The College Admission Essentials
Treasure Trove of Resources


Table of Contents

I. How to Discover and Connect With What You Care About (in 20 Minutes)

II. Essentials Before You Apply (9th-11th grade)

III. College List, Financial Aid, and Demonstrated Interest Essentials (11th-12th grade)

IV. The Application Itself

V. The Personal Statement

VI. The Supplemental Essays

VII. Other Parts of the Application Process

VIII. How to Make Sure Your College Application Is Doing Its Job

IX. Additional Considerations

X. After You Apply

XI. After You're Accepted

XI. Final Thoughts

Y. Appendix and Additional Resources


I. How to Discover and Connect With What You Care About (in 20 Minutes)


Essence Objects Exercise: video of me leading this exercise from my kitchen

Values Exercise: video of this exercise from the same kitchen

Ethan’s Top Secret Stash of Really Great Reads

II. Essentials Before You Apply (9th-11th grade)

High School Essentials

Epic Spreadsheet of Every TEDTalk Ever Given

21 books that showed up on college reading lists across the U.S.

A database with tons of volunteer opportunities in your area

A Two-Minute Guided Meditation to Make Your Summer More Fun and Productive

Podcast with Jill Tipograph: How to Plan a Fulfilling and Productive Summer

Peace Corps’ list of top volunteer-producing schools

List of schools that send the most students on to earn doctorate degrees

Ranking of schools based on the number of graduates who go onto to earn venture capital funding

How to Make the Most of a College Fair Experience

Major/Career Exploration:

5 Reasons Why It Doesn't Matter What You Major In

  • Do What You Are - This book uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help you understand how you relate to the world and suggests potential career paths based on your personality type. It focuses less on your skills and values, but is one of my favorite resources to begin understanding your personality type.

  • YouScience - An online assessment that uses a combination of personality, interest, and aptitude testing to provide an overall report that provides a list of careers that match your results.

  • StrengthsFinder - One of the most popular resources in both book and assessment format. Helps you discover your top five strengths, understand how to develop them, and live your best life.

  • The Birkman Method - A comprehensive and empirically tested online assessment that analyzes what they call your personality needs and expectations, in addition to providing an assessment of your occupational interests and behaviors.

  • The Enneagram - A typology of nine interrelated personality types that can aid in self-awareness, self-understanding and self-development. 

How to Develop a Self-Directed Project Based on Your Values

Image-based one-sheet example

Text-based one-sheet example.

III. College List, Financial Aid, and Demonstrated Interest Essentials (11th-12th grade)

How to Create a Balanced College List

Part 1: How to Create a Balanced College List

How to Create a Great College List

NACAC State of College Admissions Report

A list of resources from Steven Antonoff:

Corsava Cards (also an app) from Anne Wager: Discover what is important to you in a college--things you may never have considered yet are key to your success and get a ranked ordered list based on your preferences. Create a free account at If your counselor is using Corsava, they’ll send you an invitation to create an account. The original playing cards are also available in hard copy form.

True Colors Survey

Do What You Are


Authentic Happiness” Questionnaire

Part 2: Research Schools (Based on Your Interests and Preferences) and Create Your Preliminary List

The College Finder: an amazing book of college lists based on different categories--a must-have resource for developing a college list This is the online, searchable version of The College Finder 

Big List of Fly-in Programs

Mark Moody’s Quick and Dirty College List Builder

College List and Essay Tracker - Sample Downloadable Spreadsheet

Why You Shouldn’t Base Your College List on Rankings:

The Common Data Set

Part 3: How to Figure Out Which Schools You Can Afford

GoingMerry Scholarship Finder


Find Your College’s Net Price Calculator

Which Schools Are the Most Generous With Financial Aid? (US Version)

Which Schools Are the Most Generous With Financial Aid? (International Version)

NASSGAP Annual Survey for State Aid Programs - Tuition exchange agreements between states

Sample Counselor Questionnaire

Questions to Ask on a College Visit

A List of College Lists You Can Search For on CollegeXpress:

  • Gay-Friendly Colleges

  • Green Colleges

International Students Applying for Financial Aid

Should You Apply Early Decision or Regular Decision? (And the Chart That Can Help You Decide)

uLead Network for Undocumented/DACA Families

Demonstrated Interest: A Brief and Practical How-To Guide

Podcast #108 w/Monica James: Demonstrated Interest: How to Build Authentic Relationships with Colleges (and Why It's a Good Idea)

For the entire 2017 NACAC state of college admission report, click here

In short, demonstrated interest can play a big part in increasing your chance of admission. Want more proof? Here’s a 50-page report that concludes that, for the colleges mentioned in the study (those that track demonstrated interest), “off-site contacts [such as sending an email to a rep or requesting info from the school] increase the probability of admission by 10-13 percentage points,” while making both an on-site contact (like taking a campus tour) and ALSO making on off-site contact “increases the probability of admission by 21-24 percentage points.” Source. (Heads-up: There’s a lot of math in that report.)

And get this: according to a 2012 NACAC report, between 2004 and 2011, the percentage of colleges that rated demonstrated interest as being “considerably important” rose from 7% to 23% (see page 23 of the report), although since then it has stayed right around the 20% mark.

Click here for the presentation given at a conference in 2015 by a few college admission counselors who track demonstrated interest--if you’re really into this stuff, it’s totally worth it, as it shows screenshots from the computers of actual reps showing the details. 

A great demonstrated interest article by Lisa Rubin-Johnson.

IV. The Application Itself

Adrian’s Brainstorming Exercises and Final Application

Essential Application Pre-Work & Essay Brainstorming Exercises

College Essay Guy Brainstorming Pre-Work: Here’s the actual pre-work doc that I share with students and have them complete before I meet with them one-on-one. Here are video versions of the following: 

Essence Objects Exercise: Create a menu of topics for your application and essays in about 12 minutes.

Values Exercise: Find out what matters to you in about four minutes.

Feelings and Needs Exercise: The Feelings and Needs Exercise is the most effective exercise I’ve ever seen for helping students process a challenge they’ve experienced. It can help you create your personal statement outline in 20 minutes.(Note: This was adapted from an exercise created by Nonviolent Communication expert LaShelle Lowe-Chardé.)

Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me

21 Details

How to Write the Additional Info Section

You can also use the Additional Information section to explain significant health issues, grades that may raise red flags, reasons for changing schools or to (selectively) expand on significant activities. Note the word “selectively,” as you do not have to use this section at all and it’s generally best not to repeat information you’ve described elsewhere in your application.

How to Write the Common App “Additional Information” Section: A Brief Guide

(Example) How to Selectively Expand on an Activity the Additional Info Section - You can selectively expand on certain activities in your Additional Info section.

V. The Personal Statement 

VI. The Supplemental Essays


Creating Your Preliminary College List & Essay Tracker

The "Why us" Essay

Don’t talk about the school’s size, location, weather, or faculty-to-student ratio on the “Why us” essay. Why? Because that’s what most students write about. Instead, think of the “Why us” essay as a third date and your date has just asked you why you like them. You can’t simply say “because you’re hot” or “you are highly regarded by my parents and one of my aunts.” Name a range of very specific programs/classes/activities/opportunities unique to the school and then connect each one back to you. 

A Basic Downloadable “Why us” Essay Chart 

Article: Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings

Why This College Essay Guide + Examples


The "Extracurricular" Essay

The UC Game: 

More resources from the blog:

How to Write your Extracurricular Essay without Rockstar Achievements

Six Techniques for Writing Your 150-Word Extracurricular Essay

How to Improve Your Mediocre Extracurricular Essay in 30 Minutes

How to Decide Which Extracurricular Activity to Write About

The Short Answers

If asked to describe yourself in 3-5 words, avoid the Top 50 adjectives. Why? They don't tell us much. Examples include: adventurous, friendly, outgoing, compassionate, passionate, empathetic, passionate (yes, repeating for effect here).

More short answer examples (with notes on why they’re great)

VI. The Other Parts of the Application Process

How to Get Great Teacher Recommendations

Letter of Recommendation Questionnaire (Students: Complete this and give it to your recommender to help them write you a better letter)

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation: Counselor’s Guide + Samples

Writing a Recommendation Letter for a Student: Teacher’s Guide + Samples

Interview Essentials

College Interview Tips and Strategies: The Ultimate Guide

CEG’s downloadable interview guidebook

The Resume

College Resume Templates for High School Students 2019

VIII. How to Make Sure Your College Application Is Doing Its Job

 The Values Scan

The Values Exercise

A short video on the dangers of getting feedback from too many people

IX. Additional Considerations

Arts Application Essentials

How to Prepare an Art Portfolio for Art School Admission  

How to light and photograph 2D and 3D artwork

Tips for Writing Your Artist Statement

Ask the Art Prof articles

Art School Portfolio Video Critiques

Pro Development Videos & Tips for Artists

College Athletic Recruiting Essentials

College Priorities Analysis (PDF)

Student-Athlete Profile example (PDF)

Example Email Template

NCAA General Recruiting Rules Timeline (May 2019 new rules)

Student-Athletes “Do-It-Yourself Guide”

NCAA Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete (

Athletic Recruiting Advisors across the U.S.

Essential Advice for Applying to Universities Outside the US

A list of programmes with study in multiple countries

More information about study in Europe

Which Schools Are the Most Generous With Financial Aid? (International Version)

Essential Tips and Resources for International Students

EducationUSA is part of the US government with advising centers around the world who can offer you guidance and connect you with visiting universities. To find your nearest center, click here.

International ACAC Test Optional List here

Sample school documents from the US-UK Fulbright Commission

List of credential evaluators

Homeschooling Essentials

Example Homeschool Student Transcript

Homeschool Course Description Examples

Podcast Episode 212: Advice for Homeschooling Students

Resources and Advice for Students of Color

Native Pathways: a wonderful 60-page PDF from the American Indian College Fund that contains relevant, culturally sustaining content tailored for Native students 

College Greenlight

More information on Minority-Serving Institutions

Pen Center for Minority Serving Institutions

Hispanic Associations of Colleges and Universities

Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISI)

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO)

HBCU Clearinghouse for LGBTQ Inclusion

American Indian College Fund’s (AICF) website

Native Pathways College-Going Guidebook

Center for Native American Youth

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium

College Horizons

National Indian Education Association

Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science

American Indian Science and Engineering Society

Resources for First-Generation and Low-Income Students

The Being Not Rich Guide + podcast episode 210 with Lauren Schandevel

My podcast with Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (also a link to the Temple University Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

Strive for College

I’m First - - The I’m First! Guide to College - Use the code COLLEGEESSAYGUY at checkout for 30% off your guide! 

The Matchlighters Program:free one-on-one help for low-income students on their college essays and college list

My How to Sign Up for Free Mentorship with Strive for College via the Common App

5 Reasons Why High School Students Should Join Strive for College

Resources for Undocumented Students

Should I Come Out As Undocumented in My Personal Statement? (Blog, Part 1)

How to Come Out As Undocumented in Your Personal Statement (Blog, Part 2)

15 Ways to Advocate for Undocumented Youth (Blog)

Life As an Undocumented Student at Harvard (Podcast) 

How to Advocate for Undocumented Students (Podcast)

Four Things Undocumented Students Need to Know About Applying to College (Blog) 


Resources for LGBTQ+ Students

Campus Pride

HBCU LGBTQ Clearinghouse

Trans Policy Clearinghouse

A database of scholarships for LGBTQ+ students from Campus Pride and another from the Point Foundation

Resource: Should I Come Out in My College Essay? If so, how?

Resources for Self-Directed Students

Blake Boles’s Tips on Emailing to Request a Letter of Recommendation or Connecting With an Interesting Stranger

More Tips on Writing a Great Mission Statement

One Sheet Examples:

Text Based Example

Tips for Learning What Type of Leader You Are

Sample One Week Plan [Template]

A Checklist for Conversations With Potential Partners (and What to Do When Someone Says “No”)

Students with Learning Differences

Standardized testing resources and information for students with learning differences

The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences 14th ED, is the premier resource guide with information about college admission, services, programs, accommodations at colleges in the United States.

Choices, a postsecondary planning night for college bound students with learning differences.  

National Center for Learning Disabilities, where you can learn the laws and policies in the US

CHADD provides information for adults and families dealing with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

A list of colleges’ and universities’ obligations to provide access to students with disabilities in all institutional programs and activities

A resource outlining the obligations colleges and universities must meet in all institutional programs and activities to provide access to students with disabilities. 

Transfer Essentials + How to Write a Great Transfer Essay

How to Write a Transfer Essay: Complete Guide


The website for Education Benefits

Yellow Ribbon Program

Student Veterans of America

American Council on Education, which coordinates college credit for military service

A Transfer Guide: Understanding Your Military transcripts and ACE Credit

Information on the Joint Services transcript

Service 2 School

Housing Allowance

VA Benefit Comparison Chart (Click on GI Bill comparison tool)

GI Bill Benefits from The American Council on Education

Women's Colleges

X. After You Apply

How to Write a Great Letter of Continued Interest (If Needed)

How Senioritis Can Earn You a “Fear of God” Letter

How to Create the Simplest, Best To-Do List Ever

XI. After You're Accepted

Financial Aid Awards + How to Write a Great Financial Aid Award Appeal Letter (If Needed)

A downloadable copy of Amanda Miller’s Simple Award Letter Analyzer - a site that “decodes” your award letter into three categories: grants/scholarships, work study, and loans

The link to find out more about your state’s financial aid programs 

What to Do If You're Not Accepted

Gap Year Association

XI. Final Thoughts

Y. Appendix and Additional Resources

College Planning Timeline

Additional Resources for Students, Counselors, and Teachers

Mental Health Resources:

Examples of successful essays written by students who struggled with mental health issues:

Universities Outside the United States


Other parts I'd like to include but that would probably make this book way too long

The Myth of the Starving Artist

How to Apply to Drama School

Top 10 Stressors for Parents (and How to Reduce Each One)