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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Segment #8: Planning, Letters of Recommendation & Timeline. A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.

Episode summary introduction: Segment #8 of the 10-Segment Podcast Series to help students in 11th Grade build standout US College Applications. This segment takes time to recap previous Segments, to discuss Letters of Recommendation and Timeline Planning. Subscribe for Assignments.

In this segment, Athena Lao leads us through the discussion.

In particular, we discuss the following:

  • Recap of the Past Segments
  • How Students should Organize themselves
  • Tips for Responses on College Applications
  • 5 Things about Letters of Recommendation
  • Timeline Planning

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introduction to Segment #8 [0:57]
  • Recap of Segments so far [2:40]
  • How Students should Plan [4:42]
  • Tips for Application Responses [10:02]
  • 5 Things about Letters of Recommendations [14:01]
  • Timeline Planning [24:55]
  • Call 2 Action - Subscribe for Assignments [30:28]

Our Guests: 

Memorable Quote: “When they say something is due 11:59pm, what does that actually mean? So that means on the day that is due,  for example, November 1, when it hits 11:59pm in your timezone. Your timezone, not East Coast America or West Coast America or whatever.” Athena Lao.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.

Recommended Podcasts: Segments in this Series.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Athena Lao  0:14

A lot of times students asked me, Athena, does it matter that I have a teacher from a stem subject? You know, science, math, whatever, and a teacher from English, humanities, social sciences, so that I show that contrast? Or is it okay that I have two math teachers provide recommendations? So my answer is that complementary subjects would be great. So showing that contrast and your ability to excel in a variety of fields, not just one. That is, that's helpful, because in college, you won't just study one thing, you'll study many different things.

Venkat  0:57  [Introduction to  Segment #8]

That was Athena Lao with a College Application Tip!

Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.

This is the 8th Segment of our 10-Segment Podcast series - A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.

In today’s Segment, we want to give you a chance to pause, review and prepare a plan to get your applications done by the end-of-year deadlines.

To that end, we will cover the following:

  • Key Takeaways from the Past Segments on Building Standout College Application;
  • How to Get Organized
  • Tips to Respond to questions on the College Applications;
  • 5 Things about Letters of Recommendation; and
  • Timeline Planning.

To guide us today, we rejoin the one and only, Athena Lao, Head Mentor at Admissionado.

Let’s get started.


Venkat Raman  2:03  

So hey, Athena, welcome back. You seem to be on these segments almost every month. Yeah, yeah, that's part of the plan, I think. Um, but anyway, I think this is a good time, we are in late August, it's a good time to just take a pause and sort of recap what we've covered so far in the previous segments. And maybe you could just highlight some of the key points that we've made, and things that, you know, students need to pay attention to.

Athena  2:40  [Recap of Segments so far]

For sure. I think that if folks have been following along for the past eight months or so, first of all, thank you. Thanks to those listeners, we've come a long way. I think the biggest thing to remember out of all of this that you might not hear anywhere else is to remember SPARC. So remember that these are the sets of personality traits, that if you're able to convey at least two or three of them, maybe all four of them, I'm not sure. But you're able to convey as much of those traits that spark as possible to colleges, throughout your application, you are going to get into a great school. And the reason I say that we should pay attention to that is because a lot of times we focus on the details and specific essays and this or that. But really, when you're done, when you're about to hit submit for your your application, read through with SPARC in mind. And if you have this vision of what you're going to present to colleges, then that means you've done well. So by this point, in our journey together, you should have some working idea, some idea of what spark you're going to show to your colleges. We've also talked with everyone about essay topics that they they might have in mind how they can approach that process, it should draw from SPARC. And you should also have an initial list of schools that you hope to apply to. It's totally okay if you don't have the complete list if there are one or two schools or three or four that are on the maybe list at this point. But make sure you know which ones are your top choices, because you'll want to know the earliest deadlines and make a strategy for applying to them and plan out accordingly.

Venkat Raman  4:30  

What should a student be doing now? What are some things they could start prepping for?

Athena  4:42  [How Students should Plan]

Yes, the first thing I would say is to open up Excel or spreadsheet, Google Sheets, whatever your favorite thing is, maybe even Google Docs or your your calendar. Because you need to get organized. That is the very first thing you need to do.

So assuming that you have a Working Vision, you have some essay topics you have some schools you want to apply to first take that list of schools that you want to apply to, and look up when the deadlines for their applications are. Because you'll need to work backwards from those deadlines to understand how much time you need in order to finish essays. And to get everything together.

I also encourage people to plan around your existing big commitments. So if you know when your upcoming exams are, if you have finals, if you have any competitions, or family events or something else in your life that you know is going to happen.

Plan around those so that you don't have to worry or be stressed out during those times that you're not able to work on your college applications.

If you are applying early action or early decision, those deadlines are usually November 1 or November 15. If at the time you're hearing this, you know, for those of you hearing this, you need to start asap. Don't Don't delay once you finish this official podcast for us, obviously, but then start figuring this out opening up your spreadsheets as soon as you can.

If you're applying regular decision, those deadlines tend to be in early January through February, you have a bit more time. But I do not recommend delaying, I still think it's always a great idea to plan out your work and to understand, you know where where you're crunch times with your other commitments will be. And I've also found, I mean, this is a very us specific reference I'm making but you know, for us, we have Christmas and we have new years. And those tend to be holidays where people are doing things with their families, I'm sure it might be similar in other countries as well, and you have other holidays too. But you want to be done by those times.

So if you want to be done in time to enjoy the start of 2022, let's say then that means you need to start now. So that's the very first thing is getting organized with whatever method works best for you.

Athena  7:09  

The second thing is to understand how you apply to the school, that might seem really easy, but sometimes we forget that, you know, you just start the application and figure out which platform it's on. So you have the common application, you have the coalition application, you'll be able to see when you search on the admissions websites for the schools you're applying to which application systems they use. So make a count on those. I know that other some schools like in particular, the University of California systems, or Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, etc. and Georgetown and MIT, these are examples of schools that have their own unique application systems. Make sure you understand, click through and know what they're asking for. And each platform that way, even if you're not, you know, even if you're only looking through just to see what are their transcript requirements or recommendation requirements, or what are all the essay questions that they're asking, you know, here's some biographical information that they asked about my family. And I need to figure that out. As long as you have a sense of that now, and you compile those questions earlier on, that will save you a lot of hassle later. So it's still progress to just make an account on the platform and start adding school. So I urge everyone to do that ASAP.

Athena  8:35  

Finally, you should understand how to get a copy of your transcript and any standardized test scores that you want to share with schools. Often schools need to have those materials by the time you apply. Some schools will accept it after you apply. Some schools don't need official paperwork until you're admitted and you decide to go to their school. So every university is different. Make sure you read their admissions website thoroughly. So you know when the deadlines for those materials are, and then talk with your school, go to the College Board website or you know, whatever website you're needing to look at to get to order your test scores and start that process sooner rather than later. Yeah, so I think if you do all these things, you will set yourself up for a successful application process. And at the very least, you'll know where everything is on your computer, which is always very helpful.

Venkat Raman  9:33  

No question.

Venkat Raman  9:39  

Fabulous. So that's, that's a good set of tips and instructions for people. Now you mentioned Common App, and maybe some pointers about some questions in the common app that students could ….. or you know, maybe consider them a certain way.

Athena  10:02  [Tips for Application Responses]

Yeah, of course. And I think that the tips that I'm about to give, they apply to any application platform that you might be using. So.

Athena  10:15  

One big, the biggest thing goes back to what I said earlier, is answering this question of how do you best represent yourself. And the way that you best represent yourself is through Spark. So if you understand that this is the angle, this is the narrative that you're sharing with schools about what makes you great, and what will make you a fantastic contributor into their school, then, as you read through whatever application you've written, you'll be able to think, Okay, well, have I conveyed that to the best of my ability? If the answer is no, you got to make a few tweaks. But if the answer is yes, then that's good. That's a great feeling to have.

Athena  10:56  

In terms of what, you know, a lot of times students asked me Okay, well, should I include this should I include that? Sometimes are optional essays are optional spaces to include more information, and students often ask me, okay, do I need to actually write something there? is optional, actually mean required? And that's a great question. Because sometimes it's it's not clear. But in this case, optional, truly means optional. So you always want to strike a balance in showing your best self, and representing yourself through SPARC, making sure that any activities or hobbies or grades or opportunities you've taken advantage of in your high school career, that they all work up to this narrative, this spark narrative that you created, but it doesn't mean you need to overshare or repeat something in all the different optional spaces they might give you, or just write more and more and more, just because you think that might help your your cause. Quality over quantity definitely applies here. So if you think you have something to share about, say, your background, or some activities that you didn't get enough space for in the main activities list, for example, or in some other part of your application, then certainly use those optional spaces to provide a bit more information. But sometimes less is better than more.

Athena  12:28  

Another question, yeah. Another question. In related to this, that students ask is, you know, I have had a lot of certificates from things I participated in one, etc. Should I send those to schools? How do I send them, definitely do not send them to schools, schools do not want those at all. It's really, I mean, it is an honor system in the sense that they're not going to check every single thing you've written and ask for proof of it. But, you know, they're going to see throughout your whole application, if what you've talked about makes sense in terms of your essays and activities, and the recommendations and how all of those work together. Certificates will just be extraneous materials, it'll just be more for them to read. So imagine yourself in the seat of an admissions officer, right? And then you have to read 1000 applications, maybe more. If one kid has given you 50 extra certificates that they want you to look at, that doesn't actually provide more information to them, right? And that just makes them a little bit more annoyed. So don't be that kid don't send more than you actually need to.

Venkat Raman  13:39  

So I think one of the things I think we haven't talked about in our segments is about letters of recommendation. Right? And so what are some things to consider while trying to get those letters of recommendation?

Athena  14:01  [5 Things about Letters of Recommendations]

With LORs, there are five key things that you have to remember. So first is how many you need. Second is who they can be from. Third is what they should prioritize and sharing with the school. The fourth thing is, who is my counselor and how do I get that recommendation? And the fifth is how will you submit the recommendation?

Athena  14:26  [How many do you need?]

So the for the first question, how many do you need, you'll need anywhere from zero to three. There are some schools like the University of California system that do not allow for any recommendations, so nothing needed there. Other schools will require one to two from from people who have taught you in an academic setting, so that usually means a teacher from your school, and other schools will allow you to submit a third or fourth recommendation from people who know you outside of school. So that could be someone from an extra curricular setting, or, you know, research, volunteer work, anything like that, where you've had deep engagement.

Athena  15:15  [Who can they be From?]

For the second question, you know, elaborating more and who they can be from, for the teacher recommendations, that the board for recommendations from an academic setting, they really do mean teachers from your school. So think about people who have known you, in the past, or have taught you in junior or sophomore year, junior year, so that third year of high school is usually best because it's right before you're about to apply for university. Think about teachers that you have a really strong relationship with, and that if you ask them outright, hey, I loved your class, you think you could write me a strong recommendation for ex school? That, you know, they would say? Heck, Yes, Yes, I can. If you don't think that they can do that, then, you know, either you have to work on your relationship with other teachers that you might have had in the past, or that you might need to provide a refresher of why you enjoy their class and you know what you're aiming for now, or if you have a teacher during your fourth year, your senior year of high school, maybe that can be a way to, to build the kind of relationship you need to get a strong academic recommendation. For these other recommendations outside of school, I would say that, it should be someone who's seen either your leadership or your curiosity and how it plays out in ways that aren't expected outside of class. So I've mentioned research before, if you've been doing some really great scientific research, or working in a lab, you know, the person who mentored you through that, or taught you the process, that could be a good person to ask, if you love music, or if you're on a sports team, and you're part of an orchestra or a band, you know, this, your rugby team, whatever, maybe your coach or your teacher can speak to that right? It could be someone who knows your volunteer work through a nonprofit organization, or if you tutor kids out of middle school, maybe the teacher who you liaise with there can speak to that, as long as it's someone who's not related to you. We, they schools are willing to look at that. So just make sure it's not your uncle, your aunt or your mom or dad, or sister or your brother or whoever. Make sure it's all one of those people and you should be okay.

Athena  17:40  [Prioritize]

In terms of what you should prioritize. So a lot of times I'll speak first to the academic recommendations. A lot of times students asked me, Athena, does it matter that I have a teacher from a STEM subject? You know, science, math, whatever, and a teacher from English, humanities, social sciences, so that I show that contrast? Or is it okay that I have two math teachers provide recommendations?

So my answer is that complimentary subjects would be great. So showing that contrast and your ability to excel in a variety of fields, not just one. That is, that's helpful, because in college, you won't just study one thing, you'll study many different things. And you'll need to understand how to adapt to a diversity of different ways of thinking, and the classes you take. But if you can't do that, you know, it's okay. The most important part of all of this is enthusiasm. This might be a very American thing. But recommenders tend to speak in glowing, I would say sometimes even hyperbolic terms about students. So what I mean by that is, you know, they'll say, this is the best student I've had, in my 20 years of teaching, they were the best in the school, there's no one like the amazing you must have them at your school, that kind of thing. And I totally understand in different cultures, teachers, the way that you write about others might not be the same way. But I think if you're able to share that, this American style of writing with your teachers wherever you're based, right?

And if you're able to ask yourself, okay, well, can this teacher speak about me in glowing terms? Do they really know who I am? And can they talk about what I've done? And show as that? Can they show that I really am someone that this school should have, then you know, that's the kind of recommendation you want. If that's from two math teachers, it's okay. It's not the best, but it's better than having teachers from contrasting subjects that cannot really speak in a memorable way about you. Sure, sure.

Athena  19:58  [Counselor Recommendation]

The fourth recommendation, the fourth question I want to answer is, you know, what about this counselor recommendation. So in, in the US, it's really common for school for high schools to have a hired counselor. So someone who works with students on academic and mental emotional needs. Sometimes they even have people who are specifically hired to help with college applications for students. So this occurs in you know, more well resourced schools in the States, I know that in other countries, they might not, you might not have someone who's in that role.

So what you'll need to do, if that's the case, is to ask a school administrator, so someone like the vice principal, or the principal, you know, whatever is equivalent to those terms at your school, that's the person who will need to fill out this section.

And so what that involves is, they will need to make an account on the common application or the coalition application, and they'll need to fill out there, they'll have to fill out what they call a school report. So this shares information about what your school is, like how many, how many students attend, on and they'll need to provide more information about, you know, what, the general grade point averages, and you know, what kinds of subjects students tend to take, and where you fall in the middle of all of that. So that's the kind of information that they provide in the counselor rec. And a lot of times, this person will also be the main liaison with any universities that they need to speak to the counselor at your school. So I hope that this is, you know, a good impetus to talk to your principal or vice principal, if you haven't already. And you need to find a counselor recommender, for your application. And because they will be essential to this process.

Athena  21:57  [How do you Submit Recommendations]

And finally, how do you submit recommendations, I know that a lot of students ask me like, where where's the recommender section in the common application, for example.

So I will speak about the common application in particular, for that, you will need to pick the schools that you're applying to, and then within those sections for each school, you will see a section for recommenders, you'll need to, I usually recommend that students waive their right to see the recommendation, because that implies that you have not looked at it at all, and the teacher is writing freely about what they think of you. So that's a good thing to know, right.

And then once you get past that section, you'll be able to enter your teachers name, their email address, and their title. So for example, English teacher, math, teacher, etc, I would say that the email you should use it should be their professional one, really try not to use a personal email address, if that's what they give you. Just because you really want to show that they have a true connection with the school, that for the high school that you say you're from. So professional emails are always the best way to go.

And so once you click Submit, and you submit their names to the common app, then they will get an email with instructions and how to make an account and to upload their recommendation for you. And you'll be able to track how many teachers have received the email and have and then have submitted their recommendation for you don't need to do it before, or they'll need to do it by the time that you are by the application deadline. If they need an extra day or two, that's really, really try to avoid that. it's incumbent on you as the student to follow up with them. And ask them if they need anything. Teachers are really busy people, there might be multiple students asking them for recommendations. So show your proactiveness show your organizational skills, make sure that a week or two before you know if they need anything, that you're able to provide that to them, remind them up when the deadlines are, and you'll be fine. By so if you're able to, to do all of these things, then you will get a great recommendation, I'm sure.

Venkat Raman  24:24  

Great. So thanks for walking us through those five steps.

Venkat Raman  24:34  

Okay, so as a student now, I'm sort of doing some pre planning and trying to figure out all these items and things introduced that I need to take care of, what's the best way to manage it from an execution point of view, given that I have the next three, four months ahead?

Athena  24:55  [Timeline Planning]

Yes, I always say that better to panic and stress out now, rather than later. At least you have a little more time to extend those feelings out. So I'm, I'm not kidding. But, um, in terms of the timeline, so I would say right after you finish this podcast, so within the next week, do what I said in terms of getting organized, getting your spreadsheets, documents and orders, make a timeline, and, you know, make a plan for which school you're going to work on first.

Athena  25:29  

And then, and the reason, you know, you should think are some some tips for thinking about that, I would say that often, it's good to tackle the hardest thing first. So maybe the school that has the most supplemental essays, it might be good to at least take a look at them first, brainstorm some ideas, and at least get something on the document. And you can come back to it, but you know, at least if you tackle the hardest thing, first, it's a good feeling of progress that you're making. Um, so that's one strategy, there might be others that work for you. But make a plan, whatever that plan may be. So that you that within this week,

Athena  26:11  

And then by the end of September, make sure you've asked for your letters of recommendation, because teachers definitely need time to to do that. They might ask you, you know what it is that you need to talk about? So you'll need to think through, okay, if I asked my English teacher, my math teacher, and my, you know, my music teacher for recommendations, what is what is it that I loved about their class? And what is it that they would that I think they could say about me, if they they had to, teachers will really appreciate that information.

Athena  26:49  

And then you'll also want to make sure you finish at least 90% of your essays, I would say, and most of the application. And if you're able to do that, then they'll give you a whole month to really look over your application and see if you're conveying that spark quality that we keep repeating here. So yeah, if you're thinking about it ended September, that's not that far away. So you know, I would say, really think about how you will map out your week to get all that work done.

Athena  27:25  

So that leaves October. If you've done all this work, then by October, find, or throughout the month of October, find a trusted friend, a college counselor, whatever you want a parent, someone to read your essays and your application. And to give you some feedback. It's always good to get another pair of eyes, you might be scared to share, you know, something that you've written for colleges with another person, but it's always better to get that feedback, so that you'll have time to adjust accordingly.

Athena  28:02  

If you're applying for financial aid, those run on deadlines pretty similar to the application deadlines. And you know, they asked for detailed information about your family finances, etc. I know there's an upcoming podcast on this as well. But um, make sure you apply for financial aid and take the time to get to collect all those necessary documents. If you do all this, then by the early action deadlines of November 1 or November 15, those are the main ones in the US. You'll be ready and you won't feel stressed and you won't be working until 11:59pm when the applications are due, and feeling that panic.

Athena  28:47  

Oh well I guess the very last question that I get from people is you know when they say something is due 11:59pm what does that actually mean? So that means on the day that is due so for example, November 1, when it hits 11:59pm and your timezone your timezone, not East Coast, America or West Coast America or whatever. If it says 11:59pm your timezone, they really mean it. It will, the application will lock on the common app and you won't be able to access it or change things. You know if you if you miss a deadline, so be mindful of that be mindful of what time things are due. And avoid any technical issues that are unnecessary. I know that sounds like a lot. But if you start now, you get organized by this week. You work on the majority your application by end of September and then you seek feedback and make small adjustments through October. You're going to do great.


Venkat Raman  29:51

In this Segment we discussed how students can get organized in order to meet the end of the year application submission deadlines.

We covered:

  • Key Takeaways from the Past Segments on Building Standout College Application;
  • How to Get Organized
  • Tips to Respond to questions on the College Applications;
  • 5 Things about Letters of Recommendation;
  • Timeline Planning.

As mentioned earlier, based on this Segment we have an assignment for students in the 11th standard/grade. You can get our Counselors feedback on your assignments.

Venkat  30:28   [Call to Action - Subscribe for Assignments]

Now, You have to Subscribe to get the assignments.

It’s easy To Subscribe.

Just email to podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] with the Subject: Assignments.

We will send you an email with instructions on the assignments.

As before,

Here’s a great deal for you:

Submit your Completed Assignments before our next Segment is published,

AND you will get a FREE review by Our Counselors.

So, hurry up!

Venkat  44:36

This series is for high school students in their 11th Grade/Standard and who plan to apply to US Colleges at the end of this year.

This series is being created in collaboration with Admissionado, a US-based college counseling company.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Thank you again for listening to this podcast.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

US Colleges, College Admissions, College Applications, 5 Things about Letters of Recommendation, Letters of Recommendation, LOR

Is College in US for you?