controlBy PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local


Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Check out the archives for her tips on writing a meaningful essay, building a college list, finding financial aid, and more at For information on essay coaching, visit, and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram.


There’s a new volume on the College Admissions bookstore shelf, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit (Admissions Mom LLC, 2019). I’ve looked to the author, Carolyn Caplan, many times for admissions advice because her views on the application process are, well, just plain sensible. Hey AdmissionsMom benefits from Carolyn’s experience as moderator of the subreddit ApplyingtoCollege, which has 125,000 followers, most of them high school students. 

One of Carolyn’s favorite topics is mindfulness and taming what she calls the College Application Stress Monster. That monster is fueled by the high expectations students place on themselves but, Carolyn says, some practical reframing of those expectations can help tame the beast. She’s identified five ways that she’d like to see college application vernacular reframed.

  1. Find your inner Shrek. Carolyn advises not fretting so much about standing out. Instead, aim to have your application reviewers connect with you by opening up in your essays and being vulnerable when your writing allows it. “Peel back the onion layers and allow the reviewer into your life,” she says. 
  2. Be you. There is no one else who thinks exactly like you. So when you allow the reader into your head and share your thoughts about life and the world around you, you are being unique.
  3. Substitute passion with exploration. The word passion is thrown around constantly in the context of applying to college. But what if you’re not feeling any passions yet? What if you’re simply doing stuff that interests you?  Or what if you don’t even know what interests you yet? Explore and try new stuff. There’s no shame in starting something and then dropping it when you find something more interesting. Some kids have passions they’re devoted to, which of course is OK. In the end, it’s about being authentic. 
  4. Be star-shaped. Carolyn encourages students to shoot for being somewhat well-rounded but with some spikes — like a star — by pursuing four or five activities that interest and excite them. Be who you are—that’s what colleges want. She adds: “If being you means having one big spike or it means being a perfectly round ball, then that’s totally fine.”
  5. Find your Dream You — not your Dream U. Going to college is not about finding the school of your dreams; it’s about finding the you of your dreams. “Find the best version of you,” the author says. “When you’re drooling over that perfect school with a perfect campus and perfect classes, you’re not dreaming about any one school; you’re dreaming about who you want to be and where you can become who you want to be. There isn’t only one Dream School where you can do that.”  Think deeply and figure out what it is about that certain school that makes you think it’s your dream school. Remember, your dream isn’t a college — it is in you. 

Carolyn offers a reality check for how to think about your application. She points out, for instance, that you can control your essays, activity descriptions, grades, and test scores. What you can’t control is the number of other well-qualified students you might be competing with.






Nor can you control the institutional needs of the colleges on your list; or the mood, preferences, or predilections of their application readers. And you cannot control what colleges are looking for on the particular day they read your application. Learn to let go of those aspects of the process that are beyond your power.

Focus instead on controlling the person you are becoming, and on putting together the best application you can, one that reflects who you are. 

To reach out to Carolyn and for information on where to find her book, visit