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Over the next month, I will present the stories of students I worked with during the 2020-2021 school year. While I can never be 100% sure about why my students were admitted into their top choice colleges, I will highlight what I think worked. Collectively, you can use these stories as both a blueprint and guide as you map out your college prep journey and strategy for next season’s college applications.
Meet Rachel and Franchesca
The first story is about Rachel (mom), and Franchesca (student), who was accepted to Cornell. In late September, Rachel called me to share her dilemma and get help. She and her daughter, Franchesca, waited too late to start the college admissions process. At the latest, it is advised that you start by spring of junior year, looking at colleges, building a balanced college list, and asking teachers for future recommendation letters. By the summer of junior year, you’d start writing your college essays and signing up for the Common App to get to know college requirements and due dates. Finally, by September of senior year, you’d be knee-deep in all of the application components for each school, including the supplemental essays. So, the fact that they had not started any of this, I was worried.
They were worried too. According to Rachel, they already had an idea of where Franchesca wanted to attend college. She loved the University of Notre Dame. It’s just that she didn’t know what to do next.
We spoke for an hour. During that time, I learned that Franchesca was an amazing student. By all accounts, she was a contender for a college as competitive as Notre Dame with an acceptance rate of 15.8%. She is a classically trained dancer, involved in her community, and has high SAT scores. However, her best quality is that she has a BIG heart. The one thing Rachel stated over and over again is the desire for Franchesca to tell her story about the trip she took to the Philippines as a child. Rachel recounted the experience to me. She stressed how this experience influenced her outlook on life and the way she shows up in the world. It was a non-negotiable. This was the essay topic. Franchesca needed help telling her profound story in an authentic and compelling way. She already knew that college essays about “the trip that changed my life,” are considered cliche. Her story or experience was not typical.
I was excited to work with Franchesca. Albeit there were many challenges and roadblocks ahead. With it being so late in the admissions season, we didn’t have a lot of time. And then there was the biggest hiccup to address head on: Notre Dame was the wrong school for Franchesca.
The School You Choose Matters
By the end of the call, I told Rachel about my excitement to work with Franchesca. Yet I wanted to do her the service and respectfully let her know that I thought Notre Dame was the wrong choice. With her permission, I suggested that she consider applying somewhere else and taking Notre Dame off the list completely. Based on what I had heard, I believed that Franchesca had a great (and better) shot of getting accepted to Cornell. Even though the acceptance rate of Cornell is roughly 11%.
- Affordable. She is a New York State resident. Cornell has a land grant college that allows New York residents to attend at the state tuition price. In this case, she’d get an Ivy League degree for a fraction of the cost.
- Low Competition. At Franchesca’s high school, an all-girls Catholic school on Long Island, not many students would be applying to Cornell. But several were applying to Notre Dame with it also being a Catholic institution. Since religious affiliation was not important to Franchesca, I suggested Cornell as a great opportunity to stand out with less competition with classmates.
- Strong Hook. Franchesca is interested in studying public health. This program choice is extremely timely given the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, Cornell has a top ranked graduate public health program. Ironically, this is not something we know when she was working on her applications, but in January 2021, Cornell announced its public health graduate school would be pioneering a program with the New York State government to launch the United State’s first Public Health Corps Fellowship Program. The program will train 1,000 graduate school fellows, who will go into neighborhoods to deliver vaccines and testing. The initiative will respond to the current public health crisis and future crises that arise in New York. While Franchesca was not enrolling in graduate school, the essay she wrote and the application she crafted aligned so closely with where Cornell was expanding and getting funding and would need to funnel students into to meet its goals with the State. Without us even knowing, Franchesca was increasing her chances of getting accepted to Cornell because she created a powerful hook. Imagine how excited the admissions committee must have been when reading her application and knowing that she could one day be a great candidate for the Public Health Corps program. She filled a need that Cornell had. This is a necessary baseline condition for an acceptance. When deciding who to accept, admissions officers are working towards building a perfect class.
This perfect storm of factors play into how I match students with schools. In Franchesca’s case, Cornell made sense on so many levels. It made sense to both Rachel and Franchesca too. On my recommendation, they abandoned Notre Dame and agreed to be “all in” on applying Early Decision to Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), where she would pursue a public health bachelor’s degree.
Over the next six weeks until the November due date, I coached Franchesca through crafting a powerful college application and essays that supported an overall theme of a socially conscious student on a mission to change the world. By late December, Franchesca shared a text of overjoy about being accepted to Cornell.
In the next sections, I’ll dig deeper into what additional factors I think helped put Franchesca’s application over the threshold.
Extracurricular Activities that Add Value
Franchesca had a strong story to tell the Cornell admissions committee. But where she needed the most help in her application was in the Activities section. She had participated in so many extracurricular activities that they would not all fit in the 10 spots available on the Common App.
Also, she was a notorious activity dabbler. She’d try a school club or volunteer activity for a few months, and then move on to the next thing. This is common, especially in the early years of high school when you’re trying to figure everything out. Also, she started a lot of clubs when she realized what she wanted to do was not offered by her high school. The problem there is she wouldn’t stick with it either. She’d enlist friends to take it over and then transition out of it.
Here’s what we did to combat these challenges:
- Cluster by theme and not time. In other words, if there were multiple activities related to volunteering, she combined them into one type of activity in the title. In the description, she teased out her involvement. For example, she had organized various pantry drives throughout HS for different organizations. Rather than writing them separately, she put “Food Pantry Drive Organizer” as the title and spoke to all the organizations she collected food for. This elevated her activity and showed that she was a leader by taking initiative and bringing impact to many organizations over three years.
- Highlight ability to lead and support others’ growth. To address her habit of being a serial club starter, Franchesca spoke to her efforts to recruit her friends to participate in her clubs. Once she trained them on how to run the club, she’d promote them into leadership roles and eventually exit the club once they could run it themselves. In three years, she started three new clubs at her school that still exist and will continue for years to come. Not only did she create opportunities for the next generation of students. But she gave her peers activities and leadership roles to add to their college applications that they may not have had initially. She mirrored what happens in real life. In the world of work, which is what college is set up for. Companies bring on interns and apprentices, then once they learn how to do a job, they take over so that entry and mid-level employees can move up to the next role. Franchesca showed that she understands how this works, thereby proving she’s ready for college.
The COVID-19 Question is NOT Optional
I wrote a whole post about how to answer this question based on my experience working with Franchesca. We had gone back and forth for a bit on the question of if she should answer it. We discussed that admissions officers already have so much to read. Our concern was if adding another 250 words would cause interest or annoyance.
After a week, we settled on the decision that she should answer the optional question. COVID-19 had impacted her in a significant way. She lived in New York, which months earlier had been at the epicenter of the pandemic. Also her dad, who is an ER doctor at a major hospital in Manhattan, had served in the worst of the crisis. Her COVID-19 response spoke vividly of what it was like in the first days of the pandemic — not knowing when he’d come home, missing him, and worrying he’d contract the virus. Above all else though, she understood his sacrifice, all the risks, and coped with the uncertainty of it all. Franchesca’s candor in this section heightened the vulnerability and honesty of her application. From reading this section, you’d be convinced further about what else was fueling her desire and motivation for entering the public health field.
By answering the COVID-19 question like Franchesca, you can take advantage of the additional application real estate to share your story of how you’ve been impacted by the pandemic. Also, you can provide context as to how the crisis has motivated you to pursue a career choice, if it’s relevant. In other words, you should consider this section a bonus supplemental essay.
Conclusions + Next Steps
In summary, Franchesca was accepted to Cornell University because she applied to her best-fit college. She used data that I supplied to learn about her chances of getting accepted into the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Applying Early Decision only 2X’d her chances and showed her commitment to attending. What is more, she built an application that was extremely high level and crafted uniquely for a type of student Cornell was looking for. She had a perfectly aligned academic hook and powerful story that made the case that she would be a valuable contributing member of the Class of 2025.
As you select your college options and build your applications, you must do these important steps to make your case strong like Franchesca’s:
- Choose a school that is looking for students like you. You learn who your college is looking for by speaking with your area admissions officer and doing your research on college websites.
- Avoid schools where there is high competition at your school. You can check Naviance for admissions data from the last few years. Tools like Naviance can help you gauge your admit chances.
- Write a college essay that is time-relevant, honest, and vulnerable. Start here for help with finding the right college essay topic.
- Craft activities statements that strengthen your application. They should make a powerful argument about the leadership, impact, and values you’d bring to the campus and the local community.
If you need help with your application, please know that I am here for you. I can help you craft an application to better your chances of getting into your dream school. Click here to schedule a free consultation.
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