calculus AB Calculus BC Chemistry
Chinese Lang and Culture Comp Science A English Lang and Composition English Lit and Composition Envir Science
European History French Lang and Culture German Lang and Culture Govt and Politics: Comparative Government and Politics: US
Human Geography Italian Lang and Culture Japanese Lang and Culture Latin Macroeconomics
Microeconomics Music Theory Physics B Physics C: Elec and Magnetism Physics C: Mechanics
Psychology Spanish Language Spanish Lit and Culture Statistics Studio Art: 2-D Design
Studio Art: 3-D Design Studio Art: Drawing US History World History


College Board runs the SAT, as well. Parents, SAT I is the reasoning that you may be familiar with. The SAT II, however, is a subject-area test that students can take. Students can use the SAT II to demonstrate advanced competency in a subject area. Here are the 21 available subject areas for the SAT II:

  • Literature

    dartmouth college inside baker library

    Dartmouth recently announced that it will no longer accept AP credits.

  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • Math Level 1
  • Math Level 2
  • Biology/EM
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • French
  • French with Listening
  • German
  • German with Listening
  • Spanish
  • Spanish with Listening
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Latin
  • Chinese with Listening
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening

Essentially, the SAT II is similar to the AP tests. For this reason, students can leverage their AP preparation by taking the SAT II in a similar subject area. Let’s say a student is taking the AP US History course. (Affectionately known as “A-Push.”) The APush test is administered in 2013 on May 15 at 8 am. (Many a student has cried over this test . . . it can be brutal!)

There is a May and June test date for SAT II. Thus this student can take the SAT II in US History either month. The SAT II is an hour-long test and students can take up to 3 tests on one date. I prefer that students take any SAT II on the June date instead and here’s why.

In short, the SAT test (whether I or II) can be draining. If a student takes the SAT in May, it’s likely that they won’t have much energy to do more studying that weekend. The AP tests begin that very next week so the AP tests may be short-changed. Also, the AP exam is generally longer than 1 hour. Students need to be well-rested and have the mental stamina in order to perform at their best on the AP tests.

I would argue that the SAT II (as a 1 hour exam) likely feels less taxing than its corresponding AP test. The student may even perform better on the SAT II after they’ve had the AP test experience. Likewise, if the student is also taking a second or third SAT II in a non-AP corresponding course, they would be able to complete more course content in the other subject area.

(See student’s biggest AP complaint.)

Taking 2 or 3 SAT II tests during the June date can save time, money, and effort. Yes, it probably seems like a lot but students will “know their stuff” even better by June date.

Please let us know if you have additional AP questions that were not covered in this three-part series.


This posting is the second of a three part series on What parents need to know about Advanced Placement (AP). . . but didn’t know to ask!

In last week’s posting, we addressed the #3 Most common response about AP. Now, for this week, we provide 2 tips to address the

#2 Most common response about AP

Tip 1: Read the fine print on AP credit granting

Every college is different when it comes to granting AP credit. If your teen is taking AP to advance in a topic area or challenge themselves, that’s a good thing. If your teen is merely taking AP for the sake of getting college credit, that’s a nuanced thing!

Bowdoin is a highly selective liberal arts college in Maine

Bowdoin has a state-of-the-art science facility where students can engage in undergraduate research

Check out the language of AP credit from this college:

AP US History

Score: 4 or 5

*Must complete a History course at Bowdoin with a minimum grade of B. If a student has scores for more than one exam (ie. AP European History), only 1 total credit will be awarded.

Bowdoin received about 6,700 applications last year. So, it’s likely that of the 1M + high school students applying to college this year, that Bowdoin is not on your teen’s college list. Whatever college is on their list, please check the guidelines for granting AP credit. The guidelines vary by college and their website should provide the details for granting AP credit.


Tread carefully with skipping any introductory college course

In some cases, a student may be able to skip an introductory course if they earn a 3” or higher on an AP test.


Think about this option a bit more . . . .  It could actually work to the student’s disadvantage to skip an introductory college level course. The introductory college courses are typically very different from your AP course in high school. (One of the reasons that AP is being revamped.) Skipping an introductory course can turn out to be a setback for the student’s GPA and confidence in freshman year.

Next week, we will cover part three of this three-part series on What parents need to know about Advanced Placement (AP) . . . but didn’t know to ask!

This posting is the first of a three part series on What parents need to know about Advanced Placement (AP). . . but didn’t know to ask!

I get a lot of questions about Advanced Placement (AP) from parents. This posting brings together my top 3 most common responses about AP. They are written as responses rather than questions because the questions are so varied. These posts capture what parents need to know, even when the question begs for more clarity. :-)

University of Chicago grants AP credit

At University of Chicago, AP credit is not granted until after freshman year, if at all

#3 Most common response about AP

Advanced Placement is a fixed curriculum that was developed by College Board (same people behind the SAT) and delivered through high school teachers. The AP tests that students take during the first two weeks of May each year are based on the curriculum taught during the year. If there’s such a thing as “teaching to the test, then AP would be an example. Teaching to the test, in case of AP, is a measure of success. The results (scores of 1 to 5) are publicly reported each year and schools want to be recognized when students earn 3, 4 or 5 (the highest) score on these tests.

The biggest “complaint” I hear from students is that once the test ends, nothing is done in class for the remainder of the academic year. That’s not an issue if your school year ends in mid-May. However, when the school year ends in June, that’s a lot of wasted time. My hope is that students are exaggerating about what happens in classroom once the AP exams are taken.

Question to ask your teen in late May: How’s your AP class going? What are you doing in class?

Next week, we will cover part two of this three-part series on What parents need to know about Advanced Placement (AP) . . . but didn’t know to ask!

It’s January so that means it’s time to start planning for the summer. Last spring, I spoke to parents about the importance of summer for both academic and personal growth. That is still true for this coming summer! Read more about summer for college-bound students. This issue and each issue through June will feature a summer program that you may want to consider for your middle/high schooler.

Many college applications such as Emory University will include questions described as “optional.”

Emory’s Optional Essay: Please write exactly five sentences that best describe you.

Does this really mean that you can skip this question? Yes and No

Yes. If you skip this optional question then it will save you that extra hour that you may have spent doing something else that you enjoy. Senior year is already busy enough without responding to extra essay prompts.

No. When you see the word “optional” think “opportunity” instead. A rule of thumb here may be to consider if responding to this essay prompt will provide an opportunity for you to share new information to complement your application. It really should be new information that doesn’t appear anywhere else in your application portfolio. If your response to this “optional” essay does indeed provide new, insightful, non-redundant information about you, then consider this optional question as an opportunity to confirm why you should be admitted! Happy writing!

As if the college admissions process couldn’t get any more complex, the early admissions decisions have been reported for several colleges around the country. Overall, the number of early applicants increased at many campuses. For example, Boston University saw a 40% increase in Early Decision applicants over last year; Case Western saw a 34% increase in Early Action applicants, while Princeton saw an 11% increase in its Restricted Early Action applicants.

When you look at the table of Early Admission statistics, it’s interesting to note that several colleges have already admitted a sizeable percentage of the class. Now the big decision for many students who have yet to apply in Regular Decision is whether they should still apply. My response is a resounding “Yes” if they are indeed competitive. It’s hard to know at this point the profile of the Regular Decision applicant pool. And for those colleges that have Early Action or Restricted Early Action programs, students accepted in the early round may decide not to enroll. There are a number of factors still up in the air so prospective applicants should  keep their options open by applying to those colleges that are a good fit for them. Just make sure that your eggs are spread and balanced!

Case has top engineering programs

Case received a 34% increase in Early Action applicants.


I hope that you are enjoying your holiday break. This newsletter issue is a few weeks overdue as my firm has navigated through another wildly unpredictable admissions cycle. In short, the deferrals and denials for early admission increased. Many strong applicants were hopeful that they would have a positive answer before the holiday break. The “deferred” decision is harder to interpret and more stinging than a denial.

“Throughout my junior and senior year Dr. Pamela really helped me to navigate the college application
process. I had no idea where to even start. She helped organize tutoring for the ACT and SAT and helped me
schedule the test dates. From there we started to investigate where I might want to spend the next chapter
of my life. When it came time for me to start the applications, Dr. Pamela really helped me tackle the many
essays I had to write. We sat down and talked through my essays and collaboratively which made them much better.
Not only was Dr. Pamela an amazing help but I LOVED getting to know her. We developed a great relationship
that I plan to keep up. I actually looked forward to hanging out (our meetings). Without Dr. Pamela, I’m
almost positive I would not be attending SMU. She really is the greatest. I love you Dr. P!!!”
– Molly W. – SMU, Class of 2016

According to my campus tour guide, there’s “no such thing as bad weather [at Colgate] only bad clothing!” That’s important for families to hear because many students may overlook this wonderful campus because of its location/weather. Besides . . . there are tunnels to connect the buildings.

Reasons to attend Colgate

Colgate campus has about 3000 students

Colgate campus in the Fall . . . breathtaking

Colgate has a lot to offer to students who attend there. It’s a small-to-mid size college with an active student body of just less than 3,000 students.  Colgate students are active in Greek life (40%), engaged in community service (majority), and likely to study abroad (approx. 70%).

My tour guide also mentioned that community service is so important to the undergraduate students there that it’s “hard to leave without getting involved.” One popular program is Sidekicks. This is a Big Sibling-type of program, whereby Colgate students mentor local kids in the area.

One of Colgate’s themes is Global Engagement. This theme is encouraged through a number of different types of study-abroad programs at Colgate. The typical program may last for a semester-long, with courses co-taught between a Colgate professor and faculty in host country. Students can choose from 26 different study abroad groups, like the Economics group which studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

Study abroad for Student-Athletes

What about the athlete who can’t spend the full semester away? There are a number of “extended study” programs. Extended study is a 3-week long program that begins with the academic class. After the class ends, the extended study abroad is then led by faculty member who taught the class.  What an innovative approach to reinforcing and applying what was learned in the classroom!

The Buxton School, located a stone’s-throw away from Williams College, is truly a unique high school. Across grades 9-12 there are about 85 students. That alone doesn’t tell you much about all the opportunities that this school provides to its student body.

Bali-Buxton Program and School-wide Trip

I was particularly impressed by the Bali-Buxton program. Do you know of another high school exchange program with Indonesia? Well, Buxton offers this opportunity for their students. An instructor from Indonesia spends time at Buxton in the spring. Students then spend three weeks in the summer learning the language, arts, and culture in Indonesia. Throughout the school year, students learn traditional Balinese dance on their home campus. When the students visit Indonesia in the summer, they perform the traditional dance there, as well.

Every year, the entire school takes a trip together. Recent trips have been taken to El Paso, Nicaragua, and even Cuba. Generally, the trips are domestic with an abroad trip taken every four years. Parents . . . don’t worry . . . the trips integrate an academic component along with taking advantage of local culture.

Nature all around campus

The outdoorsy student will appreciate the rugged, hilly setting of Buxton. The view from the main hall is breathtaking and nature is all around. In the winter, students can participate in ski and snowboard trips three times a week. Year-round outdoor activities are plentiful, like gardening and chopping wood (that’s more like work than a fun activity, huh?). The campus is on the site of a farm, so the buildings are somewhat spread apart. Students spend time outdoors every day by walking to class, going to their dorm, walking up the hill to the music or art studio. By the end of my tour, I felt like I had a real workout.

Buxton students can take classes at Williams College

Buxton students can enjoy the outdoors everyday

In the wake of damage that Hurricane Sandy is wreaking along the east coast, many colleges have delayed their November 1 early application deadlines. Here are several listed with new deadlines:

Babson College – extended to November 5

Brown University – November 7

Case Western – November 5

Dartmouth – November 5

Duke – November 4 (Sunday)

Harvard – “flexible” (definitely confirm what this means)

Northwestern – November 7

Pomona College – November 7

Princeton – “flexible”: Must include a brief explanation letter, if later than November 1

Rhodes – November 9

Rice – November 5

SMU – November 8

Stanford – November 5

Please check the college’s website to confirm. One of the things that I found confusing is whether the deadline extension is only for students affected by the storm or all students. For example, if you live in Los Angeles, CA; Chicago, IL; or Round Rock, Texas, you may want to play it safe and meet the November 1 deadline.:-)

Schools and colleges closed for Hurricane Sandy

This image of Hurricane Sandy's path was posted in the Yale Daily News

If you’ve taken a standardized test earlier than 10th grade or perhaps been identified as “gifted and talented,” then you may have received a mailing from Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College. I learned on a recent visit that the majority of students typically found out about this special college through a direct mailing. (Before this visit, I didn’t know that direct mail was that effective!)

What is Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College?

Students apply to Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College after their 10th or 11thgrade of high school. Unlike the “early college” programs offered in some public high schools in the US, students at Bard are directly enrolled in college, not high school. One of the slogans on campus is “High school dropout, College graduate.” Students at Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College have foregone the traditional rites of high school, such as prom and the senior skip-day.

Bard Early College is a place where smart kids are cool

Bard Early College is for the unchallenged high school student who is ready for college

3 Types of Students that may be a fit for Bard

There are three types of students that may find this Bard experience appealing:

  1. A student who has already exhausted the curriculum at his current high school – this student may have already taken all the available AP courses or the highest levels of math and science courses in high school. If your senior year schedule is likely to be overfilled with study halls, then Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College may be a fit.
  2. A student who is unchallenged in high school – this is a dangerous place to be, for sure. We all know though that there are far too many students who claim that they’re “bored” or “unchallenged” in high school. Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College may be a fit but the next option must be met . . . .
  3. A student who is “ready” for college – Being ready for college requires maturity, independence, a healthy dose of curiosity, and more. Students who apply to Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College must have the academic and social-emotional wherewithal to excel in such a program. The admissions officers mentioned that they may communicate with a student for a year before the student applies for admissions. This kind of attention and care is important with the transformational experience of college. In other words . . . college ain’t for punks! :-)

Bard at Simon’s Rock Early College is a separate campus from its sister, Bard College. The 400 students at the Early College campus reflect a diverse, global community of students where the innovative, independent thinkers (aka smart kids) are really cool.

New students at Hamilton College get 2 things – an adviser and a reference librarian. These two people

Hamilton College has no required courses

After your campus visit at Hamilton College, a free moon pie treat . . . yum!

are important to the Hamilton student’s success because Hamilton is a school with no course requirements. In short, students can take courses that interest them.Students must, however, take 3 writing-intensives which is similar to most other colleges. A student described the open course selection well when she stated, “Open is good, but you have to have some foresight.” The adviser certainly helps in that area. The reference librarian of course is important because Hamilton students will spend a lot of time conducting research and studying in the library.

Although the student body is academic-minded, the weekends on campus offer numerous options for fun and hanging out with friends. The “barn” on campus features late-night, “dry” entertainment, like casino night or live music. After a good time at the barn, the on-campus diner serves breakfast from midnight to 3 am! Nothing quite like eating pancakes at 2 am. . . they always tastes better then!

Now, what do you think are the Top 3 must-haves at Hamilton College? :-)

I love the Common Application for the convenience it offers to students. However, it can be a bit quirky at times. Beginning in August 2013, there will be some changes to the CommonApp that will make it more user-friendly for students:

The essay length will remain the same—250 to 500 words—but for the first time the application will enforce the minimum and the maximum word limits. Students who write essays that are too long or too short will receive an error message prompting them to make adjustments.

Among other changes, students will see fewer questions per screen. Applicants will not have to answer questions that don’t apply to them, based on their answers to previous questions.

A sidebar will offer on-screen help, and a new interface will feature “at a glance” progress checks that show students what parts of the application they have and have not completed. (Think green check marks.)

via Meet the New Common Application – Head Count – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Blue Light system is ubiquitous on college campus

Have you ever been on a CommonApp campus without a Blue Light system? Hmmm

The change that is most exciting . . . drumroll please . . . .

Removal of the “Topic of your Choice” essay. I’ve never liked this option because it seemed redundant and misleading. The other 5 topics were already so broad that it was difficult to write about something that didn’t fit with one of the other topics. In effect, when students choose the “topic of your choice,” it was more evident that they had overlooked the other choices.

Did you select “topic of your choice”? What did you write about?


Getting ready for Parent-Teacher Conferences

by Dr. Pamela on October 11, 2012

in High School, K-12

As parent teacher conferences are around the corner, here are some quick tips to ensure a meaningful and productive time with your child’s teacher . . .even in high school. If the conference can be student-led, please make sure that your son/daughter takes advantage of the opportunity to take ownership of their learning experience.

I like the ideas that this author offers to teachers. Parents, however, may find this list insightful as they consider their role in the parent-teacher conference. As with any communication . . . it goes both ways:

 Some ideas:#1 The point of a conference is not to display the student’s current averaged grade, point out missing assignments or contrive ways to achieve/maintain a particular grade. There are better ways to keep track of grades–which should largely be the student’s responsibility by middle school, anyway. If the only reason we hold conferences is to talk about grades, then teachers are complicit in elevating grades over learning. If a parent leaves a conference with a list of grades and nothing else, it’s wasted time.

#2 Conferences are an opportunity for two-way communication. They’re not merely a stage for teachers to give parents information on classroom performance, although many teachers do just that. Conferences are also a place for parents to tell teachers things about their child: How he likes to learn. What she says about the class at home. How he enjoys spending free time. What she says about other students in the class. After a good conference, both the parent and teacher know more about how things could be better.

#3 A conference with parties sitting on either side of a table or desk reinforces hierarchies. Figure out comfortable seating with no barriers. Making parents queue up outside your door–or sit in little tiny chairs–is neither efficient nor courteous. If Disneyland can figure out how to expedite lines and take turns, so can schools.

#4 If a parent seems to be exaggerating, there’s an underlying message. My child sits at the table every night for three hours, doing homework! If a teacher seems to be testy, or resistant I only give 15 minutes of homework per night!–a different message. Somewhere between the two claims is truth–but finding it will take some clarifying questions. Is the student unwilling to admit he doesn’t understand something? Is the teacher tied to unnecessary homework? It’s hard to ask uncomfortable questions. Do it anyway.

#5 Teachers should share stories about what each student does in class. This might involve an artifact as evidence of learning an essay, project, lab report or even a test, but sharing narratives of kids’ behavior as learners is essential. Invite parents to tell stories about the child’s use of math, language, logic, or music at home.One of the most heart-warming observations I heard as a parent was when my son’s 8th grade English teacher showed us sketches of cars Alex drew in his journal during free-writing. “Aren’t these cool?” he said. “Someday that boy’s going to work in the automotive industry.” What that told us: He’s paying attention to Alex. He knows Alex, and values Alex’s interests.

#6 Ask parents how they want to stay in touch about important things not reporting a weekly running grade. Open that channel by sending a quick initial e-mail or calling. The conference should merely be the first contact, the open door. Even if you never use the channel, it’s there.

#7 Most parents come to conferences to get a deeper sense of who’s spending time with their kids. Tell them the truth.

via Seven Ideas for Meaningful Parent-Teacher Conferences – Teacher in a Strange Land – Education Week Teacher.


Numerous college applications such as Elon University or College of William and Mary will include questions noted as “optional.”

Elon’s application reads: You may also write an optional personal statement if there is more you would like to tell us about your background or any circumstances that might inform your academic information.

College of William and Mary has this optional essay: Beyond your impressive academic credentials and extracurricular accomplishments, what else makes you unique and colorful?

Does this really mean that you can skip this question? Well, “yes” and “no.”

On the “Yes” side . . .

If you skip this optional question, then it will save you that extra hour that you would have spent writing a response. Instead, you will have an hour to do something that you really enjoy. Senior year is already busy enough without doing “extra” essay prompts on college applications. Right?

On the “No” side . . .

When you see the word “optional” think “opportunity” instead. You may also note on the Common Application that there is an optional section for additional information. When you review your Common Application in its entirety, if there is any information that’s missing or a low grade that needs explaining, then please include that additional information in the optional section. Do you want to have an opportunity to attend that college with the “optional” essay? If your answer is “yes” then that essay prompt is an opportunity to have your voice heard, it is NOT optional.


Williams College is located in a small town in MA, bordered by NY and VT

The only thing "optional" on the Williams application is your social security number. Respond depending on your comfort level....

Immediate relief is how we felt as soon as we finished our first conversation with Pamela. It was clear that
in Pamela, with her expertise, knowledge, and most importantly, the fact that she sincerely cared about our
daughter’s journey through the arduous college selection and application process, we had made the right

Rich and Jennie N.

“Working with Dr. Pamela has been invaluable to our son’s college application experience. We would say
there are 3 key advantages to her service. She has been instrumental in identifying and helping our son
acquire merit based scholarships that we were unaware of; her assistance in the college application and
essay process gave our son a competitive advantage which helped him with acceptance into top colleges; and
very important to us was that she helped to diffuse the parent/child tension that can develop throughout the
college application and especially the college essay process.

We feel strongly that our family hit the jackpot for sure!!! Best investment we ever made!

Marti and Bill C.

I would not have made it through the college applications process as well as I did and efficiently as I did
without Dr. Pamela Ellis. When I first started the process I did not really know where to begin, but thankfully
Dr. Ellis laid out a “roadmap” for me that had key due dates for apps and was my lifeline for getting all of my
apps in on time. With her wise and creative mind, Dr. Ellis gave me great ideas for essays and improved my
writing skills tremendously. I had not even heard of the college I am attending (Denison) at the start of this
journey. I am so grateful Dr. Ellis introduced me to this great little college because I now do believe there is a
perfect fit college for everyone.
Ben C., Denison, Class of 2016

Remember the saying . . . “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I have a similar love-hate relationship with the annual college rankings. Several of my client families love to refer to college rankings despite my warnings that college rankings do not make a college list. There are so many colleges available and with different qualities. A primary reason that I visit so many campuses throughout the year is to understand these nuances and support families with making a more informed choice beyond the rankings. But back to my original quote, if families are going to reference the college rankings anyway, what I can do is give them some different perspectives on those rankings.

For example, the Washington Monthly just published its annual college ranking. Unlike the popular US News and World Report Rankings, Washington Monthly looks at the colleges from another lens:

We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).

via National University Rankings 2012 | Washington Monthly.

That definition sounds good but it certainly generates a fairly odd list of colleges. Also, these categories are so broad that you’re bound to get some colleges/universities that rank high in one area and very low in another. When I first saw the general list of colleges, I expected to see more Catholic universities at the top of the list since the “Service” component is so strong in their mission. Instead, the general list of “National Universities” included many University of California system institutions that would be “off the radar” for many families. They are “off the radar” in some cases because of the enrollment size, limited financial awards, extended time to graduate, etc.

2012 National Universities on Washington Monthly’s College Rankings

Cal Tech ranks high in research

Cal Tech is a great college in California but didn't make the top rankings of Washington Monthly

  1. UC, San Diego
  2. Texas A&M
  3. Stanford (CA)
  4. UNC, Chapel Hill
  5. UC, Berkeley
  6. UC, Los Angeles
  7. Case Western Reserve (OH)
  8. UW, Seattle
  9. UC, Riverside
  10. Georgia Institute of Technology
  11. Harvard (MA)
  12. UTexas, El Paso
  13. UMichigan, Ann Arbor
  14. UC, Santa Barbara
  15. MIT

Case Study

So, in this case, when you look at the list from a different perspective (through sorting :-)) the rankings tell a different story.Let’s say that you have a teen who is interested in a college with a liberal arts curriculum and many opportunities to get involved in community service. Here are the colleges that rank in the top 15:

  1. Bryn Mawr (PA)
  2. Warren Wilson (NC)
  3. Rhodes College (TN)
  4. Emory and Henry (VA)
  5. Illinois College (IL)
  6. Knox College (IL)
  7. Central College (IA)
  8. Macalester College (MN)
  9. Williamette University (OR)
  10. Hobart William Smith (NY)
  11. Davidson College (NC)
  12. Pitzer (CA
  13. Oberlin (OH)
  14. Whittier (CA)
  15. Washington and Lee (VA)

So, do you accept the rankings as is . . . . or do your own sorting?

Last week, I said a brief “farewell” to several of my seniors from the Class of 2012. In my “Freshman Transition” meeting with them,  we discuss ways that they can get the most of their freshman year. I also remind them that they are welcome to call or text me during the year as they have questions about classes, summer internships, or other.

For parents who are sending/taking their teen to college, it can be a more emotional time. One mom that I spoke with last week was a bit teary as she talked about taking her youngest to college. Every parent’s experience will differ whether they are taking their oldest, second, or sixth child to college.

Beloit College publishes each year their “Mindset List” which uniquely describes the pulse of the entering Freshman class. As you read their top 15 of the Mindset List, did you see any of these characteristics in your teen?

The Mindset List for the Class of 2016

For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Nixon and John Wayne Gacy have always been dead.

They should keep their eyes open for Justin Bieber or Dakota Fanning at freshman orientation.

Is Justin Bieber going to college?

Justin Bieber graduated high school in 2012

They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of “electronic narcotics.”

The Biblical sources of terms such as “Forbidden Fruit,” “The writing on the wall,” “Good Samaritan,” and “The Promised Land” are unknown to most of them.

Michael Jackson’s family, not the Kennedys, constitutes “American Royalty.”

If they miss The Daily Show, they can always get their news on YouTube.

Their lives have been measured in the fundamental particles of life: bits, bytes, and bauds.

Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.

Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.

They have never seen an airplane “ticket.”

On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males.

The paradox “too big to fail” has been, for their generation, what “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” was for their grandparents’.

For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.

They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.

There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.

Having grown up with MP3s and iPods, they never listen to music on the car radio and really have no use for radio at all.

via The Mindset List: 2016 List.

Please post your comment below. I look forward to hearing from you!

“The college planning and application process was undoubtedly one of the most stressful and high stakes
times in my life. Dr. Pamela was really a blessing to work with. She provided calm, organization and
encouragement. Dr. Pamela helped me finalize my list of colleges to apply to, selecting ones that would
be good all around matches. During the application process, she guided me through my essays so I could
transform my rough ideas into unique narratives that would stand out among thousands of applications. She
also helped me to see all the various essays and questions in each application as a package, which helped
me craft a strong overall message. Through this, “Austin” would be able to come alive to admissions officers
from the words and sentences on the application. When I got stuck, as I often did, Dr. Pamela was always
there to calmly help me through it while providing encouragement. Dr. Pamela truly cares about helping her
students succeed in and after the college admissions process. I feel very fortunate to have worked with Dr.
Pamela through the admissions process. I’m not quite sure what I would have done without her. Thanks for
everything Dr. Pamela!”
– Austin J. – Princeton University Class of 2015

It’s August 1 which means that the Common Application is now available for high school seniors to begin submitting their 2012-2013 college applications. Keep in mind that not ALL colleges are on the CommonApp. Colleges offered through the CommonApp agree to a holistic admissions process. This doesn’t mean that other colleges not on the CommonApp are less holistic in their approach. When you are applying to colleges that use their own application, be sure to review their admissions policies before applying. Reviewing the policies can be helpful as you think through how to respond to essay questions.

to high school seniors using the CommonApp

Common App is ready

For this year’s CommonApp, there are 2 essay questions. The first one, which can be a bit more challenging to write, is short and sweet:

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences

For the second essay, applicants can choose one from this list of prompts:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

2. Discuss some issue of personal local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the important of diversity to you.

6. Topic of your choice.

In future blog postings, I will discuss strategies for responding to each of these essays. In the meantime, here are 3 quick tips to get you started:

  • Avoid looking at sample essays! They are too distracting and say nothing about your uniqueness
  • Work through the first 5 topics before you “cop out” and choose the 6th prompt. . . . it really should be different from the others!
  • Do not mention any college by name in these common essay questions

Good luck with this exciting process, Class of 2013!