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ILUMIN Blog

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

Filtering by Category: College Planning

PUTTING TOGETHER THE PERFECT COLLEGE LIST

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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: info@ilumineducation.com OR (408) 479-4742.

EARLY DECISION? EARLY ACTION? RESTRICTIVE EARLY ACTION? WHAT ARE THESE?

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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

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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

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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!

3 MORE BITS OF WISDOM FOR GRADUATING SENIORS BEFORE THEY GO TO COLLEGE

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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

13 WAYS TO MASTER COLLEGE: ADVICE FOR GRADUATING SENIORS BEFORE THEY HEAD OFF THIS FALL

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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

Upcoming ROLF Seminar - 12/2 - 2pm // Three Ways to Improve Your Admissions Chances

Elton Lin

 ** Three Ways to Improve Your Admissions Chances - River of Life Foundation + ILUMIN Ed

** Three Ways to Improve Your Admissions Chances - River of Life Foundation + ILUMIN Ed

// How important are grades and test scores?
// Which activities matter most to admissions officers?
// How do students find good leadership opportunities?
// What can students do NOW to help them reach their dream colleges?

Come to our upcoming seminar hosted in partnership with the River of Life Foundation!

THREE WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR ADMISSIONS CHANCES!

The college admissions process is growing more confusing and competitive every year. We all feel the pressure to achieve "more" and worry that we're not doing enough. 

But what really matters when admissions officers review an application? What activities should students do and NOT do during high school? What steps can students take to help them reach the dream colleges? 

We will discuss how every student can improve their admissions chances, whether their goal is Stanford or UC San Diego. We will discuss how students can discover their passion and build on it throughout high school. And we will also share how students (and parents) can navigate this stressful season and be their best. 

River of Life Church
1177 Laurelwood Rd.
Santa Clara, CA 95054
December 2nd - 2 to 4 pm

 ILUMIN Education Consultants // John Chen and Kevin Nam

Speakers:

John Chen - Educational Consultant & Operations Director

He graduated from UCLA with a BA in Business/Economics and is a licensed CPA. He previously was a data analysis and management consultant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers working with clients like Google, VISA and EA Games. In recent years, he served as a Senior Consultant for the Bay Area’s largest educational consulting firm. He has over 15 years of experience mentoring and teaching hundreds of students and uses his vast business and hi-tech experience to guide them towards the right schools. Nothing gives him more joy than seeing students breakthrough to become who they were created to be. John is also a member of the Western Association for College Admissions Counseling. John is a member of the Western Association for College Admissions Counseling. 

Kevin Nam - Educational Consultant

Kevin graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a double B.A. in Psychology and Computer Science. Throughout this time, he served as a teaching assistant for Introduction to Computer Science at Penn and helped develop a curriculum designed to expose students to computer science in fun and interesting ways. Upon graduation, Kevin declined to work in software, instead deciding to pursue his passion for education by working as a computer science tutor and now as an educational consultant for ILUMIN Education. 

ILUMIN Education students have gained admission to every top 50 university in the United States, including every Ivy League university, Stanford, UC Berkeley, NYU, USC and many others. 

For more information, contact us at info[at]ilumineducation.com or (408) 479-4742.

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!  

 

Navigating the Waitlist Limbo (What Should I Do If I'm Placed on the WAITLIST!)

Elton Lin

“I didn’t get rejected…but I didn’t get accepted either,” Joanna replied in a dazed voice when I asked about her admissions results. As we approach April 1st, the date by which most universities notify applicants of their admissions decisions, the majority of students are either celebrating acceptances or processing rejections. But what happens if a student is faced with neither outcome? What if he has been offered a place on the college’s waitlist like Joanna? This is not an uncommon phenomenon, and some schools, such as Case Western Reserve University, are known for placing a high percentage of applicants—up to 40% at Case—on waitlists. Every year, students struggle with how to understand this outcome and move forward, and every year we’re helping students unravel the waitlist ambiguity.

Why do schools have waitlists?

The answer to this question will depend on the specific college under discussion. Highly selective schools like the University of Pennsylvania might be using their waitlists as a courtesy, a way to gently let down an alumni family or a high school from which they didn’t accept any students. Eric Furda, the Dean of Admissions at Penn, admitted as much to the Daily Pennsylvanian in a 2015 article.

Most schools use waitlists to control their yield rate—the rate at which accepted students decide to enroll. If a school has a yield rate of around 50% (i.e., half of the accepted students decide to attend), they will need to admit twice as many students as the number of freshmen seats available. But if fewer than the expected number of students decide to attend, admissions offices will turn toward those waitlisted students who have accepted a place on the list and, in many cases, who have made their desire to attend clear.

How many students are accepted off of waitlists?

Again, this is highly school-specific, but in general, the more selective the school the lower the chance of being accepted off of the waitlist. For example, Stanford University, one of the most selective schools in the country, accepted a grand total of 0 waitlisted students in the summer of 2015. Similarly, no students were accepted off the waitlist in 2012 and 2013. Last year, however, Stanford accepted 55 students from the waitlist—this might seem like a hopeful number, but keep in mind that this is only an acceptance rate of 3.5% of students offered a place on the waitlist.

On the other hand, Stanford’s rival across the bay, Berkeley, accepted 35.6% of its waitlisted student in 2015. This 2016 Time article lists a few schools that had very high waitlist acceptance rates in 2014, including one school with a 100% acceptance rate off the waitlist.

What should I do if I am offered a place on a waitlist?

First of all, we advise that you assume being waitlisted at a very selective school is essentially receiving a soft “no.” Of course, students get off waitlists every year, and some of their efforts include elaborate YouTube videos, but you do not want to pin all of your hopes on such a slim possibility. It’s better to move on with your life and perhaps be happily surprised in a few months than to wait in anxiety and be unable to enjoy the end of your high school experience. With that being said, here are some steps you should take when you are waitlisted:

  1. Do you really want to go to your waitlisted college? Is it a dream school? Would you regret not waiting out the waitlist? If so, accept a place on the waitlist.
     
  2. Regardless of whether or not you’ve accepted a place on a waitlist, you should definitely make plans to attend a school at which you were accepted. Of course, this includes sending in a deposit and the Intent to Register form by May 1. If you have a well-constructed college list, you should have been accepted at a couple of schools that you would be happy to attend.
     
  3. Send an update and/or another recommendation if allowed. Some admissions offices request that you do not send additional materials, but if allowable, you may want to update the school on any positive changes in your resume—for example, winning a regional science bowl, being selected for a lead role in the spring play, becoming the captain of the softball team, or securing an internship at a tech company over the summer. Be sure to write an email and include this information, along with brief affirmation of why college X is still your dream school.

    Note that waitlists are often not ranked, but they aren’t random. Maybe after looking at the incoming freshmen class, the school discovers that the orchestra still needs a harpist or that the lacrosse team is short a goalie or that there are no students hailing from the territory of Guam. Highlighting your talents and experiences may help you catch the eye of an admissions officer looking to balance the incoming class at a point when their admissions priorities may be shifting.
     
  4. Stay in touch with the admissions representative for your area. You should make sure they know that you are still interested in attending their college. Additionally, since the need for financial aid may play a larger role in admissions decisions for students on the waitlist, your admissions representative should be aware of what you are able to contribute to your college education. Often, colleges need more students who will not need financial aid, as they award much of their financial aid money during Regular Decision acceptances.

While we always encourage students to be proactive in the admissions process, hounding the admissions office at a waitlist school is likely to make both you and the admissions officers a little crazy. We suggest that you take a deep breath, do what you can, and move forward with confidence that you are a qualified student (after all, you were waitlisted!) and will shine at the college in which you ultimately enroll.