College Admissions Clinic Resources

Welcome to Magellan College Counseling’s FREE College Admission Clinic

There's a fire hose of information out there about college admission - and not all of it is correct!

After spending 10 years guiding high school students and their families through the college admission process, and publishing hundreds of articles about different aspects of college admission, I decided to organize and present information in a format that will help you work with your child as s/he applies to college.

I've separated the information into different topics, and each one has an introductory video and at least a few articles to read.  Some have downloadable worksheets as well.  There's a lot here, and I don't recommend you go through it all at once.  Give yourself a few weeks to watch and read everything here.

After you’ve watched all of the modules, I hope you’ll sign up to get regular information from us through our newsletter.  We’ll send you all of the worksheets from all of the modules, plus some bonus resources!

To get started, the webinar embedded in this post will give you an overview of how the college admission process works.  In the following modules, I’ll take different segments and expand upon them to give you a better understanding of each component.

Here we go!


Module 1:  The big picture:  What do colleges consider and look for?

It's important for you to understand the information colleges request from applicants, and HOW they subsequently review applications.  In this module, we'll cover what colleges consider when they review applications.

A student's academic record - the courses they chose to take, their grades, and sometimes their test scores are the most important part of how colleges evaluate students.  They care MOST about the five core academic subjects:  English, foreign language, math, science and social studies/history.  They care a LOT about rigor - how much you’ve challenged yourself throughout high school.  Your grades in these classes are more important than your test scores.  Your performance over three years is more important than how well you did on one test on one Saturday.

But they also care about character, about the contribution you’ll make to each campus community.  So this is where the extra-curricular activities, essays and teacher recommendations come into play.  These are all ways of helping colleges see who you are, the human being you are, what kind of roommate, teammate, classmate you’ll be.

Here are a few blog posts that explain this a bit more:

This article was published in the national journal of the organization to which all colleges belong.  The author is one of the leading proponents of completely abolishing test scores in college admission.  He has a very strong following in the college admission community.  We posted it in Module 7 as well, because Jon helps you understand the mindset of the human beings who make admission decisions, especially in relation to the importance of test scores.


Module 2:  Context:  How will you be evaluated?  How will you be compared against other students?

In addition to gathering information about applicants from their individual applications, they also collect information from other places, to help put each applicant's performance into context.  When you speak to a college admission officer - the people who read college applications and makes admission decisions - you'll hear them speak about context.

What does that mean?

If your school offers 26 AP courses and you took 2 of them, they will draw certain conclusions about your willingness to challenge yourself.  But if your school doesn't offer ANY AP courses, and you took a community college class over the summer because you were looking to go deeper into a particular subject, they will also be able to learn something about you.

More on the importance of the courses you choose here.

So how do they know how many AP classes your school offers?  Most colleges will receive a document called the "school profile," which your counselor will send along with your transcript.

More on the school profile here.

And how will colleges calculate your GPA?  Unfortunately, there's no standard method, but this article should help you understand why you probably want to work with your UNweighted, academic, 9-11 GPA (with some exceptions - the UC system notably does not count 9th grade grades into students' GPA).

These two posts outline the importance of letters of recommendation - from your teachers, your counselor and sometimes from outside recommenders:


Module 3: Self-exploration as the first step

Before you start looking at specific colleges, you need to think about what you’re looking for in your college experience!  Think about why you’re going to college, what you want to accomplish there, who you want your friends to be.  Most importantly, think about the kind of environment in which you’ll be happy and successful - and what you have to offer your new community!

We call this part "Looking in, looking out."

Below you'll find links to a handful of self-assessment exercises we do with our students to get the ball rolling.  Get ready to start thinking about what you’re looking for, before you start actually putting college names on your list!

College Match Self-Survey (take the online version) 

Learning Style Inventory Assessment (what kind of learner are you?)

MyMajors quiz will help you think about what you might consider academically - there are more choices out there than you know!

This downloadable worksheet will help you think about these things:

  • What are your college priorities?
  • What sets you apart?
  • What do you have to offer a college community?


Module 4:  Researching colleges: the most important building block

College research is truly the most important step in building your college list.  Most people look for the "best colleges" when they begin to do their research, but the results of that search won't tell you which colleges are the best FOR YOU.

So use the priorities you've identified through the resources in the previous module to research colleges. In other words, now that you’ve decided what’s important to you, let’s look for that in college websites!

Here's a short video to show you how we research colleges with students.

When the time comes for your student to actually get started with college applications, you'll see clearly why this "research" phase is so important.  Colleges are really looking for students who are a good match for their community - that means when you do your research, you should be looking for ways that you fit into what they offer, both inside and outside the classroom.  Many colleges ask students to articulate this "fit" through an essay (I'll touch more on this in an upcoming module).

This post will help you start to understand how doing this research can help you build a balanced list, and why that's so important.  More on this in the next module as well!

College Research Pays You Back

Many people begin their college research by investigating colleges' rankings.  This is not a good place to start.  College rankings are based on a whole host of factors, not one of which takes into account what YOUR CHILD prioritizes in their college experience, and what kind of environment will make your child happy and successful.  So we urge you to look at many other factors, and not to let the rankings get in the way of that more personal approach.  Here's a post that breaks down how the college rankings are constructed.  You might be surprised.

If you're doing virtual tours, you might want to download our Virtual College Checklist to track interesting details about each college you're exploring.

If you're touring in person, download Magellan's College Visit Checklist, which will help you ask great questions and remember what you like about each school.

Module 5: Balance: What do we mean by this, and why is it important?

What do we mean by reach/target/safe?  How do we determine which is which?

The numbers sort of scream at us that it's wise to begin your college application process with a balanced list.  Colleges whose admit rates are very low, less than 25%, are a big gamble (some of us refer to these as "lottery" schools), and this is part of what causes stress.  By balancing your list, you can lower some of that stress.  However, don't just throw a bunch of high-admit-rate schools onto your list and call them your safeties.  The goal is to LOVE your safeties!  And to love the ones in the middle, the "match" or "target" schools.  Spend equal amounts of time working on the essays for the reach and the target schools - don’t wait until the very last minute to get them done.  Put some thought into them - this is where the research we talked about in the last module comes into play!

Also - the likely or safety schools are the most likely to give you scholarships.  So take the time to figure out what you love about each one.

Here are some additional posts about the importance of balancing your college list:


Module 6: Building your list

Sometimes when people start thinking about how to build their college list, they start with rankings. We've said it before, and we'll say it again:  This is not a good approach.  Rankings tell you what some people think of a particular college's reputation, but they don't tell you if they'll be a good place for YOU to become the person college should help you be.  Here's more info on how those rankings are created.

Instead of focusing on ranking, remind yourself of what YOUR preferences are - those are the building blocks upon which we need to build your list.  That's why we did the "looking out and looking in" part in Module 3.  Look for colleges that fit your style, where you'll feel at home academically, socially and emotionally.  Here are a few posts with some resources to help you find colleges to consider:

Here's a tip - most of our blog posts link to additional resources within the text - make sure to click on those additional articles and resources, too!


Module 7: Testing

Testing may be the most misunderstood piece of the college admission process.  The way colleges view test scores has changed significantly in the past 20 years.  So we'll be really clear here:

  • High test scores are not an academic achievement.
  • Colleges do not see high test scores in and of themselves as a reason to admit students.
  • Students with high test scores and low grades are viewed as smart but lazy, having not applied their intelligence in the classroom.  High test scores do not overcome low grades.

You may recall from Module 1 that the #1 and #2 items that colleges prioritize are strong grades and rigorous course selection.  These are more important than test scores!

Many colleges do not even require test scores today.  What does test-optional college admission mean, and how do colleges that don't require scores make admission decisions?  This post will help you understand.

This article was published in the national journal of the organization to which all colleges belong.  The author is one of the leading proponents of completely abolishing test scores in college admission.  He has a very strong following in the college admission community.  We posted it in Module 7 as well, because Jon helps you understand the mindset of the human beings who make admission decisions, especially in relation to the importance of test scores.


Module 8: Activities

Colleges will evaluate how you’ve spent your time outside the classroom –prioritizing your awareness of and engagement with your community and the world around you, your leadership and depth of involvement – as they consider how you’ll contribute to their campus community.  Together with what your teachers say about you in their recommendation letters, and how you express yourself in your essays, your activities will help colleges see you fitting in on their campus.

Why do colleges care about extra-curricular activities?  What does that say about you?  Is four years of student government better than three years of playing the cello?  This post will help you understand.

College admission officers tell us that the activities section is the part of the college application where most students sell themselves short, so it's important to try to express not just WHAT the activity is (because they probably already know that), but WHY you've spent your time that way.  In this post, I walk you through how to effectively share with colleges what you've done outside the classroom during high school.


Module 9: Teacher Recommendations

What's the most important piece of information colleges need to know when they evaluate applications?  Academics.  How students performed in the classroom.  And aside from grades, what information do colleges have about who you are in the classroom?  Letters of recommendation from teachers.

In this two-part post, we break down the important details about letters of recommendation:  what are the different categories?  Who do I ask?  How do I ask them, and when?

I mention a brag sheet in the introductory video to this module.  Most teachers will ask for some help from students as they prepare to write their letters of recommendation - this is the brag sheet.  Don't shortchange your brag sheet!  Your teachers and counselors are responsible for dozens, sometimes hundreds of students - the brag sheet is your opportunity to contribute important details to your own letter of recommendation!  If your school uses Naviance, there's probably a brag sheet in your account.  If your counselors and teachers don't give you a template, you can download this one.

Module 10: Essays

So much to say about college essays!  Three important points:

College essays are very different from the essays you write for your English class.  They are PERSONAL!  They are about you.  More on that here.

Do not rehash your resume.  Don’t tell them stuff they can learn in other parts of your application.  Tell them a story about yourself so they can learn what makes you tick, what motivates you, what your dreams are.  Open up and share something with them they won’t find out anywhere else in your application.

It’s REALLY IMPORTANT for the STUDENT’s voice to shine through in the essays.  They cannot look like a parent wrote or edited them.  Admission offices need to hear the student’s perspective.

We have tons of advice to share about college essays!

  • This post has links to a number of other articles about college essays.  Read them all to get our top essay tips!
  • Here are some additional resources for college essays.
  • Here's some advice specific to writing one of the more popular supplemental essays that colleges require - we call it the "Why Us?" essay.
  • Finally, here are our thoughts and some tips on how you as a parent can support your child - and what you shouldn't do - when it comes to helping them with college essays.

Module 11: Early Decision/Early Action

Some colleges offer more than one round of application deadlines, and this video will explain all of the options to you!

Which deadline is best for you?  The answer is this:  you should always, ONLY submit your application when it is the strongest.  That means if your GPA isn't as solid as it could be - if you're on track to get good grades in the fall of your senior year, bring up your GPA and show colleges that strong upward trend, then early application deadlines MAY NOT be a good idea for you.

There are many factors that go into applying early to a college, and you should consider each decision individually.

Between the video and this blog post, we think we can answer most of your questions about Early Decision, Early Action and all of the other varieties of early college admission deadlines.


Extra #1: Paying for College - Financial Aid Series

Most of the time, students and families build their college list and then worry about how to pay for college at the end.

We recommend you do it differently!  Our financial aid series will help you understand the different kinds of financial aid, and how colleges give it out.  There are three blog posts, each with a video embedded:

We ask all of our clients to watch these videos, then calculate their EFC, and THEN we meet with them to discuss what's currently on their child's list.  We often add and remove schools based on the difference between what colleges will expect them to pay and what they are actually comfortable paying for college.

The downloadable presentation below is from the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education, which oversees the FAFSA.  It gives an excellent overview of the financial aid process, as well as some mistakes to avoid as your child builds their list, from a financial aid perspective.

FAFSA Mistakes to Avoid - FSA Nov 2021

Extra #2: The Common App Playlist

The Common Application is the most widely-used college application platform - over 900 colleges accept applications through it.  There are a few quirks and the Common App does have pretty solid customer service - if you reach out with a question or a problem, they'll get back to you pretty quickly!

But we've created a YouTube series in which we go through the Common App, section by section, just to explain a few of the little nooks and crannies for you.  Check it out!

Magellan College Counseling Common App Playlist

(while you're on our YouTube Channel, you can see lots of other videos and tips - feel free to subscribe!)

Extra #3: High Performing Students

As we conclude the College Admission Clinic, we have a few videos that are specific to different kinds of students.  This video is specifically for parents of “high-flyer” students who aspire to attend “top-notch” colleges.  It's tough love, but I'd rather you get some tough love now and end up with choices in the end, than none or just a few that you don't like.

Here are some resources for high flying students and their families:

This is the Malcolm Gladwell video I reference.  It's AMAZING!  If you don't believe a word I have said - believe Malcolm.

This post is a reminder of why you shouldn't rely on college rankings as you build your superstar kiddo's college list. 

This article is a reminder that most colleges - and definitely the most selective ones - are looking at UNweighted GPAs, and only the academic subjects.  Colleges don't care what grade you got in PE, and whenever a student (or parent tells me, "oh he got a B in that class but it's an AP so it's like getting an A," I say, no, no it's not.

That 4.0 unweighted GPA your high-flyer has on his/her transcript!  It's awesome!  It's just that s/he's not the only one.  Here are two pieces about grade inflation, to help you see what colleges are seeing:

  • Part 1
  • Part 2 (I filmed the embedded video in January, 2020 - right before COVID and months before the UC system went test-optional.  They are now test-blind, meaning they won't consider test scores even if you submit them.)

This is a deeper explanation of that psychology part I mention at the end of the video.  And why starting early can make this whole process so much less stressful - which is our entire goal, with every family, and we know it's yours as well.

Extra #4: Parents of “Average Kiddos”

Most people think that only super-star students reach out for help with their college applications, but this is absolutely not true!  We love working with "average" students!  There are more of them than you think - not everyone can be on top - and they always have more college options than they know!  So if you have a child who isn't the shining star in their class, but who is absolutely ready and wants a four-year college experience, know that there are so many colleges and universities out there who appreciate students who are just about ready to blossom.

These articles have some great case studies about our experience working with "average" students.

And finally - our favorite blog post ever:  the lessons we can learn about college admission from the Broadway musical Hamilton!

You made it!  We hope you enjoyed learning about the college admission experience through these modules.  You are now better prepared to help guide your child through the process.

If you feel like you'd like a little extra help, that's what we do.  We have packages and programs ranging from super-hands-on and 100% one-on-one, starting as early as 9th grade, to small group programs for seniors.  Feel free to get in touch for a free consultation.



Get started on your future, contact Magellan College Counseling today.