Usually, the words “boot camp” conjure up visions of blood, sweat, and tears. 

But at Colorado Academy, College Boot Camp means something very different. For seniors preparing for life after CA, College Boot Camp is the cure for “application anxiety.”  

“Before College Boot Camp, I felt nervous about the application process,” CA Senior Alexander Archie says. “But after Boot Camp, all the stereotypes of applying—that it’s stressful, boring, and time-consuming—were broken, and I knew exactly what I needed to do.” 

“After Boot Camp … I knew exactly what I needed to do.” Alexander Archie, CA Class of 2018

The College Counseling Office runs five College Boot Camps in August during the week before school starts. Groups of 20 students come in each day for two-hour sessions guided by CA College Counseling staff. College Counseling Co-Director Cathy Nabbefeld started College Boot Camp more than a decade ago, when it became clear that many colleges were moving to use a “Common Application,” a digital application accepted by the majority of schools to which CA students apply. The emergence of a “Common App” meant that counselors were sitting one-on-one with students, repeatedly filling out the same application.  

“Before College Boot Camp, we were using our time to answer the same questions about the same application with every student,” Nabbefeld says. “Now, we can devote our time to giving seniors valuable individualized help with their personalized statements and recommendations.” 

With the experience he has gained in both college counseling (at several independent schools) and college admissions (at Middlebury College and Harvard University), Interim College Counseling Co-Director Bob Clagett can read the minds of CA seniors as he watches them sit down at their computers at Boot Camp. 

“There is the fear of the unknown before they start the whole process,” Clagett says. “What they quickly figure out is that it’s pretty simple.” 

At College Boot Camp, Associate Director of College Counseling Sara Purviance gives each student a comprehensive guide to the college application process, which is updated by CA every year. The seniors sit at computers, and then, as they work through the Common App, they are rewarded with digital green checkmarks to reflect successful completion of another section. Hands go up as they have questions. Nabbefeld, Purviance and Clagett work the room helping students.  For CA Senior Jess Brown, College Boot Camp was the key to efficiently and successfully completing the Common App. 

“I had started at home, but it was a waste of time, because I got stuck on things I didn’t know how to answer,” Brown says. “At Boot Camp, you could raise your hand and immediately get an answer.” 

“It’s reassuring for students to do this work in a small group,” adds Nabbefeld. “They are not panicking trying to do it alone at home; instead, they are with peers who have the same questions.”  

What are the frequently asked questions? Class rank would be one. Given the selective nature of admission to Colorado Academy, CA does not rank students, and counselors explain how to communicate that on the application. Other students ask about recommendations. “We walk through the steps of asking a teacher for a recommendation,” Purviance says. “We also discuss the many ways CA supports our students as they apply to colleges, and we talk about the importance of showing gratitude for the help they receive.” 

Another helpful tip that students pick up at College Boot Camp comes from Clagett, who says that seniors often don’t know they should list unusual activities outside CA. Every Boot Camp student listens intently as he tells the story of interviewing a Harvard applicant with outstanding academic credentials but few extracurricular activities, because he had been busy working full-time at Chuck E. Cheese’s.  

“That’s an example of an activity outside school that demonstrates perseverance and hard work,” Clagett says. “We accepted him.” 

The message to students rings loud and clear. Even though they are filling out the Common Application, the uncommon activity could differentiate them and showcase their individuality. 

For students experiencing college essay writer’s block, CA offers a half-day workshop with nationally recognized college essay expert Janine Robinson {}. She shares advice on writing Common Application personal essays as well as supplemental essays. Students have time to work on their writing and hear feedback on their ideas. They receive digital copies of her books, Escape Essay Hell: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays and Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked 

 For Brown, this was eye-opening. “She had a list of red flags that we shouldn’t write about,” Brown says. “She helped me realize that some essay topics you think are good—like mission trips you have gone on—may be too repetitive.” 

After College Boot Camp, CA seniors have mastered the Common Application and left with a sense of empowerment. They have also digested a strong message about the essence of a successful college application. 

“What we want to see come through on these applications are students who are being true to their authentic selves,” Clagett says. “When college admissions counselors read the application, they should say ‘I have a pretty good sense of who this person is.’”