College essays need personality (and some guts)

I did an essay workshop at a local high school today, at the end of which, a senior approached me a question.  He was debating between two stories to write in his essays and wasn't sure which one was the best choice, so I asked him to describe both to me. 

The first story was about being a troop leader in Boy Scouts, how at first the younger kids didn't respect him, he had to earn their trust, it taught him about how to be a leader, etc. etc.  He didn't even seem to enjoy describing the story, so I couldn't imagine that he would enjoy writing it.

The second story was about the time he and his friends entered a talent show competition in which they reenacted a 1990s boy band act.  Apparently, they spent hours watching videos to learn the dance moves, recreating the costumes, and perfecting their four-part harmony.  Even as he described it, he was animated, and his personality was coming out just telling the story.

Neither of those topics is inherently good or bad.  And whichever one he chooses, he'll need to tell an effective story that helps readers get to know more about him.  But I can tell you this–every year, thousands and thousands of college applicants write stories about leadership, perseverance, commitment, and other supposed "valuable life lessons" that they learned  Most of those kids didn't actually think those deep, reflective thoughts during and after those experiences.  And most aren't excited about those stories; they're just relating what they think the admissions office wants to hear.  Do you have any idea how many, "My trip to Europe broadened my horizons" and "Community service taught me the importance of helping others" admissions officers have to read every year?

The best college essays are about topics that make the writer tick, that give a glimpse into some part of your life (sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part).  Those essays almost write themselves because you are so engaged in the story.  It doesn't matter whether it's about a life-threatening illness or working a part-time job at a hamburger stand.  It's the energy behind the topic that's contagious and can move an admissions officer.

This student was excited about his boy band story.  So I told him to go with it.  When in doubt, write what you want to write.  Inject your personality.  Write something that if your best friend read it, she would acknowledge that it sounds exactly like you. 

It takes guts to write what you want to write, but that's a lot less risky than giving them what you think they want to hear.

Best of Our Blog Posts for Seniors

We spend a lot of time writing about how to apply and get in to college.  So if you’re a senior trying to figure out how write your essays, how to fill out your applications, or even now to have a great interview, chances are, we’ve already written something about it here.

To save you the trouble of searching our blog, here are ten of our best past blog entries for seniors.  Enjoy, and best of luck on your applications.

1. Five Things Seniors Should Never Do When Applying to College

2. Stay On Their Good Sides      

   Tips to help you make sure you don’t
unintentionally annoy admissions officers

3. Five Things Seniors Can Still Do To Help Them Get Into College

4. College Essay Dos and Don’ts

5. How to Ruin Your College Application

    Sharing some advice from Jay Mathews at the Washington Post

6. Why Parents and College Essays Don’t Mix

7. Five Things Every College Wants You to Be

    And even if you’re a senior, it’s not too late to be them.

8. Inside the Admissions Office

    A reminder that admissions officers are just regular people.

9. Attack of the Killer Cliches

Please oh please, think twice before you write that essay about that one time you worked on a blood drive.

10. The One Thing You Need to Know About

College interviews, essays, getting in to college today–we’ll break them down and share the most important thing you need to know about each topic.

The more things change…

At one of our Collegewise Back to School Nights last week, we were discussing how much pressure kids (and parents) are feeling surrounding the college admissions process today.  A father asked this question.

"When I was in high school, I only applied to two colleges, and got in to both of them.  What's changed?"

It's a good question.  Why are colleges so hard to get into now?  What's caused all this change?

On the one hand, a lot has changed.  There are more kids are applying to college today than ever before (we're just finishing the post-baby boom, with over 3 million kids graduating from high school this year).  And unfortunately, a lot of them want to go to the same 40 schools, schools whose capacity for students hasn't changed much, if at all.  So the applicant pool is growing, but the number of spots at the most selective colleges has remained the same.  It's the law of supply and demand at work, and that's very different from the college admissions landscape of 20-30 years ago. 

But at the same time, not a lot has changed.

A student can still take the SAT just once and accept whatever score he
gets.  He can still apply to just two colleges, get in to both of them,
and go to one.  And he can do all this without perfect grades, perfect
test scores, or a legal proof that he invented photosynthesis. 

But he just can't do that if the two schools are Georgetown and
Northwestern.  Or Amherst and Williams.  Or Berkeley and UCLA.  Or
Stanford and Yale.  Or Swarthmore and Tufts.  Or Columbia and Cornell.  Or Boston College and Notre Dame.  Or Duke and Michigan.  Or any of the other schools that reject 60-90% of their applicants.   

The competition for admission has changed dramatically at the nation's most selective
colleges.  But there are over 2,000 other colleges from which to choose
and all but about 100 of them accept almost all of their applicants.

It's up to you.  You can buy into the thinking that a more selective college means a better education and the promise of a successful life beyond college (we'll disagree, but you can believe it).  Or you can spend more time finding the right college for you where you'll be happy and successful, one who will gladly take a kid who doesn't necessarily have straight A's, where your potential to contribute is worth as much or more to them than your grades and test scores are. 

Not everything has changed since Mom and Dad applied to college.

How to be a good audience member

I do a lot of speeches for high school kids.  And I've noticed something about audience members.  If you sit up, pay attention, give me eye contact, and maybe even write some things down that I'm saying, it sends me a message.  It tells me that you're here because you want to be, that you've got your act together and that you're serious about getting in to college.  And it tells me that you're expecting something from me.  It makes me work even harder to make our time together worth your while.  I'll give you more attention.  I'm more likely to call on you when you ask a question.  I'll feel like you owe you something in return (because I do).    

This isn't a post about paying attention to me.  It's a post to remind high school kids that how you behave sends a message to the world.  If you look and act bored and disengaged, that's how the world is going to perceive you.  If you spend most of your time in your high school English class sending the teacher a message that you'd rather be just about anyplace else but there, what do you expect her to do when you ask her to write a letter of recommendation?  Or if you miss an "A" by 2% and ask if she can raise your grade?  Of if you ask her to read your college essay and help you edit it?  What motivation have you given her to go above and beyond for you?

The engaged get more attention, more help, and more effort in return than the disengaged do.  

A few testing thoughts PSAT and SAT test-takers…

October is a busy month for standardized test-taking; juniors will be taking the PSAT, and a lot of seniors will be taking what for many of them will be the last SAT they will take in their lifetime (that milestone alone is worth celebrating).

For PSAT test-takers (and their parents), remember that the PSAT is just a practice test.  Its purpose is to show you how you would likely do on the SAT (which is NOT a practice test).  That means that even if you somehow managed to achieve the lowest PSAT test score in the history of college admissions, it can't hurt your chances of getting in to college.  Yes, for particularly great test-takers, the PSAT score is a predominate factor in determining your eligibly for National Merit Scholarships, but for most testers, the PSAT is nothing to stress about.  Do you best and use the PSAT for what it is–a non-threatening chance to test the test-taking waters and help you later make decisions about how to prepare for the SAT.

For SAT test-takers, I'd just like to remind you that your SAT score is not a measure of your intelligence or of your worth as a human being.  Lots of smart people struggle with the SAT, and lots of those people go on to be very successful during and after college.  So do your best, accept whatever score you get, and move on.  I don't mean to be flippant about this, and I acknowledge that the SAT is an important factor of admissions at many colleges.  But far too many students have had their confidence ruined by test scores that just wouldn't go as high as they'd like them to go, and you shouldn't allow yourself to be one of those people.  If you'd like some encouragement, check out some of the over 800 colleges who've decided that low SAT or ACT scores don't necessarily have to hurt your chances of admission to their freshman classes.

Give us Ninety Minutes, and We’ll Get You a Little Closer to College

Are you a senior (or a parent of a senior) who is applying
to college this fall?

If you answered an enthusiastic "YES!" to that
question and you live in Southern California or the Pacific
Northwest, we'd like to invite you to attend one of our FREE
college admissions seminars for seniors and their parents.

We'll be sharing some of the strategies we've perfected and
used to help nearly 3,000 students in our Collegewise programs get accepted to
college.  There is no cost and no catch–just good information for senior
families.

Click on your location below for a list of available
seminars.  Our free seminars tend to fill up quickly, but we'll save as
many spaces as we can for our loyal newsletter subscribers.

Select your location: 

Irvine,
CA
   Los
Angeles, CA
  Bellevue,
WA

We hope you'll join us!

PS:  Families already enrolled in the Collegewise
programs do not need to attend these seminars.  We'll see you at your next
meeting with us!

Staying Productive and Motivated

Graduating college seniors are facing a tough job search in a down economy.  But that doesn't mean you can't do something noteworthy while you're looking.  This blog post has some great ideas for ways to stay motivated and make yourself even more marketable for potential employers.  I'm posting it here for college grads, but also for high school students who might be looking for ways to spend a productive and fulfilling summer (in fact, it's reminiscent of our list of "50 Fantastic Summer Activities for High School Students").

College Essay Workshop at Palos Verdes High School

This summer and fall, we're offering our College Essay
Workshop on the campus of Palos Verdes High
School in Palos Verdes Estates, CA.  Students will not only attend our essay seminar, but will also have the opportunity to submit their UC or Common Application essays to us for feedback.  We're pretty excited about it.  The workshop tuition is $295 and PVHS students can enroll through the link at the end of this post.  We hope to see your student in the class!

[Read more…]

50 Fantastic Summer Activities for High School Students

The New York Times ran an article today about the National Young Leaders Conference–one of many organizations that offer high-priced summer programs for students, but that misleadingly market the programs as auspicious honors for which only a few outstanding students are selected.  It's a good reminder to be suspicious of any "honor" for which you have to pay (a lot) to receive.

You don't have to spend money on an expensive program to impress colleges.   Here are 50 fantastic summer activities you can do for free or almost free.  All of these are positive, productive and interesting to potential colleges.  Pick the one(s) you feel you could really get excited about, get going, and have fun. 

50 Ways to Spend Your Summer

  1. Take an interesting class at your local community college.
  2. Get a part-time job at the mall. 
  3. See how many books you can read this summer.  
  4. Work in your family's business.  Consider doing so for free.
  5. Think of ten people–teachers, coaches, family members, relatives–who deserve your thanks.  Write them a hand-written letter of at least one page expressing your appreciation and detailing how they've impacted you.  Tell them what you're going to do to make them proud and spend the summer doing it.
  6. Take saxophone lessons.  
  7. Coach little league.  Or basketball.  Or soccer.
  8. Work at a summer camp.  
  9. Volunteer at the local mobile health clinic, or the animal shelter, or the public library.  
  10. Tutor kids.  
  11. Start a business with your friends.   
  12. Set a goal that you are 99% certain you won't be able to achieve this summer.  Then go all out and try to achieve it as though your life depended on it.  You'll either get there or get much, much closer than you were at the beginning of the summer. 
  13. Learn how to write computer programs.  
  14. Read to the blind.  
  15. Teach something.  
  16. Learn to paint.  
  17. Pick something that really interests you and see how far you can go with it.  
  18. Take classes to become an emergency medical technician.  
  19. Learn sign language.   
  20. Pick a cause in your community that you care about.  Find groups who care about it, too.  Organize people. 
  21. Offer to intern for free someplace where the work seems interesting, like the city councilman's office, or an advertising agency, or the local newspaper.  
  22. Play guitar at coffee shops and see how much money you can make this summer. 
  23. Learn CPR. 
  24. Cook dinner for your family once a week.  Each time, learn a new dish that you prepare.  Write your recipes down and make your own family cookbook. 
  25. Volunteer to lead tours of local state parks.   
  26. Buy a college guidebook and learn as much as you can about 20 colleges you know nothing about today.  
  27. Raise money for someone or something that needs it. 
  28. Learn something that is pure fun, like bongos or hip hop dance or how to make your own purses (check out your local community colleges' "community education" programs). 
  29. Pick something you love and figure out how to use it to make contributions to others, like playing piano in a jazz band, teaching residents at a retirement home how to use a computer, or helping run the lights for a play at the community theater.  
  30. Work full time and give all the money to a charity of your choice at the end of the summer.  
  31. Pick a subject that fascinates you and challenge yourself to learn as much as possible about it. 
  32. Learn karate. 
  33. Teach karate. 
  34. Join a book club. 
  35. Organize a book club. 
  36. Go to your school principal and ask what you could do, for free, to improve the school.  You could paint a classroom, clean lockers, or refurbish the lunch benches.  Better yet, enlist five friends to do it with you.  Don't just tell colleges you want to make an impact.  Make one.  
  37. Set a goal to learn as many new things as possible this summer–facts, skills, concepts, etc.  Write a blog detailing what you've learned so you can share it with cyberspace. 
  38. Build an iphone app. 
  39. Master one subject or skill you currently don't know anything about. 
  40. Hold informal soccer conditioning workouts, or barbecues for the new student council members so you can get to know each other better, or meetings at Starbucks with your co-editors to brainstorm story ideas for the paper this fall.  Show colleges you can organize people and lead them.    
  41. Have a neighborhood bake sale for the French Club in which all sales are conducted in French.  
  42. Get a group of kids from the drama club together and enroll in an improv class. 
  43. Pick a classic author and read all of his or her works. Find out what all the fuss is about Twain or Hemingway or Plath or Dickinson. 
  44. Take the hardest college class you can find and enroll in it "not-for-credit" so you can challenge yourself with impunity. 
  45. Visit as many colleges as you can in a 30 mile radius of your house.  Take your friends with you.  Write your own reviews of each school and share them with people. 
  46. Learn to cut and style hair.  You'll be a savior during prom season. 
  47. Vow not to watch any TV this summer.  Not one single second.  Pick something cool and fun and productive to do instead.    
  48. Find a class offered at a local college that looks fascinating.  Email the professor and ask if you can sit in on a session or two just to experience what the class is like.  
  49. Train to run a 10k, or a half-marathon, or a marathon, or to do a triathlon.  And get your friends to join and train with you.  Consider raising money with your efforts and donating to a worthy cause. 
  50. Pick the five most enticing things on this list and do them.  At the end of the summer, email me at kevinm (at) collegewise.com and tell me about your experiences.  I'd love to hear from you, and if you give me permission, I'll share your story here on our blog.

Get Your Bagpipe On

Wooster There's so much to love about College of Wooster, and I'm not just talking about the fact that their mascot is the Fighting Scot and that the marching band wears kilts (though that is admittedly a very good start).

Today, I'll focus on just two things to love about Wooster.

1.  Wooster graduates fondly recount home football games in which the Fighting Scot marching band leads the team onto the field.  Thanks to the wonders of youtube,  you can now see it for yourself.  1:23 is where the mad rush to the field takes place.

2.  This isn't a school where you need perfect grades, perfect test scores, and a certificate proclaiming that you invented your own chemical to get in.  In fact, Wooster admits about 80% of their applicants.

For more information about Wooster (and my obvious affection for the Fighting Scots), here's my February 2007 blog post.