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The Secrets of Picking a College (and Getting In!)

Lynn F. Jacobs, Jeremy S. Hyman, Jeffrey Durso-Finley, Jonah T. Hyman

ISBN: 978-1-118-97463-6 September 2015 Jossey-Bass 288 Pages


Two award-winning professors, a former admissions officer at a major university (now a counselor at a prestigious high school), and a gifted high school senior (now in the throes of the college admissions process himself) team up to offer you over 600 tips, techniques, and strategies to help you get in to the college of your choice.

Comprehensive, yet easy-to-read, this book will teach you:

  • How to size up the colleges you're considering—and come up with a coherent list.
  • What are college nights, college fairs, and college rep visits—and how you can use each to your advantage.
  • What are "holistic", "contextualized", and "legacy" admissions—and how each can work for you.
  • How some schools count "demonstrated interest"—and how you can take advantage of this little-known fact.
  • What are Early Decision, Early Action, and Single-Choice Early Action—and whether any is right for you.
  • How to figure out the true costs of college, and what is the difference between "need-" and "merit-based" aid.
  • What it means when colleges say they meet "100% of demonstrated financial aid" and what "loan-free" means.
  • When and how to make campus visits—and what to do on each.
  • How to prepare for each section of the ACT or SAT—and how to increase your scores.
  • What admissions officers are looking for in your application—and how to give it to them.
  • How to write the all-important Common App essay—and present your extra-curricular activities.
  • How to prepare for an alumni interview—and present yourself in the best light.
  • Whom to ask for letters-of-recommendation—and how to help them write the best possible letter.
  • How to compare your final offers—and, in some cases, substantially improve them.
  • When it's good to wait out the "wait list"—and when not.
  • -and much, much more.

When you understand the college admissions process, you can maximize your chance of success. Why not put yourself ahead of the pack?

To You—The Future College Student xv

Top 10 Reasons to Read This Book xix

The Professors’ Guide™ Icons xxi


10 Questions to Ask Yourself as You Begin Your College Search 2

Learning the Landscape: The 6 Major Kinds of College 7

8 Things That Make Better Schools Better 13


10 Tips for Making Your Initial List 21

Top 12 Websites to Help You Construct Your Initial List 27

Top 10 Websites for Finding Scholarships 32

Surfing the College Website: Tips and Techniques 34

11 Tips for Going to See Your College Counselor 39

Top 10 Ways to Make the Most of the College Night (or College Rep Visit) 45

Do’s and Don’ts for Attending College Fairs 51

The 10 Biggest Financial Aid Mistakes—and How to Avoid Them 57

Applying Early? 10 Questions to Ask If You’re Considering Early Decision or Early Action 67


FAQs for Planning Your College Visits: A Beginner’s Guide 76

Top 10 Things to See and Do on a College Visit 83

21 Must-Ask Questions on the Campus Tour (and Why You Should Ask Them) 91

10 Things to Look for When Visiting a Class (or Two) 97

Top 12 Tips for Nailing an On- (or Off-) Campus Interview 102


FAQs about Standardized Tests 113

Your Step-by-Step Plan for Preparing for the SAT and ACT 121

Top 10 SAT/ACT Test-Taking Tips 127

Top 10 Tips for the English Section 132

Top 10 Tips to Make Yourself a Mathmagician (or at least Kill the Math Section) 138

7 Things You Need to Know about Your Calculator (but Might Not) 144

Top 10 Strategies for the Reading Section 149

The Science of Taking the Science Section on the ACT 155

10 Best Tips for Writing the SAT/ACT Essay 160

Flash! Big 7 Changes to the 2016 SAT—and What to Do about Them 166


Top 10 Strategies for Making Your Final List 175

9 Things Admission Officers Look for in an Application 182

Top 10 Tips for Writing the Common App Essay 187

10 Best Ideas for Filling Out the Activities Section of the Common App 196

Top 10 Tips for Getting Awesome Letters of Recommendation 202

8 Secrets for Answering the Supplemental Questions 208


Top 10 Strategies for Making Your Final Choice 216

Top 10 Tips for Assessing the Financial Aid Offer 223

APPENDIX HOW ADMISSIONS DECISIONS ARE MADE (from a Presentation given at the 2014 Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions) 233

Web Resources 247

Index 255

“Authoritative and wise. . . accessible and lively. . . . A good first book for any student embarking on the college search.”—Theodore A. O’Neill, former Dean of Admissions, University of Chicago

“… easy to read, clearly organized, and very specific in its advice.  I plan to use it with my own students.”—Jon Reider, Director of College Counseling, San Francisco University High School; former Senior Admission Officer, Stanford University; and co-author of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know about Getting Into College

The college application process can seem daunting, but this book breaks the process down into logical, manageable steps. There are over 600 tips in this book. Here's one more: Read the book. It should be your first step on the path to college.”—Marjorie Savage, Parent Program Director, University of Minnesota and author, You're on Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Year

“If you read one book on the college process–this is the one you want. Straightforward, spot-on advice to streamline the college exploration and admission process, improve outcomes, and reduce stress for students and families.”—Barbara T. Conner, Director of College Counseling, Foxcroft School, Middleburg, VA, and Creator of #FiveFirstChoiceColleges

will become the ‘go to’ resource for parents and students alike…  delivers the most up-to-date, practical compendium available today of the ever-evolving landscape of college admissions.”—Franca Rawitz, Independent College Counselor & Founder, ReadySetCollegeNYC

“… informative, current and logical, full of important information on a wide variety of topics, yet concise and easy to understand.  I wish every family I work with would get a copy.”—Alyssa O'Brien, Director of College Guidance, Lawrence Woodmere Academy, Woodmere, NY and former Admissions Reader, Northeastern University

“…captures the essence of the process and provides excellent tips and suggestions to students (and parents!) who are just beginning this journey.   Having two sons who went through this process a few years ago, I can say that it would have been helpful to them to have a similar “Guide” handy.”—Diane Freytag, Director of Counseling and Advising, The Overlake School, Redmond, WA  

“… packed with practical pointers and compiled specifically for students, it’s like having a college coach by your side. Filled with advice from college professionals -- including admissions officers -- this book is easily accessible and is a must-read.”—Alicia J. Linsey, Counselor, Lexington High School Lexington, MA and founder and independent counselor, The Academic Advancement Group

does a fantastic job of capturing the ‘moving target’ of college admissions.  Its easy-to-follow format, complete with web links for digging deeper and finding the latest updates, make it a must-have for high school students. It not only answers standard college related questions, but also answers important questions that students may not otherwise know that they should ask.”—Sandy Aprahamian, Independent Educational Consultant, EDNavigators LLC

“… really drills down to the nuanced questions students should ask themselves. Sharing with students and families an actual reader rating card that admissions officers use to evaluate each component of the application is worth its weight in gold! A valuable resource for students, parents and counselors!”—Beth Ann Burkmar,  Associate Director of College Counseling, The Hun School of Princeton, Princeton, NJ; former Regional Director of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania; and former Admissions Counselor, Drexel University

 “It would take hours, even weeks, to gain the knowledge on one’s own that is so accessibly offered in this guide.  The authors of this book did their audience a huge favor by doing a lot of the hardcore research and web searching that has taken me over a decade to acquire as a full-time college counselor.”—Kelly B. Richards, Director of College Counseling, St. George's School, Providence, RI

“Hundreds of tips with catchy headings (“Best-Kept Secret,” “Reality Check,” “Epic Fail!”) jump off the pages, making it simple for even the busiest (or laziest!) teenagers to find them. Parents, too, will appreciate the ease of honing in on concise explanations, suggestions ... and warnings.”—Sally Rubenstone, Senior Advisor, College Confidential