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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.

Filtering by Category: College Application


Elton Lin

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

Hi Students (and Parents)!

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

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

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

Come join us for our first Professional Communication Workshop!

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

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

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


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


April 27, 2019 >> 10 am - 12 pm

REGISTER >> HERE by April 20th!

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


Elton Lin

Register HERE by April 20th!

Hello!!! Seattle!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Three Ways to Improve Your College Admissions Chances"


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


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


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

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

Register HERE by April 20th!

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

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How to Craft Your Extracurricular Resume

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

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

Find a Focal Point

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

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

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

Look for Ways to Formalize Interests

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

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

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

Build Cohesion

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

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

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

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

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

9 Tips for Writing Effective College Essays


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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