The Conquer Class of 2018 did spectacularly well in terms of college admissions. Here are just some of the schools where our young women and men are headed:
UC Berkeley (2)
UCLA (3)
University of Chicago (3)
UKMC (6-year accelerated BS/MD program)
University of Texas at Austin Honors College (2)
University of Pennsylvania
Cornell (2)
Case-Western Reserve
Miami University Ohio
Carnegie-Mellon (2)
Trinity College

Congratulations and best of luck to them all!

Decisions, Decisions…

Northwestern or Johns Hopkins? Dartmouth or Cornell? University of Michigan or University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?

This is the time of year when some of my students, like so many others around the country, are trying to figure out which college to go to. They have multiple good choices and now they are looking at all the variables, from curriculum to quality of life to location to diversity to climate. It’s a hard process, but it’s nice to have choices.

Here are three tips about how to approach that decision:

1. Consider finances.
College is fearsomely expensive. Don’t let all that beautiful ivy pull the wool over your eyes. While we are all hard-wired to lust after a picturesque college experience, you must remember to be an informed consumer and consider your best deal.

2. Talk to people.
Go to your accepted college visit and really talk to people. That includes students, teachers, admissions staff, and anyone else you choose to. Now is time for intangibles and you can only start to hear those when you get into conversations with people.

3. Remember that nothing is irrevocable.
Although this is a momentous decision and you’re likely to make the right one, if you don’t you can always change things up. That’s what transferring is all about and many students manage to transfer successfully and happily. Sure, it’s not your first choice–but it is an option.

Way to Go, Class of 2021!

Word has it that this was the hardest year ever for students applying to the top colleges. Cornell University reported both record applications and acceptance rates. The university got more than 47,000 apps and opened their doors to a new low of 12.5%. The University of Pennsylvania also smashed records this season. There were more than 40,000 applications, including both early and regular apps, and they admitted only 9.15%. The acceptance rate is the lowest in UPenn’s history. Brown received their highest number of applications with 32,724 and accepted a record low of 8.3%.

I am proud to report that my students this year did splendidly. Here is a partial list of schools that my 50+ students were admitted to:

MIT (2)
Cal Tech (2)
Princeton (1)
Harvard (1)
Yale (2)
Brown (2)
University of Michigan (4)
Cornell (2)
Stanford (2)
University of Pennsylvania (2)
Wake Forest (3)
Syracuse (2)
Columbia (2)
Ohio State
Purdue (2)
Johns Hopkins
University of Chicago
University of Virginia
University of California Irvine
University of California Santa Barbara
University of California San Diego (1)
University of Virginia (2)
Boston College (2)
Boston University (2)
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Congratulations to you all. You were hard workers and met the challenge. I’m glad these Conquer essays worked for you.

Great News

This is such an exciting time of year when I get to share in the success of my students. And what success they have had in this, a very difficult year for college admissions. Look at this list of acceptances from a client base of approximately 50 students:

  • Stanford (2)
  • Yale (2)
  • Northwestern
  • Williams
  • University of Chicago
  • Brown (2)
  • Duke
  • UCLA (2)
  • SUNY Geneseo
  • SUNY Binghamton
  • Cornell (2)
  • NYU
  • Vassar
  • Bowdoin
  • USC
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Colorado College
  • Boston College
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • Rice
  • University of California at Santa Barbara
  • Boston University B.S./M.D. program
  • Dartmouth (2)
  • University of Michigan
  • Case-Western Reserve
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Hofstra B.S./M.D. program
  • Wake Forest
  • Davidson
  • Washington University

Reason to celebrate, yes? And maybe the highlight of my year was having one of my Yale admittees send me a screenshot of his acceptance letter, on which the admissions counselor had handwritten a note, singling out his essay as one of her favorites of the year.

Congratulations to all of my students on a job well-done.

Conquer Comes to China

Please see my article in this week’s Global Times of Beijing on the cultural challenges that Chinese students face when writing the college admissions essay: 

Summer is Prime Time

Surf’s up, but summer is also an ideal time to get the jump on your college admissions essay. Summer offers time to think, reflect, and connect with a writing topic that you care about. Here are some good tips for making the most of the good old summertime:

  • Clear your head. Distractions like TV, texting, video games and Internet surfing can seriously inhibit inspiration. Once your school term is over, schedule some time away from those electronic diversions and find a park bench, rooftop, library carrel, or some other quiet place where you can hear your thoughts bubbling up from deep down in your consciousness.
  • Ask yourself exploratory questions. In looking for an essay topic, an excellent way to begin is by asking questions that can turn up some juicy conflict. Some examples: What has been the hardest thing I have ever had to face? If I had to quickly replay my life, which two or three moments would jump out ahead of all others? Which experiences have really pulled me out of my comfort zone? When have I ever felt pure rage? You’ll find questions like these, as well as a strategy for approaching them, in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.
  • Write it down. Thoughts and ideas will be bubbling up for you this summer, as you look toward this time of your life that is so significant. Take it from this writer: if you don’t write it down, you’re bound to lose it.
  • Enjoy yourself. These warm, feel-good months make it easier to relax, and approaching the college admissions essay with less anxiety is a good thing. In fact, it would be extremely beneficial to view this assignment not as an onerous task but as a creative act. In that vein, you’ll want to commit yourself to the work, accept the idea that your essay will evolve through a series of drafts and allow yourself to take some pleasure in the process. Who knows? You may even discover the joy of rewriting.

Go ahead. Take some time off, go bike riding, swimming, hiking, or what have you, but then take a deep breath and start the work that’s needed on the challenging task of writing your personal statement.

Let Us Now Praise…

…William Zinsser, who died this past Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 92. Zinsser was the author of the classic writing tome, On Writing Well, which sold over a million copies and which certainly had an influence on me. As the New York Times obituary said, “His advice was straightforward: Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece.”  I particularly like this nugget: “Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he is or she is.”

That last bit feels particularly germane to the college admissions essay. Many students feel that they have to find, “THE story.” I tell them that there are many stories that can be told, but mostly this assignment is about finding your authentic voice and making your readers feel that you are someone that they want to know (and that, hopefully, they want to invite into their college community). Authenticity means sincerity, self-reflection, humor, modesty…all those good things. Leave the boasting and home and tell your story, as Mr. Zinsser suggested, as if you actually enjoyed writing the piece. And guess what? Many of my student writers wind up enjoying this assignment a great deal. Why? Because they have engaged in some deep exploration about themselves, which can be exciting, and because they have come away from the experience learning some very valuable lessons, which is also very exciting.

The Results Are In!

Kudos to my small, ragged band of college applicants this year. They did very, very well in such a competitive season. Here’s the breakdown of where they’re going:

  • Cornell (3)
  • Harvard (2)
  • Yale (2)
  • Princeton (2)
  • University of Pennsylvania (2)
  • Pomona (2)
  • Boston University (2)
  • Brown
  • UCLA
  • Tufts
  • Middlebury
  • Vanderbilt
  • USC (film studies program)
  • Temple (dentistry program)
  • Washington University
  • McGill
  • Occidental

Everyone is happy, although I do have two students who are on the waitlist at two top schools. I’ve just been helping them with their Letters of Continued Interest (LOCI, if you don’t know about that). Anyway, they were a great group and I am happy and proud to share in their excitement.

The New Common App Essay Prompts

This week, the Common Application released its essay prompts for the 650-word personal statement. No big surprises here. Four of the five prompts are essentially identical to what they have been in the past few years. The one significant change is that they dropped the following prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful?” In its place, they have put this new prompt: “Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.” In fact, that substitution doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me, as this question is now not that different than the question that asks you to, “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.” That might have been around an ethical dilemma, and so I see a bit of redundancy there. Still, there’s plenty for any student to work with, and so now the work can begin for any of those super early birds who want to get going. A truly rara avis, I must say!

The Letters are in the Mail

I had a bunch of happy students who applied early this year and got into places like Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Pomona, and so on. Others were disappointed, having been waitlisted or outright rejected by their schools of choice. So it goes when you set your sights on the most selective colleges and universities in the country. Now these students are waiting with bated breath to see if their letters are fatties or thinnies, and I am waiting along with them, hoping for the best. It is important for everyone to realize, however, that you can have a grand life without getting into your first, second, third, or sixth-choice school. There are tremendous schools all over the country. Over the last five years, for example, I have been writing the annual report for Nazareth College, a small school in Rochester, and each year I am so impressed with so many of the students I hear about. They are having a great education and will have a great future.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni had a good piece this month about putting the whole admissions thing into perspective. I suggest you read it:

And best of luck!

Make Your College Visit Count

It’s been bone-chilling here in the Northeast these days, and in such weather things give off the impression of crawling to a stop. We know, however, that time waits for no one, and before we know it, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Williams, Bowdoin, and all the other frozen colleges and universities will thaw and parents and students will be setting off on their college tours. These can be both exhilarating and excruciating, and it’s good to know how to make the most of them. You will find a number of useful articles online about how to approach the college visit. The New York Times’ blog The Choice had a good piece on it:

None of the articles I saw, however, sufficiently stressed the importance of documenting your visits. There were references to making videos of various places that you encounter on campus, which is a good idea, but I’d encourage you to make notes as well that you can then refer back to, months later, when you are faced with writing that college’s supplemental essays. It makes a very big difference when you are talking about why you want to go to Michigan or Penn or Rice or Pitzer to be able to “see” a spot on campus and talk about why it felt special to you. Evoking that spot with language that hearkens back to what you actually saw when you visited will be powerful.

So, just a thought. Keep it in mind.





Lily’s College Essay

“I know you’re terrified of this act,” said Ann, my director, “but you have to let yourself become vulnerable. We’re all here to support you. Trust us. We love you.” 

We were just days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I needed a breakthrough, and this was Act Three.


At the end of this act, Emily, my character, dies but has the chance to relive a day with her family. She learns that the people around her did not really see what was important in life. Her idealized recollection of her life is shattered. She is deeply disappointed and saddened by her discovery. The only way to perform this last act is with great emotion. But, even though I knew this, I would not allow myself to go to a place where I could really feel Emily’s pain and loss. 

A few months before I left for this theater program, my sister, Beth, who was living in Chile, suffered a seizure. We learned that it was caused by a brain tumor that had been growing undetected for many years. Beth was flown home immediately for brain surgery.



The first time I saw my sister in seven months, she was in the hospital on a stretcher with IVs in her arm. The night before her operation, the doctor told us what could happen during brain surgery. Beth could become paralyzed, lose memory, and she could die. I have never been so sad and terrified in my entire life, and I was so angry that this had happened. As it turned out, Beth came through the surgery well and the tumor was benign, but the horror of the experience has stayed with me. 

Day after day, we rehearsed the last act and day after day I stayed dry-eyed and emotionless.


Talking to Ann, I came to realize why I couldn’t get to the feelings that this act required. The scene hit too close to home for me. Death had come so close and I did not want to relive those feelings. 

I stood there and said my lines. I tried as hard as I could to not just talk about death, but to allow myself to feel. I couldn’t. Ann stopped the rehearsal. She asked a staff member, Howie, to go on stage. “Hold Lily. Don’t let her fall,” Ann said, “but try to make her feel physically off balance.”



Howie held on to my shoulders and pulled me in all different directions. As this happened, I said my lines and suddenly started to cry my heart out.


This was my breakthrough. 

My sister’s illness threw me off balance and changed my life forever. When, once again, I was thrown off balance, Act Three changed forever. In that moment, during rehearsal, my defenses fell and I was able to reconnect to the sadness I had felt. I discovered that I could go there again safely and grow from this experience. From that moment on, each rehearsal and each performance was done with great emotion. We were days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I had a breakthrough, and that was my Act Three.