Find your voice

My monthly goals for February include eat more veggies, spread love, and read. Today, I’m three for three. I ate some green beans at lunch, brought my mom flowers, and read a chapter in Tara Westover’s latest, Educated. Most days, however, I count the clovers in my Lucky Charms as my “something green,” try not to tailgate, and skip the book to watch an episode of Schitt’s Creek, so I’m doing really well today. Why am I telling you this? By sharing all of this information in my blog, I’m developing my voice as a writer, something we ask our students to do when they write the college essay. It isn’t easy. And it usually requires students to think more deeply about themselves than they want to.  Perhaps at some point colleges will simply ask for an Instagram profile as a way to get to know their applicants, but for now, students need to reveal their personality in writing.

Tips for developing your voice in writing


  1. Along with the required essays in school, practice writing in a journal or use a google.doc to keep track of thoughts and ideas.

  2. Avoid criticizing yourself. Just write.

Start to vary your word choices

  1. One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg, is a master and her writing always seems special to me because of her word choice. Her words are simple and create a voice that is conversational. For example, here is an excerpt from the book, The Pull Of The Moon (I highlighted the words that I felt made the sentence have a “voice”):

    1. I would put the coffeepot back on the warmer and sit opposite you and talk about what was in the newspaper, and inside me would be a howling so fierce I couldn’t believe the sounds weren’t coming out of my eyes, out of my ears, from beneath my fingernails.

  2. Don’t use a thesaurus; stick with familiar words and use your own vocabulary.

Think beyond the formula for a school paper

  1. A paragraph doesn’t have to include four sentences; it doesn’t have to start with a topic sentence. In fact, a college essay doesn’t even need to have paragraphs (gasp!).

  2. It is easier to develop voice when you aren’t restricted to a formula. Play around with what works best for you.

  3. My favorite assignment in my 11th grade English class (and I can’t believe I still remember this) involved writing an essay by starting each sentence with the next letter in the alphabet. The first sentence had to begin with a word that started with the letter A and the second sentence with the letter B and so on. I failed miserably, but my teacher read aloud an essay from a really gifted writer in the class and that example of excellent work made me want to try again.

Write about what you know

  1. Pick a topic that you care about and just write for five minutes on that topic.

  2. Write about an event that happened in your life. Practice writing your own stories.

Talk it out

  1. The blank white screen is intimidating, so instead, speak and record your thoughts and then transcribe what you said.

  2. Tell a story to a friend and ask your friend to type what you say aloud.

Time to get out there!

I grew up in upstate New York where it was common to see snow flurries in April, but I’ve lived in Raleigh long enough to know that a few inches can shut down the city. Yet it seems that I underestimated the power of the threat of snow this past week when I was in Alabama. The weather forecaster in Alabama predicted a light dusting for early Tuesday morning and as a result of those projections, the Governor of Alabama declared a state of emergency.  So while the rest of the country was suffering from the polar vortex, Alabamians were staying inside because of the fear of a few snowflakes. No offense to anyone living in Alabama. I’m afraid of snow, too, and I grew up with it.

Alabama is home to many awesome colleges, and of course, football, therefore I traveled to the state to visit Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Birmingham Southern University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tuskegee University and Samford University. Touring colleges is one of my favorite parts of my job and this trip did not disappoint. The football stadium at Auburn was massive, the greek houses at Bama literally overwhelmed me, the quaint family feel at Birmingham Southern was just charming, the school pride at Tuskegee was evident everywhere on campus, the medical facilities at UAB are state of the art, and Samford is just downright friendly.

Browsing guide books and using online resource tools help kick start a college search, but no amount of research can take the place of actually stepping foot on a college campus.

Here are some tips to get you going

  • Keep it simple

  1. Visit schools that are easy for you to get to

    1. When traveling for vacation near a college walk or drive around campus, even if it isn’t an institution you would ever attend

    2. If there colleges in your backyard take an official tour on a teacher workday

  2. Try it, you might like it

    1. Leave your assumptions at home and visit the school with an open mind

  • When touring a college, see the parts of campus most important to you

  1. Don’t just take the standard tour; explore the parts of campus that are most important to you

    1. Like food? Eat in the cafeteria during your visit

    2. Work out everyday? Tour the rec center

    3. Play music? Wander into practice rooms and performance spaces

  • Observe

  1. Notice how students interact as they pass each other on the sidewalk

  2. What ads are featured on the bulletin boards - take pictures so you don’t forget

  3. Pick up a school newspaper and notice what’s highlighted

  • Reflect

  1. After you visit a college take some notes about what you liked and what you didn’t

    1. What did you tend to pay attention to

    2. Was there something that you noticed that really caught your eye

    3. Use your own words to describe the school

The threat of snow closed schools all across Alabama the day I toured several colleges, but in Tuscaloosa that afternoon, the sun shined brightly, the air temperature warmed to close to 40 degrees and I happily explored the University of Alabama’s campus.  Now it is your turn! Get out there and visit colleges!

Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it didn’t kill the cat’s chances for admission

I read the paper every day (in print!). I think I’m the only one in my neighborhood with a  subscription to the News and Observer. There is nothing I cherish more than the half hour I spend with my coffee and the daily news. My attention is usually directed towards the articles about politics, though I really should read the world news more closely and I typically completely ignore the sports page (unless there is an article about the Syracuse men’s basketball team beating Duke in overtime, Woot!). My preferences align with what I studied in college: political science.  I chose my major because I loved my social science classes in high school and actually got involved in local and national politics. (You’ll have to ask my parents about the time I convinced them to put a sign for presidential candidate Steve Forbes in our yard).

Majoring in political science influenced me to intern with a lobbyist. That experience helped me realize what I didn’t want to do (work in government). It did, however, teach me valuable skills that I still use today. Though I don’t study government now nor do I intend to run for political office, my college major helped me discover my strengths. I like to connect with people; I like to share my passions with others; and I like to read and think.  All of those skills are valuable to me in my current work.

Many of the students I work with don’t know what they want to study in college and it isn’t always easy to convince them (and their parents) that they don’t need to know. (For more information about why a major choice isn’t always necessary, check out this article in Business Insider).  

While a definitive major choice isn’t necessary to complete a successful college search, it is, however, helpful to identify areas of interest and develop curiosity.

Tips to help high school students develop curiosity


  1. While just getting a teenager to pick up a book is a big win, it is also important to diversify the reading list. Move beyond the comfortable genre and pick up a book that will challenge you to think differently.

  2. Right now, I’m reading White Fragility by Robin Deangelo, and The Grumpy Gardener by Steve Bender. Neither book relates directly to my work, but both help me think more deeply and challenge me in different ways.

Ask questions

  1. Keep track of how many questions you ask per day. Think about the types of questions you ask. Do they help take conversations in class deeper into the topic at hand?

  2. Pay attention to the students in your class who do ask a lot of questions. Perhaps they can inspire you to start to wonder why and how.

Find a mentor who will push you

  1. I don’t know about you, but I know that when I am aware that someone else is invested in my success, I work harder and tend to achieve my goals more frequently.

  2. Find someone who will keep you accountable and push you beyond your status quo.


  1. Talk less. Listen more.

  2. Listen to everything; music, podcasts, your parents, little kids.

Summer, Summer, Summer-Time

I worked my first summer job at a catering restaurant. The business boomed in the summer as a result of a robust wedding season. I joked to my friends that during the summer before 11th grade, I attended 25 weddings. Aside from learning at age 15 what kind of wedding I didn’t want, I gained actual valuable skills such as what to do when you drop a tray full of wedding cake all over a bridesmaid or spill soup on a groom’s lap. Looking back, I’m wondering how I wasn’t fired. I survived, and I think it was actually one of my favorite summers.

Summertime as a high school student can be tricky. In ninth and tenth grade, students are usually too young to work, too young to drive, but too old for most summer camp programs. That in-between stage tends to lead to a lot of binging on Netflix and video games; not the most productive use of time.  However, by the time students are juniors and seniors, choosing a summer activity can be a little overwhelming. There are so many options.

In general, college admissions officers don’t prefer one summer activity over another. From the admissions perspective, students should just try and find a summer activity that stretches them beyond their comfort zone.  There isn’t one thing that is more impressive than another. The summer program doesn’t need to be expensive or long-term, it should just be intentional. I suppose a summer filled with The Office re-runs can even be valuable if it leads to an amazing analysis of how the tv show reflects cultural values in real-world office spaces. (There is actually a paper on this topic. I’m serious. Google it.).

In an effort to encourage students to look beyond Netflix, here are examples of meaningful summer activities:

Academic programs

Most colleges offer summer programs for high school students. These programs offer students an opportunity to focus on an academic topic or just gain skills useful for improving academic preparedness.

Benefits of attending these programs include:

  • Exposure to a college campus

  • Interaction with students from across the country or even around the world

  • Opportunity for an intentionally academic summer

Potential challenges to attending these programs include:

  • Cost; these programs can be really expensive

  • Competitive



Working a job in the summer can be incredibly rewarding for high school students. Students learn to take responsibility for their own schedules and how to be accountable. It isn’t always easy to land a summer job, however, so it is smart to start the search early in the spring.

Benefits of working include:

  • Development of life skills

  • Income (money, money, money)

  • Creating new connections

Challenges of working in the summer:

  • Not always an option for students because of age

  • Lack of transportation might limit job options


  • Summer camp counselor

  • Lifeguard

  • Ice cream store scooper

Athletic travel/camps

Competitive athletes typically play sports year-round and have the opportunity to participate in camps and/or tournaments in the summer. If students hope to play competitively in college, participation in their sports during summer is imperative.

Benefits to playing summer sports include:

  • Opportunity to increase athletic skills

  • Exposure to college coaches

Challenges of playing in the summer:

  • Travel can be costly

  • Summer sports can limit other opportunities



Students at all levels in high school can conduct research. In fact, I’ve often challenged students to find a topic of interest, create a question to answer, and solve the problem. Students don’t need to work in a lab to conduct research. They don’t even need to have an affiliation with a college or university to dive deeply into something they are passionate about. Self-directed research can be just as valuable as a project guided by a professor.  

Benefit of research at any level:

  • New academic discoveries

  • Intentional pursuit of answers to academic questions

  • Potential relationships with college professors

Challenges of wanting to spend the summer doing research:

  • Student might lose interest in the topic

  • Research opportunities with professors aren’t easy to get

  • Unmotivated students don’t always follow follow through on the project


  • Self - developed project (ex. What barriers did Lin Manuel Miranda overcome to produce the musical Hamilton?)

  • Research at Johns Hopkins

Community service

Participating in a community service project during the summer is a great opportunity for all students, but particularly students who are too young to work. Of course, partnering or volunteering with an existing organization provides students terrific opportunities, but thinking outside of the box can produce some exciting experiences, too. Students should think about what they already love to do and find ways to use those interests to benefit others.

Benefit of participating in service:

  • Opportunity to do something good for the community (duh)

  • Create connections with organizations in the community to continue with during the school year

Challenges to including service in summer plans:

  • Can be difficult to find a long-term project

  • Transportation to the service project could be limited


  • Love playing soccer? Consider volunteering as a youth coach in the summer

  • Volunteer with the Cary Teen Council

While I hope students experience more success during their summers than I did, the bottom line is to do something. Create a plan for the summer and set goals. And definitely share your thesis paper on The Office with me in the fall.

Check your email...

How many emails are in your inbox? 10? 500? 2300? Do you leave them unopened until you have time to respond? Do you delete them if you know you don’t need them?

I was recently working with a student and during the course of our hour-long meeting, he received 50 emails from colleges. In one hour.  That’s a lot to manage. Why and how is he receiving so many emails?

For one reason, colleges purchase student contact information from PSAT, SAT, and ACT testing services. Therefore, it isn’t unusual for students to start receiving information from colleges as early as ninth grade. The volume typically increases as students matriculate through high school, therefore, it is essential to develop email management skills as early as possible.

Tips to develop email management skills

  • Create an email account just for the college application process

    • Most students already have two email accounts - one for school and another personal account. Creating a gmail account is easy and using separate accounts for different purposes is a great way to manage volume and ensure nothing is missed.

    • If you will apply for scholarships through scholarship search companies such as Cappex and FastWeb, create a separate email account just for that process. Those companies send out multiple emails a day and the volume builds quickly.

    • *Pro tip - keep the name of your email simple, for example and avoid using a specific college name in your email handle.  When you apply to Duke using your UNC4Ever gmail account you are sending mixed signals for sure!

  • Check your email once a day

    • Designate a set time every day to log in and manage your email. If you tend to forget to check it, set a reminder on your phone until the daily habit becomes routine.

  • Create email folders

    • Here are some suggested labels: college event invitations, colleges I’ve applied to, colleges I’m not interested in yet, responses from coaches, audition details, emails that require action from me

  • Use formal letter writing skills when writing emails

    • Include a proper salutation (Dear Mrs. Ringenbach), appropriate punctuation, and a formal signature.

Tips for College Applicants

  • Open email from the colleges to which you applied

    • Colleges keep records of email open-rates and some note if you clicked on any links. Some colleges use this data as a record of your interest in their schools. That information can be used to predict if you enroll in the college if admitted, and that data might influence the college’s decision to offer you admission. Open the email! Click the links!

  • Follow through on any actionable items

    • Is your application missing anything? Most likely you received an email from the college instructing you on how to check your application status.

    • Once you are admitted, you will receive email about open house events, housing details and various other important information. Don’t miss out! Read your email!

Though email isn’t usually the preferred communication method for most teens (txt me, pls), it is the name of the game in the admissions process. The better skilled a student is at managing email, the smoother the college application process will be.

Take Time To Reflect

When I was in my twenties, I started practicing yoga. Though I was mostly interested in the physical benefits of yoga, the mind/body connection was hard to ignore. As I deepened my practice and eventually became a yoga teacher, I started to really pay attention to how yoga was impacting my overall health.  In particular, I noticed that I was becoming more aware of how my thought patterns were influencing my overall mood and well-being. My positive habits were amplified and the behaviors that weren’t serving me well were starting to diminish. In other words, I was embracing what was good for me and I was letting go of bad habits.  In yoga, these patterns are called Samskaras. Repeating our Samskaras creates deeper grooves, making our habits harder and harder to change. This can be good; always wearing a seatbelt in the car, banning electronics at mealtimes, keeping a journal/planner. However, negative Samskaras can also be just as powerfully ingrained in our daily lives.

The transition to a new calendar year is a great time to think about our patterns and habits, or Samskaras.  It is a fresh start. Even though the school year is in full swing, students can also think about January as a time to re-set.  What has been working well? What habits are worth holding on because they serve us well? To look ahead, we often have to look back.

Here are some questions students should ask themselves to reflect on the first half of the academic year.

  • I am most proud of my academic accomplishment in ______ class, because ______.

  • If I could go back and do it again to get a better result, I would ____________ (think about a class in which you could have done a better job preparing for a test, or participating in class).

  • I have spent most of my time (when I'm not in class at school) on this activity ____________________.

  • I wish I had more time to ____________________________.

After taking the time to contemplate what worked, articulate new goals to create healthy habits.

  • My academic goals for the next three months include ___________.

  • By the end of the school year, I hope to ______________.

  • In order to accomplish my goals, I need to do the following three things ___________ ___________ ___________.

About a month into the new year, check in and see how you are doing.  Did you follow through with your action plan? Have things changed in your life?  Are there any goals/habits that need to be adjusted as a result of life’s unexpected twists and turns?

As we transition into 2019, let’s take the time to be thoughtful about holding on to what is good for us and letting go of habits that do us any favors. And let me know if you want to come to my yoga class!

Holiday Gift Guide for High School Students

My mom taught me the joy of giving thoughtful gifts when I was really young. She refused to buy something for any of my relatives and add my name to the tag. Instead, she encouraged me to think about the recipient of the gift and buy or make something I thought that person would like.  So for as long as I can remember, I was completely involved in the gift-giving process. Unfortunately, given my kid-friendly budget, I essentially gave homemade ornaments long past when it was age-appropriate to do so. But because I was invested in the gift I was giving, watching someone open a present that I carefully purchased or, more-likely, made was really special.

It wasn’t always easy to know what to buy for everyone. As I got older and started to have real money to spend, I began to turn to gift guides. They are everywhere, right? And because teenagers are pretty tough to buy for, here’s another gift guide just for you!

Lindsey’s Ten Favorite Gifts for the High School Students on Your List

  1. An organizational system for college mail

    1. It is amazing how much mail students receive from colleges. I encourage students to sort it into three piles: a pile from colleges to which a student will probably apply, a pile for colleges a student wants to learn more about, and a pile for colleges a student hasn’t heard of and will most likely never visit or attend.

    2. Some type of filing system is really helpful to create these different stacks and I’ve found that some teenagers love professional-looking office supplies.

  2. A subscription to an academic journal

    1. I’m always encouraging students to read articles about academic topics of interest. Based on your student’s passions, find a journal that features research in the field. It’s ok if the content seems too rigorous; your student will benefit from having access to the journal regardless.

  3. A trip to visit a college; preferably not with mom and dad

    1. I love when students have the opportunity to visit a college with a relative such as an aunt or grandparent.

    2. Wrap up a road map and ask your student to pick a school in a city with some touristy things to do.

  4. A lunch date at a fancy restaurant with one of your favorite colleagues and your student

    1. Ask your colleague to join you and your student for lunch (your treat!) to discuss his or her field of work.

    2. Your colleague doesn’t necessarily have to work in the discipline your student is interested in. The experience of eating out with a professional will still be meaningful.

  5. Tickets to a non-sporting event on a college campus

    1. Purchase tickets for a student production of a musical or a student-produced fashion show, or a lecture.

    2. It is easy to understand the culture of a college’s athletic scene, but it is less common to attend something else on campus.  

  6. Books - preferably audio books

    1. Students don’t have a lot of time to read, however, many college applications ask students about what books they enjoy. Pick a few non-fiction audio books that students can listen to in the car.

    2. Go to a bookstore and talk to a sales associate to find popular titles for teens.

  7. A planner - with advice and examples on how to use it

    1. I’m always asking students how they stay organized and most don’t have a good system. Pick out a planner that you think will work and then fill in a few of the pages so your student will know how to use it.

    2. Provide an index card with some best practices on how to create an organizational system. Share what works best for you.

  8. A list of your favorite podcasts and some new headphones

    1. Hey! Podcasts are cool! There’s a podcast on almost every topic imaginable.

    2. If you aren’t a regular listener, a Google search will help you find a few to recommend to your student.

    3. Include a new pair of headphones and you have a great gift!

  9. Luggage

    1. Most teens have duffle bags, book bags and tote bags, but not a good set of luggage to take on college trips.

    2. The set doesn’t have to be expensive, so look for patterns and colors that are teen-friendly.

  10. Stationary

    1. Knowing how to write a thoughtful thank you note is an essential life skill. Throughout the college application process, I remind students to write thank you notes to those who have helped them along the way. Maybe you’ll be the recipient of one of those notes!

Great Expectations

Remember when you were little and the anticipation for the holiday season was almost too much to bear? Everything was building towards that one moment and it seemed like it was all anyone could talk about. It was sensory overload. To some extent this is how high school seniors feel as they wait for their college admissions decisions. It can be excruciating. The anticipation is further stoked because our society is blurring the lines between what is public and private information and our students are increasingly living out every moment of their lives online.  Did it even happen if they didn’t Snapchat or post about it on Instagram? I’m a firm believer that the college admissions process should be a journey that students (and their families) take on their own terms and in their own way and, preferably, not in a public forum. That means students have to push away the outside noise and focus on what really matters to them. This isn’t easy for teenagers.

That struggle is most intense when college decisions are announced.  Most colleges release admissions decisions online before, or even rather than, sending an official letter. Therefore, instead of waiting for the mailman, students are waiting for an update on their application portal. While there are a lot of advantages to the online delivery system, the biggest downside I see is that the internet is everywhere. Students don’t need to be at home when they check their admissions status because they can connect to their portal from their phone. Therefore, students can be in public when they have to process that news. While I think our students are used to living their lives more publicly, it still can be really difficult to handle an admissions rejection in front of friends.

So what can we do to tone down the frenzy and help students process the decisions they are about to receive?

  • For starters, we can help students understand that the admissions process is not a reflection on the student’s “worthiness.” In fact, at selective institutions, most students are worthy of admission. Most students are academically capable of achieving great success at the colleges in which they apply. Therefore, the application admission process is more accurately a reflection of the institution’s desire to create an incoming class of students that satisfies its needs. For instance, the admissions office might be encouraged to admit more students from a specific geographic region. As much as your student might beg you to move to North Dakota, most likely that isn’t going to happen. There are so many factors that students can’t control, therefore, it is important to remind our students that the admissions decision isn’t all about them.

  • Students should make an effort to be at home when reading an admissions decision. This privacy gives students the space they need to express their emotions. They can jump for joy without worrying if their friend didn’t get good news.

  • It is ok to take some time when dealing with a disappointing decision. Process the decision (eat ice cream, scream and cry into a pillow, go to the gym or the movies), and then, when it is time, shift the focus back to something positive.

  • This time of year, we frequently spend time with family we don’t see on a regular basis. When relatives ask about the college admissions process, we can give our students an out and offer them advice about how to make small talk about their college applications. Try this: “I think I’m going to have great choices, but I haven’t heard back from all of my schools yet, so I’d rather not talk specifics. I’m excited about college and when I make my decision I’ll be happy to talk to you about it.”

Just because the release of admissions decisions coincides with the holiday season (and beyond - hang in there, this process lasts until the end of March), doesn’t mean that students should make a college admissions advent calendar to count down to the big moment. In fact, it would be better if students focused on what really matters this time of year: family and friends.  Enjoy the holiday season!

Grit and Failure

My 10th grader is currently learning to drive. Yesterday, he drove me from North Raleigh to RTP. He made all of the classic mistakes; approached turns with too much speed, rode the shoulder on the highway, and didn’t brake early enough when coming to a red light. I really think I’m amazingly calm during this process, but truthfully, I’m a mess when he is behind the wheel. He’s the one who is actually calm (maybe too calm given his newness to driving), but I’m going to attribute it to his ability to try and try again.  He’s definitely struggling as he is gaining new skills, but I’m really impressed with his determination. He’s not giving up.

It is tough to watch your kid struggle. I have a really hard time not stepping on the imaginary passenger-side brake pedal. I want to bail him out and tell him he can just take Uber everywhere and that self-driving cars will surely be so popular when he is in twenties.  But I’m secretly really proud of him, too. And, of course, in the back of my mind I’m thinking about how his ability to learn from his mistakes will help him in the college admissions process.

Admissions officers want to admit students who demonstrate perseverance and in order to successfully demonstrate that personal characteristic, students need to fail (just not behind the wheel preferably). So, as parents, we need to give them room to fail. And permission to fail. And not get so mad at them when they do fail. That’s not easy. It is in our parental DNA to swoop in and catch them before they make a mistake.

How do admissions offices measure grit and determination? Well, they ask about it.  One of the essay options on the Common Application asks students to describe a time when they faced a challenge, a failure, a setback. Students don’t have to choose that question to answer, but they should know that it is an option, and that the ability to overcome obstacles is important.  Furthermore, one of the most common interview questions during the admissions process is about making mistakes. If students haven’t struggled, they don’t have a lot to talk about.

So how can you foster a safe space in which it is ok for your student to make mistakes?

Here are some tips:

  • Model the behavior. If we, as parents, demonstrate that we make mistakes and that we acknowledge our mistakes and take ownership for them, then we can foster that behavior in our students. Maybe the next time you are eating dinner with your student, you share a small mistake you made that day. For example, yesterday, I didn’t proofread an email carefully and my typo caused some confusion. I shared that mistake with my family at dinner and told them how I fixed it and what I learned.

  • Set clear expectations. Hopefully, your students are taking courses that challenge them. Be clear that you don’t expect your student to earn perfect grades. Set the bar high, but leave some room for growth. And then, don’t be mad when they don’t earn all As all the time.  

  • Ask your students how they failed this week. Gently encourage them to talk about a small mistake and don’t overreact when they share something with you.

Our students aren’t naturally self-reflective. And I know getting them talk isn’t always easy. Most teens hate to admit when they are wrong. So don’t be surprised if this is hard. I’m sure if you talked to my 10th grader, he would tell you he is Mario Andretti already. But he does have grit. Now we just need to encourage him to slow down before taking that turn.

The Season of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday (of course, Halloween is a close second, because, candy). But, Thanksgiving is special because it really is a whole season and not just one day. In fact, I like to celebrate for the whole of month of November; not by over-eating, though that happens for sure, but by embracing gratitude. There truly is so much to be thankful for.  And because I spend a lot of my time thinking about colleges and universities, right now I’m grateful for strength of our higher educational system. While it might seem like all colleges are the same, especially after completing a college tour of several schools in a row during which the cafeterias all start to look and smell alike, in fact, there is a lot of diversity among the over 3000 colleges in the United States. In North Carolina alone, there are over 100 colleges and those schools reflect many of the characteristics that distinguish colleges from each other. For example, North Carolina has one of the best schools of arts in the country (UNC School of the Arts), three all-women’s colleges (Meredith College, Bennett College, and Salem College), and a public university system consisting of 16 different institutions.

With so many options, it might seem overwhelming to narrow down the choices to a manageable number. Fortunately, there are strategies for conducting a college search that produces a list of schools that reflect each individual student’s priorities. That process starts with personal reflection; not something high school students are that equipped to do. It is hard enough to elicit a thoughtful response to the question, “How was school today?” let alone an answer to “What are you looking for in your college experience?”  Therefore, it is important to practice reflective thinking. Students should ask themselves questions such as these:

  • What do I like about school right now?

  • Do I like this class because the teacher gives personal attention or because the content is interesting?

  • When I struggle with a class, do I tend to reach out for help from teachers or my friends or do I look for other sources of help?

  • Do I do best when I am pushed by my peers in a healthy competitive way, or do I tend to need friendly collaboration and input from others?

  • How do I spend my time when I’m not studying?

The answers to questions like these can help direct a college search. Students might discover that they thrive in an intense learning environment in which they are surrounded by high achieving students. Other students might realize that competition hinders their ability to learn.  Fortunately, there are colleges to fit every type of student and finding an educational culture that best supports each student is part of a comprehensive college search.

Conducting a comprehensive college search is more important than ever; particularly because students are now more mobile, colleges consider demonstrated interest in the application process, and fit makes a difference in retention and graduation rates.  Although the process of determining which schools to visit can be difficult, it is now relatively easy to explore campuses beyond a student’s immediate area. Colleges offer tours and informational sessions daily. They also record the student’s visit and use that information to demonstrate that the student is interested in the institution. Finally, finding the right list of schools for each student will help to ensure successful outcomes during and after college.

Of course, I’m grateful for much more than an excellent system of higher education, and I promise I’ll take the time to reflect more deeply, but right now I’ll gladly give thanks for the colleges and universities that help our students pursue their dreams.

Extra-curricular activities and college applications

College admissions officers consider many factors when reviewing applications, including how applicants spends their time. Typically, college applications ask applicants to list their activities in a grid or chart.  The Common Application currently provides ten spaces for students to share information about their extra-curriculars. For some students, that is not enough room, while others students consider ten spaces as too many.  My high school sophomore swims competitively year-round. He spends all of his time in the pool. He’s not involved in many school clubs, he doesn’t do a lot of community service (and when he volunteers, his commitments are usually swimming-related), nor does he have a part time job (aside from occasionally making money by helping a swim coach in the spring).  When it comes time for him to apply to college, his activity list will reflect pretty much only one thing: swimming. And that’s actually ok. I’m not worried that he isn’t “well-rounded”, because, clearly, he has a passion and is pursuing that passion to the nth-degree. He might not fill all ten spaces on the Common Application, but his list will reflect his priorities.

The college admissions process doesn’t reward well-roundedness the way it used to.  Today, college admissions offices value the depth of activities more than they value overall breadth. This might be good news to students. It isn’t necessary to check off a list of activities just because you think it will good on your college application. Instead, you should focus on developing your authentic interests and taking the initiative to go deeper into what you really care about. That might mean you have to take risks and push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

But what if you lack a clearly defined interest? How can you develop an activity and take it to the next level?  Here are some pro-tips:

  1. Push yourself to try something new. Start with a hobby or general interest and get involved with something related to that topic. For example, if you like to play video games with friends, perhaps think about researching game design, or sign up for a class over the summer to learn to code.

  2. Reach out to a teacher who knows you well. Ask that teacher to help you identify activities/organizations that might interest you. Here’s a sample question to ask your teacher: “I’m really into creative writing but I’m not sure how to pursue that interest outside of school. Do you know of any literary clubs or writing groups that might help me continue to develop my work?”

  3. Get your friends involved! Participate in a service project as a group and you take charge in organizing everything.

Sometimes, just getting started is the hard part. Don’t be afraid to take the first step and use your resources to help you get going. You can do it!

Tips for attending a college fair

When I worked as an Assistant Director of Admissions at UNC Chapel Hill, much of my time in the fall was spent at college fairs behind a table draped with a blue Carolina banner. Even though I’m pretty tiny, I have a loud voice, which came in handy while standing behind that table talking to prospective students and families.  The conversations were usually the same; anxious parents standing slightly in front of their student and asking about GPA requirements and test scores. Every so often, a student would take the lead and ask a thoughtful question about a particular academic department or extra-curricular opportunity. It was those conversations that I remembered long after the college fair ended. And every so often, I would receive a hand-written note in my campus mail box from a student who met me at a college fair, thanking me for answering a question or even just for standing on my feet for four hours. In the late fall and early winter when I was home reading application after application, I would wonder if the student who wrote the amazing essay was the same student who inquired about the study abroad program in Argentina.  Because of the volume of applications to read, I didn’t always have time to find out that answer, but when I could picture the face of the student behind the application, it did make a difference. Especially when I was picturing the face of the student and not the face of the parent.


  • Prioritize the list of schools

    • Make a list of the schools you definitely want to get to

  • Review the lay-out when you arrive at the fair.
    • If you need to, split up. If it doesn’t seem possible to meet with all of the colleges on your list, divide and conquer.  Parents - make sure to emphasize your student’s interest in the school.
    • The colleges aren’t always in alphabetical order, so use the resource guide to help you locate your top choices.
  • Formulate your questions/introduction.

    • Here are some examples:

      • Hello, my name is Lindsey. I’ve toured your campus and I plan to submit an application to your school. I just wanted to take the time to introduce myself and thank you for being at the college fair. Are there any materials on your table that I should collect or new information I should know about?

      • Hello, my name is Lindsey. I’ve received materials in the mail about your school but have not yet visited. I’m interested in learning more about your study abroad program. Can you share with me some details about programs in Europe?

      • Hello, my name is Lindsey. I’m not that familiar with your school. What majors are particularly strong? Are there unique programs that I should know about?

  • Process what you learned and follow-up

    • Take some notes right after the fair to remember detailed information about what you learned.

    • Send an email or thank you note to the representative you talked with to thank them for their time.


Tips for meeting with college representatives at your high school

Throughout the months of September, October, and November, college representatives from institutions across the country will be visiting area high schools to present information to students.  

It can be intimidating to attend your first meeting with the college representatives who visit your high school. One way to get past the anxiety is to attend a meeting with a buddy.  Perhaps identify a meeting that seems interesting and encourage your friend to tag along.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Start with a college that you know something about or have at least heard of. The familiarity will put you at ease and you can better focus on the information provided by the representative.

  • Introduce yourself as you walk into the meeting. Shake the representative’s hand and say something like, “Hi, I’m Lindsey. I’m a junior. Thanks for visiting my school.”

  • Thank the representative as you leave: “Thank you for the information. That was really helpful!”