How many Recommendations?

Keep it simple folks! Give the application what it asks for. Typically a college requests recommendations from:

  • one guidance counselor and
  • one or two teachers,
  • and nothing more…

At this point, hopefully, you have created positive relationships with a few teachers whom you can ask for a recommendation. The teachers should be from junior or senior year, who taught you core courses (i.e., Math, English, Science) or if you are applying to a special program, i.e., music or art, then you would include those teacher recommendations as well.

According to University of Virgina’s  Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions Jeannine Lalonde  admissions blog :

“Colleges ask for the items they would like to receive.  We like having the counselor and teacher perspectives in the application, We always say that we’ll read a supplemental recommendation if you feel like there’s something else we need to know, but repetition is not needed.  In fact, when reading 28,000 applications, repetition can be a bit tedious at times”

Over the years, I have written recommendations for students that I have known through scouts, family friends, etc.  They are often for scholarship applications, an internship program or a job, but rarely are they for a supplement to the college application. Since it often takes several hours to write a great letter advocating a student’s application you don’t want to “use up your favors”, especially if the school does not want additional recommendations.

There’s a saying in admissions, “the thicker the file, the thicker the applicant”.  Remember, don’t pad your application and be sure to send a thank you note (homemade cookies, etc) to your teachers and guidance counselor who took the time to say nice things about you. It is particularly appropriate to send the note around the holidays when most of the application pressure is behind everyone and before you know the outcome. :)

Boost your GPA, without studying!

You don’t have to be Einstein to get great grades!

First impressions count, even in the classroom. It is the beginning of a new school year, so now is the time to let your teachers know that you are a driven “A student. You must let the teachers know, in September, that you are a “Go Getter”. Some school districts pressure teachers into limiting the number of “A”s awarded. This is known as grade deflation. Therefore, often subconsciously, teachers loosely separate their students into 3 sections; the “A”s,  “B”s, and the “C”s and below.

In the next few weeks, you want to impress your teacher with “A” student qualitiesDo this by arriving on time, sitting in the front, asking questions, and turning in assignments. Be the straggler out of class and ask a few more questions. If you are having trouble with a homework assignment, go to “teacher hours” or send the teacher an email requesting an appointment. Finally, do really well, especially on your first assignments or tests. Okay, so that probably requires studying  – the title lied. 😉

Once you have established a good rapport with your teachers, it is difficult to dumb down your grade. Afterall, you are a conscientious and engaged student! This type of bias may appear when grading an test essay or homework assignment or it may even appear when you go for extra help and the teacher tells you exactly what to study for the upcoming exam. That often happens when you go to extra help!

Review all graded homework and tests to see that it was graded accurately and fairly. You may want to challenge your teacher’s grade or request a “do over” for an assignment to bump up your grade. Most teachers respect the student who comes forward and will often offer them a second chance. That is what learning is all about. Additionally, now the teacher is aware that your grades are important to you.

It’s difficult for a teacher to penalize a student who appears to be putting in extra effort. Thus without even doing a lot more work or studying more, your teacher may unknowingly give your grades a boost. In Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s book,  What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know) 272 Secrets for Getting your Kid into Top Schools, she dedicates a section to what she calls “Registering for an A”,  or letting the teacher know that you plan to be one of the A students in their class. Many of her themes are clearly explained to help the student perform to the best of their ability and be rewarded accordingly.

Your GPA, is the primary consideration of your college application. Forget about joining a million clubs, you need great grades to help your application. Get the highest grades you can, while taking the most challenging courses such as AP and Honors classes. Next in order of importance are your SAT/ACT scores, then essays. Of less importance are; the teacher recommendations, your demonstrated interest, high school extracurricular activities, work, awards  and special circumstances including your family income. The order of relevance of the last few factors differs from college to college, some schools will give preference to legacy as well.

Great grades are not handed out easily. You are competing with your fellow classmates to be recognized as one of the top students in the class. You may not be the smartest brainiac in the class, nor do you have to be the teacher’s pet. You must earn your grades by demonstrating that you are an engaged student. The bottom line is that you need to let your teachers know, by actively reaching out to them, that you are working for good grades.

Don’t forget to ask GOOD questions!

Editors Note: Originally published  9/2013. We thought it was time to reprint to help your student have a great 2015-16 school  year! 


College Rankings, a questionable Beauty Contest

With over 3,ooo colleges and universities in the US, it is impossible not to check out a school’s ranking. Annual publications such as US News “Best Colleges ” and Princeton Review’s “The 377 Best Colleges” often become staples when college shopping. With tuition being sky-high, you want to do your research. However, different books mean different rankings. Who do you trust?


The vicious contest of rankings

Remember, the goal of the publishing industry is to get you to purchase their books. This is reason # 1 why you should interpret each college ranking with a grain of salt! If the rankings do not change each year, then there is no need to publish and sell a new book. So starts the vicious cycle of ranking colleges.

When a college is ranked in the top 100, it is deemed more desirable, which positively effects an increase in applications. The more applications a college receives, the lower their acceptance rate become, which helps their overall rankings! For example, a school may it receives 5,000 applications and it offers 1000 acceptances, thus the acceptance rate is 20%. The following year, the school sees a jump in applications to 10,000  (Maybe the basketball team won the big game or they now offer free applications.)  However, the school still can only offer 1000 letters of admission. The increase in applications is good for the college because now their  acceptance rate is 10%. By increasing the number of applications they receive, they increase their deemed attractiveness or desirability. Wow, the college is hot! It will move up in the rankings.

It’s Good to be King or Queen…

The higher a school moves in the rankings, the easier it is to fill seats, collect full pay tuition and increase the school’s endowment. These qualities assures a college a seat at the table of the Top, Best, Fabulous Colleges. Life is good. There are clear benefits of being highly ranked. What is a school to do?  How do they get to crack into the top-tier?

Each publication has its own measures of how it ranks the colleges, US News “Best Colleges” includes factors such as student selectivity, alumni giving, retention rate and peer assessment amongst others measures. Thus a college will work very hard to improve their rankings in these categories. Unfortunately, a few colleges, even very selective schools have been accused of skewing their statistics to demonstrate more favorable data than the competition.

Like a beauty pageant contestant will use all sorts of tricks to enhance her beauty, so might a college skew their own self reported statistics to boost their image. The rankings of colleges are not a definite science nor should it be. A top-tier school might be an absolute awful place to attend if it’s not the right fit for the student. Selecting a college is a very personal. Factors such as location (i.e., cities, mountains, rural) or culture  ( i.e., liberal, intense, athletics, religious)  are not typically measured in these rankings. If you go to school # 254 on the list and you love your classes, can afford the tuition and make great friends, wouldn’t you rank this perfect school #1?  After all, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?

Seniors – Step 1 Write a Resume

Having your resume ready is one of the easiest tasks of starting the resumecollege application process, yet it can have a tremendous impact on the overall outcome.

The student’s resume is an important reference guide for the teachers who will be writing your recommendations and a handy tool for yourself, for when you complete your applications, all of your activities and the participation dates are in one location. A teacher’s recommendation may be the tipping point of your application. Make sure they know all the super things you have done.

Your resume recaps almost four years of  your life and “paints” a picture of who you are. Categories to include:

Education – High school name, GPA, level of courses such as AP/Honors

Leadership – Highlight if you were a team captain*, club officer, work manager or in Scouting

Volunteer – Activities may be church or community related

Athletics – List the sports, the years you participated (9th, 10th…). *Alternatively,  you may want to list if you were a team captain in this area.

Extracurricular – This includes everything else; dance, yearbook, etc.

Work Experience – Colleges love kids who have part time jobs!

Photo: A small thumbnail photo in the upper right corner makes you more memorable!

Most Proud Of – This is a 1 or 2  sentence statement that personalizes your resume. It is not typical of a resume to include this, but it will help your recommenders with writing about you, i.e.: Most Proud Of: As avid outdoors person, over the past ten years I have hiked  in more than 15 US National Parks, including Yellowstone (WY), Everglades (FL) and Denali (AK).

first impression The resume is a useful ice-breaker. Bring copies of it with you to campus visits, college fairs, or if colleges visit your high school.  It is a great way to make a memorable impression.  Let an admissions officer know that you are greatly interested in their school and ask them if they would like to see your resume. Many will decline (large state schools- not interested!) but often smaller liberal arts colleges view this favorably.

Later in the application process, a resume will be helpful if you are applying for local scholarships or interviewing with a college representative.

Parents can play an active role in organizing the student’s resume since it is not submitted with the college application. Organizing applications, essays, test dates and deadlines along with a full course load is a challenge for a high school senior. Some parental assistance on the administrative and organizational side can be helpful.

Campus Visits – A Parent’s Point of View by Kathleen Thometz

Welcome  Kathleen Thometz to CollegeintheBag’s guest blog spot! Kathleen, is a  very cool & creative mother of four who is preparing to send her oldest off to college in the fall of 2013. As she shared tales of recent college visits, I begged her to write about them. Thanks Kathleen and enjoy everyone!   

Up until Thanksgiving my husband had been in charge of our son’s college visits.  As we are from the Chicago area, they had been driving through the Midwest looking at various small colleges, Loras and St. Ambrose, in Iowa and Bradley in Peori, Loyola in Chicago.

As I was driving out to the east coast for Thanksgiving, I was charged with taking him to McDaniel (formerly Western Maryland) in Westminster and Goucher in Towson, Maryland.

I was surprised that I actually found myself enjoying those visits, in spite of the fact that McDaniel gave a lively 2 hour presentation to the parents before a tour of the lovely, colonial-feeling campus, and delicious lunch in their brand new cafeteria.

Goucher’s presentation was a one-man-band affair and down and dirty.  The one thing I liked about the school, besides the prairie style architecture, was the fact that it is the only school in the country that requires every student go abroad.  This is wonderful because it gives our students the much-lauded global experience.  It also allows them to savor the experience long after it happens because all of the older students have already done it and will want to continue to share their experiences and the younger students are gathering information to choose their experience abroad.

While I enjoyed the tours for the most part, I think these schools need to come up with a better way to give the tours.  Following a young man or woman across what feels like miles of campus, while they walk backward is disconcerting.  How about a mini-PA system or just walk frontwards and make the groups smaller? Since the writing of this piece I’ve discovered that it is very good for you, both physically and mentally, to walk backwards.

I was struck by the amount of great things, that don’t cost anything, offered at these schools that I don’t remember being offered when I went to college nearly 30 years ago.  I was impressed with the affinity housing, students with similar interests living together.  At McDaniel there is a house where the students raise a service dog together each year. I love the writing clinics both schools had available to students.

I know I’m a dinosaur but what I don’t like about college campuses in general is the too-fancy facilities. McDaniel just built a state of art cafeteria. I’d rather send my kid to a dumpy college with great professors and have lower tuition. I am not keen on paying to

High Point’s waterfall wall at the entrance of the cafeteria.

have my child eat in a kitchen more gorgeous than mine.  These kids will be in for a rude awakening when they move into their first dumpy apartment.  I’d rather have that experience come in college at less financial cost to me.

Freebie alert! Application Progress Chart


You don’t need  to be high tech to chart your progress!

Organization is your Best Strategy!  You are probably in full swing of getting your college lists and applications organized. You may have a list of several schools that you plan to apply to or may have already sent off a few applications. Now is the time to chart your progress.

Do not let a lost transcript or a forgotten SAT score railroad your application to the incomplete pile. It is your responsiblity to confirm with the admissions department that all the components have been met;

  • SAT or ACT scores have been sent (go to to pay a fee to send the scores),
  • teacher recommendations sent,
  • high school transcript have been submitted, and
  • Financial Aid Forms (the FASFA and maybe the CSS Profile).

True story, identical twins apply to the same elite college with very similar excellent test scores, high GPA, and extra curricula activities. Additionally, they are double legacies (both parents attended) at the desired college. When decision letters went out, one twin is accepted, the other twin is not accepted. A call was place to the admissions department and it was discovered the nonaccepted twin’s application was incomplete. A recommendation was missing from the file.  Yikes! :(

There is a somewhat happy ending, the non-accepted twin’s application was reviewed and it received a acceptance for January admission.

Lesson learned: keep track of the application requirements.

Check out CollegeintheBag’s easy to use Application Progress Chart which will help you keep orgainzed. Post this chart next to your computer or on your refrigerator. This chart is helpful for both the student and the parents to monitor the progress on this very complex process.

Tah-dah! Your College List Strategy…

Unless you are a rare bird that will be submitting only one application, it’s time to hone your college list. Now is the time to put pen to paper and commit to applying to 7 or 10+ schools.

Smart college applicants cast a wide net of schools:

  •               1 to 2 Reaches
  •               4 to 6 Matches
  •               1 to 2 Safeties
  •               1 to 2 Financial Safeties  
  •            = 7 to 12 Applications

Guidelines of what is considered Reach, Match, Safety and Financial Safety:

  • Reach schools – have low acceptance rates, and GPA and test scores are below the school’s average.
  • Match schools –  a realistic chance, if your GPA & test scores are above the average and acceptance rate >30%.
  • Safety schools – GPA & test scores are above the college’s average and college has a high acceptance rate
  • Financial Safety – Choosing a school you can afford to attend such as in-state public college or community college and your test scores meet the average

Where to start? You have seen plenty of brochures, talked with friends, family members, and your guidance counselor and hopefully you have been to a few campuses. Now print a copy of College in the Bag’s “College Comparison Spreadsheet” (under the “Freebie Worksheets” tab) and start filling it out. Our favorite site for researching a college’s data and fast facts is

Do you want Merit Scholarship offers? Then you  want to apply to more “safety” schools and apply early action if offered. If it is a state, public school apply as early as possible, since many are rolling admissions. Do not wait until the Deadline! The early bird gets the worm, the acceptance, financial aid and the scholarship! Note that very selective colleges rarely offer merit scholarships, although they will offer financial aid, and that usually means loans. :(

Yikes ! Are applications too expensive?  Yes, sending 10 applications at $60 on average is big $$$! Families who cannot afford this may apply for a fee waiver. Go to  fee waiver application for more information.

Do not let anyone discourage you from applying to your well researched list of 8+ schools!. After you have received several Acceptance Letters :) , your next hurdle will be comparing tuition, financial aid and hopefully merit scholarships.

Many colleges are offering “Priority” applications which often will waive the application fee if you apply by a certain date. Call your favorite admissions office and find out if they are offering “Priority” applications. After all, the more students that apply to their school, the better the effect on the school’s rankings. This is another reason why the pool of participating colleges with the Common Application continue to grow. Colleges want your application. Even Harvard sends hundreds of thousands of “Gee, we like you!” letters for the 2000 acceptances they will offer.

Got your List? Now attack those applications!

Top 10 Tips: Application Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Be Authentic! Don’t say something because you think that’s what the Admissions Department wants to hear (i.e. working on a cure for cancer, etc. ). Be your authentic self.
  2. Don’t miss the deadline, or wait until 12 PM to submit. Computer systems do crash. With 1000s of applications choking a college’s midnight deadline bad things happen…  Miss a deadline and you may  lose out on admission, honors or scholarships opportunities.
  3. Supplemental essays, give care! Rush through answering these admission department gems and you could miss the boat! Put effort into your answer.
  4. A major no-no is using abbreviations.  LOL is n/g. :)
  5. Disciplinary issues? “‘Fess up” sooner verse later. If uncovered later, acceptances will be revoked. If you have a GPA “hiccup” in your transcript explain what happened.
  6. Essays written by your parent – they see them and they know….
  7. The essay question “Why XYZ college?” requires you to research and come up with a vivid answer that resonates with you. And note that if you recycle your answer for other applications, be sure to change the name of the college appropriately. Stating the wrong college name for this essay question happens all the time. Admissions officers are not pleased when they see this.
  8. Students should waive their right of access to see their letter of recommendations. A confidential recommendation is the gold standard. See Common App, in “Teacher Evaluation Form” a  RED BOX where the student’s signature is required.
  9. Failure to follow-up with admission office to confirm if application is complete, such as sending SAT score, Teacher Recommendations, and Transcript. If it is incomplete, it is not considered.
  10. Apply to enough schools that meet the following criteria: academic safety with a high acceptance rate,  tuition you can afford, and you would be happy to attend!

Don’t apply where everyone else is applying

Diversity of a college’s student population is admission’s office dream. Students from Utah? Yes!  Iowa – even better! New York/New Jersey/Connecticut?  wa wa wa…. no thanks…

Okay, don’t bum-out you oh-so-cool NY metropolitan students, but realize there are THOUSANDS of you!!!

If you are from NJ and everyone from your high school is applying to University of Delaware,  remember “Everyone from your high school is applying there!” Why is UDel going to give you a Merit Scholarship  of $5,ooo when you SATs are just above the average UDel student? Now take your stats and go college shopping in Florida, where your stats are above the avg FLA student, and you might hear “Heck come on down! We think you are great (since you are from NJ) and will offer a $12,000 scholarship and accept all your AP credits”. It’s been known to happen. :)