How counselors and teachers can help students write better college essays

StoryFindersimage Earlier this month, we released our first book:  Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (Without Helping Too Much).    Here's some background on our essay process, why we wrote it, and what's included in the book.

How this book came to be

During the first few years of Collegewise, I could help every student with their essays by myself.  But as we grew from working with 20 seniors a year to over 200 and we opened additional offices, we had to find a way to replicate what I was doing.  I didn’t want something that would produce finished essays the way a fast food franchise churns out hamburgers.  We needed a system that could help 500 kids tell 500 unique stories all of which were genuine reflections of each writer.          

Today, we hire “essay specialists” and put them through a four-hour training program.  Students (and interested parents) attend a 90-minute college essay workshop.  Students complete a set of brainstorming questions at home, then come to a one-hour meeting with an essay specialist.  Our students then write their drafts and send them to us for feedback.  And we know exactly how to give helpful feedback without ever jumping in and doing it for the student.  One workshop, one meeting, and a couple rounds of editing means that in 2-3 weeks, our kids have completed several college essays.  That’s our college essay system that we explain in this book.

Why we wrote the book

We’ve shared pieces of our system at high school workshops, with teachers and counselors at regional NACAC conferences, and at in-service sessions at several trainings for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) teachers. But we’ve never had enough time together to say, “Here’s everything we do with college essays—take as much or as little as you want back to your schools and use it to help your kids.”  That’s what we wanted to do with our book. 

What’s included in the book?

1. What counselors and teachers need to know about college essays

The college admissions process isn’t a featured subject in most credentialing programs for teachers and counselors.  But a lot of English teachers and counselors are expected to be experts when they help students with college essays.  I don’t want to make the same assumption of expertise here.  Our book explains exactly how colleges use essays, the differences between a college essay and one written in a high school English class, and the most common mistakes students make on their college essays.  

2.  The Collegewise college essay workshop

We walk readers through each section of our college essay workshop that we teach to our students and parents, and that we share when we’re invited to speak at high schools.  

3.  The Collegewise essay brainstorming meeting

We explain exactly what we do in our one-hour meeting with each of our students to help them find good stories.  This chapter explains how to do what we do in that meeting.  We include our brainstorming questions and describe how we use them, outline what we do in a brainstorming meeting with a student, and share how we recognize a potentially good story. 

4.  How Collegewise gives essay feedback to students

This section shares our complete editing process, along with some tips to get the job done faster if you have a large caseload.

5.  Recommended college essay lesson plans 

We recommend different ways to use the materials depending on how much time a teacher or counselor has to spend with students.  If you want to use the entire system and you have the time to do the class, brainstorming and editing, take it all as is and get to work.  If you just want to do the class, or just help kids pick their stories, or just review what kids write on their own, use just those parts of the system.  And if you already have your own system that works well and just want to cherry pick components of ours that might be useful, pick away. 

6. Access to free resources

Readers are also given a link to access clean copies of our essay workshop handout (teacher and student versions), brainstorming questions, and samples of our essay commentary.  

The finished product

We’re really proud of our system and the book, and the feedback we’ve gotten from teachers and counselors has been great.  I even bought a copy for my mom, a former high school English teacher, just so she has something to show her friends, and even she liked it (though she’s admittedly a little biased).

Over 3,000 students have gone through our Collegewise program.  Thousands of other kids have heard us speak at their high schools or sent us their essays just for a second opinion.  We’ve been able to help students of all levels of achievement and writing abilities find and share interesting stories about themselves.  We’ve done it in a way that doesn’t violate the integrity of the process and that keeps kids completely in charge of their stories and their writing.  And now we’re hoping that lots of counselors and teachers will be able to do the same with our book in hand.    

Where to buy it

We self-published the book at Lulu.com and it’s available here for $49.95.  We know that’s not cheap for a book.  But with the access to clean copies of our downloadable materials, buyers aren’t just getting the book; they’re getting our entire college essay system that we’ve spent the last 12 years perfecting. 

We’re really proud of the finished product and believe that we’re now going to be able to help a lot of teachers and counselors guide their kids through the college essay process.

For colleges: Tell students what you won’t be to them

With over 2,000 colleges in the country, it’s just as hard for a lot of them to stand out as it is for the students trying to get accepted.   So why do so many colleges still rattle off generalities like, “We have small classes—in fact, our student/faculty ratio is 11:1.”  That’s just like a student writing an essay about how being involved in student government taught her to work with people.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not going to make an applicant—or a college—stand out. 

If you work in admissions and want to get students’ attention at high schools during your travel season this fall, consider this—try telling students what you AREN’T.

What would happen if a college rep stood up in front of a group of students and said,

“We’re one of the largest schools in the country.  If you’re looking for a peaceful, slow-paced college, a place where you have dinner at your professors' homes on a regular basis and your academic advisor only works with 20 kids a year, we’re probably not for you.”

Or…

“We don’t have a football team.  We don’t have fraternities or sororities.  If you’re looking for what most people would call the classic college experience, you’re not going to find it here.” 

Yes, you’ll lose the future interest of some of the students in the room.  But those lost leads were never going to enroll anyway.  The kids most likely to apply, to eventually enroll, and to love being on campus will be drawn to you.

And aren’t those the students you want anyway?

Five things sophomores should do this year

Now that you've left the freshman ranks, here are five things sophomores should do this year. 

1. Take the PSAT or the PLAN.

The PSAT and PLAN are the practice tests of the SAT and ACT respectively.  Your school decides which one to offer, usually in October.  And since the results of whichever one you take this year will never be used for admissions purposes, it’s a great chance to get some experience with standardized tests without feeling too much pressure.

2.    Don’t you dare worry about the results of the PSAT or PLAN.

Remember how I just said the PSAT and PLAN are both practice tests?  That means you shouldn’t worry about the results.  They don’t count for anything.  That might seem obvious, but a lot of sophomores (and even more parents of sophomores) see the results, immediately go to the testing equivalent of DEFCON 1, and rush to intensive test prep.  It’s not uncommon for smart sophomores to underperform on these tests (and your scores are compared with those of the juniors, so it’s normal to be technically below average).  You can address test prep later.  But for now, you should be focusing on other things like…

3. Practice being a good student.

Obviously, you want to work as hard as you can to get good grades.  But being a good student means more than just having a high GPA.  Practice participating in class discussions.  Raise your hand and ask questions.  If you need extra help, visit your teacher (don’t let your parents approach the teacher for you).  And those students who get A’s without seeming to try very hard?  Learn how to do what they do.  Here's  one past post, and another, that can help.

4.    Find activities you really enjoy.

Colleges don’t care which activities you do (or how many of them you do).  What they care about is that you find activities you love, then work hard enough to make an impact while doing them.  So don’t get involved in anything just because you’ve heard that it will “look good to colleges.”  Instead, find activities you really enjoy.  Whether it’s sports, clubs, journalism, a part-time job, community service, karate, taking art classes after school or anything else that’s productive and not covered by the criminal code, if you love it and work hard at it, chances are that colleges will appreciate your efforts.

5. Remember to relax and have fun, too.

The most successful people in the universe still make time to relax and have fun.  That’s how they recharge their batteries and refill their creative juices (two clichés in one sentence has to be a record, but I’m going for effect here).  It’s fine to occasionally sacrifice fun and even some sleep in the name of working hard and committing to your goals.  But you won’t find a college that expects you to totally abandon relaxation and fun throughout high school.  In fact, some very selective colleges even have essay questions that ask you what you do for fun.  So work hard, but be a kid, relax, and occasionally goof off, too.

College yesterday, and today

I’m heading to Austin today to hang out with two old college buddies.  Today, one’s a financial officer for our alma mater’s business school.  The other is a heart surgeon and the subject of a past blog entry.

But to me, they’ll always be my college buddies, the same guys who crammed into a 1991 Mazda 323 with me and three other friends (it’s not easy to fit five guys into a ’91 Mazda 323) and drove 2 hours to San Diego to see The Eagles reunion tour in 1994.  That's the sort of thing you do in college.  The cars (and the bands) may change, but the activities stay the same from collegiate generation to generation.

You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school to be successful…or to meet and keep great college friends. 

Product Highlight: How to make your Common Application a lot less common

CommonAppGuideImage Last week, we released “How to Make your 2011-12 Common Application a Lot Less Common:  The Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.”  Today, I thought I’d share a little more about the piece, how and why we created it, and offer up some suggested uses for students, parents and counselors. 

What was the big idea?

We knew the Common App guide was something that we needed ourselves at Collegewise.  Every year, our counselors sit down individually with our students to walk them through the Common Application.  Spending that hour with each of them helps our students get it right the first time and lets us share our advice that’s come from years of helping students and, for many of our counselors, from reading Common Applications as admissions officers.

But some of our counselors have more experience with the Common Application than others.  How could we make sure we all had access to their perspective?  How could we best train new counselors who needed to learn the Collegewise approach to the Common App?  And what about those students whose schedules limit the number of meetings they can have with us?  How could we distill all our best advice and put it into one easily accessible place where any Collegewise student or counselor could access it?  We knew our Common App guide could address all of these issues.  And we knew if it helped us, it would probably help other students and counselors outside of Collegewise, too.

The process

After the 2011-12 Common Application was released in July, we held two 2-hour trainings at our office in Irvine for our counselors and assistant counselors.  Allison walked us through every line of the Common Application and addressed all the common questions our students tend to have.  Arun then shared all of his insights he’s gained after spending years reading Common Applications as an admissions officer, and then from later helping students on this side of the desk as a college counselor.  He’d created a sample Common App to really show all of us—visually—the noticeable difference it can make for a reader when a student follows our Collegewise advice.  And as the elder statesman at Collegewise, I chimed in with extra tidbits about the Collegewise way of doing this, and how our students could use more of our advice to make their Common Applications stand out.  I had my laptop with me to write down all of our thoughts and suggestions, and at the end of the training, I got to work organizing all of that information.

Getting the right permissions

While Arun reviewed my write up and added his own suggestions and revisions, I contacted the research department at the Common Application, told them about our idea and what we were trying to make, and asked for permission to use screenshots of our sample Common App in the piece.  Once I got authorization from the Common App folks, I got to work inserting the screenshots and formatting the piece. 

Our finished work

It took nearly two months for us to finish the piece, much longer than we expected.  But in the end, we were really happy with the result.  We’ve produced thousands of pages of material for our programs since 1999, and we think this is the best, most comprehensive thing we’ve ever made.

How we’re using it

We’ve shared our Common App guide with all of our counselors in our four offices.  Now everyone has access to the same Collegewise insight, and they can share it with our students.    Every family in our Collegewise program also gets an access code to download a free version.  So for students who’d prefer not to add another meeting to the schedule, or those who’d rather spend their meetings with us talking about other things, they can use the guide at home and complete the application on their own for us to review.  We’re also using it in our new online counseling programs to minimize the number of hours a family needs to buy to actually meet with us online (students can do the app on their own and use our meeting time to review it).  And in the future, we’ll update the guide each year to reflect any changes to the Common Application.  And we’ll use the feedback we’ve gotten from students and counselors to make our new version even better.

How you can use it 

Here are a few ways students, parents and counselors could use it.

Students

  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line by line review before you submit.  Take our suggestions and revise your app as you see fit.
  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help.  We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • Maybe you’re struggling with just one particular section?  Our guide can probably help. 

Parents

  • Some parents take the role of the college application manager and reviewer in the house.  If that’s you, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application.  Better yet, pass it along to them and let your student use it from the start. 

High school counselors

  • Even if you’ve never read a Common Application before, you can be a virtual expert in just an hour if you read our guide. 
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App?  Keep a copy of our guide on your desk to use whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Read our guide and then do a Common App workshop for your staff or your students.
  • Encourage your fellow counselors to buy their own copy of the guide, or have your school buy a 30-copy license so each member of your counseling and teaching staff can have their own copy.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing each of your students' Common Applications.
  • Buy one or more 30-copy licenses and share our guide with all your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.   
  • Do you have partners, counselors or interns who work with students?  Read our guide and then train them yourself.  Or buy a 30-copy site license to distribute our guide to them. 

The finished product
We’re proud of this product.  We worked hard on it.  The high school counselors and admissions officers we’ve shared it with have given us great feedback.  And the general public is buying it.  We’re selling 5-10 of them a day, and we expect those numbers are going to increase as we get deeper into application season and thousands of students who haven’t yet started their applications get down to business. 

Where to get it
Our Common App guide is 62 pages, sold as a downloadable PDF for $12.99, or $99 for a 30-copy license.  You can buy your own copy here, or view a free preview version here:

Download PreviewCollegewiseGuideToThe2011-12CommonApplication 

On teenage resiliency

On 9/11/2001, I was scheduled to speak at a National Charity League meeting that night.  It was hard to imagine anyone being in the mood to talk about the minutia of how to get into college on that terrible day.  Something about it just felt wrong.

But those kids forged ahead at the meeting.  They conducted their usual business, turned it over to me, and then asked just as many questions as they always ask.  They were just as interested and engaged as they always are.  The parents and I were the shaken ones.  These kids were ready to get down to business.

What they were doing was actually pretty admirable and mature.  There wasn’t anything wrong with a student thinking about college on 9/11.  The reality was that they still needed to go become whatever it was they were going to become.  Their goals for the future had become even more important, not less.  

Teenagers are remarkably resilient, especially with all-things-college-admissions (applications to NYU actually increased that same fall of 2001).  It’s one of the benefits of being seventeen with your whole life in front of you.  For students reading this, I know you might be sure that there is only one college on the planet where you could ever see yourself going.  And all the talk about APs and SAT scores and how hard it is to get into college today probably makes you feel like the stakes are incredibly high.  Just remember that you’re going to be fine. Not everybody gets into his or her first choice school.  But every year, those kids bounce back fast.  It’s hard not to as long as you’ve got other colleges to pick from.

And parents, remember that your kids might be even more resilient than you are when it comes to college matters.  Don’t take that away from them.  Don’t let your own college anxieties spill out and ruin the process for your family.  Don’t make it all about whether or not Cornell says yes.  Make it about raising a happy, nice kid who’s excited about her college future at whatever school is lucky enough to get her.  

When colleges like questions as much as they like answers

When college applications and interviewers ask you why you want to attend their particular school, don’t forget to tell them what you don’t know (and are hoping to find out).

Learning and self-discovery are important parts of college.  So it’s normal—and actually admirable—to point out what you don’t know and are hoping to learn, like:

  • What would my life be like if I left my small town and moved to a big city?
  • Would I really enjoy studying physics every day?
  • Could I become a good enough writer to contribute to the school newspaper?
  • Do I really love math as much as my older brother at MIT does?
  • What am I going to be able to accomplish that my parents couldn't now that I’m the first one in our family who will go to college?
  • What subjects will I love that I haven’t even found yet?
  • What will it be like if I have a roommate who grew up very differently than I did?
  • Am I a liberal just because my parents are liberal, or will I learn enough in college to be more confident about what my own personal politics are?
  • Will I love being a premed?
  • Where will I get to go on a road trip with friends?
  • What will I get to do in New York City that I’ve never done before growing up in Iowa?
  • What will I get to do in Iowa that I’ve never done before growing up in New York City?

 If you already knew everything, there’d be no reason to go to college.  So don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re answering, “Why do you want to come to school here?

A few thoughts about quitting

Successful people actually quit things all the time.  They’re just really good at knowing what to quit and when to do it.

In The One Thing You Need to Know, author Marcus Buckingham says that the key to sustained success and happiness is, “Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.”

Stanford Professor Jim Collins shares in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t:

Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding ‘to do’ lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing—and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who built the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of ‘stop doing’ lists as ‘to do’ lists.”

Seth Godin wrote a book about how to recognize when it’s worth pushing through a challenge, and when it’s better to quit.  Turns out, successful people are good at making that distinction.

And the least influential on this list by far wrote a past post about quitting.

As you head back to school and think about all the things you want to accomplish, you might also consider quitting a thing or two.

What not to do when emailing admissions officers

Question from a parent at one of our seminars last weekend:

“My friend’s private counselor (not from Collegewise) advises her students to attach a photo to any email that they send to an admissions officer.  She said that’s a good way to stand out and make them remember you.  But it sounded odd to me.  Is that really a good idea?”

Nope. Not a good idea. 

This is college admissions, not online dating.  And I'm pretty sure every admissions officer I've ever met would feel, well, pretty weird receiving photos from teenagers they've never met. 

Here’s a post from last year about how to write a good email.