Tom Tonnesen, Director/Consultant

TOM TONNESEN, Director/Consultant of College Admission Pathways
  • 30+ years with the University of Wisconsin System
  • 3 children: Graduates of Princeton (B.A.), Penn (B.A.), University of Illinois (B.A.), UC, Berkeley (J.D.), and Harvard (MBA)
  • M.S. in History/Curriculum & Instruction
  • B.S. in History/Secondary Education
  • High school social studies teacher for 5 years
  • 2 years with the Wisconsin Technical College System
  • Member of Professional Organizations in the College Admissions Field

"Yes" Letter

You’re in! The “thick envelope” (or long e-mail) including all the reply forms and other documents has arrived. But are your decisions over? Unlikely… You may be fortunate enough to have received a number of “yes” letters. Now what? You and your family are on the precipice of, perhaps, the most important decision you will have to make up to this point in your life. How do you decide which school is the best fit for you? Since these letters typically include the financial aid decision, is there anything you can do to enhance a school’s offer? Can "apples-to-apples" comparisons of very different looking financial aid offers be made? How much time exists for you to make your final decision? Should you visit the school again? Are there alumni/ae or current students with whom you can talk? How best to communicate with the admissions and financial aid offices? CAPs can help!

Wait Lists

It’s nearing April 1, the traditional date for colleges to send out their admissions decisions. An e-mail arrives, or for those schools that use snail-mail, the “dreaded thin envelope"--usually a sign that the news is not good. Lo and behold, the decision to admit you has been deferred, i.e., you have been placed on a “wait list"--what I call admissions "limbo." Is it still worth trying to gain admission? Can a school's history of accepting wait-listed students be determined? If you are intent on turning your wait-listed status into a "yes," what strategies should (and should not) be pursued. CAPs can help!

Scholarship Searches

Nearly every college will provide you with a financial aid package, but this does not preclude you from searching on your own for scholarship and grant opportunities from both the private and public sectors. Where do you learn about such sources of financial support? Is it worth your time to do so? Depending upon the scholarship source, how do you learn the probability of being a chosen recipient? Should you pay a private company to conduct such searches for you? Have you investigated all community sources and your parents’ employers? Might any of your successes in winning private scholarship money affect the financial aid packages offered by colleges? CAPs can help!

Financial Aid, FAFSA, and CSS/Profile

The entire financial aid process is usually the most baffling aspect for parents as their children apply to college. It is often said that if you think IRS forms are confusing, wait until you see the FAFSA! Although there is an element of truth here, it need not be such an ordeal. What information does the FAFSA require? How do you navigate their website and application process? How is your information sent to colleges? Is it best to list resources in the parents’ name or the student’s? What do the acronyms EFC and SAR mean, and how will they affect the financial aid package you are offered? What about EdVest 529 college savings plans and student loan options? How will colleges inform you of their financial aid decision, and may you request a reassessment? If the college also requires submission of the CSS/Profile, how does it differ from the FAFSA? Do certain types of schools tend to provide more (or less) financial aid than others? The questions are endless, but CAPs can help!

College Visits & Admission Interviews

Big or small? Public or private? Urban or rural? In-state or out-of-state? Religious or non-sectarian? Your college choices are endless, but the one common denominator should always include a campus visit before you decide to apply. When is the best time to visit? Should you take the standard tour from the admissions office, or explore on your own? Whom should you talk to while on campus? In addition to academics, what should you learn about financial aid, housing options, career placement, meal plans, the social scene, the neighborhood or town? Should you request an interview with an admissions officer, or is this a requirement? How might you "wow" them in the interview? CAPs can help!

Application Essays & Personal Statements

Nearly all colleges require some sort of essay and/or personal statement. Typically, the more elite the school, the greater the number, length, and type of essays. These essays allow you to put a personalized stamp on your application, but how do you distinguish yours from the thousands of others that admissions officers must wade through? Should you brag or be humble? Serious or humorous? How might you incorporate your knowledge of the school and its mission into your writing? As the editor of nine books, Tom Tonnesen of CAPs specializes in improving and editing others' writing, helping you refine your essays to reflect your very best. CAPs can help!

Letters of Recommendation

Nearly all colleges require or encourage letters of recommendation. The viewpoint of adults who know you in different capacities can add much to the profile that schools are seeking to assemble about you. Whom should you ask to write these letters? What mix of personal references might combine to produce the most complete, accurate, and laudatory picture of you? How much lead time should you give your writers? Should the letters be confidential or shared with you beforehand? Should only the recommended amount of letters be sent, or will additional letters be helpful? How can you assist these individuals in writing the optimal letter? CAPs can help!

Early Decision/Early Action

Whether to apply to a college under its Early Decision (ED) and/or Early Action (EA) plan can be most confusing, especially since some schools offer both, some just one, and others neither. What do these terms mean? Do all schools define the terms in the same way? What are the advantages and disadvantages of applying under one of these plans? Are your chances of admission enhanced when opting for these choices? Does acceptance come with a binding agreement to enroll? What should you do if deferred to the regular applicant pool? How might your financial aid package be influenced by applying under one of these plans? CAPs can help!

College Application Forms

Just as the first step in "getting your foot in the door" for a job is a good resume, "hitting a home run" on the college application form is key to gaining admission. What strategies might be used to make your application both exemplary and noticed? Should you include a “laundry list” of all your activities and accomplishments, or winnow it down to only the most noteworthy? Should you apply using the Common Application or a school's own form?  If the former, do some of the schools require supplements? How can you best depict yourself so as to gain the attention of admissions officers, individuals who are swamped with similar looking documents and credentials? CAPs can help!

ACT - SAT & SAT Subject Tests

In the minds of many students (and their parents), standardized tests are the "holy grail" of the admissions process and decision. How much weight do colleges really place on your standardized test scores? Might their importance differ depending upon the type of school? Should you take the ACT, the SAT, or both? Should you take them more than once? Should you opt to take the ACT Writing Test? What SAT Subject Tests, if any, are recommended or required? How do such tests as the ACT EXPLORE and ACT PLAN help prepare you, and what do they predict? Are there schools whose admissions policies are test-optional? It is often said that you cannot study for standardized tests, but you can prepare, and CAPs excels in working with students to lessen test anxiety and maximize results. In all aspects of standardized test preparation and strategies, CAPs can help!

AP Courses and Exams

While in high school, taking the most rigorous and challenging courses you can handle is the wise path. Additionally, the College Board’s AP (Advanced Placement) program is recognized by nearly all colleges and universities, and strong AP test scores can save much in college costs by assisting you in graduating from college “on time.” Which AP courses does your high school offer? How many should you take each semester? Which AP courses make the most sense when considering your anticipated college major? Do all colleges treat AP exams and scores similarly?  Are AP scores used by colleges in admissions decisions, course placement, and/or the granting of credits? Most important, can one prepare for AP exams beyond what you learn in the high school classroom? CAPs can help!


The Preliminary SAT test also serves as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). This optional test typically is taken during the fall semester of your junior year, but it may be taken earlier and more than once. What does the PSAT measure? How is it organized? How do you register for this test? How might the test help predict your eventual SAT, and even ACT, score? Might this test put you on the “radar screen” of colleges regarding admissions, scholarships, and grants? Most important, how does one prepare for the PSAT in order to achieve maximum results? CAPs can help!

Community Service

At first thought, one might think that community service is a "soft" factor in the admissions decision. But when an applicant pool is chock full of students with high GPAs, class ranks, and standardized test scores, a seemingly insignificant item like community service may be the tipping point on your side. “Giving back” is important! Are you taking advantage of community service opportunities while in high school? Internships? Mentoring programs? Might your volunteer activities point you toward a college major and an eventual career? Depending on your desired colleges’ mission, history, and philosophy, what types of community service will show you at your best? CAPs can help!

Extracurricular Activities

Athletics, drama, student government, debate and forensics, band, school newspaper and yearbook, diversity, NHS, tutoring . . . the list of such high school activities is numerous, and will expand tremendously when you’re in college. How do such extracurricular activities factor into admissions decisions? Are you better off being a "jack-of-all-trades" or a "master of one" (or a select few)? Are well-rounded students what colleges seek, or is it better to show specialized expertise in a certain interest or activity? How does demonstrated leadership factor into the college admissions equation? Extracurricular activities help colleges see the real you, and can have a positive (or negative) influence on your admissions chances. How might you maximize your extracurricular "resume?" CAPs can help!

High School Curricular Choices

Colleges look most carefully at your high school transcript when making their admissions decisions. Not only grades are important; so are the breadth and rigor of your course choices beginning in 9th grade. Which subject areas do colleges view as the "core" areas? How much Math should you take? English? Physical Sciences? Social Studies? Foreign Languages? Business? Art and music? What about honors and AP courses? Weighted grades? International/AFS study programs? Should your anticipated college major influence your high school curricular choices? How might your high school's "profile" factor into college admissions? Does it make a difference whether you plan to attend a public university, private liberal arts college, etc.? CAPs can help!