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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

THREE WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR COLLEGE ADMISSIONS CHANCES SEMINAR >> SEATTLE, WA

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"

Location:

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

When:

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

Speakers:

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 info@ilumineducation.com or 408-479-4742 for more info! More information on ILUMIN Education and flyer below!

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WHAT ACTIVITIES WILL HELP ME GET ADMITTED TO COLLEGE?

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

SOME ADVICE TO INCOMING HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMAN

Elton Lin

>>> A letter from one of our recent ILUMIN graduates!

You have finally made it to high school!

It may seem daunting; trust me, it was for me too. Freshman year, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to become an engineer like my parents and follow the predictable Silicon Valley route - this makes me laugh because there is no way I would want to be an engineer now!

Read More

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!