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

Filtering by Category: College List




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.

Why I Said NO to Harvard

Elton Lin

How do you know if a famous university is the right school for you? Just because it’s ranked highly or because it has a long and storied history doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be happy spending four years of your life there. Today, we have the privilege of hearing from someone who was faced with this dilemma. Read on to find out why Elizabeth (not her real name) decided not to attend Harvard University and her advice for finding a good-fit school.


In the spring of my senior year of high school, I received two college acceptance packages in the mail.  One contained an acceptance letter that looked almost like a diploma.  It was printed on frameable cardstock paper and declared that I had the right to study at the most prestigious university in America, Harvard University.  The other was written on regular paper and invited me to study at a very selective liberal arts college that most people have never heard of, Swarthmore College. 

I said no to Harvard.

The process of saying no was not easy, and my decision was not made flippantly.  Of course, initially, I was thrilled to be accepted at both schools.  In some ways, it seemed like madness to even consider turning down an acceptance to Harvard. This school was the “holy grail” of studious, hard-working students like me.  However, I was uneasy about the kind of pressure that a name like Harvard would have on my education.  I wanted to learn for the sake of learning and to serve my future community.  I was afraid that at a place like Harvard, I would live under the pressure of achieving academically so that I could prove that I was worthy of my acceptance.

I had the privilege of visiting both campuses before making my final decision.  During my visit to Harvard, I was impressed by the classic architecture and the feeling of intellectualism mixed with a youthful energy that pervaded the campus.  I slept over with some students in the dorms, ate in the dining hall, attended an ice hockey game (Harvard won over Dartmouth) and visited a class.  However, the main thing that sticks out to me is a conversation I had with one student.  When I told him my dilemma over which school to choose, he said, “How could you even think about going to another school?”  In a way, that comment confirmed the misgivings I had.  My personality is more “march to the beat of a different drummer” than “go with the flow.”  That student’s comment grated against my desire to be different, to make my own path in life and not just do something because it’s what I’m expected to do.

On the other hand, when I did my Swarthmore campus visit, students seemed deeply intellectual but also less stressed about themselves.  The campus is beautiful (its grounds are an arboretum), and even the physical surroundings fit better with my personality and preferences.  The students at Swarthmore talked about their small classes and their personal interactions with their professors.  As a group, they seemed more anti-establishment, more relaxed, more fun.  I could fit with this crowd.

As the time neared for me to send my confirmation letter, I was convinced that I would get an excellent education at both schools, but Swarthmore seemed to be the place where I would thrive more.  Many years later, I do not regret my decision.  The education, experiences, and memories that I gained in my time at Swarthmore is an invaluable part of my life, and I wish the same for you as you go through the process of choosing a university.

Putting Together a Great College List

Elton Lin

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 Balanced 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 (great for engineers!) while the University of Chicago is all about developing the life of the mind (great for future PhD's!).
  4. 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.

If you help with the all-important college list, feel free to reach out and we'd be happy to provide a free consultation!  



Elton Lin

Congrats to ILUMIN's seniors on their college admission results this past year! We're SUPER proud of you! Not only for the schools you've been admitted to, but for how you've grown as leaders, citizens and game-changers during our time together.   

We'll share more about individual student stories... but just for this post, let's celebrate the schools our students have been admitted to:

Azusa Pacific University
Bard College
Barnard College
Biola University
Boston College
Boston University
Bowdoin College
Cal Poly SLO
Carnegie Mellon University
Case Western University
Chapman University
Cornell University
CSU Northridge
Drexel University
Duke University
Emory University
Fordham University
Georgia Tech
Georgetown University
Hamilton College
Harvey Mudd College
Haverford College
Johns Hopkins University
Loyola Marymount University
Northeastern University
Northwestern University
NYU Stern
Occidental College
Penn St.
Pitzer College
Pomona College
Purdue University
Rice University
Rutgers University
Santa Clara University
San Diego St.
San Jose St.
Stanford University
Swarthmore College
Tufts University
Tulane University
UC Berkeley
UC Davis
UC Irvine
UC Merced
UC Riverside
UC San Diego
UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Cruz
University of Colorado Boulder
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
University of Maryland
University of Chicago
University of Michigan
University of Oregon
University of Oxford
University of Pacific
University of Pennsylvania (including Wharton)
University of Rochester
University of Southern California
University of Texas at Austin
University of Wisconsin at Madison
University of Washington
Virginia Tech
Washington University - St. Louis
Wake Forest University
Wesleyan University

We're not only proud of your results, but excited for your futures and know you will make your mark to build a better world for us all! 

Five (5) Things to Consider for Finding the Right College

Elton Lin

finding the right college fit right college 5 things uc berkeley

A sometimes overlooked factor in deciding which admissions offer to accept is whether a college really is a good fit. No matter how well ranked a school, it isn’t a good school for you if you don’t embrace the campus environment. Determining the best fit means you can be assured on college move-in day that, despite any initial jitters, you are in the right place to pursue meaningful opportunities and be successful.

Here are five points for the consideration of college fit.

1. Competitive vs. Supportive Feel

Some students work better in a shark tank. They will push themselves to perform to their highest potential and maintain a laser-like focus on their goals within a highly competitive environment. Others will shut down, overwhelmed and inhibited from working to their potential. The feel of the community will vary across majors and social circles, but it’s worth becoming aware of details that influence campus culture. For example, UC Berkeley is known for cutthroat competition among students as a result of bell-curve grading policies in some departments.

2. New Locale

Many graduating high school students are bravely seeking new adventures. Students in the suburb want to move to the city; students in the city want to experience life in a quaint college town. However, for those of you who will be away from the family home for the first time, it’s worth becoming informed about what it’s like to function independently in the new location. A student from an LA suburb might struggle to navigate NYU’s decentralized urban campus in the snow. A student from Boston might be surprised a car is necessary to take full advantage of internship opportunities offered by UC San Diego. In some cases, it’s wise to make a less drastic location change for your undergraduate years.

3. Unexpected Benefit and Hidden Cost

Although public universities offer predictable tuition rates, private schools routinely include price breaks with their admissions offers. The most substantial price breaks go to the most desired applicants in the pool, such as those with high test scores, specific interests, or backgrounds serving to diversify the student community. It is therefore advisable that you apply to at least a couple private colleges, regardless of tuition rates, to see what your offers are. On the unexpected cost side of things, there are various aspects of student life at both publics and privates that may add to the cost of college, such as parking permits, plane tickets home, membership fees, common forms of student entertainment, and off-campus housing rates.

4. Greek Life and Athletics

You should know in advance how strong a presence both Greek organizations and athletics have on campus. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a large number of students are sorority or fraternity members. At the University of Michigan, competitive sports are an integral part of campus culture. Students who aren’t interested in these activities may feel as if their ability to network and make social connections is adversely affected. Students who are interested in these activities may be disappointed with a college life devoid of Greek traditions and big rah-rah football games.

5. Access and Size

A large university will offer a dazzling array of opportunities, but what’s important for you to know is the percentage of undergraduates who get involved and to what extent. The best research opportunities and field experiences tend to go to graduate students, so small colleges without substantial grad populations may offer you the best access to the kinds of opportunities that will prepare you for career and grad school. Furthermore, if you haven’t learned to be assertive about finding resources and achieving goals, you may achieve more in a small college setting.

Every year, thousands of college freshmen drop out of school by the second term. Taking the time to look beyond rankings and majors before accepting an admissions offer can save you from future regret. With a combination of self-knowledge and practical considerations, you can determine which college is your best fit.

Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 3)

John Chen

Please note that this is a three part series on what traits colleges are looking for in competitive applicants. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Ivy Leagues seek students who develop and pursue their passion

When Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, was asked for her best advice to parents she remarked “Make your children interesting!” Easier said than done—but interesting students only emerge when they pursue their passion.

Many parents dismiss their children’s area of passion as a childish waste of time. Unfortunately, this dismissal develops in students a sense of directionlessness--and may even curtail their success later in life.

For example, a friend of mine was raised in a typical “Tiger parent” household. She was prodded into academic excellence and was finally admitted to Berkeley as a pre-med student. She later attended UCLA for medical school and graduated as an M.D. Yet only a few years into her medical practice, she dropped out completely to pursue a career in graphic design.

In our most recent conversation, she admitted bitterly to me, “I was the perfect child, always doing what was asked of me. But I kept wondering if happiness was real, and why, if it was, I missed it. It wasn’t until I finally left medicine that I realized happiness was real--but that’s after I wasted eight years of my life and racked up $300,000 in debt." 

Unfortunately, my friend is not alone. We see many students who do not pursue a genuine interest, and end up with a resume that blends facelessly in with all the others. However, parents who encourage the pursuit of a passion--any passion--enable their children to shine.

Mary’s mother dreamed of her daughter becoming a savvy business woman--but Mary, an introvert, had other plans. Much to her mother’s dismay, Mary became obsessed with science. She lived and breathed it. She spent her Freshman summer at the UC Davis COSMOS program, and immediately emailed her professor begging that he let her work in his lab for the rest of her summers in high school. She spent three years helping him research the effect of second-hand smoke on rat lungs, and later went to Harvard where she is currently studying Biology.

Our students’ story and the growing voices from Ivy League schools all send the same message: give us students who are driven, passionate risk-takers.

So what can you do to help?

First, empower your child to make his own decisions. Give him choices, and walk him through (without lecturing) each decision’s consequences. Ask good, meaningful questions and leave the ultimate decision up to him. Each decision is an opportunity for growth for your child--if you let it be.

Second, let your child fail. Sit with him as he faces the consequences of his own choices, and support him no matter what. Give him the tools to think logically about how he will do things differently in the future. Let him learn that taking risks is the key to success, and quite possibly, the key to Harvard.

Finally, foster your child’s passions. When they’re young, help them explore all their interests--don’t weed out the ones that you don’t approve of. Look a little deeper. Does your child spend time playing video games? Maybe encourage him to join a video game camp that teaches him how to code and create his own game. Does your daughter love fashion? Consider teaching her how to create goods to sell online. Many parents complain that their child isn’t motivated--but we believe all students are motivated--it’s leveraging what they’re passionate about with a direction for their future.

Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 2)

John Chen

 Yale University Library

Yale University Library

Please note that this is a three part blog on what traits colleges are looking for in competitive applicants. Click here for Part 1.

Ivy Leagues seek students who are risk-takers

Parents need to help nurture strong decision making skills. This also means allowing children to taste failure. Time and time again. Ivy Leagues often seek students who take risks and aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, one of the Common App prompts reads: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

MIT is even clearer about it. Their admission criteria of MIT states: “MIT wants to admit people who are not only planning to succeed, but who are not afraid to fail. When people take risks in life, they learn resilience as a result - because risk leads to failure as often as it leads to success.” 

Take Jeff for example. Like Tim, he wanted to help students from a low income community. But his idea was to teach “easy” Calculus to 5th and 6th graders. Though his parents confessed their concerns to us that this program wouldn’t work, and (possibly distract Jeff from his studies), they wanted their son to try. Jeff was certain his passion for math would be infectious, but his program of 15 kids dwindled to a class of four. It was a painful, yet even in his apparent failure, Jeff realized that what were more important weren’t his math lesson plans—it was simply that he showed up each week. He was the only stable adult in the lives of these inner city kids. With that fresh perspective, Jeff brought in math games into his program and slowly built it up again to 13 students. Their teacher later thanked Jeff, since she saw a whole grade level improvement in their math abilities by the end of the year. Jeff took his experience of failure and leveraged it to gain admission to Cornell University.

Unlike Jeff, Cindy didn’t reach her goal. She was aiming to study pre-med. She did hospital volunteering and a bio research summer camp. When we asked if she wanted to try to start a pre-med club at school or do research in a lab she hesitated. She had never done these things before and they seemed outside of her comfort zone. Cindy wanted to stick with what she was already doing--and take no risks.  While she become a lead volunteer and went to two more summer camps--these actions weren’t enough. Even with her perfect 4.00 GPA and 34 ACT score, she was rejected from all Ivy Leagues.

Ivy Leagues look for students who push the boundary, take chances, and demonstrate “grit” in the face of failure. Yet, this level of dedication and direction only happens when the student is truly passionate about the project.

Stay tuned for our final post describing the last and most critical trait colleges are looking for! 

Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 1)

John Chen

34,000. That’s how many earnest high school seniors applied to Harvard University last year. Only about 2023 of them were admitted. In 2011, Harvard had a 6.17% admittance rate. In 2012, it decreased to 5.92%. By 2013, it dropped to an all time dismal low of 5.79%. In 2014, it went back up to 5.9%.

So what can parents do to help their child enter the ultra-competitive Ivy Leagues? Particularly, what can Asian parents do when every Asian student looks identical: a top violinist who is also the president of the debate club and captain of the robotics club, graduating top of her class with a 2400 SAT score. 

From our experience as college admissions consultants, we’ve discovered a few key parenting trends that help raise an Ivy-League ready child.

Ivy Leagues seek students who are their own masters.

The Stanford admissions website states that “We want to see the initiative with which [students] to seek out opportunities that expand [their] perspective and that will allow [them] to participate in creating new knowledge. These traits of self-trust and drive are often rarely found among Asian students. We coach mostly Asian students, and we’ve discovered how our collectivist values (which stress service, thoughtfulness, and submission) leave many Asian students immobilized.

For example, Paul was one such student. He received his two B’s in sophomore year and his mom was furious.  The next year, she sat next to him for up to six hours a day watching him study and complete his homework. She also cancelled most of his extracurriculars and scheduled him with as much tutoring and SAT test preparation as possible. The result? He never learned to take control of his own learning. He never learned how to make his own decisions and manage his own time. His GPA began to slip, and his lack of extracurriculars and apparent lack of initiative hampered his future. He had barely made it into UCSD after being waitlisted for a few months.

Often these students, who have the raw talent to do well at an Ivy League, do not make it to one if they lack initiative. However, we’ve found that parents who foster a sense of independence and self-trust enable their students to thrive.

One of our students from 2012 comes to mind. Fred and Nina often asked their son, Tim, “Well, what do you think? You decide.” Tim learned to identify a problem and figure out how to solve it on his own.  As we worked with Tim, he was bothered that many students from low-income neighborhoods were not college-bound. Tim started a college-admissions workshop for inner city high school students. Tim planned an entire semester’s worth of curriculum and met with high school students each week to provide academic counseling. Tim was the commander of this project, and owned the process from start to finish. Tim later began his freshman year at Yale University--a place in which the president wrote, “In selecting future Yale students, “I am inclined to believe that the person who gives every ounce to do something superbly has an advantage over the person whose capacities may be great but who seems to have no desire to stretch them to their limit.” “We look for that desire and ability to stretch one’s limits” states another Yale admission officer. That motivation can only come from students who have learned how to think--and act--for themselves.  

Come back tomorrow to learn the second trait top-tier colleges are looking for! 


Elton Lin

A lot of you are considering what schools to apply for next year. A few of you have your sights set on the big guns: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc. But there are a bunch of you out there that may feel held back by poor test scores. You worked hard, have decent grades and good extracurriculars, but you just don't do well on tests. Don't worry, it happens to a lot of us. You're not alone!

There's a growing number of (good) schools that are electing to be test optional. Here are a few really awesome schools that do NOT require standardized tests:

Bowdoin College - GREAT school and super selective. Ranked 4th on US News National Liberal Arts list. Small classes and students love their professors. You have to be stellar to apply, but at least you don't need to send in your test scores.

George Mason University - In 2009, US News ranked GMU the #1 ranked up and coming college. Great for engineering and business (even if you bombed it on the SAT Math 2).

Pitzer College - Part of the Claremont Colleges. You can take classes and take part in any activities throughout the Claremont network of schools (yes, that includes Pomona College and Harvey Mudd). AND nobody needs to know that you're not great with the SAT.

I'll list out a few more schools in another post. Feel free to contact us with any questions or post a comment below!