Juniors: Your Upward Trend Starts Now!


Juniors: Your Upward Trend Starts Now!

Many high school juniors, as they starting off second semester, realize that it's time to start thinking about college application season in the fall.

However, the timing often feels a bit awkward: junior year, for most students, tends to be the most challenging time to this point in their high school career. There are the SATs and ACTs to juggle along with challenging courses like AP exams and extracurriculars.

I had a student a couple of years ago -- we'll call her Shayna -- who had a tough start to junior year. The difficulty of balancing study time for three AP courses alongside her responsibilities as co-captain of her soccer team was a lot to handle. When her first semester grade report came in with two C's, there was a lot of angst in the household.

I got to join her team that January of junior year, and my mantra for her was simple:

A strong finish is everything.

We talked through where she'd fallen short in classes like AP Euro and Calculus, and set in place some strategies for how she could better manage her time and improve the quality of her studying while still keeping on top of her game on the soccer field. She finished the year with just one B, and her team team made it to the semi-finals that March.

However, it didn't stop there. Shayna had a research position lined for the summer, but was very careful to arrange her schedule to have a couple of weeks after the school year ended to catch her breath. After an intense but rewarding several weeks in the lab, she had just enough time in August to dive into writing her personal essay for colleges, and set up a weekly college app task list for the fall. 

Fall semester of senior year was her best yet. Shayna finished with straight A's, submitted a handful of early applications for peace of mind, but waited until the regular decision deadlines for her top choices so that she could bring the full weight of her academic performance into play. (She also wanted to retake the ACT, which paid off with a 33!)

The result was that she got into three of her top four colleges, and ultimately went with the option that provided the most generous financial aid package. She's thriving in college, taking courses she loves, and, of course, still killing it on the club soccer field.

The point of the story: a strong finish is what really counts. And because this is the time that the challenge really presents itself on many fronts, it's also the time that yields the most opportunity for juniors.

What really makes you stand out to colleges? That you're ready and eager to rise the the challenge.

Just make sure that you stay on an upward trend from now through the fall.



Happy Holidays!

Whew! It's been a busy application season.

I'll be taking a break from the CCP blog through the holiday season to recuperate, work through all the office-y tasks that have backlogged, and spend some time with family. 

Happy holidays to you and yours, and see you in 2018!




Where Does the Path to College Begin?


Where Does the Path to College Begin?

Once junior year rolls in, whether you're a parent or student, the buzz about college applications is often inescapable. You hear it everywhere you go, from other students, parents, friends, even teachers. So many people saying so many different things...it quickly starts to feel like this ever-present, anxiety-ridden static.

Some of it is for good reason. The landscape of college admissions is always changing, and there are a lot of mixed signals:

  • Colleges are receiving a greater volume of applications than ever — in part because individual students are applying to more colleges on average.
  • Average tuition at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 1990. However, average financial aid packages have also grown.
  • While acceptance rates at the top-ranked U.S. universities continue to drop, the national average acceptance rate is still about two thirds of all applicants.
  • Lastly, the total number of first-time freshmen enrolling in fall is on the decline. In other words, the pool is getting less crowded, although there are millions more in that pool than when most parents were headed to college.
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But what does it all mean? What should Class of 2019 families be doing now?

Two things:

  1. Start learning about the stages of the college application process. In one year, you will be neck-deep in your application work. Learning what happens when and how to approach each piece is the single best way to alleviate the general feeling of stress. If you're ready to dive in, my Teen LAUNCH colleague and I are offering a slate of free events to help you form a plan. (The next one will be November 18th, 2017.)
  2. Start taking stock of everything you have going on at this moment in time. Think about the trajectory you're on, the story that you're already telling through your classes, grades, and involvement in your activities. Think about how those items will be perceived by admissions readers; if there is anything you'd like to change, now is the time to set that in motion. If you'd like a handy self-assessment tool, check out this Teen LAUNCH blog for a free download (scroll to the bottom).




3 Simple Steps to Start the Most Common (and Important) Supplements


3 Simple Steps to Start the Most Common (and Important) Supplements

After the Personal Essay, the next big hurdle in the writing process for college applications are the supplements. As you've probably realized by now, there is one question that colleges tend to ask far more frequently than any other. 

There are many variations of this particular question, depending on the angle colleges want students to take in their response. Here are a few:

  • "How do you imagine yourself living and learning at Bard?"
  • "Why are you interested in Kenyon?"
  • "How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excite you?"
  • "Which aspects of Tufts' curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: 'Why Tufts?'"

As you can see in the last example, no matter how the prompt is worded, it all comes down to one central question:

Why us?

However, it's not all about the college. There are two sides to the equation, and so when I approach "why us?" supplements with students, I encourage them to think about it in three parts:

  • What is it that I am bringing to the table?
  • What does this college offer that will uniquely satisfy my goals and needs?
  • Why am I a perfect match for this particular community?

If you look at the question from each of these angles, you can see that they're asking you to make a clear, sharply reasoned case for why the fit is right. Your job is to show that the colleges was worth the time you invested researching its unique offerings and to sell them on why admitting you would lead to a win-win arrangement.

Here are the three key steps for writing these responses effectively:

  1. Lead with your big goals: what do you want to have accomplished for yourself by the time you graduate? I think about these in three main areas: academically/professionally, socially, and personally. 
  2. Match the college's specific features to the pursuit of your goals. What majors, minors, courses, facilities, study abroad programs, research opportunities, etc. would fulfill your needs throughout your four years?
  3. Provide concrete reasons for being drawn to the college's offerings. It's not enough to use as justification, "This would be an excellent field for me to enter," or, "This class is a very practical choice for future success." Go in depth: "I'm drawn to the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program because I wish to analyze economics while incorporating the moral and humanitarian views of philosophy and politics, while learning how economics affects the world. I feel this program would teach me to find solutions for economic tension without neglecting justice and human welfare."


The Number One Way to Make Sure Your Personal Statement Stands Out


The Number One Way to Make Sure Your Personal Statement Stands Out

Whether you're just starting to think about possible topics for what you'll write or you are neck-deep in writing your main college essay, here's something to think about.

Imagine you're an admissions reader.

It's the week after the final submission deadline, and your office has just received thousands of applications to review. It's time to divide and conquer. You have only a few weeks to read through everything, and, as a committee, decide who is accepted, denied, and put onto the waitlist.

In order to get through everything on time, you have a quota to meet every day until the deadline. You will need to make it through a minimum of 50 applications each day -- more if you want to have a day off here and there.

You block out a couple of hours to get started, and you sit down with a pile of applications, reading one after the other. It is a lot to keep straight: grades, GPAs, activities, schools...and then the personal essays:

They're a real mixed bag. Some of them are written like five-paragraph academic papers or are simply a rehash of student resumes. Bleh.

Others just seem to bleed together -- a hodge-podge of "eye-opening" travel stories, volunteer experiences that revealed "how fortunate I have been," game-winning goals, nerve-racking moments on stage, the death of a beloved grandparent or pet. Ugh. 

But then, every so often, all of a sudden, a student's piece seems to jump off the page. It's energizing. Refreshing. Striking. 

Why? Because, as the reader, I got to join the writer on a little journey. I learned something about that person -- something that feels essential to understanding who that person really is. It stuck with me. Now, I feel connected to that person. I'm invested.

But I have other applications to read, and by the time I get through my 50+ applications for the day, I am spent. My brain feels a little mushy, and it's tough to remember any applicant with absolute clarity. But there were a few people who still stick in my mind.

So it goes for admissions counselors at peak season. For the students who want to be the ones who stick in their readers' minds, however, you have one central question to address:

What is the ONE thing I want my reader to know about who I am?

In other words, what's your headline

I like to differentiate a headline from a topic. Identifying the topic is simple: it's the noun that a writing piece centers around. For example, I had students last year who came into coaching wanting to write about these topics:

  • my love of reading
  • discovering writing
  • keeping secrets

Topics in themselves are too simple, however, to communicate something essential about you. In order to determine the headline, we're asking for HOW a verb relates you to the topic. It's your topic in action -- in other words, your story as it centers around that topic.

Here's how the topics above evolved into these students' headlines:

  • how rejecting the literary canon helped me rekindle my love of reading
  • how discovering empathy for others through writing characters gives me a sense of place in the world
  • how examining the secrets I was keeping enabled me to be more honest with myself and others.

Your task: name the thing that your personal statement is about, and then create your own headline, a statement about HOW you grew in regard to that topic. It's the surest way to make sure that you stick in your reader's mind.


How to Tackle the UC Personal Insight Questions (and Avoid the #1 Mistake Most People Make!)


How to Tackle the UC Personal Insight Questions (and Avoid the #1 Mistake Most People Make!)

By now, if you are a senior, you've heard advice from every which way about how you're supposed to approach your college essays.

Your personal essay is supposed to showcase you: you personality, your interests, your experiences, the way that you see the world. You've probably heard again and again the cardinal rule of writing the personal statement:


But when it comes to the University of California Personal Insight Questions, exactly the opposite is true

You must reverse your normal mantra: TELL -- DON'T SHOW.

Here's why: UC application readers are expressly forbidden to read between the lines when evaluating your applications. They are not allowed to connect any dots that you have not explicitly connected for them. They can assume nothing.

If you noted in your Activities section, for example, that you served as treasurer of your Habitat for Humanity, you'll need to spell out exactly what your responsibilities were, the scope of budget you were working with, how you raised funds, what you learned about your style of leadership through that role, and what desirable qualities you developed through the experience. 

In other words, leave nothing to the imagination of your application readers.

Spell each and every single detail out -- that's what the PIQs are for. As you choose four out of the eight questions and start your responses, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Use the handy UC brainstorming PDF. This worksheet adds clarifying questions and breaks each PIQ down into smaller, more manageable steps for students just getting started.
  2. Look out for overlap. Some of the questions tend to elicit similar responses; for example, PIQs #2 and #3 ask, respectively, about how you express your creativity and what your greatest skill or talent is. Especially for the artistic types, expressing themselves through a creative medium IS their greatest skill. Don't waste an opportunity to add new details to your application!
  3. Familiarize yourself with the 14 factors of the UC application review. If you're reading through this list and see something that applies to your experiences that you haven't had the chance to fully explain in the application, look for a PIQ that will allow you to lay out the details.
  4. Make your responses concrete. Use plenty of "I" statements, making sure to relate the information explicitly back to your actions and experience.
  5. Fill in the gaps left between your activities. If you look back over the activities section and see an entry that could use more detail, ask yourself whether you can work it into your PIQ responses.
  6. Remember that your goals is to add three things to the record: clarity, depth, and context. Use those factors as a critical lens for when you are polishing your responses to ensure that you never waste an opportunity to make yourself stand out!


The Secret to Success on Supplements


The Secret to Success on Supplements

In the last blog post, we looked at the Home Stretch tool, and how a week-by-week game plan for college applications can make fall of senior year far more manageable.

Since so much of the application work during the fall is writing responses to colleges' supplemental prompts, I want to share some tips on organizing your approach. 

There are two central objectives: maximizing efficiency and creating a sense of momentum.

FIRST: Compile all of your prompts in one place

That way, you can be strategic in planning your responses. Look to see where the themes align. Many of the talking points you use to describe your goals and needs for college in the Why Us? questions should be the same, no matter what school you're writing for.

If you are, say, writing Babson's "How do you define yourself and what is it about Babson that excites you?" and also need to write Syracuse's "Who is the person you dream of becoming and how do you believe Syracuse University can help you achieve this?", recognize that both are about your identity. While you'll need to address the bits about each particular institution separately, there is plenty of overlap in the way that you examine yourself across the past, present, and future.

THEN: Break it all down.

Return to your week-by-week Home Stretch plan for the fall, and, working backward from your intended submission dates, plan out your writing process in several phases.

I suggest breaking each piece into these six steps:

  1. Research/Brainstorm: you are not yet writing! Take the pressure off by first jotting down ideas, notes, or URLs that contain information you'll reference when you write your piece.
  2. Crank out a first draft: apologies for being crude, but glance over your ideas and barf out a piece from start to finish. Then walk away. Seriously. It's SO much easier to sit down and fill a blank screen when you have zero expectations for the initial quality of the writing.
  3. Edit it: in a separate sitting, return to embarrassment that was your rough draft, and turn it into something presentable. Add the information you left out in your first pass, and make sure that the piece is something that you don't mind sharing (too much). (NOTE: if I haven't been clear enough, it is vital that you keep steps #2 and #3 separate! Editing is much easier if you have something to work with first.)
  4. Get feedback: give your piece to someone whose perspective you value, who'll give you honest and insightful feedback. Make sure that person has expressed the willingness to help (obviously), and include the prompt with your response. Never give the same version of one piece to more than one reader at one time! I'd recommend allowing at least one full week for your reader to get back to you, unless you have a different sort of arrangement in place.
  5. Revise it: using the feedback you've been given, go back through and make the changes that will improve the strength of your response. (Be prepared to repeat steps #4 and #5 multiple times for the longer or more complex supplements.)
  6. Polish, copy, paste & SUBMIT! Triple check to make sure your piece is error-free. Don't count on spell check to ensure that you have the names of colleges correct!


The Home Stretch: How to Power Through Fall Applications


The Home Stretch: How to Power Through Fall Applications

School is starting back up. If it's the start of your senior year, you still have a few months to take care of your applications, right? 

But have you thought about how many weeks you have to apply?

Let me throw a few numbers at you:

  • Most early applications (both Early Decision and Early Action) have submission deadlines of November 1st. That's only about eight weeks after Labor Day.
  • For those applying to California schools, the UCs and CSUs have a submission deadline of November 30th. That's about thirteen weeks after Labor Day.
  • Then, many students' regular decision deadlines fall on January 1st. That's about seventeen weeks after Labor Day.

Thinking in terms of weeks really helps to put things into perspective, right? You just never have quite as long as you might think you do. 

But here is how you can use this perspective to your advantage: map out a week-by-week schedule of all deadlines and application tasks on your to-do list through the rest of the fall.

It's a tool I refer to as the Home Stretch.

Here's a glimpse at one student's Home Stretch as he starts to flesh it out:

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Here are the steps to start your personal Home Stretch timeline:

  1. Open up a blank document and make a list of every week from now through next January (or later, if you have deadlines that fall past that window). Label each with the first or last day of the week, whatever you prefer.

  2. Add all major exams, travel, shows, other commitments that you know of this fall. (Keeping your personal calendar and any of your classes syllabi on hand makes this part much easier.)

  3. Add all of your colleges' application deadlines.

  4. Choose a date by which you intend to finish ALL of your application work.

  5. Choose your intended submission date for each college application — make sure it's at least 3 - 7 days before the actual deadline in case anything is missing.

  6. Make a to-do list at the very top of all the supplements and word counts. Make sure to include items from the Summer College Checklist if you have not already completed them.

From there, you'll want to work backward, breaking each task into the smallest, most manageable pieces possible, and spreading those sub-tasks across the weeks. 

Not sure how to break down the writing supplements? Be sure to check out the next CCP blog — we'll get into the five phases of writing so that you can stay on top of everything this fall!


What and How to Prepare for College Interviews


What and How to Prepare for College Interviews

Interviews. Just the mention of the word often unleashes student anxiety.

In July, I ran a number of mock interviews with students who really wanted to be on top of their game when going to visit campuses and meet admissions officials. 

At first, my student Sam was confused. "My friend did her college interviews with people who graduated from the colleges -- and they met at Starbucks."

"Yeah," I explained. "They do those, too."

"So we have to interview multiple times with the colleges?"

I explained that we were using the term "interview" fairly broadly. There are a lot of different opportunities to connect in person with representatives from colleges; some of those are informal conversations, and others are formal sit-downs. Taking a few minutes to introduce yourself to an admissions counselor is usually a fairly relaxed experience. 

But it doesn't mean that those exchanges matter any less. You want to have your thoughts together. You want to be articulate, engaging. You want to be ready to show your true colors, to present yourself in a polished way, and to highlight the experiences and attributes that will make you a welcomed member of any campus community.

All it takes is some forethought and a little practice. Here's how.

Prepare the key points that you want to share by brainstorming your answers to the questions below. Then give the list of questions to a friend. Have that person ask questions at random and then follow them up with their own clarifying questions. 

Use specific examples to support your answers, and remember that when you're headed to speak with an actual college representative, carefully review your research to demonstrate that you've done your homework on that particular school. (In other words, make sure you have a detailed answer for "Why us?")

  1. Where do you think your academic strengths lie?
  2. What did you do this past summer?
  3. What do you hope to do after graduation?
  4. What is your biggest weakness?
  5. What would you do if you had a free day?
  6. If you could change one thing about your high school, what would it be?
  7. What do you do for fun?
  8. What books have had a significant impact on you? What have you read recently?
  9. What individual (dead or alive, historical or fictional) has had the most influence on you and why?
  10. How do you define success? What needs to happen for you to feel successful?
  11. How do you respond to failure or rejection?
  12. What do you hope to get out of your college experience?


Should I Do College Interviews?


Should I Do College Interviews?

"The colleges I'm applying to say that interviewing is optional. 1.) How important is the interview in admissions decisions? 2.) Should I do it?"

As far as I'm concerned, the short answers are 1.) an interview can certainly tip the scales in competitive admissions, and 2.) YES -- if you're willing to put some work into preparing.

Let me back up.

The most compelling reason, to my mind, to take advantage of interview opportunities in undergraduate admissions is that you will be required to interview for nearly every other education- or career-related opportunity for the rest of your life. 

In other words, get used to it, get comfortable with it, and, most importantly, get good at it.

I believe that colleges would generally require interviews if it were (a) fair to students (which it's not, given families' varying backgrounds, resources, and geographic locations), and (b) easily manageable for admissions offices (which it's also not, given the amount of time and effort that already goes into evaluating each application).

Why would they require interviews?

Because there is no substitute for getting an in-person feel for an applicant. 

Demeanor, eye contact, tone of voice, sense of humor, thought process, spontaneity, even how interviewees choose to present themselves in terms of dress, handshake, and preparedness with questions -- these things just can't be conveyed fully on paper.

So what should I be doing right now? 

Two things: research your colleges' individual policies on interviewing so you don't miss your window, and then practice your responses with someone you trust.

The easiest way to find your colleges' interview policies is to google "[COLLEGE NAME] undergraduate admissions interview."

There are generally 4 types of interview policies:

  1. Interview on campus in the months leading up to application season. Those who can't travel to campus usually have the option to interview in their local area through the college's alumni association. If you're applying early, the cutoff for these interviews is often November 1st. DON'T wait until you submit your application before requesting an interview! Check out Barnard's or Yale's policy as an example.
  2. Interview once you've applied or during your application. Check out the University of Chicago's and Northwestern's policies as examples. 
  3. Interviews by the college's request only. These also take place after your application has been submitted, except the college selects whom it will interview and initiates the process. Check out Tulane's policy as an example.
  4. No interviews offered / informal interviews only. Amherst's and Pomona's policies are good examples. 

Stay tuned for the next blog's tips on what and how to prepare for interviews.


Put a Face with Your Name Before You Apply to College


Put a Face with Your Name Before You Apply to College

Imagine that you are part of a committee in charge of putting together a team for a science competition.

The participants are from all across the country, and you haven't had the chance to meet any team members in person, but they have submitted all of their credentials to you for consideration. You have a record of their past activities, their transcripts, their resumes, and a couple of recommendations from their teachers (whom you've also never met). 

Say that you have one last spot on the team and that you have two excellent candidates to discuss with your committee. On paper, the candidates have similar qualifications. They have taken many of the same classes, they have similar grades, and the cover letters that they've included with their applications make both seem intelligent and friendly.

But then one of them contacts you to see if you have a few minutes to chat.

Because you don't live in the same city, you set up a conversation over Skype. Over the course of fifteen minutes, you ask a couple of questions about the AP Physics course she took last year and the internship she's doing this summer. She asks questions about the competition and what you're looking for in the team members. You even wind up on a quick sidebar about the Netflix show you're both watching.

The next day, you meet with your committee. When it's your turn to present your candidates, which one will you make a more persuasive case for?

A little connection can go a long way.

College admissions counselors want to know their applicants so that they can make the most informed decisions possible about how well they will fit in.

Every little bit can help. If your admissions counselor knows you on a more personal level, they can use that connection to make a stronger case before the committee.

Here are five tips for making a more personal connection with your admissions officials:

  1. Reach out yourself. If you know you'll be applying to a certain college in the fall, jump on the school's website and look up the contact information for their admissions office. Many websites will explicitly tell you which official represents your city or region. If not, call the admissions office general line and ask to speak to that person. CAUTION: DON'T leave this step to Mom and/or Dad!
  2. Show up in person. Most admissions counselors either live in or travel to the regions they represent each fall. Find out if they'll be coming to your high school for an information session. If not, are they doing any other local events, like a college fair? After their presentation, make sure to walk up and introduce yourself. Which brings me to tip #3...
  3. Practice your introduction. Aside from your name and high school, what are one or two things you want your admissions counselor to remember about you? Are you interested in cognitive science? Are you a committed tuba player? Will you be applying to their college early decision? Make sure that your talking points roll off the tongue -- it usually takes some repetition, so practice at home with a friend or parent.
  4. Ask great questions. If you're reaching out to the admissions office for the first time, perhaps you'd like to know if your possible field of study is in high demand and therefore has tougher admissions standards. Maybe you'd like to know how many people are in the program or if you might have a conversation with a faculty member from that department. Maybe you'd just like to introduce yourself to your admissions rep, let them know you'll be applying in the fall, and ask if it would be okay to contact them directly if any questions about the application process come up. IMPORTANT: DON'T ask questions that can be easily answered with a Google search or glance at their website.
  5. Remember that they want to know and help you. Don't be shy. It is perfectly okay to express your interest in a college directly or even to say that you simply wanted to put a face with your name. It's not cheating or gaming the system; it's about showing professionalism and an understanding of how this system works. That said, be mindful of the fact that college reps have very busy schedules, be concise, and make sure to show your gratitude for their generosity with a thank-you note.




How to Keep the Peace During Application Season


How to Keep the Peace During Application Season

The stress and anxiety that accompany college application season can cause a lot of friction in the household. It often sets in full force by the end of the summer leading up to senior year.

I've seen it every year.

Students and especially parents, who start with nothing but the best of intentions, often wind up at each other's throats by the time submission deadlines arrive.

But there the thing: everyone wants the same results.

Both parents and students just want to make sure, when the dust settles, that they will have some viable options for the following fall -- ones that are the right academic, social, and financial fit.

So why can the relationship between parents and their kids go so sour so quickly?


  • First, there's a lot of history. Parents know their teens, teens know their parents. Old patterns and dynamics emerge. But...
  • The application process is new territory. Even for parents who have been through it before, it's a different beast with every kid who goes through it, because every individual has their own needs. And third...
  • Expectations are often not as well defined as they should be. Both parties assume things of the other party. Parents expect students to take this work more seriously than anything they've done to date. Students want space, for parents to get off their backs. 

When those expectations are not met, tensions flare on both sides. 

So I have a suggestion: why not spell out your expectations now, while things are still going smoothly?

Below is one version of a contract that can help you do exactly that.

Here are my suggestions for setting up a solid agreement:

Create two copies, and before you sit down to hash out the final details -- the ones that EVERYONE can agree on -- have both the parents and the teenager sit and complete it the way they see fit. Then, when you're sitting down to negotiate, trade copies...and be ready to find reasonable compromise.

I hope you find this helpful! I'll be on vacation for the next few weeks, but look for the next blog on Tuesday, July 25th, when we start the run-up to our first application deadlines of 2017!

1. Make my best effort to complete all college applications by _________.
2. Submit each application at least _____________ before the official deadline.
3. Set aside ____ hours each week until school starts on ___________ for college prep.
4. Set aside these dates & times this summer to work on college prep: ________________________.
5. Provide updates on my progress to _____________ every ________________________.
6. Ask ________________ for writing feedback at least ____________ before I have to submit.
7. Request help (when needed) in the form of _____________________________________________. 8.
Take responsibility for making informed decisions, thorough research & clear communication.
9. Complete each task on the following page by the agreed-to date.

1. When requested, provide these forms of support: ___________________________________.
2. Trust that our student is on top of everything unless _________________________________.
3. Only require progress updates at our agreed-upon times.
4. Provide encouragement & help foster our student's sense of confidence & independence.
5. Be willing to seek outside support if needed.

Student Signature: ____________________________________________________ Date: ___________ Parent Signature: _____________________________________________________ Date: ___________ We'll review these terms every ___________ (days, weeks, months) & make changes accordingly.


How to Make College Essays Both Personal and Universal


How to Make College Essays Both Personal and Universal

There's a big paradox in effective autobiographical writing:

It's that it must be both unique to you as the writer and central character, and yet it must also be relatable—meaning that you must communicate your personal experiences in a way that resonates with others, as if your reader had been there with you in the moment.

Balancing those two aspects can be difficult.

When a piece of writing is too universal or too well known to the reader, then it becomes a cliche and reveals little or nothing about the writer as an individual.

On the other hand, if a piece lacks that relatable quality, then there is no way for the reader to share in the experience of the writer; the piece feels dull and abstract as a result.

Each year I see both problems come up in students' college essay writing.

Just last week, I had a student (let's call her Jenna) come to me with two separate drafts of what might be personal statements.

Jenna's first piece centered on the death of a beloved aunt. The language and some of the details that Jenna used to paint the scene were poignant and poetic—I remember a great anecdote about gifting a set of salt-and-pepper shakers that hilariously turned into something like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie. The problem was that shortly after that, I found myself feeling like I was floating in space; there wasn't anything that tied those sensory details back to the writer's internal experience. I felt like I was on the outside looking trying to look at something I knew was supposed to be meaningful for the narrator...but I didn't really know why.

Jenna's second piece had the opposite problem. It was a whirlwind of the many ways in which Jenna takes in the world around her, from photography to journaling to breathing in the spices wafting on the breeze in an outdoor market. While I, as the reader, have had my own versions of those experiences in my life, when I finished reading, I didn't know what distinguished Jenna's experiences from mine. There wasn't enough detail to make the piece uniquely memorable.

I share Jenna's story because I think it highlights the need for three essential components in any effective (and affective) autobiographical writing: concrete details, an angle, and reflection.

Concrete Details:

You've heard the old advice "show -- don't tell," right? Using concrete sensory details in your writing -- including some dialogue here and there -- invites the reader into the scene. Their imagination activates and they can feel as if they're standing right there, taking in everything that you were experiencing in that moment. 

An Angle:

We're not using this word in the sense of a hidden agenda; you could just as easily think of it as your "perspective" or "filter." Your angle is where the external details meet your internal thoughts and feelings. It can be the unusual way that you define "leadership," your individual take on required community service hours, or your surprising reaction to your required summer readings. In short, this is where you begin to put your individual spin on the details you include, and set yourself up for looking back and putting your more immediate reactions into a broader context. Which leads us to...


This is the point in your writing at which you fully take a step back and consider how your past experiences have informed the person you are at this moment in time, and the direction you think you're headed in the coming years. The quality of reflection in your writing directly mirrors the quality of your personal growth, and gives meaning to the perspective and details that you've chosen to highlight about your past experiences.



How (and When) to Ask for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation


How (and When) to Ask for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation

In the last blog entry, we focused on how to plan for a great collection of recommendation letters. If you missed that entry and the questionnaire for identifying recommenders who'll add the most credibility to your applications, check it out here.

Now you might be asking a few additional questions:

When do recommenders typically write letters?

The vast majority of recommenders write their letters during the fall. However, there are some very industrious and forward-thinking recommenders who will actually write at least some of their letters over summer. Remember that (a) your teachers who write your rec letters do it as a personal favor (i.e., they're not paid for the time they spend writing); (b) it's always better to give someone doing you a favor plenty of time to do it so that they don't feel rushed; and (c) the earlier your recommender writes their letter about you, the more energy and enthusiasm they're likely to have while doing it. 

In other words, regardless of when your recommenders will write the letter, the sooner you can make the request, the better. 

What do they need from me?

Most high schools put into place a series of deadlines by which you need to have requested your recommendation letters and submitted some supplemental materials, such as a brag sheet, cover letter, and/or list of colleges you'll apply to. Some recommenders will actually supply you with their own questionnaire so that you can spell out exactly what you'd like for them to convey about you. 

Don't skimp on the work that you put into these materials! Remember that your recommenders, because of their adult perspective and area of expertise, add a lot of dimension to your overall application. If you have all the content teed up that helps put your best foot forward, using it will make their workload much more manageable.

When do I request them?

NOW, before the end of junior year -- before finals, if possible. Don't wait. Be among that first wave to ask.

How do I request recommendation letters without either coming off as pushy or like some sort of kiss-up?

That's the money question. I would suggest working off of a basic script like this:

"Do you feel like you could write me an outstanding letter of recommendation for my college applications this fall?"

The most important part of the whole thing is the superlative (look it up!) you use to describe the letter of rec. Think about it: you don't want anything less than the best that this potential recommender has to offer. Any ambivalence on the part of the person endorsing you will immediately let the wind out of your sails. A lukewarm letter, while not outrightly negative in itself, will create a strong contrast to the tone you're working to strike up through the rest of your application, and that can blemish (and effectively ruin) the picture you're trying so hard to paint.

If your prospective recommender hesitates or flatly uses the opportunity to beg out of the job, look somewhere else. Trust me. If, on the other hand, you get an unflinching yes, well, score one for you! Ask what you can do to make the job as easy as possible, and what sort of timeline they plan to work on so that you can follow up appropriately.





How to Plan for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation


How to Plan for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation

Many families underestimate the importance of letters of recommendation with in their college applications.

Last year, I had a student -- let's call him Ethan -- who initially came to me in the spring, when he had a class assignment to write the first draft of his personal statement. When we met, he had a couple names on his shortlist of colleges and a mess of ideas for his college essays. Because of his anxieties about the essay writing, we weren't able to cover much else during the session.

Ethan had a busy summer and didn't resurface again until the fall. The next time we met, he had the same three or four colleges on his list, a draft of the personal statement...and nothing else. He was planning on submitting applications for a couple early deadlines in November, but he hadn't taken any steps to secure the letters of recommendation he'd need.

There were a few unfortunate things about that situation.

The teachers that Ethan hoped would write his recommendation letters were among the most sought-after at his school, and because he made his request so late in the game, they couldn't make his early deadlines.

Additionally, once Ethan determined which counselor would be writing a letter, he realized with a shock that he had never once met that person. To make things worse, he had missed the deadline his school's college counseling office had established for submitting his brag sheet. This counselor, who had no familiarity with Ethan, didn't even have suggestions for the material she could include in his letter.

Now, Ethan's story pretty much worst-case scenario when it comes to these letters.

It doesn't take a lot to make sure that you have everything in place.

Here's how:

  1. Identify your recommenders ASAP. (Not sure who or how many letters you'll need? Check out this handy guide.
  2. Prepare your brag sheet (or junior questionnaire, as it's called at some high schools) with talking points about yourself. (Don't have a brag sheet at your school? Check out the questions that Santa Monica High School asks.
  3. Build your personal rapport (without overdoing it) with your intended recommenders, and, before the end of junior year, ask if they'd be willing to write an EXCELLENT letter of recommendation for you for the fall.


How to Get Some Direction on College Essay Brainstorming


How to Get Some Direction on College Essay Brainstorming

Last year, the University of California revamped the writing prompts on its application system.

The result was the Personal Insight Questions, where applicants choose four out of eight questions that tie directly into UC's 14 criteria for holistic application review. Previously, there had been two questions more global in their scope (much like the main essay prompts of the Common Application) leaving it up to students to determine the direction they would take their writing.

For students, most of whom have never had any guidance or training when it comes to personal, reflective writing, defining that direction can be intimidating. It's incredibly easy to fall into the "what's impressive" trap that my Teen LAUNCH colleague Kristine and I recently blogged about.

My advice has always been to start the writing and brainstorming process early, so that there's plenty of space to explore and turn up some surprise ideas along the way.

The best way to do that is to free write -- and do a lot of it. 

But some students struggle even to start filling blank pages or screens with their thoughts -- the classic case of writer's block. For those students, a little collaboration can go a long way before they're ready to hit the solitary writing zone. 

That's where the interview method comes in.

It's less formal than it sounds; basically, it's a matter of asking a lot of questions and taking a lot of notes, helping the student to tease the details out.

I've been using the interview method a long time, and so the questions that I ask come fairly intuitively. I just keep asking about whatever I'm finding most interesting in the student's responses at the time, digging for the details that are unique to them while furiously typing notes and attempting to capture their responses in their own words.

For students who want to try this out on their own with a parent or teacher or a friend, there is a great resource to jump start the process.

It's the UC Personal Insight Questions worksheet.

Here's how to begin:

  1. Have the student being interviewed pick a question, 1 - 8. Suppose she chooses #3, "What would you say is your greatest talent or skill?"
  2. The interviewer reads the question and proceeds directly to the brainstorming prompts, asking the interviewee to name several skills or talents. If the interviewee freezes up, then the interviewer can rephrase the question to ask about something the interviewee likes to do or spends a lot of free time doing.
  3. Once there are a few ideas on the table, have the interviewee choose one to focus on. Use the follow-up questions on the worksheet as guidelines -- as the interviewer, you're working on getting the interviewee to give some examples of using that talent or skill, or share an anecdote about a time when that skill came in handy. 
  4. Ask questions about that talent in terms of the past, present, and future. When did she first discover it? How does she make use of it most often these days? How might it be an asset over the next few years? The idea here is that the interviewer is helping the interviewee show some personal transformation.
  5. Repeat the process for a completely different type of skill. For example, if the first skill you discussed was something more academic like the ability to argue persuasively in a debate, see if if you can dig into something that's non-verbal and perhaps even non-intellectual, like tuning guitar strings or navigating the public transportation system in a foreign city.

With those ideas and memories unpacked, students often find that they have a jumping-off point for adding more detail on their own later. Give it a try!


How to Build Your College List Quickly: One Simple Method


How to Build Your College List Quickly: One Simple Method

If you're just coming to the college search process and you haven't had much exposure to the different types of schools out there, you might asking yourself a question:

How do I get started building a college list if I don't know what I want to do in college?

Many high school juniors just have no idea how factors like campus size, location, program types, extracurricular activities, etc. factor into their college preferences. As a result, they avoid thinking about it as long as they can—until deadlines are suddenly looming.

I'm reminded of a student named Maddy. On her first day, during spring of her junior year, she came in completely stressed out. She felt like she was already behind, given the fact that several of her friends already knew their top choices of colleges they'd be applying to in fall. But she also felt paralyzed because it seemed like there was so much pressure to decide what she would study and how that would ultimately support her career.

I suggested that we start things a little more simply. Instead of creating the near-impossible task of finding the perfect college that would satisfy all of her yet-unknown needs, why not start learning about a range of different schools that she might find appealing for a variety of reasons?

That's where the Free Association Exercise came in.

We sat down on our laptops. I asked her for the name of a college her friends had been tossing around. Within the hour, we had 20 names on our list. Not only that, but we had already identified two criteria that would eventually be the defining factors of Maddy's final list in the fall.

Sometimes, the key is just to get started—even when you're not sure where it's all headed.

The Free Association List Building Exercise is the easiest place to start.


Spotlight on Students: Hadyn


Spotlight on Students: Hadyn

Welcome back to the last in our new series of Q&A videos. This series features students who recently received their well earned early acceptances from their top colleges.

These guys worked incredibly hard and learned a lot about themselves through the application process; as a result, they have some great insights to share about how families just embarking on the journey to college can be prepare.

This fifth conversation was with Hadyn, a student who's headed to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in fall of 2017 -- check out what she has to say about her application process below!


Spotlight on Students: Jamie


Spotlight on Students: Jamie

Welcome back to the new series of Q&A videos. This series features students who recently received their well earned acceptances from their top colleges.

These guys worked incredibly hard and learned a lot about themselves through the application process; as a result, they have some great insights to share about how families just embarking on the journey to college can be prepare.

This fourth conversation was with Jamie, a student who's headed to Smith in fall of 2017 -- check out what she has to say about her application process below!


Spotlight on Students: Jenny


Spotlight on Students: Jenny

Welcome back to the new series of Q&A videos I filmed with students who recently received their well earned acceptances.

These guys worked incredibly hard and learned a lot about themselves through the application process; as a result, they have some great insights to share about how families just embarking on the journey to college can be prepare.

This third conversation was with Jenny, a student who's headed to Penn in fall of 2017 -- check out what she has to say about her application process below!