How to read your admissions officer’s mind

Common application essay "insider secrets" revealed

Tonight you can sharpen your psychic powers and learn EXACTLY what admissions officers from top colleges think about your college essay, behind closed doors!

Tonight, July 20th, 7:30pm ET, We’re hosting a completely candid, no-holds barred round table discussion with two former admissions officers from an elite (7.6% admit rate this year), private midwestern college on The College Success For Less Show.

They’ve read thousands of college essays in the aggregate, now they’re willing to pull back the curtain, spill the beans (or whatever goofy metaphor suits you) and reveal the truth about the college essay that you’ll never hear from your English teacher, guidance counselor or read in any book!

You can watch here, there is no charge:

You will have an almost unfair advantage over other applicants after tonight’s training.  But the best part is that we’ll be chatting live, so you can ask your specific questions to our expert panel!

First up is a prompt-by-prompt dissection of the five Common Application Essay choices, so you can discover – directly – from our “insiders” what they’re looking for in each of the prompts…

….and craft an essay so compelling that YOUR admissions officers will crawl naked over broken glass to admit you (practically)!

(That was a figure of speech, there will not be any adult content on tonight’s show. 🙂

Equally important, you’ll realize what they absolutely HATE seeing in an essay, so you can avoid making critical mistakes that can blow your chances of admission to your top choice colleges!

Listen, I’ll cut to the chase – the college essay is your last and best shot to explain something critically important on your college application.

It’s an answer to a fundamental question…

…except, strangely, this make or break question appears NOWHERE on your application.

Failure to answer it dooms your candidacy from the get-go.

What is the “secret” question your admissions officer wants you to resolve?

“Why should we chose YOU, compared to the other 5,000 competitor-applicants with the same grades and standardized test scores?!”

Tonight is your unique opportunity to learn the truth, directly from the source.

Please pass this invitation along to anyone who could benefit from this info!

Hope you can tune in tonight!

-Andy Lockwood

P.S.  Several folks have asked about a replay.  I’m going to ask our celebrity guests if they’re cool with it – but they are still friends with many of their admissions officer colleagues and may not want this insider information out there on the Interwebz.   Currently, nothing is planned, so I can’t promise anything, unfortunately.

Why do college applicants make this mistake?

Free webinar reveals how to become an "Incomparable Applicant" even if you have the same grades and scores as 5,000 other competitor-applicants

fb How To Become anIncomparable Applicant*Mini-Rant Alert*

I spoke to a mom and dad last month, Our older daughter is at [state university], she didn’t get in anywhere else she applied.  We have another son, you made one comment that will help prevent a second disaster.

Before I share what I told them, let me give you a little back story.

I see this mistake ALL the time.

Kids – and parents –  go all loopy in 11th grade

They’re inundated with SAT and ACTs, daily barrages of emails and “snail mail” brochures from colleges they never heard of, incessant, hyper-stressed chatter from peers and other parents who may or may not be attempting to psych you out under the false belief that you’re competing with each other (Sooo….are you sure you’re ED’ing to Penn?)

My reactions fall somewhere along the continuum of bemused to depressed when I hear how kids – and parents – choose their college lists.

How do kids pick schools?

Here are some of the factors that affect kids’ college list composition:

[Warning:  the following contains explicit TRUTH.]

Sports.  The year following a deep run in “March Madness” (the NCAA men’s basketball tournament) or a strong college football bowl appearance, applications spike at those respective schools.

We in the biz call this the “The Flutie Effect”, which put Boston College on the map.  I can still recall exactly where I was watching the “Miracle in Miami” game – at my friend Ben’s house, upstairs.  (Not sure how I feel about this, especially because I have no idea where I was when Reagan was shot, when any Supreme Court decision was announced or where Pearl told me she was pregnant those four times.  It’s all about priorities.)

Rank.  When US News & World Report publishes its latest, hot off the presses “Best Colleges” edition, schools at the tops of the 89 or whatever categories see more application action, and in turn rush out new marketing materials to brag to easily impressed kids and parents (“Named to the Top 100 Fastest Growing South-Southwest Colleges That Start With The Letter ‘P’ for Two Consecutive Years!”).

Spoiler alert:  US News does not consider items like quality of education. But they do factor in peer reputation, alumni giving and, of course, selectivity.  (If so many people want to go there, it must be a great school!)

Recruiting.  Kid/parents get suckered by overtures from admissions officers whom they encounter at college fairs and high school visits.  Job Number 1 for them is to get applications submitted, even if means minimizing or obscuring the truth about chances of getting in.  I know you have a 22 on the ACT, but your Etruscan National Honor Society honorable mention mitigates your score and makes you a strong candidate!

Finally, there’s guidance counselors.  I’m bracing myself for a slew of hate mail (I do read them, so bring it on!), but I warned you I was going to be truthful.

Is there a reason why they recommend the same 25-30 “Rear Window Sticker” colleges to 90% of kids?

There are several, but I don’t have space to discuss them.

But I have time to point out one problem – over-reliance on Naviance.  This college selection software helps you match up your grades and scores against other kids from your high school who were previously admitted to the colleges on your list.

But there’s one teensy problem. Actually, two.

#1. Grades and scores count, but only approximately 60% of the admissions decision.

Naviance ignores 40%.

What’s in that “yuge” chunk?  Everything else, including

Your essays

Your extra-curricular activities

Your recommendations

Your volunteer hours

What “special” category you fall into – e.g. underrepresented minority, international student, legacy, recruited athlete.

If you’re curious why kids with lesser grades and scores get into top colleges at the expense of more heavily credentialed applicants, this is why.  Or, let me put it another way:

College is not a meritocracy

Colleges admissions officers reserve anywhere from 67-80% of their incoming classes for special categories.  That’s not a typo.

If you don’t fall into one of these groups, you have to work even harder to get in, because the special group kids tend to have lesser grades and scores, which drag down the averages published by colleges.  You need to be at the top end of the range to feel good about yoru chances.

The second “fatal flaw” with Naviance is that you are not competing with kids in your high school – there’s no quota.  I know that may not make sense, but it’s da truth – I swear by the College Board.

You’re competing with kids all over the world. But Naviance couldn’t care less.

For several years now, most colleges have been aggressively recruiting international students from China, other parts of Asia and the Middle East to 1. Diversity and 2. Get paid full price (most international students don’t get any aid).

If you’re wondering why yesterday’s “joke” colleges are today’s “Dream Colleges,” it’s largely because there are about the same number of seats available, but more students competing for them.

Even if someone suggests building a wall around Asia and the Middle East, this trend will continue.

Colleges need cashola.

Failure to understand how admissions really works is why guidance counselors, and Naviance, give a false sense of security when you assess which colleges are safeties, targets and reaches.

It’s the main reason why “Admissions Armageddon” plays out for tens of thousands of high school seniors each January.  I predict that last year’s Targets will be next year’s Reaches.

My favorite basis for choosing colleges

But the reason I’m most fond of, or most frustrated by (depending on my mood, bipolar much?):  It just felt right.

Uh huh.

What “felt right?”  The tour (sales pitch)? The information session (sales pitch)?

The way the buildings were laid out (close, far, not too close, not too far, close yet not invasive of your personal space)?

A $250,000 good feeling.  Please.

Then comes the summer, college applications and essay questions that read as if sadistic psychologists from the local asylum, or university administrators, huddled to create a list of prompts to confound teens (What sets your heart on fire?  How will you “community?”  Seriously.)

Anyhoo, I have a solution to this mess.  Think of it as a clear path.

Pearl and I are hosting a show on “How To Become An Incomparable Applicant” next Thursday as part of a promotion for our product, The Incomparable Applicant Toolkit and (application only) The Incomparable Applicant Coaching Program.


You will discover:

  • How to choose a college list strategically, not based only on brochures featuring smiley, clear-skinned multi-ethnic coeds frolicking on the quad or “Rear Window Sticker” appeal

  • Questions to ask, people to see on college visits beyond the cliche overly caffeinated tour guides and solicitous, eager beaver admissions officers

  • You have the same grades and scores as 5,000 other competitor applicants – now what?  Tips to distinguish yourself – the right way – on your applications

  • How to write a college essay that “Sells,” not “Bores”

  • Naviance on ‘Roids – the proprietary system our clients use and trust to create a balanced list that accurately reflects chances of admission

  • Overlooked sources of scholarships

There is no charge to attend. It is a training class.  It’s not an infomercial.

As noted, we will be offering the opportunity – discounted – to enroll in either our Incomparable Applicant Toolkit or apply for our personalized Incomparable Applicant Coaching Program.

I will go over details of each at the end of the webinar only for people who are interested (so please don’t reply to this email asking about them – I’m keeping a lid on things. So there :).

Oh, what was the advice I gave to those parents?  I told them that their son should engage in “Atypical Teen Activities,” meaning don’t just do the same old, same old stuff that everyone else in high school does.

Take one, max two, things that he enjoys and “plus” it – accentuate them to almost an extreme level.

I’ll give a couple examples on the webinar.  

Speak soon,

-Andy “College Rants R Us” Lockwood

P.S.  Please forward this to anyone and everyone who needs this info!

P.P.S. Our presentation next week is geared toward “rising senior” Class of 2017 families, but Class of 2018 are welcome to join too. The earlier you start learning this stuff, the more choices you’ll have when it comes down to college nitty gritty!

College Essay Prompts – 2016-2017

Sneak preview of the essay choices on the Common Application

Although technically not released until August 1, we know that the prompts will be the same as the ones on last year’s Common App. Here they are:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you
learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. 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.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

College Supplemental Essay Hacks

Tips and insults from a college essay expert

BONUS: Rarely Disclosed College Admissions Tips & Tactics
Andy grills an admission officer from an elite college about what it REALLY takes to get into a top school [FREE - download here]

College supplemental essay tips revealed: College consultant Andy Lockwood interviews college essay maven and funnyman Randy Levin about tips, tricks and mistakes to avoid on the college supplemental essays. More info available at:

Randy’s website is

2015-2016 Common App Essay Prompts

Advice for Class of 2016

Hi, summer is almost here, which means only one thing for Class of 2016 kids – it’s “Essay Time!”

One of the biggest pitfalls that messes with high school seniors is that they have more schoolwork than ever before in the first half of senior year.

If you’re taking a bunch of AP or other competitive classes, your teachers will continue to teach them as they must, they will not care whether you also have college essays and applications to do.

My recommendation to client and non-client alike is to get the Common Application essay done BEFORE Labor Day.  And if you’re applying to a bunch of colleges that have supplemental essays, you’d be smart to get crackin’ on some of them, too.

Here is the “pre-release” of the essay questions on the Common Application, which is officially released August 1:

2015-16 Common Application Essay Prompts

I’m conducting a live, interactive online training on the college essays, keep your eyes peeled for an announcement (if you’r on my email list.  If you aren’t, you can add yourself when you sign up for our newsletter, The College  Success For Less Bulletin.)

College Essay Questions I Wish They’d Ask

The Common App essay prompts were officially released August 1 and they have been confounding college-bound teens all summer.

Why?  They’re ANNOYING!

And hard to write.   And did I mention annoying?

How many kids do you know who overcame a serious challenge or obstacle that’s worth bragging about to someone they haven’t met but who can affect their future?

I’m sick of these questions, so instead of complaining, I thought I’d offer some essay prompts I’d like to see.

1.  “Diversity” means different things to different people.  Students at _______ University hail from all kinds of social, ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. How much money does your family have?  Describe, rounded to the nearest $10,000, your parents’ income, their savings accounts, and fully discuss their ability to pay your tuition, giving special consideration to their likelihood to voluntarily donate to our endowment during and after your years with us.

2.  It is said that we are bombarded by more than 5,000 unique messages each day, and our ability to sort through these messages critically is essential to becoming a successful citizen and contributor to today’s global community.  How easily influenced by our marketing are you?  Your answer may include, but should not be limited to:  our tsunami of “personal,” deceptive emails, our glossy brochures depicting a melting pot of acne-free, smiling college students of all races and creeds, our athletic teams’ results, our Five Diamond dining options and luxury, spa-like living conditions.  Your answer need not include graduation rates or success of our graduates finding jobs that actually pay bills.

3.  “Ah, to write, that is to search, to live!”  We just made that quote up.  But it sounds like some pretentious saying that could be googled within 1.7 seconds and used in a supplemental essay.   Describe your search for the perfect College Essay Consultant, and how your parents ultimately decided to hire her or him to ghostwrite your essays.   Example:  If your folks interviewed middle-aged moo-moo wearing hippie poets who serve as adjunct professors at a local college and live with more than five cats, elaborate on your personal search.  If you met with any consultant that implicitly or expressly indicated that, because they have written essays for other people who got into Yale, you too will be admitted to Yale, please indicate how much you paid them.

4.  Most colleges would brag that their campuses are examples of the culture of ideas, where free debate and diversity of opinion are welcomed and encouraged.  Yet, approximately 90% of professors are registered members of one political party.   Please help us square these contradictory facts, because we cannot (or are unwilling to).

5.  Suck up to us in 250 words or less.

What questions would you like to see?

Random College Essay Musings

I’ve been spending a cray-cray amount of time with students on their essays this summer, and thought I’d share some thoughts and advice I’ve given (much of which is blown off, which is gratifying! 🙂

Yes, the questions are stupid.  But they’re stupid for everyone.

Don’t feel pressured to talk about how you cured Ebola or build a village in a Third World Country over the summer.  Most kids don’t have a monumental achievement, challenge or other newsworthy event in their background, it’s OK if you don’t either.

It’s perfectly fine to write a “Slice of Life” essay that’s not laden with five dollar vocabulary words and so ponderously serious that it’s hard to breathe.  In fact, you’re doing your admissions officer a favor by writing something fun to read.

Keep in mind who is reading your essay.  Chances are that:

  • they didn’t necessarily attend the college you’re applying to

  • they didn’t go on a teen tour when they grew up

  • they didn’t go to sleep-away summer camp

  • they didn’t travel to Europe or take other expensive vacations when they were your age

Talking about how any of the above changed your life or created a challenge that you overcame may produce an eye roll, not a thick envelope.

On the other hand, it’s not so much that there are “Bad Topics.”  Many BTs can be made into good essays.  It’s less about the topic, and all about the message.

It’s OK to have your English teacher edit your essay. But bear in mind that an ‘A” paper might be grammatically correct, have an introduction, body and a conclusion, and be otherwise well-organized, but…it could be BORING!

Your essay needs to be interesting, not get an A.

Best way to beat writer’s block:  go somewhere without distractions, like your local public library.  Leave your phone and any other distractions in your bag, or don’t bring them at all.

Take only a pad and pen. (Your laptop allows you to go online and, therefore, is a distraction).  Force yourself to write for 45, uninterrupted minutes.  Take a 10 minute break.  Rinse, lather, repeat.  You’ll write a lot of garbage, but you will come up with diamonds in the rough.

Some of the discarded musings can be used for the supplemental essays.  Save ‘em!

Have a ton of supplemental essays?  Create one document, cut and paste all questions into it.  Now you can prioritize, and see which questions overlap.  The sooner you get a handle on your essays, the better you’ll feel.

Second best way to beat writer’s block:  speak your essay.  Answer the question into your smart phone or other recording device, then go back and transcribe and edit.  The best essays sound conversational, so I’m a huge fan of this technique.

I don’t care how good you think your essay is, you don’t need to hit the word limit.  650 words is a ceiling, not a floor.

A 650 word essay should be more than one paragraph.

An A minus kid who writes a Pulitzer Prize-winning essay isn’t fooling any admissions officer, they know Mommy, Daddy, the College Essay Specialist or your Mom’s friend whose kid got into Penn wrote it.

I hope you enjoyed this Public Service Announcement!

Your Correspondent,

– Andy Lockwood


College Apps, Essay Timeline

Dear {firstname}

This email is for families with rising Seniors (Class of 2015), but if you have younger kids you’re also welcome to read it! 🙂

Today’s college-bound kids have a crazy amount of work to do, if they aspire to gain admission to competitive schools.

First, there’s the Common Application essay, which is a pain in the tuchus.

You get a choice of five, severely cliched questions. They expect you to write a non-cliche answer.

The questions are not only stupid, but they have no bearing on reality.

Can you imagine being told at work, “Here, go write a 650 word piece on a challenge you overcame and the lesson you learned from it.”

But that’s only the beginning.

Many top schools, private and public, require ADDITIONAL, supplemental essays (if they accept the Common App.). For example, Wake Forest required five supplemental essays last year.


Blame the Common App.

There are now more than 500 colleges that accept the Common Application, roughly double the amount five years ago.

One unintended consequence is that admissions offices now have little feel for their “Yield” – the ratio of admitted students to those who say “Yes – I’m coming (and buying the sweatshirt)!”

If a large proportion of admits say “Thanks, but no thanks,” that hurts the college’s rank in US News and World Report and elsewhere.

Admissions officers want to know that they have a good shot at landing you if they admit you, which is hard to do when kids apply to 20 schools with the click of one button.

I think the multiple essay supplements are a form of asking you to show commitment to the college.

After all, if a kid writes six essays for one school, he’s either highly interested or a nut job.

My recommndations for Class of 2015 kids, particularly those with 10-12 or more colleges on their list:

Start on the Common App essay NOW. Brainstorm the topics, pick the one that sucks the least, draft it. Put yourself on a strict timeline to produce drafts, have someone hold you accountable. (Sometimes Mom or Dad is the right person, sometimes they are horribly wrong choices.)

Cut/paste all supplemental essay questions into one document, so you can see what you’re dealing with. And see what, if any, essay questions overlap. Create a timeline for producing work and be accountable.

Get your resume together.

Fill out the Common App after August 1

Get all this crapola done BEFORE going back to school in the fall! Many of your friends and peers will be struggling with all this stuff, PLUS schoolwork, well into November and beyond.

Imagine how great it would feel to be done in September, while everyone else is complaining and whining about how much work they have to do!

Please don’t keep the College Success for Less Bulletin a secret- forward it to any friend, relatives, clients, etc. who could benefit from this advice!


– Andy Lockwood

P.S. Need help with any/all of the above for your Class of 2015 student? We are reaching capacity but still have room to take on a few more clients for the fall. But we usually close out sometime in July.

If interested, book a free 20 minute Strategy Session,

Andrew Lockwood