By John Sheffield, Chief Operating Officer / Sr. College Coach
What might be the principle pedagogical aim for many parents – raising well-rounded children – does not create the most qualified applicants for college admissions.
Colleges today want to build a well-rounded class, but they don’t want it composed of renaissance men and women. Instead colleges want angular applicants who each offer outstanding promise and genuine passion in one or two fields. By combining a burgeoning chemist, an aspiring poet laureate, and a high school hockey star, a college can create the best class for its students – or so the thinking goes.
This ideology has enormous implications for students and families as they consider various extracurricular activities. If you’re a student, find the thing or two about which you are truly passionate and pursue them vigorously; don’t focus on filling up a resume with 10 placeholders you think might look good on an activities sheet. Whether your passion is ballet, neurology, or the violin, don’t sacrifice depth for breadth.
John Sheffield presents on the college application process in March to students and parents in Sacramento.
If you are like the many who have still not found your passion, don’t give up! Keep trying things. Keep searching for the experiences that combine your interests and talents and enable you to grow. Don’t be afraid to take chances and try something outside of the box- there will always be hundreds of high school football players applying to your top school, but how many botanists will there be? If you are playing a sport and enjoy it, but it is not something you want to continue in college, you should still keep searching for something that utilizes your skills and captures your interests.
Don’t necessarily give up on an activity you enjoy, but always find time for something that may yield more meaning for you. One of the best essays I have ever read was from a football player who never gave up on his passion for baking pastries and utilized his skill to significantly affect his community. It cut against preconceived notions and offered insights into his interests and personality.
This does not mean you can slack off academically. Rather, this is an encouragement to get best grades and test scores you can, and cultivate one or two other passions.
Find what you like, and pursue it until you have experience and promise that distinguishes you from other applicants. Not only will this help you in admissions, but it can also help you find a life-long pursuit. Too often high school can be an exercise in fitting in; to be the best candidate for your dream school, you should focus on what makes you stand out.
Hannah Payne is perhaps more comfortable on the other side of the questions—while she’s currently undeclared, the Yuba City, Calif. senior begins her education at UCLA this fall and plans to pursue a major in communications with a double minor in journalism and film. As the oldest sibling, she admits she was a bit clueless as she began the college application process. Luckily, the team at ESM entered her life in September of her senior year, changing her entire educational trajectory.
“I have always had big dreams for college, but before ESM, they were just dreams. ESM helped me express my passions, goals, and qualifications on my application in the best way. ESM provided me with the tools and guidance needed to raise my SAT scores by 150 points in just two months,” Hannah says.
While she didn’t realize it was possible to write ten versions of the same essay or to wait patiently for a response that was out of her control, she’s happy that she did. “You do your best, press submit, and then wait,” Hannah remembers.
A self identified perfectionist, Hannah struggled with the “waiting” part of the college application process, but says that ESM helped her realize that you end up where you’re meant to be—that, as she puts it, “the uncertainty, questioning, and hard work is so worth it.” For her, that place was UCLA.
Hannah attributes “Bruin Day” as the day she knew UCLA was for her. She’s excited because she knows that UCLA will both make her feel at home and challenge her—a perfect fit, she says. At UCLA, she plans to get involved with a sorority and an on-campus Christian ministry. Hannah adds, “That, combined with the academics, price, school spirit, and the fact that James Franco is a professor made it impossible to say no!”
After school, Hannah hopes to work as a news reporter, which she believes will combine her passion for television and investigative journalism. It seems like a natural fit, given her proclivity for acting, singing, travel, reading, and writing for blogs. Hannah hopes to use her experience at UCLA to propel her to new heights. She’d love to work with the likes of Katie Couric, whom she admires for her intelligence, strength, and role in paving the way for women in the news.
Hannah, who describes herself as ebullient, is just that—enthusiastic, optimistic, and destined for great things. But, she says, she wouldn’t be making these next steps without the help of ESM. “Thank you, thank you, thank you to Billy, Ryan, and the whole ESM team! I am forever grateful to ESM for helping shape my dreams into reality.”
When I try to broach the topic of “spending a summer productively” with students, I’m usually met with immediate resistance. One moment I’m a kid’s best friend, his go-to mentor that he would always listen to, and the next moment it’s like I’m Bilbo Baggins, untrustworthy thief, and he’s Gollum, hoarding away his only precious possession.
The message from students is clear: my summer is MY SUMMER. I work hard all school year. I just need three months off to relax, okay? Is that so much to ask?!
Aside from the obvious response (you know, the one that starts with, “Alright buddy, time for a reality check…”), I think that the overall issue here is one of communication. Parents, students, and mentors are all on the same team; we just don’t quite realize it yet. I’ve found that when parents and mentors approach the summer from the right perspective, students are much more willing to do things that we can classify as truly productive to both personal growth and college admissions. It’s a matter of providing the right framework for a student to work from, and then following through with them to ensure that they’re not getting too distracted by other (less productive) pursuits.
Overall, the most important thing to remember is that summer activities should be student-led. As parents and mentors, our job is to provide ideas and support to the student, not tyrannical demands. As soon as the student doesn’t feel like she’s in charge of her summer pursuits, we’re going to run into issues.
Here are five productive ways that students can spend their summer, along with some tips for how best to approach each respective conversation:
1. Developing Passions
First and foremost, we should be encouraging students to pursue the things they love. This is obvious just from a personal perspective, but also from a college admissions perspective. Admissions officers like nothing more than to see a student with a demonstrated passion in a certain area. Whether that’s baseball or photography, biology or fashion design, the summer provides a unique opportunity for students to dedicate large amounts of time to improving at the hobbies they love.
Conversations here are usually not difficult. If a student loves photography, he’s probably going to agree that he should spend a lot of time shooting pictures. The way mentors and parents can really help is by encouraging the student to pursue their passion within some sort of structure. In the case of photography, maybe that means developing a calendar for when and where a student is going to shoot each week. Or it could be signing up a student for a class or camp that they normally wouldn’t have had the motivation to attend. The important thing is that we’re encouraging them and providing recommendations - not forcing them or providing demands.
2. Expanding Horizons
This one is especially important for students who haven’t been able to identify any true passions yet (read: most of them). Given the extra free time, summer provides a unique chance for students to get outside of their comfort zone. I like to challenge students to report back to me weekly with something they did that was entirely new or something that made them uncomfortable. This can take many different forms. It can be a attending new volunteer experience, hanging out with new friends, or traveling to a new place. It can also be doing something new in a familiar place - for instance, encouraging a student keep a travel journal on their family vacation instead of just following along passively.
The idea here is that students who haven’t yet discovered their passions need to be actively attempting to do so. We learn infinitely more about ourselves when we’re outside of our comfort zone, trying something new, then when we’re stuck in our familiar daily routine. And when it comes time to write that college essay, if a student can’t point to a specific passion, at least she can reference everything she’s done already to try to find it.
3. Getting a Boost in School
This one is fairly straightforward, but often requires a considerable amount of foresight, because taking summer classes can be very productive, but it can also be the opposite. Students should have a clear plan in place for when and why they will take a summer class. For instance, “I’m taking Algebra 2 during the summer between sophomore and junior year so that I can take Pre-Calculus during junior year and Calculus during senior year.” Or, “the Astronomy class at the Community College sounds really fun, so I’m going to take that this summer.” Obviously, as parents and mentors, it’s our job to help students plan this out.
It’s also our job to approach this topic in a way that seems less awful than students might normally consider it. I think it’s key to plant the seed of summer school early, and hopefully allow the student to take some ownership of it. For instance, mentioning to a student that a university they aspire to generally wants students to have finished calculus, and giving them time to figure out how they can make that happen. Of all the categories, this is likely to be the one that students push back on the most, but all students will be more willing to attend summer school if they see the value in it.
4. Making Money
Many families are a bit surprised to hear me say this, but having a job is one of the best ways for students to spend their summer, both in terms of personal growth and in terms of college admissions. I think the misconception comes from a perceived bias towards volunteer experiences on the part of college admissions officers, but there is little evidence to suggest that is the case. A summer job can teach students an incredible amount about what it’s like in “the real world”, not to mention impart dozens of useful character traits that can be referenced on college essays: teamwork, leadership, persistence, and initiative, to name just a few.
The growth that takes place in a first job can also help students immensely when they’re making the transition to college and looking for a work-study or part-time job. Just consider how much most of us learned in our first jobs. For me, that first job was at Subway; all I’ll say here is that it didn’t end gracefully. But I learned a lot in those five weeks, and I’ve always considered myself better for having had the experience.
5. Having Fun
The last, but by no means least, category is having fun. It’s extremely important that students have time to relax during the summer. This means activities they enjoy, but it also means free time to use up however they wish. Even a schedule of a student’s favorite pursuits will become exhausting if there isn’t any time to relax mixed in. So yes, that means time to sleep in, time to play videogames, and time to just do nothing. The operative word is balance; as parents and mentors, we need to help students find the balance between their down time and their up time. This balance will be different for every student (including siblings).
You may have noticed that it’s possible for many of these categories to overlap; that is by design. A summer job, for instance, should be fun and should expand a student’s horizons. And obviously pursuing a passion should be fun, too. In fact, students should find enjoyment (or other value) out of everything they take on in the summer. We need to tailor our encouragement around that belief: that a student will benefit most from a summer of self-led activities that he or she enjoys.
In the end, we’re all hoping to get to the point where we love what we do and it doesn’t feel like work, and high school summers are an important step in getting there. Only then can the idea of a three (or even 12) month break become truly attainable.
Waitlists are the purgatory of college admissions. You’re not in, but you’re not out. Often, there’s no universal reason a candidates is waitlisted. Sometimes, you don’t size-up to the competition. Other times, you fit in fine with their admits, but there weren’t enough spots. Perhaps they had twenty applicants with the same interests, potential and qualifications, but only had room for fifteen. Keep in mind: you’re still on their list, and they’re still at the top of yours. They believe you’re qualified.
How waitlists work
All colleges want a full incoming class. That’s how they stay afloat. So, when admissions officers send out acceptance letters, they make a conservative estimate of their yield (the percentage of admitted students who will actually enroll). In case the yield falls short of their projections, they need some students on back-up who can fill out the incoming class. These are the students on the waitlist.
For more insight into a specific school’s waitlist policies, visit their admissions blog. Do not, however, pay heed to previous year’s statistics. These vary greatly from year-to-year, as you’ll find on many admissions blogs.
Find the key person in admissions, establish contact, and keep in touch with meaningful communications.
You might be waitlisted at more than one school. It’s possible all three of your top-choice schools will waitlist you. When a waitlist letter arrives, you have to ask yourself a few critical questions:
“How badly do I really want to attend this college?” “What about this college makes me really want to attend?” and “Why are those things so important to me?”
The Letter of Continued Interest
You’ll write a letter to the admissions office. E-mail is even better. College admissions offices
assign their counselors to regions of the country (and world). This officer is the one that travels to
your state, and does college fairs at your high school. They are your admission rep, and this is the person you should write your letter to. Many schools provide specific
instructions for writing the office. They’ll ask you to include information like your applicant ID number.
Always send the letter to your admission rep, and one directly to the file office (there’s often a fax
# or monitored email). This way, if they pick up your file for a second read, it will be right there.
Here’s what your letter should do:
1) “I am going to your school!”
Explicitly state your ongoing interest in this college. If admitted, you will definitely enroll. No
questions asked. Done deal. Show confidence in your choice. Don’t be bitter. Show there are
no hard feelings. Stay away from sentences like “I was disappointed.”
2) Build a Relationship
Were you a bit formal in your application? Of course. But, now, you’re writing to a real person.
In fact, you’re asking a person to take time out of their day to listen to you. So make this letter
a conversation. Write how you would speak. You want your letter to build a relationship with
the admissions counselor, through tone and content.
3) Why that school?
Explain why you want this college. Your reasons should be as specific as possible (“I have done
research on the role of women in Mesopotamia and am eager to work with Professor Snurdley
whose writing in this area is renowned”) and not generic (“It is an excellent school, and I fell in
love with the beautiful campus. It has outstanding faculty and amazing resources.”)
Think of this as your second shot at a “Why our school?” essay. Many schools include
prompts like USC’s “Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at
USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections,” or
Northwestern’s “What are the unique qualities of Northwestern - and of the specific
undergraduate school to which you are applying - that make you want to attend the University?
In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified?” You can
focus this section in one of two directions: (1) resources, or (2) academics.
What’s new with you since you submitted that application? Probably a few things: (1) fall
semester grades, (2) significant extracurricular achievements (3) maybe an inspirational talk or
educational experience (4) perhaps a paper you wrote? (1) and (2) can be listed. Request your
high school counselor send an updated transcript. Share what’s coming. Perhaps you’re taking
up an internship relevant to your academic interests, or traveling to Nigeria on a volunteer trip,
or attending an international conference. You are preparing yourself for an immersive college
5) Show More
Share sides of yourself not shown in your application. This means revisiting your application.
Ask, “What about me do they not know yet?” Saying what’s already been said about you only
waters down your application. It dilutes the strength of brevity. Remember, they have already
decided you are qualified.
Your Guidance Counselor
The first, and most important thing your guidance counselor can do, is forward an updated
transcript to the admissions, if available. This depends largely on your school’s academic calendar.
Schools begin considering waitlist positions after May 1st, when all admitted students will have
accepted or declined their place in the incoming class. If you have new grades (on the quarter or
trimester system), forward those immediately. If your guidance counselor has no formal
documents to forward, you can ask them to fax a document reporting your current grades and
Remember, every school weighs application content differently. Some schools indicate “rigor of
secondary school curriculum” a very important factor in their admissions decision. Others deem
“personal qualities and character” a very important factor, while still others categorize
“background/ethnicity” as very important. Your letter of continued interest should emphasize
whichever factors the school designated very important in admissions decisions.
SAT Subject Tests are hour-long tests that test students’ ability in subjects that they study in school, such as biology, chemistry, foreign languages, and US history. Unlike the SAT or ACT, Subject Tests only test you on specific subjects of your choosing. Each Subject Test is graded on an 800-point scale.
Do I have to take Subject Tests?
Before registering to take Subject Tests, check with your ESM college coach to make sure that the schools to which you are considering applying either require or recommend taking the Subject Tests. The majority of colleges and universities do not require Subject Tests. In fact, many top-tier schools (even Harvard) list the tests as “recommended” or “considered” rather than required. As a general rule, if you plan to apply to a UC or other top-tier schools across the country, you should plan on taking at least two Subject Tests. Even though Subject Tests are not required, scoring well on them can greatly strengthen your overall application and show dedication to certain areas of study.
When should I take them?
Most students take subjects tests in either May or June of their junior year, as these dates align closely with high school finals. Taking subject tests at the same time or shortly after school finals is highly advantageous, as this is the time when students will have maximized their knowledge of the subject matter. Waiting until the fall, on the other hand, allows for the student to forget things over the summer and can create additional stress to an already busy fall semester of senior year.
While it is generally advantageous to wait until your junior and senior years to take the SAT or the ACT, this is not always the case with Subject Tests. If you are taking a class in your sophomore year (such as biology, chemistry, or pre-calculus) and feel that you are excelling in the class, it may be in your best interests to take the corresponding Subject Test at the end of your sophomore year, as the subject matter tested will overlapped with what you have already learned. If you don’t plan to take an AP class in that subject, the end of your sophomore year may very well be the point where you retain the most information on that subject.
Additional information on SAT Subject Tests can be found here.
Cailean Bailey joined ESM last year as our athletic recruiting manager and college counselor. He works with students who hope to play college athletics. He was a two-sport college athlete himself in college, and after getting his master’s degree coached soccer at Yale and University of the Pacific.
You played two sports at Illinois College – swimming and soccer – what’s the secret to how you managed your time?
It is all about staying focused and maintaining a good schedule and rhythm. Most athletes will say that they get better grades when they are in-season because of the schedule it makes you keep. I was no different. It wasn’t always easy doing two sports, but it kept me focused and in great shape!
Why did you decide to go into coaching?
I originally joined the corporate world after college and quickly realized that an 8-5 desk job was not for me…so I thought about what makes me happy, and that was soccer! I traded my shirt and tie for shorts and soccer cleats and never looked back.
How is coaching in the Ivy League different than coaching at other schools?
The coaching is the same as far as the Xs and Os, but the biggest difference is in the recruiting process. The amount of top-notch students who are also NCAA Division I caliber soccer players is very few, so you have to be selective about who you recruit. And because that group of players is so small, all of the Ivy League schools (plus Stanford, Georgetown, Duke, etc.) are all after the same players. The easy part in recruiting was that it was not very hard to sell a student-athlete on attending Yale.
What do you enjoy most about working with students?
The personal interaction. I love meeting new students and families and helping them achieve success with such a critical process.
How has the world of NCAA athletics changed since you were in college?
Two major areas: the first is the accessibility to coaches via social media, email and text. It is so much easier to get in touch with coaches as well as send video. The second is when student-athletes are committing to colleges. Some students are committing as sophomores or earlier!
What’s the most common piece of advice you give to high school student-athletes who want to play college athletics?
Academics first. My soccer club coach growing up used to say that academics is 1, and soccer is 1A. Having a strong academic background gives a student-athlete more options in the college search process.
What misconception about the recruiting process is most wide-spread?
That coaches will find you. While some coaches will find you or see you at an event, it is very important for prospective student-athletes to be proactive with coaches. Have a video, be professional and prompt with emails, and seize any opportunity you have to meet a coach or play in front of them.
You recently got engaged. When is the big day?
No date set yet…we are thinking next January in Arizona though. She’s running around looking at venues and doing a lot of planning…I’m doing a lot of smiling and agreeing.
The summer will be here before you know it, and now is the time to start planning your trips to visit college campuses during the break. You
have a relatively short amount of time at each school, so it’s import to
make the most of it.
ESM Group founder and CEO Billy Downing, an expert on the college admissions process, shares his top 8 tips for college visits:
8) Always call the admissions office of the schools on your itinerary.
them know you are coming, and reserve a space on the campus tour. Lots
of people will be visiting at the same time, probably, and schools will
only accept a limited number of families for each scheduled tour. You
should also ask to meet with the admissions officer responsible for
working with your high school.
7) Do your homework.
up on each college, what they are known for and which programs they
tout. If you have a particular major in mind, research those as well so
you arrive with detailed questions.
6) Avoid drawing conclusions about the school based on the tour guide.
or she is just one person out of several thousand, in most cases. It’s
easy to sour on a school if your tour guide is especially boring or
unknowledgable. But try to look past that.
5) Sit in on a class.
want to see students in their natural habitat! In addition to going to
the student center, bookstore, or athletic facilities, go to a class and
see what the student / instructor interaction is like. Even better,
stop a few students after class and ask them how they like the school.
4) Explore the neighborhood.
it safe? Are there services close by? Malls? Stores? Restaurants? Arts
and cultural opportunities? Is there more than just student housing
surrounding campus? Do you like the feel of it? As long as it’s safe,
walking is always preferable to driving when exploring the area around a
3) Hit up your high school alums.
the counseling office at your school, or the alumni relations office,
for the names and contact information of students from your high school
who are currently enrolled in the college. Schedule a time to meet up
with them and ask them what they think about the school, and how the
transition was coming from your high school.
2) Send thank you notes.
sure you have the names and contact information for the adults with
whom you came into contact during your visit, and send them a thank you
note when you get home. Failure to do so is rude, and won’t get you any
“I’m really interested in your school” points in the admissions process.
1) Write down your thoughts and ideas.
each visit, take some time to reflect on what you saw and experienced
and journal your thoughts. Consider the school socially, academically,
geographically, etc. Were
the people you met friendly? Did strangers on campus smile and make
eye-contact? Could you see yourself there? How was the intellectual
When it comes to writing, the most significant mental block students often face is fear. There’s the fear of judgement, of grades, and how they’ll measure up. To write is to be vulnerable. This course is built around eliminating that fear.
ESM’s lead writing coach designed the writing seminar to help students express themselves through writing. Once a student can access his or her voice, he or she can say anything; writing feels natural. Writing with one’s voice is accepting
one’s identity. The course curriculum is
built around stories and essays hand-picked for the student.
The course’s final project, an original
piece of narrative nonfiction, is a benchmark for personal growth and an opportunity
for self-actualization. The seminar’s
curriculum and instructor mentors each student along that journey. Ultimately,
the writing skills, voice, and creative thought will serve the student well in academic and professional endeavors throughout the student’s life.
Starting in the spring of 2016, The College Board will be rolling out a completely redesigned SAT that will focus on testing skills that are more closely correlated with success in college and beyond. Information regarding changes to the test, which will affect current sophomores and subsequent classes, will be periodically released throughout the year.
Changes to Scoring
The New SAT will be scored VERY differently. Most noticeably, the test will be scored out of 1600, as it was prior to 2005. Currently, the test is comprised of three subject areas (Critical Reading, Writing, Mathematics) each scored out of 800 points. Starting in 2016, the Critical Reading and Writing sections will be combined into one subject area called “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing”. This area and the Mathematics subject area will both be scored on an 800-point scale.
Source: The College Board
Changes to Test Subjects
There will be a number of changes towards each of the subject areas of the test. To the relief of many students, questions involving archaic vocabulary words will be replaced with questions that will test how words are used in context. In the Math subject area, the three primary areas of focus will be Problem Solving and Data Analysis, the Heart of Algebra, and Passport to Advanced Math. Statistics and algebra will be of great focus, and geometry will take a lesser role. Unlike previous years, trigonometry will also be covered on the redesigned SAT.
For the previous ten years, the SAT’s mandatory essay has been scored as part of the Writing subject area. Starting in 2016, the essay will be an optional part of the test and will not impact the base score out of 1600. It will be up to each individual college or university to determine whether or not it will require the essay.
In contrast to previous years, the new essay will focus on analyzing a givensource rather than developing one’s own thesis based on a given prompt. Students will have 50 minutes to complete the essay as opposed to the previous time limit of 25 minutes.
Source: The College Board
How to Prepare
The redesign is very much a work in progress, and as a result there are currently no official materials to use to help students prepare to the redesigned SAT. However, our mentors at ESM have combed through all available material pertaining these changes and have developed programs dedicated to refining the skills that will be tested.
Christian Lawrence is an ESM Academic Mentor based in Orange County. He came to ESM after graduating from Biola University with a degree in Mathematics.
You lived in Trinidad and Tobago for 10 years as a child. Why did your family move there?
For many years my father was a surgeon at Kaiser Fontana but long had a desire to start a church outside of the US. So my parents decided to partner with some friends and move to Trinidad in the south Caribbean to start a church. My dad simultaneously had a part-time practice as a surgeon at the University of the West Indies and taught part-time at the University’s medical school.
Can you share with us one of your greatest memories from that experience?
I loved going to local schooling for the first four years we were on the island! My siblings and I were pretty much the only white students at the school. Because students in Trinidad study under the British schooling system, my classmates had learned to read and write two years before I had. Thus the school dropped me and a new Russian kid down two grade levels. After one quarter we both could read, so they moved us up one grade. After the next quarter we could both write, so they moved us back to our original grade level. I thought it was all great fun getting to prove that I could progress just fine.
Christian (far right) with classmates in Trinidad.
When you aren’t mentoring students, you’re studying to become an actuary. What’s involved in becoming an actuary?
Actuaries are mathematicians and statisticians for insurance companies. They quantify risk in order to manage it effectively. There is no formal schooling for becoming an actuary as there is medical school for doctors and law school for lawyers. All you have to do is pass at least three tough preliminary actuarial exams from one of two actuarial societies. The societies’ exams are comparable in content and rigor. Further exams are expected to be taken and passed in order to advance as an actuary in both competence and pay.
Why are you so good at tutoring mathematics? What do you love about it
Math has always been my “first love” when it comes to academics. It’s always made sense to me and I enjoy the cohesiveness of the topic. I feel that the way I reason lends itself well to explaining mathematics. I wouldn’t be surprised if five years of math teaching experience in public high school has helped as well.
In your five years of teaching high school, what life lessons stood out to you?
(1) Know and be confident in your abilities. (2) Humbly admit your mistakes. (3) People can tell when you genuinely care about them. (4) Academics is one part of life. It matters, but there are other areas of life that normally touch the heart more deeply. (5) Words have power. People can definitely come to believe what you say if you speak with conviction. *Caution: always speak the truth! If you don’t know something for sure, don’t manipulate others.
Outside of math…what do you like to do?
(1) Be with my girlfriend and my family. (2) Learn foreign languages. (3) Play soccer, volleyball, and bike. (4) Pray.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Southern California?
It’s home! There is such a diversity of cultures here in SoCal. Having grown up in the Caribbean for ten years has given me a deep love and appreciation for people from different cultures. I love relating with them even as we are such different people.