contact us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right.

955 Benecia Ave.
Sunnyvale, CA 94085

(408) 479-4742


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




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
5 Considerations for Finding the Right College
Why I Said NO to Harvard
FREE E-Book: Inside the Admissions Office




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!

ILUMIN STAFF Profile // Lia Tanti



As a member of the ILUMIN consulting team, Lia Tanti brings her years of experience working in education and college admissions consulting.

We asked her five questions to help you learn more about her.

  1. What’s one surprising thing you’ve learned from doing college prep?

    Being impressive isn’t just about doing impressive things. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take on leadership roles or do internships—on the contrary! I’m always encouraging students to take the next level in their activities. But pursuing any true passion wholeheartedly or doing something out of the ordinary can be just as valuable. It’s better to be genuine than do things just because they seem impressive.

    One of my previous students was a voracious reader. He spent every free minute buried in a novel or writing poems. He progressed to writing book reviews for the library and participating in creative writing workshops. He wrote a compelling, heartfelt college essay about his passion for reading and writing, and was accepted to several Ivy Leagues. It wasn’t a prestigious internship that helped him stand out, but the true zeal with which he immersed himself in his interests.

  2. What if students don’t know what their genuine interests are?

    A good place to start is getting insight on your personality—are you more collaborative or independent, spontaneous or structured, outdoorsy or bookish? Defining the environments you thrive best in can point you in the right direction when deciding on activities, a college major, and potential careers.

    Next steps could be joining the Youth Advisory Board at their library, taking an online course, volunteering, or watching TED talks for inspiration. In any case, take action! Don’t wait until you have your college major figured out—getting involved can help you figure it out in the first place. I enjoy helping students choose majors that connect to their experiences and strengths.

    I worked with a student in 9th grade who was unsure about her direction. She joined a STEM club, became a math tutor, and acted in a play. As her interest in acting grew, I encouraged her to develop it by making her own films and leading a drama program. By testing different activities and delving into the ones she was drawn to, she naturally figured out her interests and developed a compelling resume. Allowing for trial and error made her path more genuine and interesting.

  3. What is the most common issue students struggle with?

    Time management is a big struggle for a lot of students, and this can manifest in procrastination, cramming for tests, never having downtime, giving up sleep, etc. One student wanted to explore medicine, but her schedule was so packed with art and music, she didn’t have time. I helped her prioritize by keeping violin, which she was most talented and invested in, and dropping piano and dance, which were only casual interests. This freed up time to join a medicine club and start volunteering at a hospital, and as a result, she felt a renewed sense of direction and purpose.

    When students struggle with time management, I help them evaluate their schedule and long-term goals to identify areas of improvement. Whether it’s giving them study tips or mapping out their schedule, I provide students with tangible advice to address their particular needs and goals.

  4. What is the most important piece of advice you give students?

    Be creative when developing your extracurricular activities. College admissions officers have seen it all, so you should have something a little unexpected in your application. Don’t just sign up for opportunities that exist, but create your own—for example, I had a student who built a computer for a summer project.

    Join niche clubs or start your own. Perform DIY science experiments. Start a craft business. Don’t limit yourself to things that seem educational. Colleges are interested in ALL your passions and hobbies. If you are truly invested in an interest and you show it through your actions, it will “look good” on your application. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress admissions officers, but to show them what you’re all about.

  5. What is the main takeaway you want students to have from their high school experience?

    My main goal is to show students how to navigate challenges with resilience and pursue their goals with resolve, so that no matter what they face in life, they will be prepared to tackle it confidently. I want students to see that the problem solving and goal setting skills they develop in high school are tools for long-term success. Especially when writing college essays, students should be able to articulate what they’ve learned about themselves and how their high school experiences fit into a broader context.

    One student I worked with struggled with confidence because she worked hard but her grades weren’t stellar. I helped her focus on what she was doing well, such as her strong work ethic and accomplishments in martial arts, rather than only what needed improvement. We set manageable goals with clear steps so she felt reassured and in control of her progress. For her college personal statement, I helped her write about her journey towards self-acceptance. The candor and maturity she displayed in her writing was a strong point in her successful application to NYU, but also evidence of her readiness  for a confident transition to college.

    Every achievement, no matter how big or small, is a milestone for personal growth, and therefore students should be proud of their hard work and progress. Colleges aren’t looking for perfection; they’re looking for honesty and relatability. No matter what their accomplishments and challenges are in high school, I want students to feel proud of where they come from and optimistic about where they’re going.

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

ILUMIN's College Essay Boot Camp 2018!

Elton Lin

  Contact us  to find out more about the College Essay Boot Camp!

Contact us to find out more about the College Essay Boot Camp!

Our annual College Essay Boot Camp starts next week!

Our goal is to help students get a headstart. We teach students what admissions officers are looking for and help them tell their most honest and powerful story.  Students who start early, ALWAYS write better essays and get their work done on time! 

In the span of four days, students will:

  1. Learn what admissions officers are looking for and how to write effective college essays.
  2. Complete multiple drafts of the four University of California application essays and the main Common Application personal statement (private schools).
  3. Complete a resume they can submit with most college applications.
  4. Enter in all the required information for both the University of California application and the Common Application.
  5. Have a plan for how to complete the "Why Us?" essay which is required for most private school admissions.
  6. Have access to experienced consultants who will provide feedback on all their work.

This is an exclusive workshop for ILUMIN students to help them SUBMIT BETTER APPLICATIONS and REDUCE STRESS during of the college admissions season. After the boot camp, students will continue working one-on-one with our consultants to further develop and polish their essays and submit their application on-time. 

The workshops are scheduled for in our Sunnyvale office:

June 5-8
June 19-22

Contact us if you have any questions! Looking forward to the coming application season! 



Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.44.49 PM.png

Join as many clubs/organizations as possible

Everybody’s experience for college freshman year will be different. But for me, it felt like high school where you start again from the bottom of the ladder except that as a college freshman, you are the special one. Being the youngest gives you an unique social opportunity to join your club sports team/hobbit groups or cultural groups. I still remember at the Activities Fair in the first week, you are invited to join millions of clubs and organizations and meet all kinds of people in various social groups. So shake a leg!

Freshmen year is the best opportunity to find out who your classmates are because it’s when asking “where you are from” and “what’s your name” still don’t sound awkward. It’s also a good time to know yourself better, what kinds of friend groups do you fit in more or what types of friends do you click with more etc. As a lowerclassmen myself, I cannot speak for whether freshmen friends stick around, but I can guarantee that college community is often much larger and much more diverse than high school community. That means you probably won’t be able to know every guy/girl in your grade like you did in high school, and that it’s time to actively reach out to find a community that fits you. And joining an organization/community that you feel comfortable with will help you transition into college much easier and faster.

Study wisely

Having been a professional student for 12 years, you are an expert in your way of studying. Whether it’s watching Khan Academy videos or reading Sparknotes, by the time you enter college you already mastered the art of studying. On top of every useful studying method that you mastered, I would also strongly recommend going to professor's or TAs’’ office hours. Lecture is the same for every student, but in office hours professor’s and TA’s can answer specific questions that you may have in a way that can tailor to your needs. It’s an opportunity to get to know them personally and for them to know more about you. Going to office hours is also a good way to find out their grading style and what to expect as a student. Ultimately, they are the ones who gives you scores for assignments and the final grade.

One good news about college is that you don’t have to do everything that’s assigned to you. For example, textbooks and lectures are often overlapped and teach same things. Doing overlapped studying may help you understand the materials more concretely, but when you are under time pressure, whether you are a visual person or audio person, make sure you study the way that works for you.

One last bit about studying is that it’s never a bad idea to reach out to upperclassmen or older friends who have taken the course before. They know more than you do. Having been through more advanced stages, their knowledge and experiences are extremely valuable resources as you study for your current class or plan for your future classes.

Find your own college life triangle // academics + social life + sleep

There is a saying that every college student only have enough time to focus on two out of three things in college: academics, social life, sleep. I would agree that this is true in many ways. I remember during the first week, I was lying in my bed about to sleep, then I hear music and laughter from the party down the hallway of my dorm. I asked myself: should I go out and socialize with those people in my dorm? What should I do? Is it not a cool thing to do to go to bed early? I checked out the party anyways, but I had a tremendously difficult time waking up the second day morning and staying in class with a huge hangover from the night before. So having a good balance would be really helpful.

Every student’s life triangle will be different, and most likely it will change in different stages throughout college career. But going back to the first point, I recommend social life over two other things in freshman year because freshman year is the prime time to establish friendships. It’s also when you need companionships the most. But in sophomore/junior years when classes get harder, it would be time to study and pursue for your major/degree. Thus, setting a clear priority for what’s truly valuable for you in different stages of college is crucial for planning a college journey that you will enjoy.

-- Joseph W., Junior at Stanford University



CONGRATS to the ILUMIN/Junior Achievement Company Program team for winning "BEST PRODUCT" at the NorCal JA Company of the Year Competition 2018!

Great work team and excited to empower and equip the next generation of entrepreneurial change makers!

AND now off to the JA National Company Program competition in Washington DC!

You can also check out the Silicube and preorder yours HERE.

Some reflections from our students after the program:

"The JA program allowed me to learn how to manage a team, from keeping everyone on track and encouraging them to the tougher aspects like making sure the quality of the work produced was acceptable. The members of the company program became close knit over the 13 weeks we met, and I learned that while a good idea may come from a single person, the true innovation requires the collaboration between the team members to provide support and occasionally limits to the thinking of an individual."

// Ronald C.

"Before attending the Junior Achievement program, I knew little to nothing about business and what it took to run a business. Now, after my experience with Junior Achievement, I understand the number of different teams and the endless work that come with producing a single product. The marketing team and I had so much fun making a commercial and brainstorming ways to bring our product to the public. My favorite moment with the entire company is when we finally got to see our product in person. We had been working on the logistics of the bag for over a month, and to finally see all of our hard work come to life was so exciting. Even if you aren't currently interested in going into business in the future, I would highly recommend joining the JA program, because it introduces you to many other dedicated and inspiring high school students, and it gives you a newfound appreciation for the world of business."

// Mia S.




Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.33.55 PM.png

My first two weeks at Amherst College were uncomfortable, to say the least. Meeting new people really isn’t my thing, but that’s what freshman orientation is all about. Struggling to find something in common, fake-coughing during awkward pauses, cringing when I fumbled over my name — I felt like a fish flopping on land.       

And saying good-bye to my family? That was the worst part. My mom, who traveled the 3,061.2 miles to help me move in, had to leave right at the beginning of orientation to catch her flight. So I met my orientation small group in a mess, tears streaming down my face and unable to croak out much more than “Hi."

That night, I was sure I’d chosen the wrong school. “I should’ve stayed closer to home,” I thought to myself as I miserably slipped under the covers. “I miss home. I miss my mom. Everything feels weird. This was a mistake.”       

But within a couple of weeks, as classes started and I began to check out clubs on campus, those thoughts slowly disappeared, and to my utter disbelief, I settled in.

The excitement with which I approached my classes was surreal. In high school, with the end goal being a high GPA and college, I’d lost a lot of my passion for learning. School became a routine; classes became a means to an end. But in college, getting to choose the classes and professors I wanted — Amherst has an open curriculum — made a huge difference, and I found myself looking forward to class for the first time in a long time.

Granted, I wasn’t always excited — there were days when I didn’t even want to get out of bed. But the intellectual environment at Amherst really reignited my love for exploring and expanding my worldview. We weren’t taking classes to get into college anymore; we were taking classes because we wanted to learn.

And as I got to know my peers both in and out of the classroom, I began to feel more at home — like I belonged. I still remember feeling simultaneously weirded out and pleasantly surprised the first time I referred to Amherst as home. It just slipped right out of my mouth, and it took me a second to recover as I realized what I’d said. But I also knew that somewhere along the way, it became true, both in my mind and my heart.

Maybe your first few weeks in college will also be uncomfortable. Or maybe they won’t. Regardless, here are some tips I wish I’d known when I first got to college. Hopefully, they’ll help you get a head start on having a great year.

  1. Check out campus clubs within the first few weeks of school. Clubs are probably the primary way you’ll make friends, so it’s important to find a club that fits you and your interests. That way, it’s a win-win situation: you’ll get to be involved in something that’s important to you and you’ll make connections with people who share the same passion.

  2. Try something you maybe would never have tried before college. Each semester, I promised myself that I’d push myself out of my comfort zone in at least one big way. First semester, I joined Amherst’s mixed martial arts club, and second semester, I participated in a small flash mob performance. (I have no experience in either arena and am an especially clumsy dancer.) But though my entire body throbbed for days after each martial arts practice and I spent the entire dance performance with my face flaming red, it was exhilarating to know that I’d had the guts to do something a little scary — and stuck with it.

  3. Being sick sucks. The first time you get sick in college, you’ll find yourself really missing and appreciating your parents. You have to go out and get your own chicken soup and hot teas, you have to rely on classmates for notes, you have to check your temperatures yourself and decide whether or not you’re capable of attending activities. So try your best not to get sick; it just becomes such a burden. You’re better off regularly taking care of yourself and resting the moment you feel something coming on.

  4. People care way less about your GPA in college. At Amherst, no one ever asked me, “What grade did you get?” It was such a refreshing change from the culture of academic striving in my hometown of Palo Alto, California. In college, it’s not about making the next benchmark. It’s about discovering what makes you light up — what creates the spark in your eyes. Don’t try to hold yourself to other people’s standards; instead focus on what interests you and what you can do with what you have.

  5. You’ll meet people who are rude or inconsiderate but you’ll also meet so many more people who aren’t. Don’t let the bad apples take away from the good ones. Make the most of the time you have with people who care about you and want the best for you. You only have four years in college, but those four years will feel like lifetimes because in college, your friends really become your family. So don’t give up on friendships just because of a disagreement; instead, pursue the people who matter to you.

  6. In a similar vein, don’t let what people say get you down. Not everyone in this world is going to like you, and that’s sometimes hard to take. But at the end of the day, you’re only going to be sharing the same space with them for four years. Think big — in five, 10 years, unless they’re devastatingly attractive, you won’t even really remember what they look like. Don’t let other people’s opinions of you dictate who you are and what you do. Choose to pursue what you want for yourself — what aligns with your heart.

  7. Widen your perspective — talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. So much of what I thought was right and true was thrown out the window the moment I set foot on campus. I come from a pretty homogenous town, and getting to talk to people from all walks of life — different race, different socioeconomic status, different upbringing, different opinions — made me much more aware of how limited my understanding of the world is. When you start to appreciate the nuances of each person you meet, you too will be able to develop a more comprehensive perspective of this world and its people.

  8. Be on top of your workload — no one else is going to do that for you. This was really difficult for me in the beginning because I’ve never gotten in the habit of using a planner, but I found out you don’t have to use a planner to stay organized. I started using a simple checklist on my phone that helps me focus on my priorities and accomplish what I need to do each day, and it worked really well for me. Poke around and see what can be of aid to you.

  9. Find spots that work for you off campus. As the year went on, it became clear that the on-campus environment could be too much for me to handle sometimes, so I started exploring off-campus spaces, working at a different cafe every day until I figured out which one felt the most comfortable for me. These spaces can give you a moment to breathe away from the sometimes suffocating social and academic scene on campus.

  10. Know what resources are available to you. I didn’t know that Amherst offers funding for its students’ unpaid internships until an upperclassman sent me the application link. After that, I spent two days exploring the Amherst website for any other Easter eggs — of which there were many!

  11. Keep up with school events so you don’t miss out when a prominent figure visits campus. This year, one of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, came to give a talk, and I was shut out of the event because I didn’t sign up fast enough for tickets. That will remain one of my biggest regrets for a long time, I’m sure.

  12. Keep in touch with your parents — this became increasingly hard for me as my workload piled up, but no matter how much adulting you do, you’ll always be your parents’ child. They want to hear about all the new ventures you’re chasing in college, and they’ll want even more to know when you’re having a hard time. Besides, letting them know what’s going on in your life might just increase the chances of receiving a care package during a period of difficulty!

  13. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know this is cheesy and everyone says it, but in college it’s especially true because you won’t have family members checking in on you every day. No one will be able to tell that you’re struggling unless you tell them first. And if you’re struggling, that’s normal. Each semester brings its own challenges. Rather than waste time and energy pretending they’re not real challenges, reach out and let people know. Check out the counseling center. Talk to your professors. You’ll find that people are much more supportive than you might expect.

At the end of the day, college doesn’t make or break you. There are high points and there are low points. You might not fall in love with your school right away, but as a clever man named Elton Lin once said, “Love is not always at first sight.”

College will be a lot more enjoyable if you make it your mission to make the most out of your experience. Before you know it, you’ll be done with your first year, and you’ll look back and be amazed at how fast it went, the good and the bad. Me personally? I missed Amherst the minute I left, and I can’t wait to go back and see what’s in store.

-- Shawna C., Junior at Amherst College

Getting Extra Time on the SAT or ACT (for Students with Learning Disabilities)

Elton Lin

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 1.10.29 PM.png

Test Accommodation:: What are they? Do I qualify? How do I get them?

Imagine that you are about to take a test that will have a major impact on the opportunities that are available to you in the future. You made sure to get plenty of sleep the night before, had a big (but not too big) breakfast, had your parents drive you to the testing center to avoid any stressful fender-benders while parking, and have made dozens of other choices in the days and weeks leading up to this moment to give you the best chance possible to succeed. The proctor stands at the front of the class and tells you that you may begin, so you open the test booklet to the first page and work feverishly for the next sixty-five minutes, at which point the proctor tells you that time for the first section is up. You look down at your paper and note, with alarm, that you have barely been able to answer half of the questions in the section.

The above experience is not as rare as it should be. Preparing for and taking standardized tests are harrowing experiences for any student, but, to a student with special needs, they can be difficult to the point of being unfair. To help level the playing field, both the SAT and ACT offer accommodations to students with special needs to ensure that they are on an even footing with their peers. It is essential for students who have special accommodations in their classes at school to also seek out accommodations for these standardized tests.

What are accommodations?

Accommodations are special considerations afforded to students with documented disabilities. The most common accommodation for both the SAT and ACT is extended time (either 1.5 time or double time). However, both the SAT and ACT are able offer other types of accommodations to students with disabilities. This includes offering tests in braille, a reader for students with visual processing issues, a test with larger text, or any number of other accommodations to meet the needs of each student.

Are there any differences between the SAT and ACT accommodations?

While both the SAT and ACT offer similar accommodations for students with special needs, there are two major differences worth noting. First, for extended time on the SAT, students receive the extended time by section. Meaning, the reading section, which is normally 65 minutes long, would be extended to 92.5 minutes for a 1.5 time test. On the other hand, the ACT manages extended time by giving students an overall allotment of time that they can use however they like. For example, a student with 1.5 time on the ACT would be given five hours to complete the English, math, reading, and science sections, divvying up the time as they saw fit rather than simply extending the length of each section. This is an important distinction that should be considered by students who have extended time and difficulty in one or two sections but not others, as the ACT would allow them to conceivably spend more than 1.5 time on sections that give them difficulty while moving through the other sections in normal time.

The second difference is that it is possible for students with accommodations on the ACT to take the test over multiple days. If a student chooses (and qualifies for) this option they would need to complete the sections in 1.5 time rather than getting the bulk time discussed earlier, but it is often a good option for students who have difficulty with the endurance required to take the test in one sitting.

Do I qualify for accommodations?

The easiest way to determine whether a student would likely qualify for accommodations on the SAT or ACT is whether or not the student has been diagnosed with a learning difference, has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan at school, and already uses the accommodations they are seeking at school. If so, the student should be able to reach out to the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Coordinator at their school to start the process of applying for accomodations for the SAT and/or ACT. If not, then meeting with the SSD Coordinator is a good first step to discuss possible options to have the student evaluated for learning differences.

How can I request accommodations?

The SSD Coordinator at the student’s school would be able to walk the student through the process of applying for accommodations. However, both College Board and ACT have detailed pages outlining the process.


While it will take time to apply for accommodations, it will be time well spent. Standardized tests tend to sacrifice accurately evaluating students with unique circumstances in exchange for efficiency, and accommodations are a way to put students with special needs on an even footing with their peers. However, they can only be of help to students who know they exist and how to get them.

Article Contributed by David Massey, Menlo Park Office Director for AJ Tutoring.