Podcast

Episode 22: Preparing for Essays

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the essay.

NYCollegeChat episode 22 tips for preparing high school students to write college application and scholarship essays

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by over 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will most likely be a required essay, sometimes called a “personal statement.”  While some large public colleges do not require essays, most selective colleges do require essays.

Sometimes there will be more than one required essay.  Sometimes the required topic or topics will be given to the student; sometimes the student may choose from several topics.  Sometimes the essays are quite short—just 250 to 300 words; when they are this short, there is usually more than one required.  Sometimes they are longer—more like 500 to 650 words.  Sometimes there is an actual character count, like 2,500 characters.  That means that every letter and space counts.  That is when great editing really comes in handy.

It goes without saying that students should write their own essays.  It also goes without saying that adults in a student’s life might read and reflect on that essay with the student—in other words, help the student do the best job possible.  Indeed, some high school English teachers do just that when they have students write personal statements for use in college applications as a class assignment.  It seems to me that many—even most—students get some kind of adult review of their application essays, and I imagine that colleges understand that.  Nonetheless, these essays should tell students’ own stories, their own views, and their own observations and should be told in the words of teenagers—albeit, teenagers trying to put their best feet forward.

This episode is not about actually writing the college application essay.  We might do one on that later, and there are other resources that can help you help your child produce a nicely edited essay.  This episode is instead about what you can do to help your child prepare to write those essays eventually.  There are two kinds of essays that students can, in a way, prepare for in advance.

1.  The Why-Did-You-Choose-Us or Why-Are-You-a-Good-Fit-for-Us Essay

Essays with topics like these require students to have some understanding of the college and of how they would fit in well at the college.  To answer such a question, your child will need to know how to do research about a college, find out what makes it unique or special, understand the academic majors it offers (and, if it is a university, the various colleges or schools it comprises), the activities and sports it does and does not offer, and the type of community it is located in.  All of these could be addressed in such an essay.

No college wants to hear that a student is applying because that student thinks that he or she can get in.  Your child has to make a more convincing case than that.  So, as college application time approaches, help your child study up on colleges of interest.  Internet websites can be a great way to do that, but some college websites are really quite difficult to comprehend.  Even professionals have trouble with them.  So, start early.

At a minimum, understand exactly the name of the major your child would be interested in at each college he or she is applying to.  Keep in mind that something as simple as a biology major is not called the same thing at every college; furthermore, at universities, a biology major might not always be in the same college or school within the university (i.e., sometimes in arts and sciences, sometimes in health sciences, sometimes in something else).

If your child is interested in continuing with certain extracurricular activities or sports in college, it is important to see that those activities and sports exist at the college.  For example, a student should not write about his interest in continuing to be part of a wrestling team if the college does not have one.

So our advice is this:  Doing research about potential colleges of interest ahead of time enables you and your child to call an admissions office with questions—before it is time to write that essay.  It also enables you and your child to realize that some colleges might not be what you had thought and are not necessarily the right choice after all.

For more tips, listen to our Series 2: Choosing Where to Apply episodes here.

2.  The What-Can-You-Contribute-to-Our-College Essay

This is a slight variation on the first topic, but with more of a focus on what your child brings to the college.  This is not so much a how-do-we-match-up essay, but more of a why-should-we-admit-you essay.  This topic requires your child to speak about his or her accomplishments and why those would improve that college community.  It’s a bit like, “Ask not what the college can do for you; ask what you can do for the college.”

Admittedly, this can be daunting.  What can one high school kid contribute to life at Stanford University?  Well, it’s time to help position your child to answer that question.  Encouraging your child to play an instrument, participate in drama groups, play on sports teams, be part of the student government, write for the newspaper or yearbook, help younger students in school, and/or do volunteer work outside of school to help others—all of these are values and talents and abilities and skills that your child can bring to a college campus that can help make life on that campus richer for other students.  If your child does very little in your community or at school, except go to classes, writing this essay will be very difficult indeed.

Of course, academic contributions could be important, too, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.  Perhaps participating in science competitions or successful independent research projects or inclusion in selective school literary publications or being part of a winning robotics team could count for something.  So encouraging your child to go the extra mile when it comes to academic competitions certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Bottom Line

Other essay topics do not require so much preparation in advance.  Essay topics I have seen recently include these:  write about a person, who is not in your family, who has had a major impact on your life; choose a current issue and tell us your feelings about it; write about something that is so important in your life that it defines you; invent a course that all freshmen should take.  All of these take thought on the part of your child, but they are not really questions that your child needs to prepare for before it is time to complete the college applications.

The bottom line is that there is nothing worse than having nothing to say in an essay.  That problem cannot be fixed by editing.  It is just like having no activities to list in the activities section of an application.   So you and your child must think ahead.

When it comes time for your child to write the essays, he or she would likely benefit from talking about them with you or an older sibling or a teacher or another caring adult.  Sorting through ideas and experiences can be a difficult process.  But you have to have ideas and experiences to sort through—and that’s why you can’t wait till the last minute.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether essays can be important, even if not in the application process
  • Why talking to an adult can really help your child think through an essay
  • How to think about family responsibilities as topics for essays

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Episode 21: The Art of Getting Recommendations

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations. Show notes for this episode are available at http://usacollegechat.org/21

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Why recommendations are important even if they aren’t needed for college applications
What to do when someone doesn’t seem excited about writing a recommendation for your child
Whether your child should waive his or her right to see recommendations before they are sent to colleges

Connect with us through…
Leaving a comment on the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/21
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations.

The Art of Getting Recommendations on NYCollegeChat, a weekly podcast for parents of high school students, brought to you by Policy Studies in Education

I have spent a lot of time in my life writing recommendations for students and colleagues pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no idea, really, how seriously colleges take recommendations because I have never been on the reviewing side. But, as long as colleges ask for them—and some do not, especially large state public institutions, which receive thousands of applications and have generous acceptance policies for students in their own states—we should make every effort to get the best possible recommendations for your child.

Some colleges will be quite specific about the recommendations they want to see. For example, they will ask for recommendations from teachers who taught your child for a full year, preferably the junior year of high school. Or they will ask for recommendations from teachers in core academic subjects. But, absent any specific requirements, you should have some good candidates of your own for recommendation providers.

In some high schools, by the way, the college counselor or guidance counselor writes a recommendation for each student, often based on the comments of teachers in the building. If that is the case, that is one of the recommendations that your child will need. But he or she still might need one or two more.

1. Teachers in Core Academic Subjects

Core academic subjects include English, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign languages, and sometimes technical subjects, like engineering. Your child should have a recommendation from a teacher of one of these subjects—and preferably from teachers of two of these subjects, especially for selective colleges that want two academic recommendations.

Ideally, your child would be able to get a recommendation from a teacher in the subject he or she hopes to major in at college. Don’t forget that your child most likely had to declare a prospective major in the application, so the college knows what your child is interested in studying. For example, if your child wants to be a doctor and has proposed a biology major, with a pre-med professional interest, then one teacher recommendation should be from an upper-level science teacher—AP or honors or other advanced biology, in the best case, but chemistry or physics would be fine as well.

However, you also have to think about what kind of recommendation a teacher in that proposed major field is going to write. It’s a balancing act. For example, if your child wants to major in a natural science, but does not have great grades in science classes, then don’t ask a science teacher for a recommendation. It is surprising to me how naïve students can be about this. You need to impress upon your child that he or she needs to ask a teacher who has given your child good grades in the high school courses the teacher taught. Obviously, the recommendation needs to say that your child is a good and serious student; if your child got a B– or an 82 in a teacher’s class, the recommendation is probably not going to say that your child is a good and serious student.

My advice is to go with a teacher who has given your child good grades, even if that teacher is in a subject your child does not intend to pursue in college. But apart from the good grades, your child would ideally have some sort of relationship with the teacher. That could be from an after-school club the teacher sponsored or from helping the teacher clean up the classroom after projects or from being useful as a peer tutor for kids in the class that were having trouble or something else. In some way, your child needs to distinguish himself or herself from all of the other seniors that teacher might be writing recommendations for. You would be surprised how many students will say to me, “Yes, I think that teacher will remember me from class last year.” That is not likely to be a strong enough relationship to produce a great recommendation.

Knowing this ahead of time—we are talking to you, parents of sophomores and juniors—should help younger students seek out and develop relationships with teachers who can become good references for them in the future. Asking such a teacher to write a college recommendation at that time—say, at the end of the sophomore year or certainly at the end of the junior year—when your child is still well known to the teacher is a great way to get a solid recommendation on file in the college counselor’s or guidance counselor’s office—so it is there when you need it later. It avoids the last-minute rush when every senior is asking teachers for recommendations and when they are then, understandably, done in a more hurried, less personal way.

2. Teachers in Other Subjects

By “other subjects,” we mean art, music, theater, health, physical education, and sometimes technical subjects, like computer technology. Teachers in these subjects can also write strong recommendations, especially if your child is interested in majoring in one of these subjects. So, for example, if your child is applying to fine arts programs at a university or to art or music schools, then a recommendation from a teacher in that field is important. If your child is applying to art school, then there is a good chance that one of the art teachers helped your child prepare a portfolio that will be judged by the college admissions committee. That teacher undoubtedly knows your child and his or her work quite well and would make a good reference.

Even if your child is not interested in majoring in one of these fields, your child might have a good relationship with one of the teachers as a result of in-school or after-school activities. For example, if your child takes instrumental music classes or music theory classes and has played in the band throughout high school, then the music teacher can speak about your child from more than one perspective and should be able to write a strong recommendation. Or, if your child loves science, but took an acting class and did well in it and was in a school play, then the theater teacher is well-positioned to write a multifaceted recommendation for your child.

The bottom line, again, is this: Impress upon your child the importance of building a relationship with a couple of teachers so that those teachers are able to write more personal recommendations for your child. That will mean that your child needs to go the extra mile first—for example, by helping out in class, volunteering for extra projects outside of class, joining clubs, working with younger students, or something else.

3. The School Principal

If your child knows the high school principal well, the principal is a great choice as a recommendation writer. Perhaps your child has been a student government officer or a star athlete or top student or a dedicated volunteer at the school. When we opened our small Early College high school in Brooklyn, we had an incoming first class of about 120 students. The principal knew every one of them—well.

A sincere recommendation from a principal could mean a lot to a college because it means that a student has somehow sufficiently distinguished himself or herself from the crowd so that the principal took notice—in a good way, of course.

4. College Professors

If your child has been fortunate enough to take a college class while in high school—either during the school year through dual enrollment or during the summer—that professor could make a good choice as a recommendation writer. This would be true only if the college class were small enough that the professor knew your child, of course. And again, ideally, only if your child did well in the course. Clearly, having a recommendation from a college professor saying that your child has already succeeded in college-level work would be reassuring to a college. Just make sure that your child requests the recommendation as soon as the college course is over; otherwise, it will likely be difficult to get in touch with the professor, and the professor will likely have difficulty remembering your child.

5. Internship Mentors

If your child has been fortunate enough to have an internship in the workplace before the second semester of the senior year of high school—whether it was paid or unpaid—your child’s mentor would be an excellent choice for a recommendation from outside the academic world. Some colleges accept one or even two such recommendations—not to take the place of academic recommendations, but to supplement them.

We have already said in previous episodes that internships are one of the best ways for a high school student to spend time and that they are priceless learning experiences. Being able to use the internship mentor as a reference is just one more plus to the internship experience. Mentors will be able to write about your child’s initiative, dependability, seriousness, determination, creativity, and/or intelligence—all of which a college would be happy to get in an incoming freshman.

As is the case with all of these recommenders, make sure your child asks for the recommendation at the end of the internship, not months later when a recommendation is due. If your child has spent any time with his or her mentor talking about future college plans, that’s all the better.

6. Workplace Supervisors

If your child has worked in part-time jobs or done substantial volunteer work during high school—either during the school year or during the summer—then your child’s supervisor might make a good reference. Just as with internship mentors, these real-world adults can speak about the qualities in your child that make him or her a good employee or good volunteer—all of which are likely to make your child a responsible college student as well. If your child works or volunteers each summer, then start collecting those recommendations after the freshman year—because those early jobs or supervisors might turn out to be the best.

By the way, sometimes these adults in the real world ask the student to draft the recommendation for them. That makes it easier for the supervisor, of course, and the supervisor probably wants to deliver a recommendation that the student can use. If that happens, make sure that your child is positive and complimentary in the recommendation, but does not go overboard. It should sound as though the supervisor actually wrote it!

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why recommendations are important even if they aren’t needed for college applications
  • What to do when someone doesn’t seem excited about writing a recommendation for your child
  • Whether your child should waive his or her right to see recommendations before they are sent to colleges

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Tips for Teaching Your Teen Technology Etiquette

HangoutWithGeekyGirl with Marie Segares

Marie Segares, co-host of NYCollegeChat, was a guest on the Hangout with Geeky Girl: Understanding Teens and Technology podcast today.

You can listen to the episode here to hear Marie’s tips for talking to your teens about using technology as they prepare for internship, job, and college interviews.

Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college with an interview with Andrea Mulkey.

NYCollegeChat podcast, Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EdWorks, a subsidiery of KnowledgeWorks

Listen to Andrea Mulkey talk about the great guidance and support that her organization, EDWorks, gives to innovative high school and college partnerships across the U.S. An early advocate and designer of the Early College high schools initiative, Andrea has done a lot in the past decade to spread this win-win idea from state to state—including a long assignment right here in New York State.

In the interview, Andrea chats with Marie and Regina about the impressive numbers of high schoolers taking college courses for credit and the kinds of successes these students have had. Students enrolling in college courses for credit—whether through an Early College high school program or in a traditional high school with a college partner—is truly one of a handful of education innovations with no downside. Every high school parent should know about it.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The impact of college study on struggling high school students
  • Saving on college tuition by taking college courses during high school
  • What community colleges might have to do with it

Check out these organizations and programs we mention…

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Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses

This week, we continue our Getting Ready to Apply series by discussing senior-year courses.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…

Taking care of your GPA–but not just for college admissions reasons
Taking AP exams–but not taking the course first
Taking actual college courses during the senior year–but not through dual enrollment

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/19

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC

Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we continue our series on Getting Ready to Apply by focusing on senior-year courses.

NYCollegeChat Episode 19 Senior Year Courses
Subscribe to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!

Some students think that it is all over by the time they get to the senior year. Everyone knows that it is the junior year grades that count the most. But wait! Senior year is important, and this is why: Virtually every college application asks students to list the courses being taken in the senior year, both semesters. And, virtually every college application asks students to indicate whether each senior year course is an honors course, an Advanced Placement (AP) course, a dual enrollment course (meaning that is being taken at a college or at the high school, but with a college’s staffing and/or supervision), or an International Baccalaureate (IB) course (for students in IB schools). So, taking just regular courses in the senior year could look like a bit of a cop-out to a prospective college. Therefore, if your child has the option of taking some more advanced or accelerated courses, it is worth thinking hard about that.

If your child’s high school does not offer any of these special kinds of courses, then just make sure that he or she takes the most rigorous courses available.

By the way, some colleges have minimum high school course requirements that they expect students to meet. They are much like your state’s course requirements for high school graduation. So, just to be safe, taking English, math, science, and social studies every year in high school is a good idea, along with a year of fine arts—art, music, or dance. That fourth year of math is particularly important—whether that’s calculus, precalculus, or statistics (preferably AP Statistics, if it is offered).

Let’s look at a few options for senior-year courses because it would be nice to be able to say on college applications that at least one senior-level course was advanced or accelerated in some way. Of course, taking advanced or accelerated courses as a freshman, sophomore, or junior also looks great on your child’s high school transcript, so your child need not wait until senior year to take advantage of these options if they are available earlier at your child’s high school.

1. Honors Courses

Your child’s high school might or might not offer courses designated as “honors” courses. If it does, entry into those courses might not be up to the student, because students might have to be chosen for honors courses by teachers, based on past grades or test scores. But, if your child does have the choice to take an honors English course or a regular English course, for example, encourage your child to take the honors course, assuming that he or she can get a good grade in it by working hard.

As you probably know, some high schools “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that students get more credit toward their GPAs for a grade received in an honors course than for a grade received in a regular course. In other words, getting a B+ in an honors course might be as good for your child’s GPA as receiving an A– in a regular course. On the other hand, some high schools do not “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that getting a B+ in an honors course will be worse for your child’s GPA than getting an A– in a regular course. So, that is something you will have to consider: Is it better to go for the higher GPA or to have honors courses on your child’s transcript and college applications? That is a hard choice, and colleges might not agree on which choice is better. The ideal, of course, is go for the honors course and encourage your child to get as good a grade in it as he or she would have gotten in the regular course. That’s the win–win.

2. Advanced Placement Courses

The weighted grades discussion applies to Advanced Placement (AP) courses as well. As you probably know, AP courses are designed to be college-level courses, taught at the high school by specially trained high school teachers. AP courses are a product of The College Board, which puts together both the syllabus, or outline, for the course and the test that is used at the end of the course to judge how well students learned the material. In addition, The College Board trains and certifies the high school teachers who teach the course. More than 35 AP courses have been developed, with multiple courses available in a variety of subject fields—in English, history and social science, mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, world languages and cultures, and the arts.

The end-of-course AP tests are graded on a 5-point scale. Some colleges give college credit for high scores—for example, scores of 4 or 5. Some colleges let students who get high scores skip introductory courses in that subject field, but do not give students any credit. Basically, individual colleges can do what they want to do with AP test scores—including nothing at all.

Some high schools teach AP courses as senior-level courses; others teach them to younger students as well; others do not teach them at all. Whatever you think of AP courses—how good they are, how hard they are, whether they are really like college courses—it probably makes sense for your child to take one or more if your child has the course prerequisites and the ability to do it, purely from a how-it-looks-to-prospective-colleges perspective.

3. Dual Enrollment Courses

Many high schools do not have dual enrollment courses. But, if your child’s high school does, they are a fabulous option. These are college courses, which give students both high school credit and college credit at the same time because the students are dually enrolled—that is, enrolled in both college and high school at the same time for the same course. These courses are usually available in Early College high schools, though there are only about 300 Early College high schools across the U.S. We are lucky in New York City to have just over 15 Early College high schools now, with another two dozen or so statewide. However, other high schools that are not Early College high schools also can offer dual enrollment courses, typically in cooperation with a nearby college.

If dual enrollment courses are available at your child’s high school and your child is eligible to take them (that is, your child has whatever course prerequisites are needed), then make sure that your child takes them. These courses carry credits awarded by the cooperating college, which makes it more likely—though not guaranteed—that whatever college your child eventually attends will accept them. For that reason, these credits are likely more valuable than AP exam scores. There is really no downside to taking college courses in high school if a student is prepared for them.

4. Summer College Courses

We said in a recent episode that taking college courses in the summer—ideally after eleventh grade, I think—is a great way to make productive use of the summertime. We mentioned that one college application I had seen recently asked the applicant to account for his activities during every summer of his high school years. What better to have to say than, “I was taking a course at a college.” Whether the college is local or far away, big or small, selective or not, public or private, two-year or four-year—earning college credits during the summer while still a high school student is a wonderful idea. We also said that the only better idea is to study abroad and earn those college credits at an interesting college outside of the U.S.

Now, this is an episode about senior-year courses. So, the question is whether your child can list a course taken in the summer after the junior year as a senior-year course. I think that is a reasonable position, and I think that a college would find it acceptable.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Taking care of your GPA—but not just for college admissions reasons
  • Taking AP exams—but not taking the course first
  • Taking actual college courses during the senior year—but not through dual enrollment

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…