The journey begins (Updated to include SAT/ACT and Test Prep)

It’s the week before a new, and final, school year is set to begin for your senior student. How did this happen?  Where did the time go?  Will senior year be a blur? The short answers are : Time flies, it slips away, and, blur doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Grab a glass of your favorite cold beverage, and prepare to enjoy this exciting ride with your young adult. Keep in mind that they will repeatedly remind you that they are no longer children. Some will take your advice and run with it. Others will insist on doing everything their own way – but not necessarily your way. And still others will drag their feet to the point that you end up doing the work (I strongly urge you to “just say no”).  Only you know how best to handle the emotions that will be rampant this year, both yours and theirs.

When our first child was a junior in high school, a very wise woman took me under her wing and helped me through the college application process. I am eternally grateful to this woman for helping me through all the information needed as a first time parent wading into the deep end of the pool. I’m a firm believer in the concept of “pay it forward” and thus this idea for this blog was hatched.

I’ve helped numerous parents the past few years but never really thought about putting it down on paper (so to speak).  I’m starting to get questions from another round of first-time senior parents, so it would seem, timing is everything.   My tips are based on experiences with schools here in Texas although my children have applied to fourteen major universities, across ten states, so many of the tips will apply regardless of the location of your senior’s school of choice.

So to begin . . .The best piece of advice she gave me was to start early, during Junior year.  Most first-time senior parents don’t realize that the final junior transcript is the one that is sent to universities in the Fall during the application process. Many first-timers also don’t realize that taking the college entrance exams (SAT/ACT) in May or June of Junior year is a smart idea. [Read the update section below for more info on the exams and test prep options]. Again, these scores will go in with the applications in September and October.  Senior year is a blur, especially if you have a child who works or is involved in athletics, fine arts, or worse, all of the above.  The more your student is able to get done before senior year begins, the better.  Less stress for you and for your child, ahem, young adult =]

Wait! We didn’t start during Junior year!  OMG!  What do we do?  (Is your panic/stress level staring to rise?  Are you hopping around your living room like John Belushi on the lawn of the sorority house in Animal House?)   First, remember to breathe. Second, begin today.

1) Research the essay questions for your student’s schools of choice and get them started writing these essays.  In my next posting I will include the topics from the Texas common application (available at  Similar topics are required on the national common application.  Note: Each university will have it’s own short answer questions, i.e. why do you feel you are a good fit at [insert uni name here], why did you pick your major, etc. in addition to the required essays.  There will be a lot of writing – but using the major topics, they can be tweaked for use on most applications.

2) Register your senior now for the October SAT and/or September ACT exams. Scores are generally ready in one month. [See update below for more info on exams and test prep options].

3) If you will be using a test prep company, like Testmasters, Kaplan, Princeton Review, C2Education, etc., look into their class schedules and sign up your student now. If you don’t plan to spend the money for this, have your student start taking the practice exams online at and Evidence has shown that scores improve the more times the test is taken. The more comfortable your student is with the test, the better their results.

4) Begin collecting the information to fill out the applications and for building a resume.  More on this in an upcoming post.

SAT/ACT Exams & Test Prep Update – September 2012

The first piece of advice is to plan ahead, be prepared to START EARLY, aka, in the student’s JUNIOR year. They will have completed or are currently enrolled in the last of the coursework covered on the exams, and will have more time to invest in preparing for the tests.

I can already hear you whining about how they don’t have time because they are involved in a spring sport, or a fine art, or work, or whatever. . . trust me, I had two kids who were able to do this who were both highly involved in sports and fine arts. It CAN and MUST be done. Test scores are required on the college application and you don’t want to have to wait for scores to post to complete your applications.  Earlier is better when applying to Texas universities, especially the big ones.  As someone once said . . . “Get ‘er done!”

The two major exams in college entrance testing are the SAT and the ACT. The purpose of these exams are to see if your student has mastered the basics and is prepared for college level coursework. Some people prefer one to the other based on their learning style. However, the choice may be as simple as which test is required by the institution where you are making your application. I won’t get into the details about which is best for you. The folks over at Peterson’s (excellent resource) have done an admirable job.  I will defer to the experts and encourage you to do your homework on this subject.

It has been proven that the more times the student attempts a practice exam, the better their scores.  It’s that old adage of “Practice, Practice, Practice”. Any route you take should include plenty of practice so that the student is well-prepared, and confident in their test taking ability.

The best advice I can give, and it’s worth what you’re paying for it 🙂, figure out the best option based on how your student studies.  Are they a self-motivating type who will crack the study guide and work their way through it?  Are they on the computer all the time and would find it comfortable to take the practice exams online?  Do they thrive in a classroom and need the structure to guide them through the prep materials?  It’s ultimately up to you and your student to decide.  My kids preferred the classroom setting so that’s what we chose.  There are many reputable programs, research the ones available in your area and check with your friends. Word of mouth is often the best source of hands on research you can find.

Free Test Prep Websites:



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Before You Begin – Information to Have On Hand

Have your student begin gathering up the following information before ever sitting down to begin their admissions application – it will greatly simplify the process:

• High School Coursework: The dates on which you began and ended (or will end) your high school career and the dates on which you began and ended any previous college or university attendance. A copy of your most recent transcript is very helpful here. The Registrar’s Office at most high schools will provide you a copy for a minimal fee (or even free in some schools). DO NOT ask for this while they are in the process of registering new students.  You will lose favor in the eyes of these wonderful people – trust me here, you don’t want to lose favor in your Registrar’s or Counselor’s Offices – you will need them throughout senior year.

• Senior-Year Coursework: For entering U.S. freshmen, the exact titles and credit values of high school courses you are taking and will be taking during your senior year (also called your senior-year course schedule)

• Service Work / Club Information / Activities / Awards Information: Counselors are looking for well-rounded students, not just students with perfect grades. These sections allow your senior to show how they fit in their high school environment.

• Employment Information: Include details for past employment for the last two to four  years.

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Essay Topics – Incoming Freshmen

A key component of the college application process is the essay. The majority of Texas universities require two.  The third essay, which is optional, is also recommended by university admissions counselors for students with special circumstances. As it was explained to me by a counselor from Texas Tech, if your child is a borderline accept, the optional essay and teacher recommendations (covered in a future post) are reviewed to look for that something extra that makes the student a good fit (or not) for the university.  In our case, we lived overseas for seven years.  This influenced our children’s ideas about living abroad, their global view of the world and gave them an appreciation for what they have here in the US versus how other children live in developing countries.  Universities find this type of information useful.

It goes without saying, but, essays should be well-written, with proper spelling and grammar. They should be concise (no longer than one page), specific and not repeat what has already been included in the resume.  Imagine you are the admissions counselor at the University of Michigan and you have 35,000+ applications on your desk.  What makes a student stand out besides grades, extracurriculars and the like?  (Everyone who applies has those things to their credit.)  The answer: A well written, memorable essay.  The counselor doesn’t want to see a repeat of what has already been covered on the application in the essay – how boring!!!

There are loads of tips on the internet about writing stellar essays – Google it and you’ll see what I mean.  Also Collegeboard.Com has a whole section on the well written essay.  Here are some tips from the University of Texas.  Senior students enrolled in Katy ISD schools, work on an essay in their senior English class.  A good essay is a work in progress, it will develop over time.  A student should never submit their first draft – yikes!  Advice to you parents – read over them, red-pencil them, send them back for corrections.  Trust me, it’s worth the grief and the whining from your young adult ={

 # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

Texas Essay Topics –  Following is a sample from the website (

These essays will be sent to BOTH the admissions and financial aid  (scholarship) offices of [insert uni name here].  The sample school in this example was Texas A&M.

All applicants must complete and save all required essays. These must be  submitted electronically via if you are applying for  scholarship. Once your application is submitted, these essay(s) will be  sent to both the admissions office (if required or optional at that  university) and the scholarship office at the university to which you are  applying. Use the links below to save all required essay(s) online before  submitting your application.

Topic A:          REQUIRED   

Write an essay in which you tell us about someone who has made an impact on your life and explain how and why this person is important to you.

Topic B:          REQUIRED

Choose an issue of importance to you—the issue could be personal, school related, local, political, or international in scope—and write an essay in which you explain the                significance of that issue to yourself, your family, your community, or your generation.

Topic C:          optional

There may be personal information that you want considered as part of your admissions application. Write an essay describing that information. You might include exceptional hardships, challenges, or opportunities that have shaped or impacted your abilities or academic credentials, personal responsibilities, exceptional achievements or talents, educational goals, or ways in which you might contribute to an institution committed to creating a diverse learning environment.

Department Specific Essays

Submit this essay in place of Essay A when applying for admission to architecture, art history, design, studio art, or visual art studies/art education. (This is from University of Texas website)

Topic D:          Major-specific essay

Personal interaction with objects, images and spaces can be so powerful as to change the way one thinks about particular issues or topics. For your intended area of study (architecture, art history, design, studio art, visual art studies/art education), describe an experience where instruction in that area or your personal interaction with an object, image or space effected this type of change in your thinking. What did you do to act upon your new thinking and what have you done to prepare yourself for further study in this area?

 # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

As mentioned in my previous post, there most likely will be additional essays or short answer topics that your student will need to be prepared to write about. Scholarship applications and department- or college-specific topics will be included in their writing assignments during the process. Some universities consider the department-specific as Topic D (see example above), while others are looking for a short-answer question. You’ll
have to research each university’s requirement as you go along.

There are generally two ways to submit essays, electronically and via snail mail.  In this day and age, electronically is the only way to go.  You eliminate the risk of the essay not arriving, being lost, or late for a submission deadline.  Make it easy on yourself, file it electronically.


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The Common Application

The Texas Common Application, available at, is required for seniors planning to attend a major Texas state university and some two year colleges. Various private schools in Texas accept the common app, but require a school-specific supplement that needs to be completed (Baylor comes to mind).  Each university application process is different, so be sure to consult their admissions website for specifics on what application they utilize.

The National Common Application ( is used at a variety of schools across the United States, especially many of the larger elite schools. Schools you’d recognize include Notre Dame, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UVirginia, UMichigan, etc.  You may view the entire list here.

BENEFITS OF A COMMON APPLICATION  A single point of data entry for multiple institutions is the biggest benefit for using the “common app” approach.  Once they’ve successfully submitted their first application, they simply copy it for use at additional schools.  And it’s all done electronically!

Another major benefit of this type of application is that your student can work on it a little at a time which saves the overwhelming feeling they may have heading into the process. The information is saved as they progress through the sections. This is especially helpful if your student works, or is involved with athletics and/or fine arts programs during senior year.

Be Aware:  Information saved in the Texas Common Application does not transfer into the National Common Application, these are separate systems and require separate data entry.  Your senior will have to input their full set of data at least twice if they choose to use the national common app to apply to out-of-state schools.  As always, consult each specific university’s website for details.

DEADLINES:  Deadlines for submitting applications vary widely.  Check each university website for specific details.  In Texas, our experience found that if your student has everything submitted and it is received in the Admissions Office prior to November 1, your student will receive a decision rather quickly.

In Texas, if your senior is in the top 10% of their class (or top 8% for students applying to UTexas (top 2-3% for Business or Engineering @ UT)), they should submit their application in September, as soon as the registration system opens, to insure priority acceptance and to obtain priority registration for housing.  Housing decisions are based on the date that the housing application is received.

Warning:  Before I leave this section I must emphasize to please, please, please, not wait until the last minute to submit applications, make requests for transcripts to be sent, order test scores, or ask for a teacher recommendation letter (see future post).  Two weeks notice is standard for these requests.  While it is understood that your senior is your highest priority, they are NOT the only seniors needing these documents.  Katy ISD senior class sizes range from 700 to over 1000 students – do the math – that’s a lot of documentation being requested.  Failure on the part of your senior to plan to meet these deadlines does not necessitate priority handling for the professionals supporting your student in this endeavor.  Remind your senior to be nice, be polite, say thank you and do not make enemies of these people ={

WHAT’S INCLUDED ON THE APPLICATION:  It is recommended that your student print off a hard copy of the application so that they can see the information required on the application before they sit down at the computer to begin. (See previous post for pointers).

In some instances, you may have to provide them with the stash of documentation and papers that you’ve been hoarding away in your files, things like award certificates, volunteer service records, past report cards/transcripts and the like.  They will need these items.

Samples of blank applications for the Texas Common Application are available here.  The application is broken down into nine sections as follows:

1. Biographical – and before you ask, YES, you MUST include your financial information. Get over it.

2.  Educational Background

3. Test Scores

4. Residency  Information

 5. Extracurricular, Volunteer  Activities, Talents/Awards/Honors– From the website:  “Please list, in priority order, the organizations, activities, jobs and internships that indicate your special contributions,  talents, honors and abilities in the areas of extracurricular activities,  service and work. Include service and work done in the summer. Please spell out the names and describe the organizations in which you have participated.”

Hints about Community Service – Remember to list the individual works that were performed.  A  counselor from Texas Tech advised that putting Spartans Out Serving, or worse SOS (huh?), on your application with a total number of hours over four years, doesn’t tell  the Admissions Counselor how the student served, it only indicates that they were involved in a club with participation hours. It is acceptable to aggregate the hours for the club section, but when you get to the community service / volunteering area – SPELL IT OUT.

We found with our seniors, that they had several types of activities they liked to do every year that could be grouped  together to save space.  The application give you limited space, so it’s hard to list everything individually.

For seniors who have been active in volunteer service organizations like Spartans Out Serving (SOS), National Charity League (NCL), Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts, the students have a hard record of what service work they performed, the dates served, what they learned, and how much time they dedicated to the activities.  These are invaluable when it comes time to entering hours on the application.  Additionally,  this information can be included on their Expanded  Resume (covered in a future post).

6. Employment  Information – employment, internships and summer activities

7. Custom Questions for This Institution (Incl Citizenship) –  this page will include questions particular to  the University and/or major(s) to which you are applying.

8. Scholarships  – A nice feature of the Common Application –  seniors apply for general scholarships, available to all applicants, at the same time that they apply for admission to the university.

Be aware however that there are additional scholarships available from  each university, generally found on their Financial Aid & Scholarships website, that must be applied for separately.

The information you  provide in the scholarship section of your application will not affect your  application for admission. If you activate your scholarship application, you must save the requested information on each page of the scholarship section  before you submit your application for admission.

You may cancel an active scholarship application at any time  prior to submitting your admissions application. You may also choose to apply for admission first and submit a scholarship application at a later date, as  long as it is prior to the scholarship application deadline.

9. Essays – covered in previous post

So that’s the layout of the Texas Common Application with a small taste of the National Common Application as well.  These are timesavers to be sure.  They are nothing to fear.

If your senior is like our two, they will be “busy as one armed paper hangers” during the fall semester.  We found that insisting on at least two applications a weekend during September and October was manageable.  So you’re asking yourself, “how many did they submit if they were required to complete two each weekend?”  Our son applied to twelve schools – this is NOT RECOMMENDED – he just couldn’t make up his mind to narrow it down to three or four.  He’s now a loud and proud Aggie at Texas A&M!

Our daughter applied to Texas A&M.

After much cajoling from her mother, and constant whining and moaning on her part, she grudgingly submitted her applications to Oklahoma and Texas. And although she was admitted to all three of these fine universities, she’s an Aggie through and through – Gig’Em Colleen!

RULE OF THUMB: Apply to three type of schools:

1. Dream School:  Your first choice pick.  aka, the school of your dreams.

2. A Stretch School: The school you’d love to attend but aren’t sure you make the grade (no pun intended)  These are often the schools your mother and father wish you’d attend – but remember, it’s your choice, not theirs.  Also keep in mind, they are probably paying for it (in most cases).

3.  A Safety School: A school you like, perhaps not your dream school, but one where you could see yourself attending, and have the grades and extracurriculars to get in easily.

Good luck seniors!

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The Education Resume – Why do I need this?

Universities make admission decisions based on a student’s academics, personal achievements, extra curricular involvement, community/volunteer activities, and work history.  They obtain this information via several vehicles, the actual application, submitted test scores (SAT/ACT), transcripts, letters of recommendation (covered in my next post), written essays and the resume.

WHY IS A RESUME NEEDED?   From the website:  “Although an expanded resume is not required to complete your application for admission, we strongly encourage you to submit one. Think of it as your opportunity to provide us with a complete picture of your activities, community service, honors and awards, and employment. . . ”  Hint:  When the most competitive university in your state “strongly encourages” you to include a resume, you listen and take their advice!  My view, if it’s good advice for one university, it’s good for all universities =]

Additionally, the resume is used for the following purposes:

1.  Honors Programs Applications

2.  Scholarship Applications

3. Letters of Recommendation – A resume is required by your teacher and your counselor to assist in writing your recommendation letter(s) (covered in next post)

4.  Greek Recruitment – National sororities and fraternities require a resume with their application

WHAT SHOULD INFORMATION SHOULD I INCLUDE?  Each student/resume is unique, however, be sure to include the following: (See links to samples at bottom)

1.  Heading / Personal Information: At the top of your resume, include your name, address, phone number, and email address. If the college has requested your social security number or applicant/university i.d. number on other documents for tracking purposes, include that number on your resume also.

2.  Education: List your high school(s), including location and years attended. Include your GPA (should match the transcript you will submit) and Class Rank / Size (e.g. 33 of 635, Top 5%).   Be sure to include your SAT and/or ACT test scores.

3.  Awards: You can mention your honors and awards here, or simply include them in your “Education” and “Extracurricular Activities” categories. Specify the date and describe the awards if necessary.

4. Extracurricular Activities:  Include all clubs, teams, or organizations that you’re involved (e.g., clubs, sports, art, music, academic teams, theater, yearbook/newspaper, religious groups, etc.) List the activities chronologically, beginning in your first year of high school and progressing through senior year.

For each item on your list, include a brief description, specify what grades you were involved, the time spent (e.g., 5 hours/wk), detail any leadership roles. (e.g. Vice President), and put your achievements in perspective whenever possible. (e.g. “Team advanced to state semi-finals” or “Awarded to only two seniors.”)

5. Community / Volunteer Activities: Chronologically list all community and/or volunteer service beginning with first year of high school and working through your senior year.  Group similar projects together and include all years that your participated (e.g. Blanket making for Linus Project, grades 9-12, 12 hours/year; School Book Room, grades 11-12, 20 hours/year).  The resume gives you the opportunity to explain, in more detail, what service you performed. The application limits the amount of information you can fit in the box.

6. Work ExperienceInclude all work experience, including non-traditional work, such as babysitting or helping out with the family business.  For each item, include the job title, name of organization, location, grades or dates worked, and your job responsibilities.

7.  Other: Include any special skills, trips, interests, hobbies or classes that you may have taken over your high school career.  We lived overseas for seven years, so our children included that in their resumes.

Rule of Thumb: Do not include any information about activities prior to your 9th grade year unless you have remained active in this activity in high school and excelled in something you began prior to 9th grade. e.g. You’re a competitive athlete like a gymnast, ice skater, equestrian, etc., and have reached a state or national ranking in your sport during high school.

WHAT TIPS SHOULD I KEEP IN MINDJust like the tips for a good essay, content is more important than appearance.  That being said, remember to double-check for proper spelling, good grammar, thoroughness (include everything, but NO b.s.), and  don’t try to fit everything on one page (no matter what you might have heard to the contrary).  Have your parents double-check your resume.  A second and third set of eyes often catch things you might miss.  They might remember an award that you have forgotten – they are good that way – after all they are very proud of you!!  Students are allowed to submit multiple pages of information about their involvement if so needed.

If everything you’ve done fits on the actual application, don’t submit a resume just to say you did so – it will be repetitive and waste the admission counselor’s time reading over the same information in two places.


University of Texas sample:

Student #1:

Student #2:

From – various types of resume samples:

And as always, my standard advice applies. ..when in doubt “Google it“!!

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Recommendation Letters (Teacher or Counselor)

If you’ve read my previous posts, you now understand that all of the information a student submits to the university with their application paints a portrait of the student to the admissions counselor.  Teacher and/or counselor recommendation letters are just another piece of the overall picture.

Like the resume, the recommendation letter is not required for most major Texas universities, but is strongly recommended.  Special programs like honors colleges and scholarship applications require them.

Rule of Thumb:  Always be sure to check the university admissions website for direction, if they advise NOT to send additional information, follow their directions.

An admissions counselor at Texas Tech advised that if a student is a borderline accept, this is just another piece of information, from a personal perspective, that will be reviewed before an accept or decline decision is ultimately made.  There is a review board for students who aren’t a clear and perfect fit for each university.  This is where the supplemental documentation is generally reviewed in depth.


Select a teacher who knows your student well.  I would not recommend a teacher who has issues with your student or where the student is struggling to master the coursework.  Your student should have passed the coursework presented by this teacher.  Generally your student will have a preference of which teacher they feel knows them the best.  The teacher chosen should be able to include specifics about the student’s personal characteristics, work ethic or accomplishments as opposed to someone who will just include glittering generalities.

The ultimate teacher will have had your student in more than one class, or activity.  This isn’t always possible though, so don’t fret if your student doesn’t have this type of teacher.   The teacher may also be a fine arts director, club sponsor, or  athletics coach, in addition to their teaching responsibilities.  These are prime candidates as they know your student on a deeper level and see them outside of a limited classroom setting.

The teacher we used for my son’s application was his Pre-A/P and A/P Physics teacher.  We also used his theater director for certain scholarship applications.  Our son liked and respected these teachers and made excellent grades in their classes.  Our daughter’s teacher recommendation came from her A/P Psychology teacher, who was also her soccer coach for two years.  This teacher’s class influenced our daughter’s decision to pursue a career in Psychology.

Most likely your student will have no choice in the Counselor recommendation, this is generally handled by the counselor assigned to your student.  Don’t discount the value of their letters.  Both of our student’s counselors crafted very strong letters.

Hint:  Have your student get to know their counselor – this is a start early activity.  If they don’t know them today, make sure they get to know them over the next few months.  The counselor’s office, and especially the senior counselor secretary (in our experience), will be their ally in the application process.

When asking for recommendation letters, be sure to plan ahead, you can alert the designated teacher several months in advance (now) so that they are thinking about your student and what they will write.  At the bare minimum, make the request at least 15 working days (3 weeks) prior to the deadline.  Be polite, and be sure to follow up with a written thank you note.  These are professionals with busy lives and you are asking for something beyond their regular duties.  You don’t want them to rush through the creation of your recommendation letter.  Be nice!

It is not a common practice, but some people include a small token of thanks, a $5-10 gift card to Starbucks or a local eatery, to show appreciation to the most underpaid and underappreciated professionals in the world.  While not required, it is a nice way to help out the teacher/counselor.


I asked a teacher for her perspective on this post – so the following is her advice:

“I like to make sure I have plenty of time to write the recommendation.  I prefer two to three weeks notice.

I like to have the student bring/email me a resume.  This is where I like to try to find  information that I may not have realized about the student during class time.  There is a  form in the counselor’s office that has great questions for both the student and the parents to answer and I get more out of that than the actual regular resume. (Personal Data SheetNote that Section 1. Extracurricular Activities, Part A. List your extracurricular activities and how long you participate is essentially your resume)

I like to be able to create one good paragraph that is unique to that student and what makes them “special” over anybody else.

I like them to check in with me about three to five days before the recommendation is due just to be certain I haven’t misplaced anything.  Or, in the event that it is an online
recommendation, that something hasn’t gone wrong with logging in to that particular

They need to bring an envelope ADDRESSED and STAMPED to where it is going when I complete it.

Try to bring everything to the teacher at one time rather than in pieces.  That’s how stuff gets lost.  I usually do not begin writing the letter until I have everything (deadline, resume, forms, and envelopes).”

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