Before you submit your college essay, translate it

A lot of the college essays admissions officers read really need to be translated.  They're technically written in English, but it's a different kind of English than most seventeen year-olds (and most adults, too) would ever use when trying to communicate with someone other than a college admissions officer.   

Here's a sample sentence, some version of which appears in thousands of college essays every fall. 

"My trip to Paris broadened my cultural horizons."

What does that actually mean?  Seriously, can you explain it?  What if the writer just wrote an honest, descriptive and punchy sentence like,

"Before my trip to Paris last summer, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'world traveler.'  I'd never been anywhere unless you count visiting my grandmother every summer in Bakersfield."

Now we know exactly what you're trying to say.  The translation cleared it up. 

Here's another example of a phrase admissions officers see all the time.

"I've played in the marching band for the last three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment."

Sure, it's technically English.  But what is this student trying to say?  That he learned hard work and commitment are important?  Did he really not know that before?  

Here's a translation:

"It's not easy to stand in the sun for three hours while holding a tuba and wearing a polyester uniform.  But that's what I've been doing after school for the last three years."

Now I get it.  And better yet, I'm interested.

I can't tell you how many times I've read a sentence like,

"In that moment, I found myself truly appreciating what it took to be a leader." 

Again, it's not that I don't understand the individual words; I just have no idea what the student means by them. 

A translation might be something like,

"About a month into my time as Senior Class President, a lot of people were mad at me. Even though I was trying my best and just wanted to make everyone happy, I learned my first leadership lesson fast–if you want the glory and fun of being in charge, you have to take the criticism when things don't go well.  It's part of the job.  It took a long time for me to get good at that part." 

Don't write a college essay that has to be translated.  Instead, translate it for your readers before you ever send it.  Here's how.

1)  Don't write like you're trying to impress someone.  This is one of those times when trying too hard is a bad thing.  If your friends would mock you for what you wrote, you might be trying too hard.  

2)  When you're revising your essay, read every sentence and ask yourself if this is something you would actually say out loud.  Imagine you were sharing your story in front of a group of adults you respected and were comfortable with.  As you read each sentence, ask yourself if you would express each thought in that way in front of the group.  If so, is what you wrote how you would say it?

3) Try to be as specific as possible.  At Collegewise, we call this "Owning your story."  To own your story means that you've written a college essay that nobody else could write.  And one of the ways you do that is to inject as much detail into your experience as you can.  Nobody can argue with the details of your story–they're yours, and as long as you follow tips #1 and #2 above, your details won't need to be translated.

             

Don’t let your parents do it all for you

(Paraphrased) question I got from a parent on the phone yesterday:

"My
son has an interest in medicine.  So I was thinking of sending him to
stay with family in India this summer, and he could do some volunteer
work there at a local medical clinic where our family has connections.  I
think there would be real value for him to experience a place where not
everyone has the advantages that he has, where he has to take the bus to
work and spend his days with people who don't have access to good
medical care.  How would the colleges view that?"

My (paraphrased)
answer:

"Anything your son does where he's helping other people is
a good thing.  And having his eyes opened to less fortunate populations is something I would never tell you not to encourage.  But if
he's really interested in being a doctor and making a difference, why
not let him seek out and secure those kinds of opportunities himself? 
Why are you doing it all for him?" 

Part of the value of taking on
anything in high school is the initiative you have to show to get
involved.  If your parents set everything up for you and all you have to do is show
up and do what's ask of you, you'll miss out on a lot of the learning you could have done.

This is not a parent’s job

I did a seminar for our Collegewise parents on Saturday called "College Admissions Support for Parents."  And I knew that one of the recommendations I was going to make might surprise them.

Accept that it is not your job to make all your student's college dreams come true. 

I know that might sound harsh, but fast forward in time for a second.  Imagine that five years from now, your daughter has a job interview after college and doesn't get hired.  It's a job she really wanted, too, and she's disappointed.  Sure, you'd likely be disappointed for her.  But would it be your job to march down to the office and complain to the boss that she should change her mind and hire your kid?

Ten years from now, if your son and his (now future) wife put an offer in for a house from they are outbid by another couple, will you make it your job to intercede and demand that his offer be accepted because he's such a good son?

Fifteen years from now, if your daughter were vying for a promotion at work, will you make it your job to swoop in, talk to her boss, ask what would improve her candidacy, and coach her through the interview process?

No reasonable parent would expect to control those situations for your kids.  At some point, your kids are out of your nest and in the real world.  You'll always be able to support and encourage them, but you can't control every outcome in your kids' adult lives. 

So why should a parent be expected to control the outcomes of the college admissions process?

Applying to college is a student's transition into life as an adult.  This is hard for a lot of good parents to face, but you will make it easier on yourself and your kids if you recognize what your job is not.

It is not your job to get your kid into the school he wants to attend; you can't make Yale say, "Yes."  It is not your job to protect your kids from the disappointment of college rejection.  You don't get to make admissions decisions any more than you will get to decide whether or not your kids get promoted at work when they're older.  No amount of parental love can control the outcomes of college admissions.  And the more you try to control it, the more likely you are to experience stress, frustration and even alienation from your kids who may feel like you don't trust them to do this themselves. 

So what is a parent's job during the college admissions process?

Cheer your kids on.  Encourage them.  Support their efforts.  Let them know that you'll be proud of them no matter which college they attend as long as they try and give it their best.  Be a sounding board.  Help them seek out good information and advice.  Celebrate their efforts independent of their achievements. 

Those are all things you can and should do.  They'll help your kids have more enjoyable and successful college application processes.  And they'll help you worry a little less knowing that you're doing your job well.

 

The science of college counseling

It's hard to judge your chances of getting into college based just on numbers.  The average GPA and test scores that colleges share often don't tell the whole story.  Sometimes they skew those numbers to improve their status in the college rankings.  And even when you're reviewing a school who shares its numbers honestly, if the college asks for other information, like activities, essays, letters of rec or an interview, then there's a human element to the evaluation that numbers don't measure.

But accurate numbers still have their place.  When one of our Collegewise students wants to know how she stacks up to applicants at Duke or Washington or Boston U or DePaul, we start by looking at the data for the class we worked with last year.  What were their GPAs and test scores?  How many AP or IB classes did they take?  And of course, where did they get in?  It adds a scientific element to the process that helps us be even more accurate as we help our students pick appropriate schools. 

Allison in our Irvine office is working on a behemoth project right now to bring together all of the admissions results from our four offices for the class of 2010.  Here's a peek at the project (I blurred out the names and high schools for each student).

Database picture2compress

When she's done, we'll have data on over 200 students from four different states, totaling over 1,500 college applications submitted for the class of 2010. 

We still think there's an art to picking the right colleges with kids based on factors other than numbers.  But the art works a lot more effectively when you've got the science right.

From our student of the month…

We recently started nominating a “Student of the Month” in our office.  But our nominations have nothing to do with grades, test scores or accomplishments; it’s all about the students’ attitude towards the college process.  Are they engaged in their college search?  Do they research colleges and try to find the right fit, even at schools they haven’t heard of?  Are they excited about the opportunity to go to college, even if the school isn’t a famous one?  Those are the students of the month we’re looking for.

Our most recent nominee has a good system for discussing her college choices with her parents.  Here’s what she told us:

I just have different conversations with each of my parents. My mom spent most of her college days in the UCLA library.  So when I am
considering a college, I tell her the first thing I look at is how vast their library is. With my dad, who claims to not even know where the library is at his alma mater, Oregon State (the “Harvard of the West”, as he constantly calls it), I tell him that the first thing I look at is how their football team ranked in the SCC or PAC-10.  Well it’s a good thing the University of Florida has both, or else they’d figure out my secret!

That’s a smart kid.

Bad writing in business…and college essays

Here's an excerpt from Jason Fried's article in Inc. this week, "Why is Business Writing So Awful?"

When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and
act like everyone else, you're saying, "Our products are like everyone
else's, too." Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party
and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night
long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many
businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet —
the marketplace?

Writing that sounds like everyone else is bad writing–in business, and in college essays. 

As Jason points out, bad business writing has phrases like, "Full-service solutions provider" and "Cost-effective end-to-end solutions" and "Provider of value-added services." 

Does any potential customer read those words and think, "Now THIS is EXACTLY what I've been looking for!!!"  No.  That writing doesn't help you understand what makes the product unique, what it can do that other products can't, or why you can trust its makers more than you can trust those at other companies.

Bad college essays have phrases like, "I gained valuable life lessons," and "I came to appreciate the value of helping others," and, "I improved my leadership qualities."  

No admissions officer will read one of those phrases and say, "FINALLY!  A kid who discovered that helping people is important!"   Those phrases aren't unique.  In fact, they're cliches.  They make you sound like every other kid who is applying.

If you don't want to sound like every other kid, don't write like every other kid.  Instead, write what you really mean.  Write it like you would say it if you really wanted to make a point.  Don't just write about things you think sound good; write what you really want to say.

Here are some examples from real Collegewise kids:

"Everything to do with horses smells bad.  They smell bad.  The saddles and blankets smell bad.  All of their shampoo and medicines smell bad.  So as a competitive rider, I pretty much stink all the time.  And it's absolutely worth it."

"Ten
minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on
a 19
year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac
arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for
the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do."

"I can make a mean hamburger.  In fact, I'm a professional.  I've got four years of professional hamburger-making experience." 

You are not like every other kid.  Your experiences are not like those of other students.  Don't let bad writing kill your uniqueness. 

So many colleges…

Excerpt from an email I received from one of our counselors yesterday:

I'm working with a kid who is looking at great colleges – Colorado College, Knox, Macalester – but can't narrow her list down to fewer than 20 schools.  She has researched all of them inside and out, and just loves something about each one.  I talked to her today about the importance of narrowing them down, both to limit the amount of work she'll have to do and because, ultimately, she'll have to choose one school anyway.  And then she said the best thing:

'"It kinda sucks that you only get to choose one, doesn't it?"

In one sentence, that kid just summed up how every student should approach college admissions. 

There are over 2,000 schools out there.  Don't fall for the scam that only the famous ones are worth attending.  Don't fall into the trap of believing that one college is your soul mate and the only place you could be happy.  Don't let the stress of college admissions ruin what should be a fun and exciting time.

Your biggest problem isn't getting in; it's choosing from all the available options.

The gong is in the mail

GongWe just ordered this gong for our office.  It's quite large (24 inches high by 22 inches wide) and we're pretty excited about it. 

We're big on celebrating during the college admissions process.  But we don't limit our celebrations to when the famous schools say yes to our students.  We think that efforts should be applauded independently of the outcomes.  When students work hard with us to find the right schools, write essays that help the admissions committees get to know them, complete thoughtful college applications with personality and maybe a little soul injected into them, and do it all months before the deadlines, that's worth celebrating–no matter which colleges say, "Yes." 

Enter the gong. 

From now on, when our students submit the very last of their college applications, they can get their gong on.  But not before then, as the rules on the giant poster on our wall will clearly state:

Did you just submit your last college application? Bang the gong!

Finishing your college applications is a celebration-worthy event.  So tell the world (or at least our office).  After you submit your final application, you will be invited to bang the Collegewise gong.

Gonging guidelines:

1.  You must submit your final college application before banging the gong.  

2. You may not, under any circumstances, launch a preemptive gonging.  To do so is both bad luck and bad form.  Premature gongers risk college rejection and alienation from your Collegewise counselor. 

3. There is no third rule. As long as you follow rules #1 and #2, well, commence gonging.

“I heard that…” = unsubstantiated rumor

Most statements that begin with “I heard that…” are suspect.

When I was in 7th grade, a student named Jano wasn’t at school one morning.  First people started saying, “I heard that Jano got hit by a car on his bike this morning.”  By lunch, it was, “I heard that after Jano got hit, he was gushing blood from his head while lying in the street.”  By the time I got to 7th period PE, it was, “I heard that Jano died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The next day, Jano was back at school.  Not dead.  Not bleeding.  Not even hurt.  I’m not even sure that he owned a bike.

When you know your source is credible, you automatically cite it because you want your audience to believe you.  So you lead with, “My stockbroker told me…” or, “My personal trainer showed me…” or, “I spoke with the head chef and she recommended…”

But “I heard that…” always means that you either don’t have a source, or you have an unproven source and don’t want to look stupid by citing him or her.

That’s why most college admissions questions I get from audiences at seminars that begin with “I heard that…” are usually followed by something ranging from partially inaccurate to absolutely ridiculous.

The “I heard that-s…” are usually citing a neighbor, or a fellow parent, or an uncle.  They’re almost never getting their information from a college admissions expert of any kind.

Nobody who got their information from a high school counselor or an admissions officer or a knowledgeable private counselor starts a question with, “I heard that…”  They cite the source.

I’m not saying that the college admissions process is so complicated and steeped in secrecy that it’s understood by only a select few; anyone can learn more about it if you take the time.

But you still shouldn’t take advice from, or make decisions based on the stories of, other people who are just sharing unsubstantiated rumors rather than real knowledge.

Seek out good sources of advice and information.  Read college guidebooks.  Visit colleges’ websites.  Go to college fairs.  Talk with admissions officers.  Meet with your high school counselor.  Read this blog and others you find helpful.  Talk to people you trust who really know what they’re doing.

But whenever someone gives you college admissions information that starts with, “I heard…,” ask them to cite the source before you make any changes to your college planning.

Still need a college to attend next fall?

According to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) "Space Availability Survey" released today, there are currently 226 four-year colleges who have room for freshmen and will still accept applications for fall 2010 admission (240 have room for transfers).  Almost all of them also still have housing and financial aid to give. 

If you still need a college to attend next fall, this is good news. 

The survey is here.  Thanks to Allison for finding it approximately two-and-a-half seconds after it was released.