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(408) 479-4742


Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.


Elton Lin

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REGISTER >> HERE by April 20th! (currently only for existing ILUMIN students)

Hi Students (and Parents)!

Do you ever feel stuck writing an email to a teacher?

Do you worry about saying the wrong thing in an interview?

Are you confused about how to start and maintain a conversation with an adult?

Come join us for our first Professional Communication Workshop!

You'll learn about how to speak, email, AND text appropriately and professionally to teachers, bosses, professors, and interviewers. You'll practice with real conversations in order to build up your communication toolbox! You'll also meet other peers and work together to be better communicators.

We'll prepare you for different professional settings and help you overcome your fear of communicating with adults!

AND... it is FREE for ILUMIN students BUT you need to register below by April 20th!


ILUMIN Education
4701 Patrick Henry Drive, Building 3 (Redwood Room)
Santa Clara, CA 95054


April 27, 2019 >> 10 am - 12 pm

REGISTER >> HERE by April 20th!

NOTE: Currently only for existing ILUMIN students - keep a lookout for more student success workshops open to the public coming soon!


Elton Lin

Register HERE by April 20th!

Hello!!! Seattle!!!

We’ll be hosting our first seminar in the great Pacific Northwest! We’ll be covering three ways high school students can improve their admissions chances and reach their dream schools. We will share more about the current landscape and provide practical insight on how students can stand out from the pack.

We will be covering the following topics (and more):

  • What type of essay is most effective for the college application?

  • What is "Early Decision" and how important is it to apply early?

  • How important are extracurricular activities, AP courses, or test scores?

  • What are admissions officers looking for when reviewing a college application?

"Three Ways to Improve Your College Admissions Chances"


Lake Hills Library Meeting Room
15590 Lake Hills Blvd, Bellevue, WA


Saturday, April 27, 2019 - 10:30 am - 12:00 pm


Elton Lin, Founder/CEO of ILUMIN Education
Yii-Shyun Lin, Expert College Counselor, ILUMIN Education

Attendees will also have the option of signing up for a FREE 1 hour consultation with our consultants.

Register HERE by April 20th!

Contact us at or 408-479-4742 for more info! More information on ILUMIN Education and flyer below!

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How to Craft Your Extracurricular Resume

At every college admissions presentation we’ve given, we are approached with one very popular question, “What extracurricular activities are good for college admissions?” Our one sentence answer, “Anything you love and can commit to” can be understandably frustrating for parents and students seeking a silver bullet to elite college acceptances (spoiler alert—there is no “silver bullet” activity, unless participating in the Olympics is within your reach AND even that isn’t going to get you in everywhere). This article will explore that principle in greater depth and give you some examples on how to take what you’re already interested in and build upon it to help you stand out on your college application.

When admissions officers review extracurricular resumes, they are looking to see what kind of student emerges from the activities and descriptions. Is this applicant someone with a long-standing commitment to animal welfare? Someone who spent much of his time on the tennis courts? Someone who explored her interest in astronomy? All those tabulations of hours and dates reflect choices that you’ve made during high school. What story will your choices tell about you on your college application?

Find a Focal Point

“I’m just another boring Asian girl who volunteers and plays piano!” Katie (not her real name) wailed dejectedly as I scanned her extracurricular resume. Key Club? Check. Piano up to CM Level 10? Check. Hospital volunteering? Check. While clearly in possession of a sense of humor and a lot of intellectual curiosity, her personality didn’t really come across on her resume.  Fortunately, as a 10th grader, Katie still had time to shape her extracurricular profile.  And my first advice to her was to find a focal point. We explored the following questions:

What is the one activity you would focus on if you had to give up the rest? Why is it important to you? How can we highlight that activity and do what we can to formalize the interest? Are there other activities that you would be interested in trying?

Some students might not be able to pursue their quirkier interests in an established club. One of my students loves investing and watching his stock portfolio grow. Another spends all his free time mountain biking. Katie devoured novels at a rate of several books per week and had also started writing short fiction pieces on her own. But it wasn’t something that she felt like was a “legitimate” interest or anything outside of a private hobby. As we talked, she began to see how her writing could be a focal point of her resume and something that would help her stand out despite her choice of stereotypical activities up to this point.

Look for Ways to Formalize Interests

One of the easiest ways to pursue an interest in a more formal way is to take classes or lessons related to that interest. My student who was interested in investments enrolled in a finance-related university-sponsored summer program. Another student who loved to bake took a series of cooking classes in her community and then organized a bake sale as a fundraiser. Students interested in marine biology can get scuba diving certifications. And, of course, there are a myriad of learning options for those interested in science research or computer programing.

You might also want to think about starting something on your own in order to explore your interest. Students interested in creative writing can start a blog or a literary magazine at their high school (if there isn’t one already). A former student with an interest in judo started a free self-defense workshop to help women in his community gain some basic skills in crisis situations.

As for Katie, she decided to take a creative writing course over the summer, submit several of her shorter pieces to a fiction-writing competition, and to join her school newspaper as a staff writer to polish her writing skills.

Build Cohesion

On a more advanced level, you might want to think of ways to connect the different activities that you’re involved in. Not only will this help you take a more holistic approach to your out-of-school time, it will also help to paint a more cohesive picture of who you are for admissions officers.

What does building cohesion mean? It means finding the overlap between two or more of your interests: music and math, swimming and cooking, or psychology and running. Well, let’s take Katie’s example again. She loved to write, but she also has a budding interest in medicine. She decided to combine both of these interests in a club she became involved in that centered around public health. She used her creative writing talents to write and illustrate a children’s book that explained this particular disease and encouraged testing in a way that even kindergarteners could understand. She also wrote articles about this public health issue for her school newspaper.

What are admissions officers looking for? They are looking to see how you use your time. Remember that they are looking not necessarily looing for a well-rounded candidate but to build a well-rounded class. They want to see what you’re passionately devoted to. They’re looking to see what YOU would uniquely bring to their campus. We encourage you to take steps to discover that now!

Do you have more questions about extracurricular activities? Feel free to submit a case study on your extracurricular resume, and we’ll pick one entry and try to give you our best advice on how to improve your activities from an admissions standpoint.

We have many more tips for students as they work on their college essays.  Contact ILUMIN Education for more suggestions: OR (408) 479-4742.

2018 Admissions Trends: 3 Strategies for Your Best Results

Elton Lin

2018 Admissions Trends: 3 Strategies for Your Best Results

2018 Admissions Trends: 3 Strategies for Your Best Results

In 2018, trends in college admissions can be boiled down to a single point: increased unpredictability, both for students and colleges. As the number of applicants continues to increase each year, students have a harder time predicting which colleges they will be accepted to, and colleges have a harder time predicting which students will choose to attend their campus.

Yield rate, the number of accepted students who actually enroll at a college, is extremely important — it’s what allows a college to plan for their budget, departmental resources, and other things. If too many students enroll, the college risks not having enough space in residence halls and classrooms. This happened to UC Irvine last year, which caused them to rescind 500 admissions offers, ostensibly because students didn’t submit documents on time or received lower senior year grades. While many of these students appealed and were reinstated, colleges will be especially stringent about requirements if they’re overenrolled, and in some cases, resort to desperate attempts to cap enrollment.

To prevent this from happening, colleges are using their waitlist more. It’s safer for a college to accept fewer students upfront and later pull from the waitlist to bring their enrollment numbers up to capacity. This also allows colleges to further refine and diversify their freshman class and make sure that every department has enough students. Of course, this also means more uncertainty for students. Chances are still slim to be taken off a waitlist, as the applicant pool continues to increase.

So what should students do? Below are three solutions to the increased unpredictability in college admissions:

Diversify Your College List

Your college list should include a variety of schools, including different geographic locations, acceptance rates, large and small, public and private, liberal arts and national universities. One reason we keep seeing admissions rates decrease is that more and more students keep applying to the same set of schools. California students don’t seem to want to leave California, and if they do, they often limit themselves to urban areas on the East or West Coast. Sound familiar? What these students don’t realize is that there are amazing towns and cities all over the country, rich with culture and opportunities, and colleges there are vying for more California students on their campuses.  When we talk about college fit, we don’t mean passively sticking with what’s familiar, but branching out in a way that helps you grow. College is meant to be a time to broaden your perspective and experience new challenges, and attending college in a new part of the country is wonderful way to enhance your educational experience.

If out-of-state tuition is holding you back, consider schools that are part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). These schools offer reduced tuition to students in nearby states, so they’re an excellent affordable option. In addition, many small private schools, if they are target or safety schools, offer merit aid to incoming freshman to attract them to their campuses. This offsets the sticker price of tuition, bringing it closer to the price of an in-state public college.

So don’t just think about the obvious college choices! Even if you think you know what you’re looking for, give yourself the option to try something different. I once worked with a student who thought for sure she wanted to attend a UC; but she was also accepted to Whitman College, a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, WA with a focus on experiential learning. She not only fell in love with the charming college town, but also Whitman’s unique Studies in the West program, where students conduct environmental field studies and meet leaders of conservation efforts. As an aspiring environmental lawyer, she felt right at home at Whitman. You never know what might attract you to a particular college, and by giving yourself a variety of options, you’ll also give yourself more chances to be accepted.

Apply early

There are several advantages of applying early: getting work done upfront, which makes the rest of college applications much easier; receiving early admissions notifications, which can relieve stress if you have an early acceptance; and benefiting from increased admissions rates. That’s right—admissions rates tend to be higher for early applications as compared to regular deadlines. The reason for this is twofold.

For one, students applying early are typically the strongest applicants; they are well prepared and their GPA and test scores are high enough that they don’t need the extra semester to show improvement. This is the cream of the crop of applicants, so it’s no wonder more students from this pool get accepted.

The second reason early applications benefit from higher admissions statistics is that by applying early, students are demonstrating their interest in the college. Ah, there it is: demonstrated interest. An admissions trends article would be incomplete without the mention of demonstrated interest. Demonstrated interest can come in many forms: participating in campus tours, attending local college fairs and events, signing up for their email newsletters (and opening emails—yes, they track this), contacting your local admissions representative, or writing a compelling Why Us essay. Every point of contact you have with a college is noted in order to gauge how much you’re really into them and how likely you are to attend their campus if you’re accepted. In an increasingly unpredictable college admissions landscape, the ability to predict yield is increasingly important.

Applying early to a college is one way to show that you’re interested in their college. Early Decision (which is binding, meaning if you are accepted you commit to enroll), clearly tells a college they’re your first choice, because you’re willing to forego having any other options if you’re accepted to that college. If you have a first choice college, a college you would be absolutely thrilled to attend above all others, you should consider applying Early Decision to show your commitment. Applying ED will give you an advantage if your profile is strong enough to compete at a particular school.

Also be aware of Early Decision II, a second chance at the binding agreement with a later deadline, usually in January. If you don’t get into your first choice college through ED in November, you can apply to another college with ED II. A student we worked with in the past did exactly that — when she didn’t get into Pomona with the first ED round, she applied ED II to U Chicago and was accepted. This gives students a chance to apply to a higher reach school for the first ED round if there’s an ED II school they feel strongly about.

As for Early Action, the non-binding early option, this doesn’t give the same advantage as ED or ED II, but it does show a higher level of interest than applying Regular Decision, because of all the colleges on your college list, you will likely only end up applying early to a few.  

Bottom line: take advantage of applying early!

Go deep

With larger applicant pools every year, “soft” factors like extracurriculars, essays, and personality (as opposed to hard factors like your GPA and test scores) continue to be increasingly significant. Colleges want a dynamic student body, which is why they want students who actively pursue their interests and goals. But even more than this, they’re looking for depth—for students who have taken their interests as far as possible.

Students with clear passions not only demonstrate a high level of engagement, they also stand out more. Compared to a well-rounded resume, one with a well-defined focus tells a more coherent story about the student and therefore makes a stronger impression. One of our previous students, a Caltech and Harvard admit, was a finalist in a top-level competition for computer science, which landed him an internship at a tech company. After that, he participated in a prestigious research program where he used machine learning to track agricultural data. Ultimately, he started his own nonprofit to teach coding to kids from lower-income families in his area. By diving deeply into his main interest, he opened doors for more prestigious opportunities later on. His resume alone, over half of which contained activities related to computer science, made it clear what his main interest was and how it developed over time.

Your extracurriculars tell a story about how you took charge of your interests, which shows colleges that you will be active and engaged on campus. While it’s possible you may change your major or your interests, they know you’ll still be the kind of student who loves to dive into whatever you’re interested in and get involved in whatever community you’re a part of.

This means you should strive to develop a clear focus, rather than dabbling in multiple things. Pursue meaningful activities that truly motivate you. Of the students I’ve worked with, the ones with clear passions and unique interests receive the best college results—the acrobatic gymnast, the poet, the chemist. Don’t just do what everyone else is doing, but join that niche club or start that quirky hobby. Instead of striving to be well rounded in a lot of different things, choose one or two main areas into which you want to go in depth. This will ensure that you are truly motivated to go above and beyond in that interest, and will give you authentic material to write about in your college essays.


Above all, don’t despair! Remember that colleges want you. The majority of colleges in the US accept more than 80% of their applicants. If you remain open to the many opportunities that exist in a variety of campus settings, and you accurately and sincerely represent yourself on your applications, you will have good college options.

9 Tips for Writing Effective College Essays


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As students come back from summer break, the topic on the minds of many seniors is the college application. As in years past, the vast majority of colleges that utilize the Common Application (and Coalition Application) require that students write a personal essay. How do you write 500-650 words about yourself? Here are some of our suggestions:

  1. Start Now — While college deadlines may seem far off—after all, January 1st is over four months away—the fall of senior year is often one of the busiest times of a high school student’s life, and you’ll be glad that you started your college application essays early. With tests, homework, standardized tests, sports, leadership activities, and not to mention a social life to manage, many seniors are overwhelmed when they add college applications on top of their towering to-do piles.  And don’t forget that some early application deadlines (like Georgia Tech’s Early Action deadline) come as early as October 15th.

  2. Show, Don’t Tell — Because you only have a limited amount of space, it’s tempting to summarize your main points or to list achievements or activities for the Common App or Coalition App essays. But anecdotes and details will help your point come across far more effectively than just stating facts or conclusions. Think about how to tell a story to illustrate your point. For example, if you want to demonstrate that you are an innovative thinker, it’s probably better to share the story of that time you helped your robotics team come up with a different way of approaching your project rather than to list all of your awards from robotics (which you will do anyways in a different section of the application).

    Think about how to help the reader imagine a poignant moment or a significant realization you had. Oftentimes, direct quotes or even internal monologue can play an important role. You might want to use metaphors or imagery, and you should certainly feel free to start your essay in medias res (in the middle of the story).

  3. Simpler is Better — While some students think that using complex or rarely used vocabulary in their essays demonstrate their high level of linguistic competence, simpler is better. Don’t be afraid to use short sentences, contractions, and an informal tone. Of course, you’ll want to vary sentence structure and length, but make sure that you are communicating clearly. Write in the active voice.  And if you don’t normally use certain vocabulary in your speech or writing, don’t debut it in your personal statement.

  4. Avoid Common Topics — As we mentioned in our previous blog past [link this to the Essay Topics to Avoid post], there are some topics that are more common than others. For example, many students take (and write about) “The Trip.” Another very common experience is a sports (or any type of competition) victory.  This is not to say that you absolutely shouldn’t write about those topics, but that you should proceed with caution, knowing that you’ll need to make a concerted effort to stand out from the crowd if you do decide to write about these topics.

  5. Avoid Negativity — Most students don’t do this consciously, but we’ve read many essays that detail a teacher’s (or parent’s or coach’s) unfairness or harshness or complained about school or family culture. While these sentiments may be completely justified, they leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth because without knowing the student, this is the first and only impression that an admissions reader will have of this person. You don’t want to waste your one chance to make a good impression. If you do experience significant challenges because of someone else’s actions and choices, please see below.

  6. Describe Growth and Change — Tough things happen in life. People get sick and/or die. Parents get divorced. Loved ones may become addicted to alcohol or other substances. Students have disabilities and some have depression or other mental illnesses. The natural response in these circumstances is to write about the situation and describe it in detail. But that’s exactly what you should not do in your personal statement. In some cases, students should write a more detailed account of the challenging circumstance under “Additional Information,” but for the college essay, you should focus not on the particulars of the situation but on how you grew or changed from having to deal with the situation.

    The most effective essays are those that focus on growth, even if the challenge is something as mundane as stage fright, moving to a new school, or even just a crippling shyness. You’ll want to display a “before” and “after” verbal snapshot of yourself and described what caused the change or what realizations you came to during the process.

  7. Write and Re-Write — I’m the kind of writer that likes to write just one draft. I’m not a big fan of re-visiting my own writing. This approach works in writing research papers and other types of essays, but it does not work in the college essay because your subject (i.e., yourself) is evolving and changing as time progresses. Our students are always surprised when we tell them to expect to write at least five drafts of their Common App essay. In actuality, the majority of students will write ten drafts of that essay. It’s also not uncommon for students to change topics midstream, abandoning the fourth draft of one essay to start a completely different one. And there is something invaluable that happens during the re-writing process: students get to know themselves better and learn how to reflect and express themselves in this type of genre.

    One note on word count: it often helps in writing college essays to overshoot the word limit in the earlier drafts to ensure that all the content you want to include is in there before cutting it down to size when editing the later drafts.

  8. Find a Trustworthy Editor — Although too many voices giving input to your essay may muddle your thoughts, you should find one editor that you trust. This person can be a friend, a teacher, or preferably someone who is familiar with the college application process. Have them read a close-to-finished draft and give you input on content and tone. Of course, you might have grammatical issues as well, but it often helps to have someone who knows you well read your essay to see if it reflects who you really are. Anyone can help you with grammar, vocabulary, and phrasing, but only someone who knows you can give you accurate input as to the content.

  9. Read the Final Version Aloud — It may sound crazy to do this, but this is one of my best tips for students before they submit their applications. I often catch errors or awkward phrasing in my own writing when I read it out loud. Because a college essay is an informal, memoir-style piece of writing, it should sound natural read aloud, almost like a short story or something you’d share with a friend (but written in a more polished form). Give it a try—what do you have to lose?

We have many more tips for students as they work on their college essays.  Contact ILUMIN Education for more suggestions: OR (408) 479-4742.



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It’s easy for students and their families to decide on a college list based solely on how a particular school or department was ranked by an outside agency. Though rankings have some value, they aren’t predictive of your experience at the school—you will NOT necessarily have more success or a better time at a higher ranked school as opposed to a lower ranked school. In fact, the best school for your situation may be a less competitive college where you might really thrive. Here are some suggestions we have for you when thinking about developing a strategic college list.

Create a Segmented List—Though none of the students we’ve advised have ever experienced this nightmare scenario, I’ve met a couple students who did not get into a single school to which they applied! In one case, a girl applied to all “reach” schools except for one “target” school. Unfortunately, she severely underestimated her “target” school. The year in which she applied, the school changed their admissions policy and ended up admitting far fewer students from her high school than they had in previous years.  When thinking about your college list, we advise students to apply to three tiers of schools:

Safety Schools—These are schools that you have a 75% chance (or higher) of getting into. If you look at the school’s standardized test scores and average GPA of admitted students, you should be in the 75th to 99th percentile of students that they admit. You should apply to at least two safety schools.

Target Schools—These are schools that you have a roughly 50% chance of getting into. If you look at the standardized test scores and GPA of admitted students, you should be in upper 50% of students they admit. For most of our students, this is the sweet spot—you should be building your list around your target schools.

Reach or Dream Schools—These are schools that you have a less than 25% chance of getting into. If a school has an overall admissions rate of under 15%, the school represents a reach school for any student, no matter your grades, scores, or activities.  Apply to as many reach schools as your family decides on, but remember that each additional application will likely require more supplemental essays.

Consider Fit—Several years ago, a student from a rural area was accepted to a number of top-20 universities and liberal arts colleges. Because I had worked with him for many months, I knew that he wouldn’t enjoy life as an engineering major at Berkeley, a large, public university in California. Instead, I advised him to attend a small, prestigious liberal arts college in a small town on the East Coast. However, he went against our advice and enrolled at Berkeley. After his first semester, he was back…asking for help for transfer applications. No matter how highly ranked a particular college, if the school is not the right fit, you will not succeed academically or socially.

Here are some questions to ponder as you think about your best fit:

Are you a big school person or a small school person? When I was applying to college, I knew that I would not enjoy being one of 35,000+ students. I turned down a scholarship to a large university to go to a school of only 1600 students, and I never regretted my decision. Though I didn’t get to cheer on a winning football team, I conducted research with several professors, took a class with only six other students, led a student club, and had dinner with my faculty advisor in his home.

Where in the U.S. do you want to live? Are you more comfortable in a city? The suburbs? In a rural area? Remember that your college experience extends beyond the academic program. It will (hopefully) become your home away from home for the next four years of your life.

What kind of academic program are you looking for? Are you looking for a program that will prepare you for a certain career or professional school (e.g., pharmacy school)? Are you interested in continuing on in academia? University of Chicago and Northwestern University are two schools that look very similar on paper—both medium-sized, top-20 universities located in the Chicago metropolitan area. They nevertheless exude a different “feel” and campus culture. Northwestern has a far more pre-professional orientation while University of Chicago is all about developing the life of the mind.

What kind of campus culture appeals to you? Some schools are known to be more competitive, others are more collaborative; some have a strong Greek system, some have a theatre program; some emphasize undergraduate research while others emphasize co-op experiences.

Campus visits are one way to experience a school and to see if a college fits you well (more on this topic in a future blog post), but there are other ways to determine if a particular school would work for your needs. This recent article in the New York Times recommends that you skip the college tour and talk with current students or recent alums of a particular college, reasoning that it’s more productive to talk with someone who represents your future self (at the school) than to hear about a college’s cafeteria and classes and to imagine yourself there. In our opinion, one of the best tools for discovering a good fit college would be to talk with several current students or recent alums of a school you’re interested in who also knows you well. With tuition increasing at rates far outstripping inflation and with a significant time commitment on your part in the application process and in the four years of earning your degree, creating a solid college list and choosing the right school for you is one of the most important decisions you will make

We have many more tips for students as they work on their college applications.  Contact ILUMIN Education for more suggestions: OR (408) 479-4742.




Have you ever thought about what happens to your college applications and essays once you send them off? There are real human beings reading (and skimming over) every word on your application. The sentences that you wrote and re-wrote, the witty jokes that you inserted, the catchy introduction that you stressed over—they will all be read by an admissions officer….a tired, weary admissions officer who has hundreds of applications in her office waiting for her attention.

So how can your essay make you a memorable and attractive candidate? Here’s our best advice:

Write the essay that only YOU can write.

Our friends in admissions tell us that there are some essays that they seem to have read a thousand times already. There are many students who participate in athletics or are involved in trips or community service projects abroad. While it doesn’t mean that these topics are completely off-limits, it does mean that you should try your best to brainstorm other ideas. Failing that, you should think long and hard about how to personalize it to your situation. Here are some clichéd themes that we’ve seen over and over again that students use when writing about these experiences.

  1. The big game: It doesn’t matter whether you won or lost, it only matters that you tried hard, bonded as a team, learned endurance, etc. Alternately, as you crossed the finish line (or scored the winning goal or basket), you realized that all the early hours spent sweating in the gym was worth it.

  2. The trip: Traveling to India (or any other country) gave you a whole new perspective. Alternately, you realized what true poverty is and now you’re grateful for all of your opportunities. Or, you thought you were going to teach the kids/orphans/refugees but found instead that they taught you valuable lessons.

  3. Another topic that we often advise students to steer clear of is what we call the “The Three D’s: Death, Divorce, and Depression.” The mistake that many make when writing about these experiences is that the focus tends to be on the “dramatic event” versus on how the student grew and changed from the challenge. So we will often read sad and moving tributes to a beloved grandparent or a parent who passed away too young, but that type of writing tells us very little about the student himself or herself. Alternately, a student will dwell on their traumatic experiences with divorce (statistically, around 50% of American students have had this experience) or on a bout of depression (surprisingly common) without realizing that many others have unfortunately had the same struggles. If you must write about one of The Three D’s, make sure that your essay is focused on your own growth through the challenge.

And finally, there are two types of essays that you should avoid at all costs.

  1. My life story: Chronicles detailing your entire timeline will cause already tired eyes to glaze over. For example, “I was born in a small town in Mississippi to military parents. Two years later, we moved to San Diego, California, and I spent a lot of time on the beach. When I was five, my parents were transferred to Ohio, and I started kindergarten, which is also when I started playing soccer, etc. etc.” Does this make you want to keep reading?

  2. My love story: We understand. Your breakup or the story of how you got together with your boyfriend or girlfriend is probably the most dramatic, challenging, interesting (to you), or emotionally vulnerable experience of your life so far. However, this type of essay has no place in a college application. These types of essays tend to read not only as self-absorbed and unaware but also inappropriate. One Stanford admissions officer I’ve met has even cited an essay about a breakup as the main reason a top student from a prestigious private school was rejected.

I don’t mean to make fun of these topics, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t write about your significant experiences. But if you do write an essay on one of these clichéd topics, ask yourself: can someone else have written this essay? What makes this essay MINE? What unique character trait or quirk does it showcase?

Believe it or not, writing college essays can be fun! If you’re able to reflect on your life and tell your story well, it will also make a difference in your admissions results.
Of course, ILUMIN Education can help - reach out to us to set up a free consultation and we can help you get started on writing the right essay that will tell your genuine story and help you reach your college goals. Click HERE to reach out and set up an appointment!

Congrats to ILUMIN/JA Entrepreneurship Team + Writing Better Essays



ILUMIN Highlights!

9. Use this helpful Life Map to help you brainstorm college essay ideas!
10. What topics would you like us to cover in our next workshop? Take a 30-sec survey HERE.
11. College Essay Boot Camp is HERE!
12. Congrats to our 2018 seniors! Check out our 2018 college results HERE!

Happy June!

A few updates!

  • Congratulations to our ILUMIN x Junior Achievement Company Program team competing against 14 other teams across the US at the national competition in Washington D.C. Check out the product they developed HERE and wish them luck!
  • For rising seniors, check out our blog posts on writing great college essays HERE and HERE and HERE!

Students, take a read! Parents, pass this along!

Also, for rising juniors, we’re running our college essay boot camps in June. If you’re interested in writing BETTER essays and getting a head start on your college apps, contact us for more information! 

We’re also planning out topics for upcoming workshops (both in-person and online) and want to hear from you! Tell us what topics you're interested in HERE. Top-Tier Admissions criteria? Career exploration? Parent-teen communication? Let us know!

A lot of exciting things to come… look out for more emails and resources coming soon! =)

Thanks again don't hesitate to reach out if there is anyway we can help. 


Katie, Lia, John, Alice, Elton, Azure and the rest of the ILUMIN team

ILUMIN Education
(408) 479-4742

Other good reads:

Consultant Bios
5 Tips for Writing a Great College Essay
Test Accommodations for Students with Learning Struggles
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Early Admissions Program

One pattern we’ve observed in recent years is the increasing number of students participating in early admissions programs. According to the College Board (purveyor of the SAT, AP, and SAT Subject Tests), the number of colleges offering an early admissions program has risen from about 100 in the 1990s to around 450 today (see this article critical of this trend).

Early admissions programs, particularly Early Decision programs, are attractive to colleges because they can be more selective in the Regular Decision round of admissions if they’ve already filled many of their incoming freshmen seats with students guaranteed to attend.  For example, during this last admissions season, Johns Hopkins University admitted 591 students applying via the Early Decision program. This represents around 45% of the seats in their freshmen class. And as more and more colleges use these early admissions programs, the pressure to do so ratchets up for those still holding out.

Early admissions programs are also attractive to applicants because some programs confer a significant advantage in admissions. In the Johns Hopkins example cited above, those 591 admitted above experienced a 30.5% admissions rate—their peers applying Regular Decision a couple months later? Around 10.3%. This ratio of a 3:1 Early Decision to Regular Decision acceptance rate is consistent with numbers from other very selective schools such as the Ivy League universities. So students who apply early may have a better chance at their first choice school. Adding to the attraction, students admitted in mid-December can stop working on college supplements early.

However, an early application is not just a free ticket to your top-choice school—academic standards for early applicants tend to be higher than for Regular Decision admits, and students who fall below the 50th percentile for GPA or test scores of a school’s admitted students (and who are not recruited athletes or legacy applicants) should think twice before submitting an early application. In order to assess your chances at your ED/EA college, you should look at the admissions data from your high school. Many high schools use Naviance/Family Connection to gather specific admissions data from their school.

Different types of Early Admissions Programs

But first, let’s back up and discuss the different types of early admissions programs. In general, there are two types of programs, with some sub-categories included in each. Applicants to both types of early admissions programs generally receive their admissions results by mid-December. The three possible results are admit, deny, or defer (to Regular Decision).

  • Early Action—These programs notify students early of their admissions results (generally in mid-December) but are not binding. Students don’t need to attend the school if they’ve been admitted and have until May 1 to hear back from the rest of their potential colleges and to choose the school they will ultimately attend. Examples of schools offering Early Action applications include the University of Virginia, University of Chicago, and Case Western Reserve University.

  • Variations on the Early Action program include Single-Choice Early Action (or Restrictive Early Action) programs, which ask applicants not to apply simultaneously to other Early Action or Early Decision programs. If a student is accepted to a Single-Choice Early Action program, he or she is not contractually obligated to attend.  Most notably, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton have Single-Choice Early Action programs.

    Some schools with Early Action programs, like Boston College or Georgetown University, prevent applicants from concurrently applying to Early Decision (EDI) programs (but not other Early Action or EDII programs)

  • Early Decision (EDI and EDII)—Acceptances to Early Decision programs are contractually binding, and, as mentioned above, more and more schools are offering not only an Early Decision I program (with applications often due November 1st or 15th) but also an Early Decision II program (with applications often due in January). Many liberal arts colleges, including top schools like Swarthmore and Middlebury, have an Early Decision II option in which students hear back by mid-February. Some universities, such as New York University and University of Chicago, also have EDI and EDII programs.

Should you apply early?

In general, students should only apply to Early Decision programs if they are 100% certain they would be willing to attend. Because Early Decision is a binding application, we generally advise that students thoroughly research the school and, if possible, visit the campus before submitting an ED application.  The other caveat we offer is that if students are looking for significant amounts of financial aid, they should probably not submit an ED application (which would only give them access to an offer from one school versus being able to compare different offers and to make a financially sound choice).

That being said, those students who have a clear top choice and do not have major financial aid limitations are encouraged to submit early applications. Students should also consider applying early to some “safety” schools if they offer an Early Action application in order to (hopefully) receive some good news before winter break or to adjust their application strategy with some early feedback from an actual admissions decision.

ILUMIN Staff Profile: Katie Young



5 Questions for Katie Young

Katie brings a wealth of experience to LUMIN Education’s consulting team. Since 2012, she has been counseling students in college admission, and in 2017 she completed her graduate certificate program in Educational Consulting through UC Irvine.

We asked Katie five questions to help you get to know her better.

1. What is one of your favorite aspects of working with students?

I love talking about college all day, every day! After getting to know students, it is fun to show them different collegiate environments where they would not only be great fits, but also fill niches and thrive as unique contributors. y thoroughly researching and visiting colleges, as well as speaking directly with admissions counselors, it is possible to determine the values of a given campus and whether those align with my students'.

For example, my student, Kira, really wanted a college where curiosity and questioning the norm were valued by both professors and fellow students. We found that environment for her at University of Chicago. Similarly, my student Jennifer wanted an intellectual campus where discussion and open-mindedness were valued. We discovered that Reed College was a perfect place for her to study.

I truly believe that every student has a college where he or she belongs and delivering the perfect applicant and application right to the admissions officer's doorstep is my passion.

2. What is one insight you’ve earned from being involved in the college admissions process?

There is no such thing as a model applicant. Students should never try to "keep up with the Joneses" by copying course schedules, testing plans or extracurricular activities from older students they see as successful. Colleges are not looking for cookie-cutter, well-rounded students. They are looking for students who are one-of-a-kind, who are truly interesting, and who find unique ways to pursue their passions in high school.

For example, my student Nicole had three big interests: film, engineering, and women's rights. Her affinity for engineering was obvious early in life, but her interest in film burgeoned only after joining her school's television production team on a whim. Her dedication to women's rights stemmed from her grandmother who, growing up in rural China, was not allowed an education. Nicole found a way to combine all three interests, making a short stop-motion animation film about her challenges as a female aspiring engineer and her desire for all girls to pursue their goals free from discrimination. She entered the film in the White House Student Film Festival, and won. She went on to be accepted to every UC campus and eventually chose to attend UC Berkeley.

It's helping students identify and combine their passions that makes counseling students in college admissions a new adventure year after year.

3. What do you want students to know?

I want students to know that setting realistic expectations for college is important.

The harsh reality is that there is a valedictorian with a perfect 1600 SAT score and an impressive resume at every single high school in America. There are over 37,000 high schools, which means there are way more than 37,000 amazing students applying for approximately 2,000 spots at each of the top 10 colleges (not to mention all the stellar international and home-schooled students in the mix). My student might be one of the fortunate and deserving admits...but she might not be. It is my job to prepare her for that "no."

I'm not here to crush students' dreams -- in fact, I encourage students to follow their hearts and apply to Stanford or Columbia if it is truly their ideal college. I did, and even though I collapsed into a puddle of tears on my doorstep when I didn't get the big envelopes, I don't regret it. My goal is for my students to feel the same way: to look back and have absolutely no regrets about this process. To me, that means not only following your heart, but also looking at the numbers in black and white and making wise decisions.

Just clicking the box and adding Merced to a UC application is not enough. My students will be doing their homework, visiting campuses, and ensuring that even if they are only accepted to one of the colleges on their list, they know they can be happy and successful there.

4. What do you want parents to know?

The most important lesson I can share with a parent is that every student is different. It is not productive to compare your child to others. Each student is unique in terms of what they respond to, what motivates them, and what is most important to them. Colleges don't want dozens of the same student, so there is no reason for a parent to force a child into being someone they are not.

I once worked with a student, Jared, whose older sister got into Cornell, USC, Carnegie Mellon, NYU, and other top business schools. He tried to replicate her resume, while his parents tried to replicate the parenting style that had worked for their first child. He was forced to pick up and continue her projects and leadership roles, letting go of his own interest in law and politics in the process. He was absolutely miserable: his grades started dropping, he had disciplinary problems at school, and he couldn’t have a conversation with his parents without someone yelling. Needless to say, no one was surprised when Jared was rejected from nearly every college he applied to.

Conversely, my student Adam’s older sister was a star who got into UCLA and interns with the LA Times. He was a B average student who wasn’t interested in activities at school and struggled to get above 30 on his ACT. His parents never compared him to his older sister or expected him to replicate her success. They let him follow his interest in psychology, manage his own schedule, and choose his own colleges. He was accepted to thirteen of the fifteen colleges where he applied because he and his parents set realistic goals and listened to one another.

The best outcomes are only possible when parents and students communicate enough to share common goals and expectations.

5. What is one way you can help?

I think the greatest way I can help is through my ability to listen to a student's words and help him translate those words into actions.

One of the biggest mistakes high school students can make is to think too small. They often give up before they really try. In my experience, there is always more that students can do, and sometimes all it takes is for someone to point out the path.

For example, I had a student named Wyatt who often complained that no one showed up to sports games or events at his school. I asked Wyatt how students could find out about these events, and he said there was a morning announcement over the loudspeaker. That information was often too little too late, as it only mentioned events for that day, and many students didn’t pay attention to  announcements anyway. I asked Wyatt how he would improve that system, and he thought about making a calendar and posting it on bulletin boards. I asked him if students would even look at bulletin boards -- aren't they busy looking at their phones during passing periods? A lightbulb turned on, and Wyatt realized he should design an app that students could use to see not only which events were coming up, but who was going. He made the app central to his campaign for class secretary, and won.

The same process works for college application essays. Students often have trouble recognizing what is valuable or interesting about their lives.

One of my recent students, Matt, was struggling to come up with a captivating idea for a personal statement. During one of our many discussions, someone was microwaving lunch in the nearby cafeteria. I mentioned that it didn't smell great, and he replied in a blasé manner that he couldn't smell it. In fact, he was born without a sense of smell. I was shocked that he didn't seem to think that made him unique. I helped him think about how his way of interacting with the world was intrinsically different from everyone else's, and he caught on. We discussed how he first discovered his sense was missing, and how it helped him realize that there are unseen and unsung forces in our world. He related that to his desire to study physics, a great essay was born, and he was admitted to UCLA for mechanical engineering.

Click HERE to schedule a free consultation with atie and discover how she can help your student!