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 15: Activities, Activities, Activities

Happy New Year! This week, we’re starting our third series: Getting Ready to Apply, by focusing on high school activities.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
Taking online courses instead of private lessons

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/15

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

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’re beginning our third series, Getting Ready to Apply, by exploring some of the many activities your child may participate in during their high school career.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 15 Activities Activities Activities from Series 3 Getting Ready to Apply

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 46 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will likely be a section that asks your child to make an elaborate list of activities that he or she participated in while in high school (though there are some exceptions to this, especially among community colleges and some less-selective colleges). Having something to say in the activities section of the application is important in showing that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom.

You will hear advice of all kinds from consultants and from college admissions officers about whether it is better for your child to have a few activities that he or she participated in year after year or for your child to have an array of activities covering all kinds of interests (such as music and sports and debate and theater and student government), even if they do each one for just a year or two. It is doubtful that any ninth grader beginning life in a new high school can really plan to choose one path or the other and then execute that plan. But the more you know about the options available to your child in school, the better you can help your child take advantage of the activities that are offered—and you might decide that you want to supplement what the high school offers with activities outside of school, whether those are community activities or private lessons and whether they are free or expensive.

Let us say that many applications also ask whether students have had any honors or leadership roles in whatever activities are listed—like winning a regional speech contest or being elected president of the student government or serving as editor of the school newspaper or being selected as the captain of a city championship baseball team. So let your child know that trying for a leadership position is always a good idea.

Let’s look at some possible activities in and out of school and consider why each is valuable for your child—both in your child’s life generally and for college applications down the road. Some of them require talent or aptitude, to be sure, but not all of them. While this is not an exhaustive list of every possible activity, it offers broad categories of the more common ones.

1. Music

By the time students get to high school, you might think it is too late to start playing a musical instrument or singing in a chorus. You might think that musical talent has to be developed when a child is young. Undoubtedly, you have seen your share of Suzuki violinists and heard these pint-sized kids playing classical violin pieces. But even Dr. Suzuki himself believed that musical ability could be developed through proper training and that it was not a talent that children are simply born with. So, maybe it is never too late.

If your child has played an instrument in elementary and/or middle school or sung in school choruses, tell your child not to quit now. While that might mean taking music as a subject for a grade in your high school and/or attending early-morning or late-afternoon practices and rehearsals, it is all worth it. Furthermore, it is worth it to continue with music lessons and performance groups through high school even if your child does not want to continue with music in college.

If it is too late for your child to learn to perform well enough to be in the performance ensembles at school—the orchestra, band, show orchestra, jazz ensemble, string ensemble, chorus, choir, or whatever your child’s high school has to offer—you could still consider music lessons after school. While we could go on and on about the value of playing an instrument or singing well—the discipline, the culture, the camaraderie, and more—the fact is that music is a great activity to have for life and a great activity to have for college applications.

2. Student Government

Being a member of the student government of a school is automatically a leadership position because it means that your child was elected by his or her peers to represent a class, a grade, or however your child’s school sets it up. We are the first to admit that student governments in high schools are sometimes ineffective and not useful for the students or the school. Nonetheless, the idea of student government is an important one, and colleges know that. So, if your child can run for the student government—as a class representative or as an officer—that is a good thing and should be encouraged. Starting down that road in ninth grade is also a good idea while most of the students are still new to each other and no cliques have formed yet. Plus, being elected in ninth grade could lead to being elected in later grades.

3. School Newspaper, Yearbook, Literary Magazine, Etc.

Writing for any school publication is the kind of academic-flavored activity that can be impressive to colleges because it shows that a student is both competent in the valuable academic skill of writing and willing to take on extra work outside the classroom. But it is not only about writing. Artwork is also often needed on school publications; so, if your child is a talented artist or photographer, then school publications are also a good choice. Working on a school publication also shows that a student is organized enough to meet deadlines and is able to work reasonably well with others inasmuch as all publications require some teamwork. Rising to a leadership position—like sports editor or editor-in-chief or art editor—also gets students points on the leadership scoreboard.

4. Debate, Speech, Model United Nations, Etc.

This is another set of academic-flavored activities, all of which require public speaking skills, analytical thinking skills, and the ability to think on your feet. Many high schools offer students the opportunity to participate in one or all of these. They typically involve competition within the school and with other schools—locally, statewide, regionally, and even nationally. These competitions give students a chance to earn awards of various kinds, all of which can be detailed on college applications. For students who are relatively smart and have enough confidence to speak in front of others and argue persuasively in front of others, these kinds of activities are a great choice.

5. Theater

Who doesn’t love a school play—whether it is a traditional drama, like 12 Angry Men, or a classic musical, like The King and I, or a more modern, contemporary piece that most of us never heard of? If your child has any acting talent—or dancing talent or musical talent—then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. If your child loves the theater or movies or even television, then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. And remember that there are plenty of behind-the-scenes roles for students, too—stage crew, technical crew (like lighting and sound), set design and construction, costumes, props, even advertising the production.

Putting on a play is all about teamwork, and working on a play demonstrates that your child has those valuable skills. Theater activities can also be great practical experience for students who imagine themselves with college majors in theater, fashion design, architecture, interior design, art, music, dance, and even business. Putting on a play usually requires a substantial time commitment, which can be proudly noted on college applications that ask students, as many do, how many weeks and how many hours per week they engaged in each activity on the list.

6. Service Organizations

Many schools have various clubs and groups that serve others in the school community—peer tutoring, tutoring younger students, working in the library, maintaining school computers, working in the school office, volunteering in summer orientation programs for incoming ninth graders, and more. Doing this kind of volunteer work shows colleges that a student is responsible, dependable, caring, and concerned for others. It shows that a student can work well with classmates, with younger or older students, and/or with adults. It shows that some adult in the school thought a student was reliable enough and perhaps smart enough to do the work being asked of him or her. If these kinds of service assignments are available at your child’s school, they are a good way for your child to demonstrate lots of skills and traits that colleges are looking for, especially if your child does not do volunteer work in the community or have a paid part-time job outside of school time.

7. Specific School Subject or Future Career Clubs

There are many clubs that are focused on a school subject or a future career choice, sometimes sponsored by outside professional and nonprofit organizations—for example, the French Club, the Math Club, the Physics Club, the Robotics Club, the American Society of Civil Engineering Club, Future Farmers of America, and so on. These subject-specific clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know individual teachers better (which is especially helpful in the future when college recommendations are needed), and these career-oriented clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know professionals working in a field they are interested in (which is especially helpful in the future when a summer internship might be sought). As with all clubs, they give students a chance to form friendships outside of the classroom and, in some cases, such as a Robotics Club, give students a chance to learn how to work as a team.

8. Athletics

Some college applications have a separate question about athletics, and it is a shame not to have anything to say in that spot. Athletics includes club sports, intramural teams, junior varsity teams, and varsity teams; and, of course, athletics includes both individual sports and team sports. Students who are good athletes—or even great athletes—will, not surprisingly, have a lot to say at this point on a college application. They will often play more than one sport a year and may even be the captain of a team. As always, showing that your child played on a team throughout his or her high school years is the best case scenario, but that requires talent as well as commitment that your child might not maintain for four years. Participating on an athletic team indicates a lot of positive things to a college—even if your child is not pursuing an athletic scholarship and even if your child will not continue with the sport in college.

But what if your child is not a great athlete—or even a good one? What if he or she likes sports, but is not very talented? Then, encourage your child to play on intramural teams or on noncompetitive club teams.

Or consider getting your child lessons so that he or she is engaged in athletics, but not necessarily on school teams—for example, fencing, boxing, or karate, which are all individual sports likely requiring lessons outside of school and could all be started as late as high school. Summer athletic programs can also serve as an alternative to school athletic teams in some sports, like fencing.

9. Private Lessons

We have just talked about private lessons in various sports. And, of course, there are private lessons in instrumental music, vocal music, visual arts, dance, gymnastics, and more. If your child is taking any private lessons outside of school, they should be included in his or her list of activities. A commitment to some of these takes up hours and hours of a child’s time every week. For example, a student who is not serious about dance, but enjoys hip-hop, might spend an hour and a half in a hip-hop class once or twice a week; a student who is serious about dance is more likely to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in ballet, modern, and tap classes. Colleges want to know what students are doing with their time outside of school and whether that time is being used productively. Clearly, taking private lessons is one productive use of that time.

10. Community Activities

There are many kinds of community activities that students might engage in—from playing on competitive travel sports teams to taking classes at community centers to playing in community musical ensembles to participating in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to working with community theater productions on stage or backstage to going on service trips with church groups. All of these are interesting and valuable ways for your child to use free time, and all of these should be included in his or her list of activities on college applications. These community activities can be especially important for your child to seek out if your high school does not have an array of after-school activities or if your child’s commute to school or responsibilities at home, such as picking up a younger sibling from school, make it difficult to stay late enough to participate in many after-school activities.

 

Internships, volunteer work in the community, and paid employment will be discussed in our next episode.

One Final Note: Some college applications ask whether the student plans to continue each activity while in college. When filling out the application, your child should think hard about that. If there is an activity—and, hopefully, there is more than one—that your child has a continuing interest in, make sure that he or she checks that box. Colleges want to see that students are bringing more to the campus than what they bring to the academic classroom. That is part of what makes a college campus a great place to live and learn.

Remember that activities during the high school years are more important to have when applying to selective colleges. But because a child does not know in ninth grade what kinds of colleges he or she might want to attend or might be eligible for, engaging in activities can prove beneficial in the short run and in the long run. Besides, extracurricular activities make high school life a whole lot more interesting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
  • Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
  • Taking online courses instead of private lessons

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/13

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, 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’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…