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College Guidance for Sophomores

Summer Plans / Recommendation Letters
April 21, 2016

Andy EricksonAndy,

Getting into you top choice schools and earning the big scholarships isn’t a matter of chance. Meredith is up against well-funded students attending prep schools who may have spent $20,000 on an independent college advisor to guide them through this process. Still, the process isn’t rocket science. In fact it’s pretty straightforward. Anyone with a bit of common sense and the knack for talking to reasonable adults can be successful. After all, the admissions counselors and scholarship committees are made up of human beings. Many times these are 20- or 30-somethings. They want to read a great application that they can relate to making them think Meredith is a good fit for the college. And all Meredith is doing is making the strongest case they can for themselves.
Making a strong case depends on your grades, your test scores, and your personal story. Building a great personal story means taking advantage of your summer breaks and getting solid recommendations from mentors, coaches, and managers.

What We Sent To Meredith
If Meredith is signed up to get the CollegeTicket Guidance emails, this is what we sent to them today. Please let us know if you have any questions.
Take Advantage Of Your Summer
College is still a few years away for you, but you’ll be surprised how quickly it will be upon you. You may not know which colleges you want to apply to. Still, you can do some things now that will set you up to get into good schools and earn scholarships money. You’ll need to focus on getting good grades, getting good test scores, and telling a great personal story. Taking advantage of your summer will help you build a great personal story.
Making Your Personal Story Great
I’ve talked to you about the importance of the personal story before. If you are looking for scholarship money, a great personal story is the key. You really only have two opportunities left to add key experiences to your story: the summer coming up between your sophomore and junior year, and the summer between your junior and senior year.
What Are You Passionate About
I’ll cover the details of the personal story again, but for now I’ll assume you understand what I’m talking about. In the next week get some time with your parents and talk about your personal story. What drives you? What are you passionate about? How do you spend your most productive time? Where do you feel like you really make a difference? You might know exactly what this is. Or you may need to ask more questions of yourself and those who know you and do some exploring and thinking about this.
How To Think About Opportunities To Build Your Story
Let’s say you’ve identified a passion of pursuing social justice in the area of racism. You know these stories are all over the news. You can be sure that other students who are interested in this subject are volunteering for non-profits that draw attention to the cause. You could do this same kind of volunteering which would be valuable. Or you can make decisions to differentiate yourself from all those students and get experience from different perspectives. Some options would be to volunteer with a local police department or ask to interview officers about their personal experiences and publish your own research findings. The more you can identify multiple sides of an issue, the more well-rounded and strong your personal story will be.
Make A Plan
Finally, before your summer vacation starts, make connections with the right people who can offer you the internship, provide the experience, and allow you to grow in ways that other students won’t have the opportunity to. Unless you’re one of those rare students who knows exactly what they want to do, you’ll need some help with this. Be sure to partner with your parents and get their help connecting with the professionals in your community who can help you. Also, Google summer programs in your area of interest. Getting on campus during the summer and getting exposed to college-level ideas will strengthen your story and take your own thinking to the next level. For instance, if creative writing is your thing, Kenyon College in Ohio is the place to spend a couple weeks over the summer. All of the strongest college creative writing programs look highly on students who have participated in the Kenyon summer programs.
An Aside: Military Academies
Getting into one of the military academies doesn’t happen by chance. Make sure you review the section on the military academies in the Complete Guide to Financing and Admission section of CollegeTicket. You need to do some disciplined and focused planning starting now if you want a chance at making the military academy a reality. Get in touch with me at if you would like to talk to someone about this. I’ll connect you with the right person.
Recommendation Letters Confirm Your Story
A little over a year from now you'll be applying for college. As part of the application you’ll need to get recommendation letters from your guidance counselor or parent if you’re home schooled, one or more teachers, as well as coaches, mentors, managers, or other people who know you well enough to talk about your strengths.

As you think ahead to college you'll want to show the college admissions counselors where you excel in your personal life. This might be a musical or athletic skill. Or maybe volunteer experience you've had with veterans, handicapped children, or inner-city youth. Perhaps you've started a landscaping business. Or you've won poetry contests or chess competitions. Wherever it is that you've excelled you should get a recommendation letter that speaks to the contribution you've made. This will help the college admissions counselor get a clear picture of the contributions you will make to the college if you decide to attend.

What are we talking about? Here's an example of a pretty good recommendation letter with some annotations pointing out the different parts of a good letter.
So how do you go about getting a recommendation letter? It's pretty straightforward. You start by asking. You ask a person in a position to comment on the contribution you've made.
  • If this is an academic strength ask your teacher
  • For contributions in competition ask your coach, a referee, or a judge
  • If you've volunteered, ask your manager or director or even someone you've helped
  • You can ask your customers directly for recommendations for work you've performed if you own your own business
You can manage and track your recommendations through CollegeTicket directly. Login and go to My Portfolio => Recommendations. You'll be able to send an email directly to the person you want to get a recommendation from. You'll also be able to track if they've responded to the recommendation. If you're given a hardcopy of a recommendation or a PDF, you can scan it and upload it to your profile so you have all these in one place. Getting recommendations now will ensure
  1. you get fresh and accurate letters from the people you ask
  2. save you a lot of time in your senior year because you won't have to remember who to ask and figure out how to find them
  3. allow you to choose from the most relevant recommendations for your college application
Recommendation letters should be focused on the one or two skills or traits you want to highlight about yourself. To make it easier for your recommender, provide specific direction about the kind of detail you would like in the recommendation. Getting a recommendation that is very general is almost worse than getting no recommendation at all. It says the person didn't really know you or the value you contributed.

For instance, if you play center for a football team you may ask the coach to include details like
  • He spent the off-season building up his stamina with daily aerobic workouts and his strength by hitting the weight room 4 times a week
  • He connected well with the quarterback and did not miss a snap in the last two years
Or if you won a poetry competition ask your teacher or tutor to include details like
  • She asked me to work with her over the summer to hone her ability to choose the right words
  • We read and discussed the poetry of Keats, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare as she developed her winning submission
Here's an example of a letter you might write asking for a recommendation
I think you get the idea. The more specific the recommendation, the more the college admissions counselor can trust your application.

And because people are busy, I would even suggest writing a draft of the recommendation that you want, and then forward that to the person you're asking. Let them know that you've provided a first draft and they can edit as they see fit or start from scratch if they would like. Your goal is to get a solid recommendation, and making the processes as easy as possible will help this go smoothly.

After you receive the recommendation be sure to send a thank you card and let them know how grateful you are for their help.

As always, you can contact me at with questions that we can answer in a future newsletter. 

Have a great week!

Andy Erickson
President and Founder, collegeticket
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