How to Choose Where to Apply

How to Choose Where to Apply

Before you can begin to even think about your college essay topic or what style you’re going to write in, you’ve got to answer a simple yet sometimes difficult question to answer–where to apply for college.

The simplest way to accomplish this is to go to the US News and World Report, look at the top 25 schools, and pick whichever 6-8 you like best from a combination of price, location, academic programs, and extracurricular activities. This approach isn’t necessarily wrong, per se–if you’ve got the grades and the financial means to attend one of these schools, you’re going to wind up at a place like an Ivy League school, Duke, Stanford, or a top-tier public school like the University of Virginia.

But the problem with this approach is that it’s just not one that requires a lot of thought and, as a result, leaves you open to overlooking something crucial or experiencing stress as a result. What happens when you see, for example, that Duke has a strong engineering school, only to realize upon enrolling that it doesn’t have the specific subniche you want to study? Or what happens if you don’t consider what living across the country from your parents will do, and you hate going to school at Stanford when you’re from Maine?

Instead, deliberating carefully on where to apply will help you make the right choice both for the next four years of your life and for setting yourself up for the next four decades that follow. In order of importance, here are the two things that matter the most when picking a school:

1. The Students. It might seem strange that I didn’t put “academics” first, but here’s a statement almost every college graduate can agree with–you are almost certainly going to change your major (or at least your intended major) multiple times in your first couple of years. In high school, I excelled at math and planned on double majoring in physics and theatre studies. One failed monologue and math test later, I graduated from Duke having never taken a physics class. I never even considered psychology (my eventual major) until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.

However, what will determine the quality of your time over the next four years and will have a profound impact on your career and social success over your adult life are the type of people you associate with. As someone who graduated in 2010, I worked for a friend’s admissions consulting business that allowed me to expand this part of my career; I launched a startup with two of my friends from college; I have traveled through Europe for a month with a friend from college; and I have helped push one friend to pursue her passion for acting in New York City.

I can do this, in part, because the type of people I associated with at Duke were driven, far smarter than me, and studious, but also just great people in general. That is not to say that I would not have met such people at Notre Dame or UNC or Cornell, but the typical Duke student, from my observations, really knows how to excel not just academically, but socially, spiritually, and globally.

When you’re considering where to apply, think about what the typical student does. Do they conduct research? Do they start companies? Do they like sports? Do they like to socialize, or do they like to work on weekends? Even seemingly trivial questions like what kind of sports do they like can matter (though, obviously, not as much as their work ethic or emotional intelligence); it’s through basketball that I met one of my co-founders at the startup I launched a few years ago.

You’re going to change your major. You’re going to move a lot as an adult. But the friendships and relationships you build will last a lifetime–so make sure you put yourself in an environment where you can find those kind of people.

2. The Postgraduate Opportunities. An economics degree is a wonderful thing, especially if you have ambitions on going to Wall Street after college. But as someone who has many friends who went to one of the Big 4 investment firms upon graduation (and has friends who have relatives in high-ranking places in those firms), it’s also worth noting that many of those firms will hire graduates with nontraditional backgrounds.

Why? Because they know that these students from Harvard, Columbia, and so on know how to think and they know how to work for long hours at peak levels. They want to see a certain baseline level of competence, of course, but to suggest that the only way in is with a business and economics track ignores that oftentimes, it depends on where you went to school as much as what you majored in to get where you want to go.

This is not just true for investment banking, but software development, consulting, politics, and much, much more. If you have a school that acts essentially as a feeder into a major industry and can land you at a major company or a major graduate/medical/law school program, that should be a major factor in your decision.


While there’s certainly something to be said for learning for the sake of learning–actually, there’s a lot of valid things to be said for that–it’s important to keep something in mind.

The top tier schools do not have a monopoly on what information you can learn.

It’s not like if you study economics at the University of Chicago that you’ll learn some mystical microeconomics theory you wouldn’t get at a state school. You won’t learn the mysteries of quantum physics at MIT.

But what you will have access to are incredible students (and, in turn, incredible professors), access to amazing postgraduate opportunities, and a chance to study in an atmosphere that truly promotes whatever it is you’re going for.

Absolutely, keep in mind price, the academics, and the athletics (or, if you’re not into that, the extracurriculars) of a school. But remember–aside from price, all of this boils down to what kind of students you’ll associate with and what kind of opportunities you’ll have after school. Price, unfortunately, is a factor that can’t be bargained with when it comes to you and your family.

But outside of that, remember: when you decide where to apply, it’s the students, not the ranking, and the opportunities, not the degree, that truly matter.

Quick Reminder: Tell One Big Story, Not Several Small Stories

When you look down at a college application and see you have a half-dozen essays to fill out, it’s very easy to think “I’ll just do this essay today, those in a week, and those I can do quickly so I’ll wait until I sent my app out.”

Here’s the problem–you’re not seeing your essays the right way. Rather than having six individual essays, it’s better to think of them as six chapters in one big story that you are submitting to the universities for reading consumption.

This means that if the story you are pitching is “young girl who overcame a broken leg and medical issues to get straight A’s and succeed in soccer” then it doesn’t make a ton of sense to have one essay devoted to your favorite European destination. Similarly, if your story is “boy who overcame emotional anxiety to become a strong actor,” it probably won’t fit in to talk about any athletic accomplishments you had.

The reason essays exist on your applications is not solely so the admissions committee can see how well you write (though that is certainly part of it). It exists in part so that the school knows who you are. I’ve already emphasized before how GPAs and test scores can blur together, but memorable stories stand out. The only way–the only way–to tell a story like this is through your essays.

But if you’re telling several divergent, incongruent stories, the power gets lost.

So remember: tell one big story, not several smaller stories.

Taboo Topics for Your Story

Taboo Topics for Your Story

Sometimes, no matter how vulnerable you want to be, there are taboo topics that just shouldn’t get brought up in your essay. While it’s important to show your most compelling side, there are a few topics that, even if you believe they are compelling, probably aren’t worth including.

Don’t politicize your essay

This is different than talking about politics. If you firmly believe your experience campaigning for a candidate or leading a political club over the past few years is important to you, that’s fine. What you don’t want to do is use your 500-650 words to defend (insert politician here). This is true regardless of party affiliation. No one wants to read about why you think (politician) is the greatest person since Jesus and no one cares about how you believe (politician)’s policies will make your country better. Keep the focus on you, your experience, and your learning experiences. It’s your story, not (politician)’s story.

Don’t brag about anything illegal or ethically questionable.

This is a little different than what most people say. Some will tell you never talk about illegal activity. I wouldn’t talk about the vehicle you stole or the credit card fraud you committed, but if you show repentance and how you’ve grown, it can work with carefully chosen words. This does not mean you should talk about crimes from your past. But if you consider them essential to your story and you’ve outgrown those moments, you can write about them—just tread carefully.

Don’t talk about your love life.


Other than that, I don’t really have any rules for content. Common sense will help you a lot, but don’t be afraid to get personal and show vulnerability. That’s the difference between mediocre content and compelling content.

Just don’t get so vulnerable that taboo topics come up, or your reader will never get past your choice of topic.

How Do You Tell Your Story?

How Do You Tell Your Story?

The personal statement is usually open-ended, 500 to 650 words, and has very few other guidelines to tell your story. With all this freedom, you have the chance to write something magical.

The flip side, of course, is that with this freedom comes the burden of too many options. What do I write about? How should I write about it? Is this an appropriate topic? Is this topic too boring? Too general? Too cliche? What if I’m a terrible writer?

Here’s the funny thing about these essays. As discussed before, you don’t need to be a great writer to tell a great story. So even if you think you aren’t a great writer, don’t let that give you cause to panic. This is not an AP English essay. This is your chance to tell a story.

But what if you’re still uncertain about doing that?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can generate some ideas:

What moments fundamentally changed you or the path you were on over the last decade?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing this has to be a Hollywood-type moment where you hit the game-winning three-pointer, nailed the audition that got you a role at a professional theater, or witnessed the death of someone close. If you had such a moment, then great! But if not, don’t despair. It’s about what’s fundamental to you being able to tell your story, not what would make a great film moment.

What moments trigger strong, almost overwhelming emotions?

The way to great writing is to write the raw truth. This is an absolute whether you’re writing an essay, an online column, a confessional, or even fiction. The more vulnerable the writing, the more painfully true, the better it is.

Oftentimes, this kind of writing will revolve around a failure you experienced that you overcame. Writing about truly exhilarating moments is fun, but not many people learn from them—they just indulge in them. The darkest, saddest, most frustrating moments are the ones we most often learn from and most often make compelling.

What moments represent the core of who you are?

If you know yourself well, you know there are certain traits that you value above all others. Be it kindness, empathy, leadership, determination, anything—if you can bring it to life in a story, it can make for a great personal statement.

There are, however, some topics that you do NOT want to talk about when you tell your story. Stay tuned next week to find out what those are.

* * *

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement now? Find out everything you need to know here.

Want to have a professional take such a look at your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

It’s the Story, Not the Writing

It’s the Story, Not the Writing

When you hear the word “college application essay” or “personal statement essay,” one crucial word in those phrases may make you believe you have to be a great writer: “essay.”

Hearing the word essay likely invokes memories of reports about themes in The Count of Monte Cristo, a historical analysis about the implication of the 1812 War, or a case study in a psychology class. All of these require strong, technical writing skills, and if you struggled in English or hated learning about the Oxford comma, there’s a great chance that hearing that may make you groan.

But there’s something crucial to know about when it comes to these essays that can make your life much, much easier.

It’s not about your writing. It’s about your story.

Necessary, Not Sufficient

To write a great story, it is necessary to have writing without grammatical errors, incorrect verbiage, or glaringly bad typos. This is true whether you’re writing fiction, a thesis paper, or a blog post. If this blog post used apostrophes incorrectly or misspelled words, it would stand out rather egregiously.

But that just sets the floor for your writing, it doesn’t actually raise it to the level you want it to.

When the admissions committee reads your story, they want to do so without getting pulled out of the story by the aforementioned mistakes. But simply avoiding these mistakes won’t make for a great essay–it’ll merely ensure that you meet the necessary requirements to avoid having a bad one.

It’s the Story

Name your favorite movie. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Captain America: Civil War–those are just a few for me.

Name your favorite books. The Coldfire Trilogy, American Gods, The Name of the Wind, Game of Thrones–those are also just a few.

What do all of these have in common, regardless of their medium? They’re great stories.

Explaining why these are great stories goes beyond the point of this post, but the universal acclaim they have, the repeated viewing/reading nature of these stories, and the way they have invaded modern culture says everything about the quality of those stories.

And do they have great writing? Well, some of them, yes. The Avenger films are notorious for having great humor in them, and no one would ever call Neil Gaiman or George RR Martin a bad writer.

But do you know who has been called a bad writer? Stephen King and James Patterson. Two of the greatest selling authors of the last 50 years have received critiques for poor writing quality. You can find similar, harsher criticisms for E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades series.

So if their writing is mediocre, why do they sell like fresh ice cream on a weekend in July?

Because their stories are too compelling not too read.

It’s Your Story

Everyone has a story to tell. Just because you haven’t traveled to an exotic country, won an Olympic medal, met a president, or won a national award doesn’t mean you don’t have a story to tell. My story–specifically, the one I wrote for my college applications–involved growing up and taking ownership of my life after an embarrassing story at the gym.

Another person’s story talked about overcoming their alcoholism. Another talked about starting a business off of rare shoes. Another talked about using statistics to improve their defense in high school basketball.

Some of these had great writing. Some of them had writing that was good enough.

But all of them told a story that made you want to read more, to learn more about what’s going on. Their stories sucked you in and didn’t let you go until the final period.

That is what college application essays are looking for. They are not looking for technically strong writing that makes a reader go “oh, man, their handle on metaphors is perfect.” They are not looking for an essay that you would submit to your English teacher.

They are looking for your story. What is your unique, compelling story? How do you stand out?

Those are questions for another day–but for now, just take solace in one simple fact.

You don’t have to be a great writer to write a great college application essay. You just need to have a great story.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement now? Find out everything you need to know here.

Want to have a professional take such a look at your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Picking a School That’s Right For You!

Picking a School That’s Right For You!

It’s April 1st, which means by now, you should have heard from all of the schools you applied to. It may sound cliche, but you deserve congratulations for getting through this stressful process! Now comes one last step–picking a school.

By now, you’re probably just ready for school to end. You’re ready to head out for spring break, if you haven’t already. If you’ve had spring break, you’re just ready for summer to come. And more than that, you’re probably ready to begin college.

What could be better than freedom from the parents, after all? (For me, at that time, the answer was simple: nothing!)

But–I know, you’ve had so many buts, you’re over it, just take this last one to heart–don’t rush into making a decision on a school. You’re not just picking a name–you’re picking your experiences for the next few years, and if you do it wrong, you’re going to wind up having mediocre experiences at best.

There are many factors that will go into play, such as the prestige, the price, the academic offerings, and so on. But there are a few other things you’ll want to keep in mind, things that may not seem so obvious but will play a major role in your happiness over the next few years.

Of course, prioritize the academics and cost. But if you’ve narrowed it down to a few schools and still can’t decide on where to go, consider the following.

Where do students live during all four years?

When I was a student at Duke, you were required to live on campus your first three years. All freshmen lived on East Campus, all sophomores lived on West Campus, and while juniors got to choose Central or West Campus, both were less than a five minute walk through the Duke Gardens away from each other.

Why does this matter? A school that requires its students to live on campus will make it much easier for you to make friends, especially if said campus is relatively small. Conversely, a school that allows you to live off-campus right off the bat will allow students to lead isolated lives, making it more difficult to establish friendships and cultivate those friendships.

Most schools will not mandate you live on campus for three years like Duke does. But if one of your goals is to make new friends or to meet people of different backgrounds, pay close attention to where those students live when you’re picking a school. It’s a lot easier to make friends when everyone in your class is within a quarter-mile radius on campus than when people are spread out through the town.

How active are alumni?

I recently went back to Duke’s campus for our rivalry men’s basketball game against UNC. It had been eight years since I graduated, and I was with a couple of other friends who graduated around the same time I did.

It was fascinating talking to students in line for the game, because we were far from the only alums who had come back to campus. In fact, one student said something to the effect of how he had run into an alum every day since he started tenting for the game.

Every school has alums that speak about “school pride.” But the more committed and passionate alums are to their school, the more likely they are to reach out and lend a helping hand. I had the good fortune of attending a school with a strong, passionate, and well-connected alumni base. You should aim for the same.

What is the parking policy on campus?

This sounds absurd, right? But here’s another point in line with the first point. The easier it is to park on campus, the more easily students can get off campus. The harder it is, the more they’ll stay on campus.

Parking at Duke drove me insane. I probably racked up more fees in parking tickets than I have in speeding tickets in my lifetime, and my sister had an even more hilariously bad experience at Auburn. But how easy would it be to get off campus if parking was easy? How easy would it be to come and go?

The easier, the worse. (Except when you get a ticket. Then you’ll curse your school’s campus security.)

How many professors teach classes?

When I got to Duke, I received a bit of a wake up call. Not every professor taught classes. Some, in fact, only conducted research, worked with grad students, or did some other sort of special projects.

Unlike the other factors above, there’s no right or wrong answer here. A school that has all or most of its professors teaching will make it easier for you to meet these professors… but on the other hand, if you work with a professor who only does research, you know that their full attention will stay on the research and, by extension, your contributions to the research.

So whether or not this matters depends on if you anticipate doing research in college. In general, you should default toward doing research–but nevertheless, this is a point to consider.


Again, in the grand scheme of things, these things don’t matter nearly as much as the school’s academic prestige, the cost of attendance, and your academic fit.

But when you’ve got your choices narrowed down and you truly can’t decide, compare these schools on the criteria above. You might just find your answer.

And if you still have trouble picking a school? Take visits to both and go with your gut. You generally don’t want to leave a life-altering decision up to your gut, but by that point, your gut will be so informed it could pass a final exam on the matter.

But the process of picking a school usually won’t go that far. You’ll know your answer soon enough.

And then you won’t have to think again until you begin your first college class!