U Penn “How to Apply to College” Coursera Course: Mid Program Report & Amazing Resources

photoEric J. Furda, Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania is partnering with Dr. Sean Vereen of Steppingstone Scholars to offer a “How to Apply to College” course from U Penn via Coursera.

So naturally, I wanted to try it out.

I’m 50% of the way through the course (week 3 out of 6) and so far, as someone with experience on both sides of the desk, I haven’t really had any “aha” moments yet. What I have learned, however, are some amazing resources available online that I’m eager to share with our students. Here are some of my favorites:

Pell Abacus– Pell Abacus is a free search site that helps students get financial aid estimates directly from schools. Search multiple schools and compare in one place, before you even apply. Read more about financial aid in my previous post, here.

Raise.Me– A website that works with Micro-scholarships from colleges. Essentially, it lets students see how small things they do in HS (from earning an A to being in a drama production) can earn them money in college. Not all schools participate, but its a great way to start younger students thinking about involvement as a form of investment. We’ve introduced Raise.Me to students before, but I think we can do a better job building it in to our program.

College Scorecard– This is a DoE product that I’ve heard talked about a lot, but haven’t actually used before. It is a one-stop-shop that lets families compare average test scores, debt amounts, starting salaries, graduation rates, and more. A terrific resource!

How to Fill Out the FAFSA step by step video from UCSB. This will be something I share with parents every October as the FAFSA launches.

This awesome Quizlet deck of 62 terms for the college application process. I’m absolutely going to figure out a way to use this with our students. The opportunity to gamify the often daunting admission vocabulary is so exciting.

Dean Furda’s blog, p.217 has also been a great resource. One of the assignments last week was to read a post on the 5 Is of self-assessment in the college process:

  1. Identity: How do you see yourself and how do others see you?
  2. Intellect: How do you think and approach the acquisition of knowledge?
  3. Ideas: What do you think and why?
  4. Interests: What do you choose to do when you have the time and flexibility?
  5. Inspiration: What really motivates you?

Then, we had to write about how those could’ve applied to our own college search and self reflection. Here was my submission:

Growing up in an Italian household, it was inevitable that I’d learn to talk not only through words but also through my hands. Things that I can touch, that I can reach out for, or that I can raise my hands up in excitement about– those are the things that really inspire me. As I’ve experienced all sorts of leaning environments throughout the years, I’ve found that I think the most deeply when I can connect the concept I’m learning to a person that I can reach out and touch. Someone I know. Someone I’ve connected with. It could be having a live back and forth in a small group over a topic in a classroom. It could someone I met at a restaurant, who I took the time to learn part of their story, that suddenly makes that event I learned about in history class come to life. Topics with personal connections are seared into my psyche, yet things memorized for a test are immediately lost to me. For that reason, inspiration and intellect have an unavoidable intersection in my college choice. As I think about what type of college or major would best suit me, I know that it is important to me to be in a highly personal setting with smaller class sizes and a focus on real work outside of the classroom. A major that helps build the tools of connection within me would be a tremendous asset, because I feel strongly that I will go into a profession where I will need to interact at a deep level with all sorts of people. I’m thankful for my heritage and the inspiration it provides me– I’m particularly excited to find the college that fits me so well, my hands can’t help but shoot into the air with excitement.

It has been a really incredible exercise to go through this course like a student and to keep myself fresh on college admissions. I can’t wait for the next three weeks!

If you haven’t taken advantage of something like Coursera or a MOOC– I highly suggest it. That opportunity to continuously learn is a tremendous asset in any profession.

University of Maryland: Fear the Turtle

We had a great visit today at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. The University of Maryland is a public research institution that nearly 27,000 undergraduate students call home.

What stood out to many of our students was the university’s commitment to research– even at the undergraduate level. And UMD isn’t kidding. Check out all these options.

University of Maryland Mall, the center of campus

For a campus as sprawling as the University of Maryland, I loved how it was laid out: in a ring system. The mall (their giant lawn) marks the center of campus and is surrounded by academic buildings. The next ring includes residence halls and dinning options, and the outer ring is everything else- from preforming arts centers to athletic fields. Makes sense, right?

Class changes are busy!

Admission Fast Facts:

  • Business, biology, communication, criminology, engineering, gov and politics, biochemistry, chemistry, journalism, psychology — these are limited enrollment majors
  • Review is major blind. But if you apply to one of the above majors, you can get into the university but may not get into your major
  • Consider 26 points in the admission file (see picture)
  • 86% graduation rate
  • Exclusive Coalition App member
  • Superscores for both ACT and SAT
  • Priority deadline is Nov. 1
  • Over 90 majors are available and you have to declare a major by the end of sophomore year
UMD was very transparent with how they read applications


Majors are broken down into these 13 schools

Other Fun Facts:

  • They have a creamery, farmers market, bowling alley
  • Only school with a fully functioning wind tunnel
  • Students rub Testudo the Turtle’s nose for luck and sometimes leave him offerings
*Note: these are my notes from a college tour on 3/1/17. Information may change as policies and programs shift at the university*

Georgetown University- Be Men and Women for Others

We started off Tuesday morning on the campus of Georgetown University, America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit institute of higher learning.


Where does the term Hoyas come from anyway?

“Many years ago, when all Georgetown students were required to study Greek and Latin, the University’s teams were nicknamed “The Stonewalls.” It is suggested that a student, using Greek and Latin terms, started the cheer “Hoya Saxa!”, which translates into “What Rocks!” The name proved popular and the term “Hoyas” was eventually adopted for all Georgetown teams.” -From Georgetown Athletics

Georgetown Athletic Fields

Admission Fast Facts:

  • Not a member of the Common App or Coalition App– has their own application
  • EA and RD application plans (If you apply EA you can’t be applying ED elsewhere)
  • Two part application. Georgetown base application and then supplement
  • 3 subject tests are strongly recommended
  • Does not participate in score choice– you must send every single test taken
  • Also considers resume, interview, two essays, teacher, and counselor recommendations
  • 13-16% admit rate
  • Meets 100% demonstrated need but awards no merit based scholarships
  • 93% retention rate
  • You apply directly and enroll in one of the following colleges: Georgetown College, Nursing and Health Sciences, Walsh School of Foreign Science, McDonough School of Business. You can’t major across colleges, but you can minor across them
  • There is a liberal arts core curriculum all students take
  • 11:1 student to teacher ratio, average class size of 16

Traditions are big at Georgetown. Here is one of my favorites:

A timeless tradition: seniors steal the clock hands from this tower and send it to someone they hope will speak at their commencement. Rumor has it that a Pope has blessed them and a former President of the United States has signed them!

We also learned that 14 US Presidents have spoken from the top of these stairs. No big deal…


Here are a few more pictures from our tour, including a peak into a classroom!

When you’re visiting Georgetown, it is important to walk around the neighborhood of Georgetown as well. Students live on campus for their first three years at Georgetown and much of campus housing includes living-learning communities just outside of the gates. The neighborhood is as much a part of campus as the iconic buildings. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Georgetown Cupcake is just a few blocks away. Perfect for a sweet treat!


*Note: these are my notes from a college tour on 2/28/17. Information may change as policies and programs shift at the university*

The George Washington University- Knowledge in Action

“Art for wisdom,
Science for joy,
Politics for beauty,
And a Hippo for hope.”

So the story goes. Today we toured The George Washington University and, for this group of 8 students, it was their first time on an urban campus!


Beyond fun facts about Hippos, we also learned these important things about the admission process:

Admission takeaways:

  • Application plans– ED, ED2, RD
  • Majors– Apply specifically to a primary and secondary school
  • Test optional– you choose if you’d like to send your test scores or not
  • Fixed tuition– lock in to first year rate. 2016-2017:  roughly $64k/yr
Students passing time between classes

Fun Facts:

  • Graduation is on the National Mall
  • Ranked #1 in internships
  • 7 year BA/MD program
  • Honors program seeks students that are “intellectual omnivores”and for whom no day holds more excitement than the first day of school
  • The science building has a three story room where engineering students can play with cranes (among other things)
  • There isn’t a central dining hall on campus, but your GW bucks get you food at Whole Foods, food trucks, and other local restaurants/shops around the campus
A living wall in the sciences building
No central cafeteria? No problem! There are plenty of other options

GW is a campus for the doers. This is the kind of school you go to when you already know what puts a fire in your belly. The amazing city of Washington, D.C. is your campus and the possibilities are endless.

*Note: these are my notes from a college tour on 2/28/17. Information may change as policies and programs shift at the university*

Common Application Prompts Posted for 2017-2018

They’re here! The Common Application prompts for next year’s admission cycle have been released. But please, put your pen (or I guess these days, computer) down. You don’t need to be writing anything yet. There is a strong chance that whatever will inspire you for this roughly 650 word essay hasn’t yet occurred. You’ve got the next six months to dream and experience more things. August will be the time you bring your pen to paper.

But who can resist a sneak peak? Take a look at your options and see if any creative juices start flowing!

2017-2018 Common Application Essay 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. [No change]

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? [Revised]

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

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. [No change]

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

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? [New]

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. [New]

In 2013, a college counselor from California teased out the prompts to help students think bigger about possible topics of their essays. The prompts have changed slightly since then, but the exercise of dissecting each prompt is still important.

The college essay is often the most exciting part of an application because it allows you to breathe life into your otherwise flat application. Who are you beyond grades? Beyond the trophies you’ve collected? What makes you tick? What makes you lose track of all time? When have you been confronted with something so intense that it challenged you in an uncomfortable way? What ordinary moments can you make extraordinary?

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out Davidson’s College Essay Project via Google Maps. It is a tremendous collection that demonstrates the wit, insight, and power that words can convey.

Why a Four Year College Counseling Model Matters

This information is adapted from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

If your school doesn’t have a dedicated college counselor, you don’t really notice what you may be missing because, well, you don’t know what you don’t know. But if you have a friend whose child attends a school with an intentional college counseling program, you’ve likely found yourself comparing more than you’d like to admit. Without a doubt, college counselors have a positive impact on student outcomes that is both quantifiable and statistically significant.

Using nationally representative, longitudinal data collected by the US Department of Education, findings show that high school seniors who talked one-on-one with a counselor were:

  • 6.8 times more likely to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)
  • 3.2 times more likely to attend college
  • 2 times more likely to attend a bachelor’s degree program

At a school that typically boasts 100% college attendance, those may not seem like important statistics. What really got me were the other key factors that influenced students’ college-going behavior:

  • speaking with a counselor in ninth grade about going to college
  • parents speaking with a counselor by 11th grade about college
  • participating in a college preparation program outside of school

These quantitative takeaways from the Department of Education’s longitudinal study left me feeling incredibly proud of the work we do at Mount Vernon. If you ever catch me or Pam in a conversation about why we started working at MVPS, you’ll likely hear us mention that the opportunity to start building relationships with students in 9th grade is what really caught our eye. That is the Mount Vernon distinction: every six weeks or so, each student meets in small groups with college counseling. Our evening programs are open to families in Grade 9- Grade 12. It is incredible!

Here is a global overview of the things that make our college counseling program distinctive:

Grade 9:

  • Learning Style Inventory – counselors work with freshman to take inventory of what learning styles work best for them and how to best maximum their particular learning style in the classroom.
  • Strengths Finder – Based on the best selling book, StrengthsFinder, students learn  how to capitalize on their individual strengths inside and outside the classroom.
  • Games Based Learning – counselor use Family Feud style games to teach students about differences in the ACT / SAT, the college application process, and other counseling and college terms they need to learn in a fun and interactive way.

Grade 10:

  • Atlanta Invitational Case Studies – sophomore families participate in an invite only mock admission process with 75 top colleges from around the United States to learn in depth about how an application is reviewed for admission.
  • PSAT – every sophomore takes the PSAT to begin getting comfortable with standardized testing.
  • Resume Crafting – college counselors work with sophomore students to help them craft their resumes and think strategically about their involvement in and out of school.

Grade 11:

  • National College Fairs
  • 1 : 1 meetings with college counselors – to kick off the one on one process, each student meet with their specific college counselor to begin mapping out their college process.
  • Customized College Search Guidance – all students receive a customized list of colleges to consider based on their individual passions, talents, and preferences.
  • Student-led junior family college planning meetings.

Grade 12:

  • Senior Boot Camp – before the first day of school, all seniors attend a full day session with the college counseling to craft college essays, fine tune resumes, and jump start college application work.
  • Monthly Senior Breakfast – provides time and space for seniors to catch up with one another and share their progress while receiving valuable information from their counselors and building community.
  • Senior Traditions – the counseling office has many senior traditions, from the “I got into college!” bell, putting a flag in the map for their choice school, and painting a ceiling tile when they decide to matriculate to a college, to decorating their senior shirts at the end of the year.

Programs available to all Mount Vernon students: Grade-level college meetings, high school college visits, NACAC college fair, College Panel Night, Financial Aid Night, Mock Interview Workshops, and Parent Universities on admission trends and standardized testing.


How to Boost Your GPA: Six Tips for Success

  1. Take Freshman Year Seriously
    If you ask a senior “what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?”, most of them will mention that they wished they had taken freshman year more seriously. Classes will never be easier than they are in 9th grade, so using that year to really solidify your GPA is critically important. As semesters stack up, it gets harder and harder to raise your GPA.

  2. Plan & Visualize Your Work
    In the digital age, a traditional planner may seem trivial but it is transformative. The act of writing down (and crossing off!) things you need to do helps you remember them better. You’ll also be able to visualize and prioritize your work more effectively and refer back to things you’ve done. Use a daily, weekly, or monthly planner– it is totally up to you what works best! Creating a good habit like this will pay off for the rest of your life.

  3. Get Credit Where Credit is Due
    Teachers take a lot of time building out syllabi at the beginning of the year. You know from day one in each class if a teacher counts homework, participation, etc, as a part of your grade. If you know those things up front– why on earth would you not do them?! You’ll thank yourself later when that test sneaks up on you or the quiz doesn’t go exactly as planned. Same goes if your teacher allows you to retake/redo assignments. You should always take advantage of a chance to demonstrate your learning and earn back points!

  4. Maximize Opportunities to Learn
    This one can be the hardest: asking for help. If you feel yourself struggling to get a particular concept don’t think it will just go away. In most classes, skills build on one another, so if you never master the basics you’ll struggle for the rest of the course. Do not be afraid to reach out to the teacher and ask for 1:1 time after school, before school, or during their tutorial hours. Teachers are there because they love to learn and teach– if you show them that you want to learn too, they’ll go the extra mile to help you. Also let your teacher know if you’re getting outside tutoring for their class so that they know you’re putting in the extra effort.

  5. Know Yourself
    Let me tell you a story about a girl who once thought she was a terrible writer. Like a typical high school student, she waited until the day or two before a paper was due to begin writing it. That meant it took at least a day to brainstorm and outline and then the rest of the time to meet the page requirement. She almost never re-read her own work to check for grammar or content flow. She absolutely never read it aloud and felt no real pride in her product. She consistently got high Bs and low As on papers and most of the red marks were careless mistakes. That same girl went to college and realized she needed to start working on papers sooner because it allowed her to have multiple drafts. Her third draft was always better than the first draft because she took the time to re-read and improve on her original ideas. And the final papers were almost always As. More importantly, by that third draft she generally had unlocked some nugget of deeper learning that stayed with her long after the assignment passed. 

    Lesson: if you know your academic achilles heal (or someone points it out to you) then you are the only thing between yourself and victory. It could be related to how you write, it could be how you study for tests (maybe you don’t need to study with those 4 friends…), or it could be that you never finish your assessments within the allotted time and you need to ask for help exploring extra time. Whatever it is, own it. You’ll be stronger for it.

  6. Balance Workload with Vigor
    There are only two reasons to take advanced coursework: (1) you are naturally talented in the content area, or (2) you have a deep passion for the content and are willing to put in the work required to succeed.
    Note: because you want to get a high GPA (for college or whatnot) is not one of those reasons.

    Let that sink in. It is more important that you challenge yourself appropriately than challenging yourself for the sake of a GPA boost. Of course, your GPA will likely go up if you take honors or advanced placement courses. But that is only if you’re earning As. If you take harder courses and your grades start to fall across the board, your GPA and life balance will begin to falter.

    So, yes. Take the harder courses– but not because you want to collect trophies. Take them because you’re passionate about the content and ready to dive deeper. You’ll enjoy those classes more when you’re not spread too thin.

    Remember that you are more than just a student in a desk in a classroom. You’re also an artist, an athlete, a sibling, a friend, a son or daughter, an employee, and a child. Your life is supposed to be made up of more things than just classes.