Extracurricular Advice for 9th and 10th Graders

  Dave Bergman   Apr 23, 2017   Big Picture   0 Comment

Winston Churchill once quipped that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Or did he? Ironically, the attribution of this quote may be a case of a lie whirling around the globe while the truth flails around in the dark, unable to locate his slacks; the origin of the quote is actually a matter debate. It may have been said by noted quote machine, Mark Twain, our third president and inventor of macaroni and cheese (seriously), Thomas Jefferson, or may just be an unattributed ancient Chinese proverb. Regardless, this witticism has relevance here, as one of the biggest myths in college admissions happens to also be one of the most widespread as the pervasive and hardened belief that colleges are looking for “well-rounded students” has made its way around the world many times over.

A well-rounded misunderstanding

Colleges are indeed worried about well-roundedness on campus. In putting together a freshman class they are looking for individuals who excel in sports, music, theater, entrepreneurship, volunteer work, foreign language, poetry, debate, etc. However, they aren’t looking for all of these talents to be wrapped-up in one human body. Rather, the core of their institutional desire is for collective well-roundedness to promote a healthy and diverse campus environment. In other words, they want an eclectic and balanced student body, comprised of individuals possessing one or two areas of high aptitude and zeal.

So, all of you ambitious 9th and 10th graders—please halt your plans to lug your bassoon, Latin textbook, and robotics kit to your JV baseball game so you can you cram in extra activities during any idle time in the dugout. Becoming the ultimate Renaissance man/woman is not actually a prerequisite for college admission.

How to approach freshman year

Now that the truth has at least put its pants on, let’s discuss how a typical freshman should approach planning their extracurricular pathway. To begin, it’s important to note that colleges, even Ivy and Ivy-caliber schools, do not expect you to be a finished product the moment you set foot in a high school. Sure, there are prodigies and savants out there who have been playing the cello since infancy or destined for the U.S. National team since the first day of pee wee soccer but most of us lack such early-formed destinies.

Our advice for 9th and the first half of 10th grade is simple—explore your options, try things out that sound interesting, and discover your passion(s).

Quality over quantity

Some applicants feel like quitting an activity amounts to a “sunken cost,” and should be avoided. This is a mental trap that needs to be avoided. Gutting-out activities in which you have little interest will get you nowhere in the long-run and will, in effect, actually waste valuable time you could be devoting to something you love.

If you tried Model U.N. and didn’t like it, then move on and devote more time to a preferred club or activity. If you hate sports, don’t play them. There is little to be gained by riding the bench as a back-up punter when you’d rather be prepping for Science Bowl.

Colleges want to see sustained commitment to 2-3 activities. Such commitment will typically lead to leadership positions by junior or senior year and will say more about you as a future campus contributor than a scattered and unfocused jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach.

Looking ahead

In a few years, you’ll be filling out the activities page on the Common App and refining your “brag sheet” addendums. Admissions officers will be asking themselves, “Do the applicant’s previous extracurriculars align with academic programs and/or activities offered on our campus?”

This is by no means to say that high school students should only pick activities that directly correspond with campus offerings. Instead, think of it in terms of a narrative that you will be able to express in an interview or essay. For example, you were heavily involved in buildOn in high school and plan to pursue volunteer work with an after-school program in a lower-income area near campus during college. Or perhaps you were passionate about robotics in high school and now plan to pursue an engineering major.

The bottom line

In summary, try to remember that no college, not even Princeton or Stanford, expect a 14/15 year old to be Leonardo da Vinci. Every high school student, including future applicants to elite colleges and universities, has a right to be a typical teenager who needs time to experiment, try and fail, contemplate, reassess, and change their mind a few times before settling on extracurricular activities that are the most fulfilling, worthwhile, and representative of them as an individual. Taking this path will invariably lead to a college applicant whom admissions officers will be clamoring to add to their well-rounded freshman class.

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Common App Updates for 2017-18

  Dave Bergman   Apr 17, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Flowers blooming, the crack (or ping) of the baseball bat, the storing away of sweaters and jeans and the end of hibernation for piles of t-shirts and shorts—April is a time of change and transition. So perhaps it is fitting that the Common App picks this time to announce its updates for the upcoming admissions cycle.

With juniors beginning their college visits and the march toward summer break picking up pace, the reality that the 2017-18 application is just around the corner becomes increasingly apparent. To help you get ready, we review the most significant changes to the Common App that are sure to affect everyone applying to college next fall.

Essay Prompts

Out of the seven prompts for the 2017 admissions cycle, five are either brand new or significantly altered from last year’s form. Visit our blog post from February to get a detailed breakdown of all changes to the Common App essay prompts along with advice for how to craft your most unique and compelling story.

Google Drive Integration

With so many high school students now using Google Drive and Google Docs as commonly as us (relatively) old folks used Trapper Keepers, Mead notebooks, and #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, the Common App has made it easier to directly upload cloud-based documents into their applications. In addition to being more convenient across the board, the folks at the Common App hope this will help improve access for lower-income students who may not have a computer at home.

Self–Reported Grades

Beginning on August 1, 2017, the process of self-reporting one’s grades to colleges is about to get a whole lot more efficient. Rather than doing this individually for each institution that requires it, students will be able to fill out their self-reported transcript as part of the Common Application, saving time and meaningless labor. This new “Courses and Grades” section was added at the behest of students and counselors, who have long desired a streamlined method of inputting transcript information.

Schools Joining Common App

Another 40 colleges and universities have agreed to join as Common App members for the 2017-18 cycle, bringing the organization’s total membership to 740 schools. Notable additions include Farleigh Dickinson, Appalachian State, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Kent State, the University of Missouri, UNLV, the University of Houston, the University of Oregon, and the University of Wyoming. For a complete list of new members, visit the Common App site.

Keeping up with the Coalition Application?

Some changes to the Common App seem to mirror innovations put forth by the Coalition Application (for a complete overview of this organization revisit our earlier blog post). For example, the Common App will now allow counselors belonging to community-based organizations to have equal access to a student’s account as their high school counselor counterpart (say that three times fast, or better yet—don’t). Thus, advisors working with students, presumably from lower-income/minority/first-generation backgrounds, will be able to better assist their students with the application process. The Coalition Application grants such access to outside counselors beginning as early as 9th grade.

Also with an eye toward increasing access, the key information on the Common App will now be available in Spanish. This upgrade will be of obvious benefit to Latino students, their families, and counselors.

Bottom Line

The improvements with self-reported transcripts and Google Drive integration will save many applicants time and headaches this fall. The most Enlightened College Applicants will pay special attention to the revised essay topics and will begin brainstorming which prompt will best allow them to compose a winning narrative.

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The Truth Behind Private Scholarships

  Andrew Belasco   Apr 10, 2017   Costs & Financial Aid   0 Comment

money_capIn the early 1970s the U.S. auto industry received warnings from economic experts—if they continued to focus on the wrong thing, Japanese car companies would soon put them out of business.  Detroit’s Big 3 of GM, Ford, and Chrysler were told that if they remained attached to producing oversized, inefficient American-style models, they would soon be surpassed by the compact, fuel-efficient cars being made by the Japanese if the price of gasoline were to drastically increase. Laughing off these dire warnings, U.S. auto execs continued with business-as-usual. Over the course of the decade, due to a changing atmosphere in the Middle East, the price of oil skyrocketed and the American car companies crumbled. If you’ve ever seen Eminem’s 8 Mile or an episode of Hardcore Pawn, you have an idea of how things turned out in the Motor City.

It’s easy to become fixated on details that are new, shiny, and fun (like a ’72 Corvette) and ignore others that are counter to our belief system. Such is the case with how prospective high schools students and their families seek financial aid. For whatever reason, students and parents alike spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out private scholarships from employers, non-profits, and local organizations and not enough time focusing on where the bulk of aid money actually comes from.

The shocking numbers

Let us quickly disabuse you of this notion through simple numbers. In 2014-15 academic year (most recent data available) roughly $184 billion in student aid was awarded to undergraduate students. The vast majority of this was money awarded by the federal government and from institutions themselves. Only 6% came in the form of employer and private scholarships, a number that doesn’t quite support all of the hype.

Unclaimed money?

Some websites and guidebooks proliferate the belief are millions of dollars in scholarships that go unused. While there is some truth to that statement, the fact also remains that many of those scholarships are inaccessible because the qualifying requirements are so limiting.  For example, there may be a scholarship at a regional university specifically aimed at a student from a particular county, with a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher, who is majoring in interior design. If no incoming student meets these criteria, the scholarship may go unclaimed.

Private Scholarships can hurt your financial aid package

It is also important to note that since the federal government requires postsecondary institutions to consider private scholarships when calculating financial aid, outside scholarships can actually reduce your total aid package.  Let’s say, for example, that a family’s expected family contribution (EFC) is $17,000 and the cost of the college is $30,000.  In order to meet this cost the college offers $13,000 in its financial aid package to assist the family.  Now let’s say that the student wins a $3,000 scholarship from a local employer.  In this instance, most schools would then reduce their respective financial aid offers by $3,000.  Hopefully, these reductions target loan awards, rather than grant awards, although that isn’t always the case at every school.  All in all, private scholarships have very little impact on the “bottom line” for students requiring need-based aid since scholarships often lead to a reduction in their original financial aid award.  For affluent students who do not require aid, however, scholarships will undoubtedly impact out-of-pocket costs by reducing the amount they owe.

By no means do we want to discourage you from applying for private scholarships; we just encourage you not dedicate an excessive amount of time to these pursuits. Should you remain interested, we will attempt to expedite and enhance your quest by offering the following ten tips for pursuing private scholarships.


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Moving Off the Waitlist

  Dave Bergman   Mar 29, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Is it possible to get off the waitlist?


After battling through the epic journey of the college application process, with all its emotional twists and turns, the torturous anticipation, the potential heaven of acceptance or hell of rejection, judgment day has finally arrived. You tear open the envelope and frantically scan the letter for a telling phrase. You have been “offered a spot.” So far, so good… “on the wait list.” Ugh. Welcome to admissions purgatory.

The good news…

Colleges do not place students on the waitlist to soften the blow of rejection or to spread false hope. The waitlist exists as a useful tool that provides institutions with a safety net against tough-to-predict yield rates. Thus the percentage of students plucked off the waitlist varies greatly from year to year. For example, in the last decade the number of applicants accepted off of Brown University’s waitlist has fluctuated between zero and 196 students. At MIT, the last five years have seen the number of students taken out of purgatory fall between zero and 65. It’s quite possible that you will simply luck into a good year for waitlisters.

The Bad News…

Of course, the odds are not exactly forever in a student’s favor. Stanford’s waitlisted students stand somewhere between a 0-5% chance of receiving an offer, depending on the year. Acceptance rates for those waitlisted by juggernauts like Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Middlebury average under 4%.

In the 2015 cycle, Emory students fared slightly better, with 8% eventually gaining acceptance. However, in 2016, that number dropped to a paltry 2%. UC-Irvine opened its doors to just 3% of the over 4,000 on its waitlist in the spring of 2016. At quirky/cerebral Bard College, a meager 10 students from a waitlist pool of 675 were eventually given the nod last year.

Bottom line, in a good year, chances may be half-decent. In a bad year, odds are more on par with a participant in The Hunger Games.

What You Can Do…

Carnegie Mellon offers students the option of joining their “Priority Waitlist,” which means you pledge to attend if admitted. While this will improve your odds, it is worth pointing out that only 4 of 2,835 students were offered spots in Carnegie Mellon’s freshman class last fall. However, a few years back in 2014, Carnegie Mellon took a comparatively massive 5% of waitlisted hopefuls.

For all other schools, the number one thing students can do while on the waitlist is communicate clearly, firmly, and respectfully to the admissions office that, if offered, you will accept a spot at the school. Admissions officers like knowing that they have students who will enroll if called upon. A sincere letter to the admission office and an occasional check-in from a guidance counselor will suffice. Waitlisted students who obsessively pepper the Dean of Admission’s inbox with crazed inquiries typically do not do themselves any favors. Remember, colleges are looking for the next productive member of their freshman class, not the next stalker.

Of equal importance to expressing a student’s intentions is, not surprisingly, maintaining a strong academic performance. Spring grades, another teacher recommendation, or a recent unique accomplishment can still sway an admissions committee.

You will still want to submit a non-refundable deposit at your first-choice school to which you’ve been accepted. There are no bonus points awarded for declaring that if you do not get off of the Tufts waitlist, you’ll skip college altogether and become a street performer.

If the call off of the waitlist never comes, allow your student to grieve as they must, and then move them on and get him/her ready to thrive at their second-choice school. After all, the second-choice school surely has a waitlist full of people stuck in their own purgatory who can only dream of being in your child’s shoes.

College Transitions offers updated waitlist statistics at America’s most competitive colleges. Click here to access the most recent waitlist statistics.

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Should you consider a “gap year” before college?

  Dave Bergman   Mar 24, 2017   Big Picture   0 Comment

volunteersBack in the 80s, parents’ worst nightmare was that their flaky Gen-X teens would defer entry into college, stating that they first needed to “find themselves.” After a year of goat herding in the Himalayas, being one with nature, and going on nightly vision quests, the best some parents could hope for is that their sons and daughters would eventually return, ready to hit the books, embrace Alex P. Keatonesque values, and eventually end up as Wall Street wolves.

While absurd, this introduction offers a kernel of truth – In the absence of proper nomenclature, a desire to step off the conveyor belt of formal education was not always encouraged in American culture. Rest assured, in modern times, the “gap year” is officially a real thing, and while only 2% of soon-to-be college students presently partake, the practice is greatly increasing in popularity.  No longer solely the domain of the wealthy, a growing number of middle class students are also taking a year off to foray into the “real” world, often emerging with a new sense of perspective, purpose, and direction. (more…)

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Successfully Navigating a College Fair

  Dave Bergman   Mar 17, 2017   Careers, College Search/Knowledge   0 Comment


Without a solid game plan, a college fair can easily devolve into a blur of smiles, handshakes, and the accumulation of enough glossy pamphlets to wallpaper your bedroom twenty times over. However, with proper planning, a college fair can be an illuminating experience that will provide you with newfound insight into prospective colleges as well as flesh-and-blood contacts you simply cannot get from paging through a Princeton Review guidebook, or our own The Enlightened College Applicant (shameless plug).

Adopting the right mindset

We encourage students to first think about the big picture of college admissions. The college selection process is not merely about “getting in”—it is about becoming a discerning and thoughtful consumer ultimately capable of selecting an undergraduate institution that aligns with your long-term academic, career, and financial goals. Can you afford the full tuition price of your potential destinations or will you rely on scholarships, merit aid, or loans? Does the school you are considering fit in with your post-undergraduate plans?

The tools of the trade

On an extremely practical level, make sure that on the day of the fair you bring with you a backpack or other carrying apparatus (perfect occasion to dust off your dad’s neon fanny pack!) with which to store materials, a notebook containing potential questions for reps, and a writing implement (although free pens with school insignias will be available by the ton). Be prepared for the fact that all schools with whom you speak at the fair will request that you fill out an information card. Students wishing to streamline this process and avoid developing carpal tunnel syndrome may wish to preprint self-stick address labels containing their name, contact info, intended major and extracurricular interests. Make sure that if you include an email address that it is appropriate and not like our example here. Additionally, if a given school asks for info that doesn’t happen to be on your pre-made label, be sure to add it in by hand.

Dress and hygiene

Inevitably, you will see some of your peers dressed to the nines in clothes so stiff and unfamiliar that they are moving from booth to booth with a Herman Muster-like gait. This simply isn’t necessary. There is absolutely no need to show up to a college fair in a three piece suit—just don’t show up in a humorous, alcohol-themed t-shirt and dirty sweats (trust us, some will). Dress for a college fair as you would for a dinner with your grandmother – a “business casual” look will more than suffice.

Study up for a productive Q&A

When you have the ear of an admissions rep at a prospective college, take advantage of the opportunity by asking penetrating questions. Find out whether a typical freshman class at their school is a classroom of 20 students intimately engaged in discourse with the professor or whether it involves 300 anonymous faces in a lecture hall. Ask about graduation rates, career services, internships and study abroad opportunities, and employment statistics in your field of interest. It can also be beneficial to ask specific questions about life on campus. What are the options for freshman housing? How does the college select roommates? What are the meal plan options? What is the neighborhood surrounding the campus like? This information can be challenging to find online or in guidebooks but can be easily answered by a college rep.

Of course, any conversation is a two-way street so it is wise to come prepared to talk about yourself as well. Our tips for acing the college interview will help you brainstorm your answers to common questions that reps may ask you. Remember, even if you are not engaging in a formal interview, it’s still a face-to-face opportunity to make a strong first impression.

Your endgame

Since admissions officers typically attend college fairs within their assigned regions, there is a very strong chance the rep that you meet will be one of the people reading your application down the road. Aim to make at least one or two “human connections” at the fair and stay in contact with this individual in the coming months. Send them an email thanking them for their time and ask follow-up questions as they arrive. Believe it or not, demonstrating interest in your school is actually a factor in the admissions process.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, a college fair will have provided you with several useful contacts and a plethora of useful information that will help you, the college consumer, better determine which schools should jump to the top of your list and which can be eliminated.

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Out-of-State Deals

  Dave Bergman   Mar 05, 2017   Application Strategies, Costs & Financial Aid   0 Comment

At risk of sounding like famed 60 Minutes resident curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, the world has changed drastically in so many ways since 1986—landlines have been replaced by cell phones, actual socializing has been replaced by social media, and America’s highest office is now held by a reality star rather than a B movie actor…okay, so not much of a leap on that last one.

In our much narrower world of college admissions, the doubling of the number of freshmen attending out-of-state universities over the last 30 years would be among the top headlines. This may seem like an insignificant change compared to the aforementioned technological and social shifts, but an admissions professional from the mid-80s would raise his wayfarers and spit out his Bubble Tape gum in pure disbelief—it’s that much of a departure.

Back then, public universities served a straightforward purpose, allowing residents the opportunity for a good education at a reasonable price. Today, the situation is far more complex.

As public universities search for new ways to overcome budget shortfalls, they’ve had to get creative, and that means looking beyond state lines for sources of revenue. We’ve written previously on the out-of-state admissions edge enjoyed by applicants who are willing and able to pay full tuition freight, thus filling up the university’s coffers. But that is only one consequence of the altered landscape.

Public’s recruiting high school superstars

The University of Alabama is one school that has begun aggressively recruiting students from around the country who have Ivy-League credentials. Over the last decade, the University’s total merit-aid offerings have risen from $8.3 million to over $100 million.

Process those numbers for a moment.

In an effort to rise to the level of prestigious flagships like The University of Michigan and The University of Virginia, Alabama is willing to pay for top talent. Free rides are available for students with high test scores and competitive high school transcripts.

The University of Alabama is hardly the only school employing this recruiting strategy. Louisiana Tech hands out merit aid to 65% of out-of-state applicants with an average award of over $17,000. Bowling Green University in Ohio offers 86% of non-homegrown Buckeyes an average of $10,000 in aid. Even if to a lesser extent than the aforementioned examples, just about every public university has followed the game plan to some degree.

What is their motivation?

It’s not hard to deduce why public institutions lure out-of-state applicants who will pay full tuition. Universities’ reasons for recruiting non-resident teens on full scholarships are a bit more complicated. When a state college manages to lure one top student from a distant high school, they put their brand on the radar of future graduates of that school, including ones who might pay in full. The guiding theory is essentially the old cliché: you’ve got to spend money to make money. The next year, five students from, say Ohio for example, might apply to The University of Maryland; the next year it could be ten.

Even recipients of large scholarships end up forking over a good deal of money to the school whether through room & board, meal plans, or even overpriced mugs, banners, and teddy bears sporting the school insignia.

How you can take advantage

If you are going to college on any sort of a budget, you and your parents should be on the lookout for bargains. Non-exceptional students (relative to the school to which they are applying), will not fare well financially at out-of-state flagship universities. In these belt-tightening times where state funding evaporates more each year, such out-of-town cash cows are the very students keeping the campus lights aglow.

Yet, those well above the school-specific mean SAT/ACT and GPA can take advantage of this trend by receiving a high quality education at a greatly reduced cost. As a prospective college student, simply being open to the value that out-of-state publics may be willing to offer you can help uncover some of the best college bargains on the higher education market.

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The Importance of the College Visit

  Andrew Belasco   Feb 24, 2017   Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Residing in the digital age, it’s tempting to forgo more and more tasks that, a decade or two ago, involved an actual trek out into the real world. Hassles such as buying paper towels or searching for the perfect used car that used to require legwork, human interaction, and possibly even wearing pants can now be done with a click of a mouse from one’s own living room.

Similarly, parents and students may find themselves considering skipping the annoyances of long car rides or plane trips, days away from work/school, and the slew of hotel bills that come from visiting your teen’s prospective colleges. After all, it’s possible to take a virtual tour of campus, chat with an admissions officer in an online forum, and find answers to most questions about anything from dorm life to financial aid on a school’s FAQ page. So, given the availability of fairly comprehensive virtual excursions, is it still worth the time and expense of a physical trip? We at College Transitions believe that, when feasible, it is for the following reasons:

1. Use your senses, including your gut

For many, college will be life’s greatest expense outside of buying a home and should thus be given every bit as much attention. Would you ever considering buying a house, sight-unseen, from an online listing? What looks like a lush backyard may actually be swampland, the beautiful hardwood floors may be rotting and moldy, and two of the three alleged “bedrooms” may feel more like medium-size closets.

Just as with a new home, it helps to see, smell, feel, and fully experience a college campus before forking over that tuition money. Equally important will be the gut-sense you get around campus. Does it feel like it could be home for four years? Does it have a positive vibe? Do you feel safe and comfortable walking around campus? The only way to answer these questions is to plant your feet on campus and soak it all in.

2. Distance is more than an abstract concept

There are a multitude of reasons that 72% of college students choose to attend school in their home state, the chief one, of course, being reduced tuition at public universities. Yet, many teens are equally influenced by the proximity to family. After all, it’s comforting to know that a home-cooked meal, a free washer and dryer, and most importantly, a network of love, support, and guidance is no further than a few hours away.

If you don’t visit your prospective colleges then you are missing out on accurately assessing how important distance to family is to you. In the abstract, a school that is 200 miles away isn’t that much different than a school that is 2,000 miles away. One can rationalize that a 4-hour plane trip and a 4-hour car ride are roughly equivalent. As an armchair globetrotter it’s easy to acquire a false bravado. Actually packing your bags for the opposite coast, waiting for hours in the airport, crossing time zones, experiencing jet lag, and seeing how it feels to be so far from home is an appropriate test that will bring clarity to the geographical parameters of your college search.

3. Go on an official and unofficial tour

It’s wise to begin with and official tour and information session (be sure to register beforehand). While sanitized and sales-pitchy, you’ll likely get a good sense of the heart of campus, and of the school’s main architectural and social attractions. It will also be a chance to ask your tour guide questions about dorm life, the social scene, and other anecdotal information that is tough to glean from websites and guidebooks.

After the official tour ends, we recommend setting off on a self-guided tour to make sure the infomercial version of the school appears to align with reality. Chat up a few random students about their favorite and least favorite things at their school. Visit a class, dine in a campus cafeteria, and grab a copy of the latest student newspaper. The more information you can take in, the better, whether of the school-sanctioned or unofficial variety.

4. Connect with an admissions officer

If you are visiting a liberal arts school or a mid-size university, you will likely be able to schedule a one-on-one evaluative interview (for a complete list of colleges that offer interviews click here). If you are attending a larger university that does not offer a formal one-on-one interview, try to participate in an information session with an admissions official. Either way, you’ll want to come prepared to talk about your academic interests and achievements, extracurricular activities, and also have a number of thoughtfully-crafted questions for the admissions officer about their institution. Particularly at small liberal arts colleges, making a positive and lasting impression as a nice and engaging human being can pay dividends when application review time rolls around.

For more on how to prepare for a college interview and what type of questions one should expect, revisit our previous blog on the subject.

If you can’t swing an in-person tour…

As we stated at the beginning, we believe that visiting a college is immensely helpful, when it’s feasible. Sometimes due to budgetary or time constraints, seeing some of your prospective schools simply isn’t possible, especially if you have a lengthy and geographically diverse college list. If you aren’t able to view a campus in person, there are still actions that you can take to better form an assessment of a school’s fit.

For those who can’t make it to campus, attempt to schedule an alumni interview at a location near you. Doing so will still afford you the opportunity to humanize your application and make a lasting impression with someone affiliated with the university.

Connect with current students at your prospective college through social media or via your high school’s guidance department. Chances are, unless you attend a tiny high school, a recent alum is currently attending your institution of interest and will be willing to share his or her experiences.

If you aren’t making a pilgrimage to campus, there are plenty of other ways to please the demonstrated interest gods. Attending a local admissions event, following a school on Facebook, and corresponding over email with an admissions counselor are all excellent ways to show a potential higher education destination that you have a genuine interest in attending.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line

There’s nothing wrong with buying paper towels online but when it comes to a six-figure purchase like a college education, an in-person inspection is recommended. If a school is within reasonable driving distance but doesn’t feel worth the time, effort, and money to visit, then it should be eliminated from your list.

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So you want to be an accountant…

  Dave Bergman   Feb 16, 2017   Careers   0 Comment

accountantsWelcome to the latest installment of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a….” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.

Does going to a prestigious undergraduate school help?

If your aim is to get offers from the major accounting firms such as Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, or KPMG, then the undergraduate school that you attend can boost your career prospects. Schools such as Villanova, Notre Dame, and Boston College are among the top feeders to the Big Four firms. Other less-selective schools such as Binghamton University, Bentley University, and Fairfield University have strong connections to the one or more of the big four (i.e. Binghamton’s PwC Scholar’s Program) and can also serve as a direct pipeline to employment at the high-end firms.

Do I have to major in accounting?

For those who enter college 100% sure that they want to be accountants, majoring in accounting is the most direct route to your desired destination. While the majority of CPAs nationwide possess a bachelor’s in accounting, other CPAs studied related areas such as finance, economics, business, or even completely unrelated fields. It is important to note, however, that non-accounting majors may have to take additional courses in accounting or taxation before being eligible to sit for the CPA exam.

The pathway to CPA

States have varying requirements about how many hours of upper-level accounting classes one needs to sit for the CPA exam, but unless you live in the Virgin Islands, if you want to become a Certified Public Accountant, you’ll need to rack up 150 credit hours. Since a traditional bachelor’s degree program is only 120 hours, you’ll either have to continue your college education beyond four years or set sail for St. Thomas in the Caribbean (hmmmm, this might actually not be the worst option).

After completing your hours of study it will be time to tackle the CPA exam — a four part test that covers auditing, regulation, financial accounting and reporting, and business environment and concepts. The test is rigorous and failure rates are high. In fact, in 2016, pass rates for three of the four sections were under 50%.

Consider a dual BS/MS program

Since you’re stuck having to log 150 credit hours to sit for the CPA, you might as well consider earning a master’s degree along the way. Many universities offer 5-year BS/MS accounting programs which can be slightly more efficient than earning a bachelor’s and then adding the master’s down the road. Yet, most master’s degrees in the accounting field only run between 30-36 credits anyway, so you’re not exactly shaving off that many credits.

Less common but far more advantageous are the dual-degree programs that can be completed in four years, giving their students a chance to emerge with a graduate degree to sit for the CPA exam a year early. LaSalle University offers an accelerated program for particularly ambitious future number-crunchers that allows students, through a boatload of summer work, to graduate with a BS in accounting and an MBA in just four years. Butler University has a four-year program that results in a B.S./Master of Accounting dual degree.

Accountant salaries

As long as taxes and businesses exist, accounting is sure to remain a steady and predictable field offering solid compensation. Professionals with an accounting degree but no CPA license presently average just over 50k while those with CPAs earn between 5-15% more. The top ten percent of earners with the CPA credentials earn 118k and up. As with most professions, those in major metropolitan areas, specifically San Francisco, San Jose, and New York enjoy the highest annual earnings.

For those with sights on even higher dollar figures, CPAs can ascend to corporate leadership positions such as CFO or corporate treasurer—jobs that can pay a few hundred thousand per year or more.

Plan the financial end

If your goal is to become a CPA, it’s important to keep in mind that a 5th year of study will be required. This translates, of course, to an extra year of tuition and an extra year of not bringing home a salary. Fortunately, job prospects for accountants are solid, expected to grow by 11% over the next decade, which means that at least you’re likely to have a steady income to pay down any undergraduate debt incurred.

To read previous installments of the “So you want to be a…” series, click the links below:

So you want to be a lawyer…

So you want to be a doctor…

So you want to be a teacher…

So you want to be an engineer…

So you want to be a software developer/engineer/programmer…

So you want to be a financial analyst…

So you want to be a journalist…

So you want to be a psychologist…

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Changes to Common App Essay Prompts for 2017-18

  Dave Bergman   Feb 09, 2017   College Essay   0 Comment

This week, The Common Application essay prompts underwent their most substantive changes since 2013. While two prompts remained unchanged, three were revised, one was introduced, and one oldie-but-goodie was resurrected. The team at College Transitions will walk you through the changes and tell you what it means for current juniors who want to get a jump-start on the most important 650-word essay of their young lives.

Staying the Same

There are no revisions to the following prompts:

#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.

#4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.


Three prompts were revised. Changes are italicized and our analysis follows:

#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?

The key change here is that “failure,” a harsh and perhaps off-putting term in the eyes of many applicants, is now softened to include the more sanitized “challenge” or “setback.” We are fans of this prompt and believe it can be refreshing for admissions officers to hear someone willingly talk about their shortcomings and less-proud moments. Subsequent growth in the wake of failure can give insight into your character, resilience, and depth. In brainstorming this one, reflect on your life’s setbacks and whether they led to maturation or enlightenment. Also try starting with periods of growth in your life, and work backward to what rejections/disappointment/failures led to your personal development.

#3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

This prompt now asks for the “outcome” of the situation. Don’t be enticed to enter the world of exaggeration and hyperbole when describing the consequences of your actions. Colleges do not expect you to have brought down a dictatorship, brokered peace in the Middle East, or single-handedly eliminated the gender pay gap. In literary terms, this is The Society vs. The Individual type of conflict and it needn’t take place on a grand stage.  Standing up to peer pressure, going against a family tradition, taking part in a local protest, or not following a directive you found to be immoral or unjust are just a few of the “real life” examples that can make for a gripping storyline.

#5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Jettisoned are the phrases “transition to adulthood” and “culture, community, or family.” Perhaps colleges grew tired of slogging through tales of bar mitzvahs, facial hair growth, and awkward, early romantic experiences. This prompt is now conducive to the sharing of more meaningful growth that showcases your growing self-awareness and/or connection to large-scale human events. We do caution against using this prompt to talk about your trip to South America where you highlight obvious linguistic, cultural, or culinary differences. Remember not to write a travelogue—the essay should be revealing about you.

Brand New/Returning

The folks at The Common App generously gave us one newborn prompt and one brought back from the dead. We present them below along with our reaction:

#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?

This one is all about your greatest passion and the ways in which you pursue knowledge. Whether it’s aerospace engineering, classical guitar, British Monarchs, the French language, lacrosse, or vintage arcade machines, this newbie offers a solid platform for showing off your unique interests as well as what makes you tick. Elite colleges adore students whose love for learning extends well beyond the classroom. This is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate your most lovable, nerdy obsessions and the verve with which you independently pursue them.

#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. 

It’s back—the college essay version of a free-write! Previously, we recommended that students who had a topic that was off the beaten path find a way to connect their idea to prompt #1. Now, applicants are free to mold their essays from a formless, lump of clay into, literally, whatever shape they desire. Just be sure to read our Five Essay Topics to Avoid before finalizing your topic.

College Transitions’ Quick Take

The revisions made to The Common Application raise the expectations for depth and substance for existing prompts and open the door to increased creativity and imagination through the introduction of brand new topics. With the return of the “topic of your choice” option, there is no reason to force yourself to answer one of the other prompts unless it is a 100% perfect launching-pad for your strongest, most revealing composition.

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