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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 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.




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

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

Write the essay that only YOU can write.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.

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.

College Essay Brainstorming: Creating a Life Map

Elton Lin

One of my classes for my Masters of Teaching program at BIOLA had us complete a “Life Map.” It was a framework and tool to help us identify significant moments in our life that helped inform our view of the world and ourselves. It was a really moving assignment that helped me to see in one big picture view everything that was important in my life. 

As I started teaching college essay writing, I realized that I needed a tool to help my students first identify the events that made them who they are. So I adapted the Life Map tool as a college essay brainstorming exercise. 

When we think about core memories, I want you to think of Inside Out. Riley, the main character, experiences a life event that gets logged as a memory. If it’s especially tinted with an emotion, that memory (signified by a little ball that records a short video of the event) becomes a Core Memory.

A Core Memory then becomes a part of Riley’s Long Term Memory and eventually fuels one of her “Personality Islands.” 

Here’s a clip of that whole process here.

I love that movie in so many different ways, but my favorite thing is how it’s a really creative (and fairly accurate) way to represent personality and memory to children. So with this life map, what I want you to do is ferret out your Core Memories. 

Use the following exercise to brainstorm out all the your important life moments and your “Core Memories.” 

1. List!
Grab a sticky note pad. For the next 15-20 minutes, as fast as you can go, fill out one life event or core memory per sticky note. Try to get through as many sticky notes as you can. 

What are some clear and important memories you have?
•    Times you moved
•    First day of ____
•    Last day of _____
•    Family vacations
•    Family troubles
•    Important classes
•    Important extracurricular
•    Start or end of a job or program or extracurricular activity
•    Start or end of a hobby
•    Successes and wins
•    Disappointments and hurts
•    Major changes or shifts in mood or relationships
•    Family or cultural traditions
•    A day when everything changed

2. Map!
- On a blank sheet of paper, create 3-4 columns to represent every 3 - 4 years of your life. For example, this student broke it up into these years:  0- 10, 11 - 17, 18 -22, 22+. 


- Place the sticky notes in chronological order. If you want to, you can rewrite your negative experiences in a different color, so you can see the frequency of negative events in your life or if one era of your life had more positive or negative experiences. 

- Circle the most important life events that have made some lasting impact today. These events will be the topics for your college essay. 

It’s important to begin first with the important stories you have to share and then figure out which prompt to answer—it’s a more organic and authentic way of writing a heartfelt and honest college essay.

Here’s an example (I know, she has more than 2 colors and her ages aren’t very clear, but you can get an idea of what the final product looks like):

3. Write! 
Now you will have a large sheet of paper with a ton of sticky notes on it—each one containing an important Core Memory. It’s these memories that will become the building blocks of your college essay! Pick one memory and start writing your first draft.

Congratulations - you've completed the most challenging part of the essay process and now you're well on your way to completing your essay! 

- John and Lynn Chen

If you have more questions about brainstorming college essays, or want to chat with an Ilumin Counselor about how to craft the perfect application please contact us here


Elton Lin

After over a decade of having the same personal statement prompts (I would know, it was the same ones I used when I applied over 10 years ago), the UCs have finally decided to update their prompts!

BUUUUUUUTTTTTTTTT……it’s not all great. The new “Personal Insight Questions” (gone are the days of “personal statements” when we have “personal insights” to explore) have a few caveats. And we're here to walk you through the changes, and help you get started on writing your UC personal statements with this “Unofficial Guide to the New 2017 UC Personal Statements.”

 This guide will help you:

  1. Understand the major changes
  2. Know what UC Readers actually want
  3. Have a shortcut to really really knowing what each prompt is asking
  4. Create a Life Map to ferret out your best stories to share
  5. Choose which 4 UC Prompts you should answer
  6. Start writing your “Personal Insight” essays

So, What Are The Major Changes?

I’m GLAD you asked!

For Incoming Freshmen of Fall of 2017, the UC Personal Statements have changed their format and questions. They now are asking EIGHT “personal insight questions” instead of two broad questions. You need to choose FOUR of those questions to answer. 

Because having more choices is never debilitating, right?

Oh yeah, and you have only 350 words per prompt. Max. Compared to the 650 max on common app, you’re really just writing four blurbs about yourself.

But not is all bad news!

The pros are the prompts are way better. Before, students wrote abstract ruminations about how the world they come from somehow shaped their aspirations. Students often sacrificed examples and details trying to cover the entire scope of the prompt. These updated questions are more genuine and are easier to answer because they’re more specific. Which means now, hopefully, your answers will be more specific too.

It’ll just be more laborious because you need to write more essays--short, pithy essays at that. Short essays are harder since it’s easier to data-dump rather than exercise judgment. But the prompts help ground you to one experience, so that’s nice.

So in sum:


So, What Do UC Readers Really Want in an Essay?

They want concrete examples. Specific details. Clear insights. They want visceral examples that will, in the words of the UC, “express who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.” Stories that will conjure your soul and spirit before the eyes of the reader, and help serve as proof that you meet their 14-Point criteria. Narratives that will ultimately inform their decision to admit you or not.

The UC Reader wants to know who you are and what matters to you. The reader will be asking questions about you, such as: “Are you curious? Courageous? Do you take initiative or are you a follower? Why did you choose the path you chose? What are you passionate about and why? How do you react to setbacks and failures?” And then the follow up question is: “How do I know that’s true?”

So you need two major parts of your essay. You need to tell a good story. And you need to explain what that means about who you are. You need to give clear-as-day specifics of what you’ve done. So that way the UC Reader can tell another: “This student is an impassioned leader. How do I know that? Well, he had this powerful and clear example of how he… [INSERT STORY HERE]”

See how that works? A strong example is now proof that you are who you say you are. A good story is now concrete evidence you belong to their campus. So give them one. Or four.

So, without further ado….

The Personal Insight Questions for 2017…..As Episode Titles

The prompts are pretty confusing since they’re one giant block of text. I figured they could each use a title. One of my favorite TV shows was FRIENDS growing up, and each episode is titled: “The One With…” or “The One Where..” Like “The One Where Nana Died Twice” or “The One With The Jellyfish.” You get the picture.


In that same vein, I decided to title each prompt like it was a TV episode. Hopefully it’ll help ground you in a clear, specific example of sorts. Enjoy.

Prompt 1: The Time I Led or Helped A Group: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Prompt 2: The Time I Created Something Cool or Solved That Hard Problem: Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  

Prompt 3: The Time I Showcased My Special Skill: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  

Prompt 4: That Time I Learned, Did or Overcame Something Extraordinary Outside of School: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Prompt 5. That Time The Struggle Was Real And I Worked Through It: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Prompt 6.  That Time My Favorite Subject Became My Favorite Subject: Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

Prompt 7. That Time I Helped My Community Become Better: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Prompt 8. That Time I Proved To The World I’m One-of-a-kind: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Annndddd, I bet a few of you are feeling like this now:


UC Essay Brainstorming Tool--Which Prompts Should I Choose?

Okay. Don’t panic. I know looking at the eight different prompts can be overwhelming. How do you know which four to choose?

 I have always found it more useful to help students approach the essay inside-out instead of outside in. What I mean by that is it’s more authentic when you begin with your memories and then match them to a prompt. When start outside of yourself and use the prompt to remember a story—it sometimes becomes forced, inauthentic, and false.

So, before you use this UC Essay Brainstorming Tool, you are going to need a list of significant memories or moments in your life.

Lucky for you, I’ve adapted a process called a Life Map to help you do that. It uses sticky notes and crafting, and it originally was a counseling tool that I’ve now adapted into an essay tool. Because that’s how teachers roll.

So. Stop Right Now.


Step 1: Complete your Life Map Exercise —then come back here.

Have Core Memory list handy? Okay, let’s move on.

College Essay Archetypes

To help narrow it down, we have three main college essay archetypes that show up either in the Common App Prompts or private college supplemental essay prompts.

1.       My Story-Significant life events that shape who you are. What makes you you?

2.       My Community-Significant times in which you led or helped a community become better or solve a problem. Your contributions to a group.

3.       My Future-Significant times in your life in which you began to discover your life’s purpose and calling in terms of a career. Think of classes you’ve taken, clubs you’ve participated in, programs you attended, and projects you did in one field of study.  Think about why this has led you to choose the major you want and why.

Almost all prompts can fit into one of those three categories. So remember, we are moving inside out. Take your memory list, and work with the next part.

Step 2: For the tool, under each section, list a significant Core Memory that could fall under that kind of prompt.

Step 3: Now you’ve organized your memories, you can finally choose your prompts. We have categorized the 2017 UC Personal Insight Questions under these three main college essay archetypes. Identify the prompts your memories best fit. Please note that some prompts show up in more than one category.

And there you have it—you have identified which prompts you want to answer (hopefully). 

How To Start Drafting:

Once you got your prompts, you can start drafting. My students’ least favorite part, but with this tool, I hope it’ll be easier.

Follow this format. Copy and paste the following into a separate document and free write from there. 

Prompt (copy and paste prompt here):

Memory (150-200 words): Ground us in what happened. Narrate dialogue, descriptions, and details.

Reflection (150-200 words): Reflect on what this memory says or shows about who you are and what your aspirations are. Answer the reflection questions listed below by the UC (and the ones in bolded are written by me). The UC Provided an additional worksheet here

Reflection Questions

Prompt 1: Leadership

1. The Time I Led or Helped A Group: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or a taking lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience.  What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities.  For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

My questions: How did you manage conflict or communicate clearly? How did you practice perspective taking and empathy? How did you foster kindness, harmony, forgiveness, unity and teamwork?


Prompt 2: Creativity

2. The Time I Created Something Cool or Solved That Hard Problem: “Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  

Things to consider:  What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

My questions: What inspired you to create something new? How did you go about it? Was it successful-why or why not?

What problem did you identify? Why was this problem significant? What was your process to try and come up with a solution? Was the solution successful-why or why not? What does this process showcase about your passion, your intellect, and your heart?


Prompt 3: Talent or Skill

3. The Time I Showcased My Special Skill: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

My questions: What started your interest in this skill and why did you keep on doing it? How did this skill begin to shape and inform other areas of your life? What has this skill taught you? How has it changed your outlook on yourself, others, and the world?


Prompt 4: Educational Opportunity or Barrier

4. That Time I Learned or Did Something Extraordinary Outside of School: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strived to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

My questions: What was especially thought-provoking about this experience? How did it confirm one way or the other your career goals? How did you showcase your passion or interest in this certain area of study?


Prompt 5: Significant Challenge

5. That Time The Struggle Was Real And I Worked Through It: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?

My notes: Reserve answering this question ONLY for truly significant life experiences. You can’t write about failing a test or getting a low grade in class. The topic here applies more to some truly traumatic life experience that few teenagers have to go through—to the point that it actually impeded on other areas of your life. Give this topic the gravitas and respect it deserves.

My questions: What were your beliefs about yourself and the world before this event happened? What was lost or gained because of this episode? How did you heal or work through this difficult life circumstance? Who are you now because of it and how does it inform your beliefs about others and the world? Because of this, what hopes do you have for yourself and others?


Prompt 6: Favorite Subject

6.  That Time My Favorite Subject Became My Favorite Subject: Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

Things to consider: Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)?

My questions: What was especially thought-provoking about this class? How did it confirm one way or the other your career goals? How did your part in the class showcase your passion or interest in this certain area of study?


Prompt 7: Community

7. That Time I Helped My Community Become Better: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place – like your high school, hometown, or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act?  What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

My questions: What problem did you identify that this community was facing? What was your process to try and come up with a solution? Was the solution successful-why or why not? What does this process showcase about your passion, your intellect, and your heart?

How did you manage conflict or communicate clearly? How did you practice perspective taking and empathy? How did you foster kindness, harmony, forgiveness, unity and teamwork?


Prompt 8: Unique

8. That Time I Proved To The World I’m One-of-a-kind: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Things to consider: Don’t be afraid to brag a little. Even if you don’t think you’re unique, you are — remember, there’s only one of you in the world. From your point of view, what do you feel makes you belong on one of UC’s campuses? When looking at your life, what does a stranger need to understand in order to know you?

What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge, or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? We’re not necessarily looking for what makes you unique compared to others, but what makes you, YOU.

My questions: What is an experience or quality that really sets you apart and why? What values does this event or quality showcase about you? Who are you now because of it and how does it inform your beliefs about others and the world? Because of this, what hopes do you have for yourself and others?


And there you have it! Hopefully you have at least some drafts and ideas to begin tackling the 2017 UC Personal Insight Questions! Writing is a process, and so give yourself plenty of time to revisit these steps and revisit your essays.

I know there’s still a lot of panicking going on, but hopefully after this Unofficial Guide to the 2017 UC Personal Statements, these new essays won’t be something you’re panicking about. 

Update: If you wanted these brainstorming exercises in a word document so it's easier to work through--you can access the file here. Also in there is some insights on how to best structure a college essay as well. Enjoy!

- John and Lynn Chen

If you have more questions about the new UC application essays, or want to chat with an Ilumin Counselor about how to craft the perfect application please contact us here